Alex Sudheim7 Sep 2022 7 min
In this ongoing series of articles we profile some of South Africa’s most modern and progressive SMEs and reflect upon their secrets to success. The companies we feature are drawn from a diverse range of industries across the country. But they all have one thing in common: the use of technology in smart, unique and original ways to make for better business solutions.
We sat down with Brian Mudhokwani, Chief Operations Officer of specialised professional services firm ISB Optimus and picked his brain to discover what makes his company tick and how it lays the foundations for success.
TLDR: The ISB Optimus formula for growth and success: have a vital key differentiator; know the business of your clients inside-out; be prepared to pay your school fees.
One of South Africa’s most dynamic young enterprises celebrated its 10th birthday last year. ISB Optimus was officially welcomed into the world in December 2011 and, in Brian’s words, ‘we are still getting there’. Given the giant strides the company has taken since day one, I’d call that one of the understatements of the year.
ISB Optimus is currently a team of 77 people, most of whom are Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certified, ranging from Green Belt to Master Black Belt. The management consulting firm specialises in providing their clients with business improvement solutions utilising technologies from Oracle, Sage, SYSPRO, ZAP Data Hub, Microsoft, Boomi, Flowgear, Automation Anywhere, Kryon and Equatd. The focus is on business optimisation through activities such as business process management, Lean Six Sigma practices, ERP solutions, robotic process automation, data management and business intelligence.
When Brian imparted the above information, I thought he had started speaking in another language. But the bewilderment one encounters when a highly experienced professional in a specialised niche speaks in esoteric technical terms is par for the course in an increasingly tech-driven world. Which is why the aim of your humble scribe is to tell the story of ISB Optimus in simple and straightforward fashion so the lessons we can learn from them are universal ones that don’t require a PhD in software engineering.
‘Our vision is to be the leading provider of process automation solutions and process optimisation services to clients ranging from mid-size organisations to large enterprises across the Middle East and Africa,’ says Brian. ‘Our key differentiator is that we are not a technology-first consulting firm but a process-first consulting firm. We’re not here to sell you expensive tech but to make your business the best it can be by eliminating process waste, thereby promoting efficiency and cost reduction,’ he says.
Norwegian Nobel laureate Christian Louis Lange observed that ‘Technology is a useful servant, but a dangerous master’ back in 1921. These words of wisdom may be over a century old, but their relevance remains as real as ever. By ensuring human intelligence determines what intelligence of the artificial kind is required to solve business problems, ISB Optimus crucially ensures that the tech cart is never put before the human horse.
‘The very first thing that we do is get to understand the business’, emphasises Brian. ‘Really get under its skin to determine the areas where productivity and efficiency can be increased, and wastage reduced. Only once we have a crystal-clear picture of the problems the business is facing, do we begin to design the solution. And only then do we determine which technology is best suited to the solution we have designed. That is what makes us unique in our approach; we don’t sell software but software-driven business solutions,’ he concludes.
Perhaps the best way to put this into perspective is via the means of a real-world case study. I ask Brian what he considers to be one of the more striking success stories of ISB Optimus. ‘There are a few that are close to my heart,’ he responds. ‘But Clorox Africa is one that possibly illustrates our business philosophy and methodology most effectively.’
Clorox Africa is the African business unit of the NYSE-listed global cleaning supplies giant which is a permanent fixture on the Fortune 500. ‘Our first engagement with them was in 2013 when we were sub-contracted to do a small piece of work for them. I really liked their vision: their desire was to run a very lean organisation and the way they wanted to pursue this vision was right up our alley, so that made us excited. For many years I kept knocking on their door, saying: “Can we try these things that will help you realise your vision?”’
Despite initial reluctance – Clorox had a long-standing relationship with an existing service provider – all this changed over a single phone call. ‘It was in the middle of the first lockdown,’ recalls Brian. ‘Out of the blue they called us. On a weekend even! And they said, “those projects you guys have been talking about – we want to hear more.” As of now we have completed a series of process improvement and automation projects that have made them a far more flexible and agile organisation,’ he says.
So exactly what kind of high-tech magic dust did ISB Optimus sprinkle upon Clorox Africa to drastically cut the fat from their operations and streamline their services? ‘Well, many of their functions such as invoice processing, reconciliations and reporting are automated,’ begins Brian. ‘But reporting is the big one. It’s common for a finance department to spend a lot of time compiling period end reports. To cut a long story short, we figured out how to automate reporting for them in such a way that if anyone needs a specific report in a specific format on a specific day, all they have to do is log into the relevant portal and it’s there,’ he says.
This is tremendously useful for a global company that operates across many territories where financial and regulatory reporting requirements vary widely. Brian and his team succeeded in building a system where reports are now generated automatically and can be converted into different formats to conform to the requirements of different countries and regions. ‘What we have essentially done is given them back time to focus on more important things like making decisions and formulating strategies instead of doing the repetitive and mundane stuff,’ says Brian. ‘That’s why this is a project very dear to me and I’m very proud of what we have achieved there.’
There is an abundance of metrics whereby a company can measure success. For Brian and ISB Optimus, ‘the greatest measure of success for us is having a customer so satisfied that they come back for more. In our line of work, a customer will often “try you out” by giving you a small contract as a trial. This allows you to provide proof of concept and proof of value. If that customer does not come back to you, they do not see value in the work that you did. But if they recognise value, they will see that as an indication of your broader capacity,’ says Brian.
‘The services that we provide are not cheap,’ he continues. ‘Which makes customers extremely discerning. Therefore, if someone spends several million on your services, you do absolutely everything you can to ensure that when they come back to you, they say: “We’re seeing some excellent return on that investment – can we expand the scope?” Then you know you’re doing it right and that is one of the primary means by which we define success.’
When asked ‘What advice would you give to those just starting out?’, Brian replies with a laugh. ‘I could write a book on this!’ he says. ‘In the ten years I’ve been in business, a good chunk of that time has essentially been “school fees”. By this I mean the cost of learning things the hard way and the time spent figuring out how everything works while assuring everything works the right way.’
‘We didn’t exactly hit the ground running and become an overnight success,’ continues Brian. ‘There were some tough lessons to be learned and major assumptions we needed to correct. If I had to offer advice to a company starting out, I would say be patient, be tenacious, stick to your guns, expect to take a few knocks and recognise that there is no such thing as “overnight success”’.
‘Learning from your mistakes is also a big one,’ says Brian. ‘In the early days we were chasing price and trying to be cheaper than our competitors. We soon realised this was the incorrect strategy as larger competitors can always undercut you and drive you out of business. The major lesson here is this: don’t try to compete on price but on value. Customers aren’t asking
“Who will charge me the least?” but “who will offer me the best value?”. If you offer a 5% return on an investment of R100k you’ll never beat the guy who can offer a 20% return on an investment of R1 million.’
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