Many organizations have successfully used technology to enable business growth through improved efficiencies, streamlined processes, and enhanced customer service. Few organizations, however, move to the next step: placing IT in a leading role in developing and growing the business. In automotive terminology, it’s the equivalent of the fuel that provides combustion versus the engine that drives it.
One organization that is navigating this transition is the Essar Group, a privately held conglomerate that has grown over 40 years from shipping and construction to steel and oil production to a myriad of other businesses. The group has also evolved from an Indian operation to a presence in more than 15 countries worldwide. At Essar today, IT plays an integral role in transforming business process.
“I carry a broader mandate than most CIOs,” explains Essar’s Global CIO Vijay Mehra. “My team and I actually drive the re-engineering of business practices. We are very much involved in transforming Essar’s businesses worldwide through IT enablement.”
A global search
This transformation was made possible when Essar’s owners and executive management began a global search for a new Global/Group CIO in 2004. The firm had grown quickly over the preceding several years, and its IT applications and infrastructure had grown haphazardly, resulting in a silo-based approach to IT in each business unit. “The owners recognized that in order to enable growth, they had to develop a world-class IT capability to fuel business growth,” Mehra explains, “so they decided to do a global search to hire the right CIO who would lead the IT transformation of Essar.”
The search process and the final on-boarding of Mehra took more than two years, during which the firm not only interviewed Mehra and other candidates but also worked internally so that it would be better prepared for major changes upon the new leader’s arrival. Mehra summarizes the final decision process: “I had a very transparent discussion with our promoters up front, and they responded well.”
The perfect background
Mehra was the perfect fit for the role of leading the IT turnaround at Essar. His diverse educational background includes undergraduate degrees in economics and industrial engineering from Cornell University, as well as an M.B.A. and an M.S. in systems engineering from MIT and its Sloan School of Management and School of Engineering respectively—earned simultaneously under a special program for selected exemplary students.
After college, Mehra started as a software developer at Motorola, and from there moved to strategic senior consulting roles at several firms. “Everywhere I went, I was focused on solving tough problems that CIOs and CEOs faced in the context of IT,” he says. “While Essar is the first place I have played the Global CIO role, I had been advising CIOs for 12 years as part of my extensive work at McKinsey & Company, Arthur D. Little, and CSC Consulting in six countries on four continents.”
Developing a strategy
Mehra accepted the Global CIO role at Essar in 2006 and immediately was faced with the need for strategic planning. “In my first month, after consulting with all of the lines of business, we published a 150-page IT Vision document that defined the needed IT roadmap and process improvements for each business unit and how we could accomplish them,” he recalls.
“In steel, it’s about supply-chain, utilization, order entry, and materials and capacity optimization. In oil, it’s about algorithms that determine how to optimally procure the crude, as well as MES systems that help run the assets as efficiently as possible. In retail, it’s about merchandising, point of sale, and replenishment. We deployed an IT vision based on a business vision for which we put a stake in the ground.”
From an IT perspective, the vision was to modernize the applications and upgrade the infrastructure to support these process improvements and to pursue strategic vendor relationships where vendors were jointly held accountable for results. “We look at all our solutions in a practical sense,” Mehra explains. “We do not believe in best of breed for every single aspect, which then results in an overall compromised solution. Instead, we strategically choose one platform, standardize on it, and roll it out across the world.”
Standardizing the security infrastructure
At the time, Essar was protecting its endpoints with software from a well-known vendor, but the results weren’t satisfactory. After a thorough review of security solutions, policies, and procedures, Mehra’s team began to standardize and bolster the firm’s security infrastructure while tightening up its policies and practices.
“We set up a network operations center to proactively monitor malware threats and spam,” he says. “As part of this initiative, we decided to standardize on Symantec software for endpoint and messaging security. In 2007, as soon as it was available, we migrated to Symantec Endpoint Protection because of the advanced features it offers.”
Mehra particularly appreciates the product’s device control feature, which enables him to define and implement certain access policies at a device and end-user level. “The flexibility to support user- and role-based security policies is very important to us,” says Mehra. He also plans to activate Symantec Network Access Control Starter Edition, which will provide host integrity checks with each login attempt.
Mehra’s team is also using a layered approach to messaging security. Symantec Brightmail Gateway and Brightmail Message Filter appliances sit at the SMTP gateway, blocking spam and malware and providing advanced content filtering. On the mail server itself, Symantec Mail Security for Microsoft Exchange blocks spam that gets to the server.
“We saw a dramatic change in the amount of virus penetration and spam bombard- ment that was coming through the firewall,” says Mehra. “Symantec solutions have allowed us to find the optimal level of filtering for our business and to fight spam at multiple levels.”
Essar is also using Symantec Backup Exec and its Agents for Microsoft Exchange, Microsoft SQL Server, and Oracle to perform backups from these applications to second-tier disk storage, which are then transferred to tape. “It makes it easy to get the data off the application servers in a non-disruptive way that shortens our backup time significantly,” says Mehra.
Mehra’s team also uses the Backup Exec Desktop and Laptop Option, which delivers continuous data protection for its highly mobile employees, and is deploying Backup Exec System Recovery Desktop Edition to enable quick restore of executives’ laptops in the event of hard drive failure.
An ongoing vision
Three years after arriving at a company that was ready to begin a transformation, Mehra still uses that original vision document as the guide for a continuing transformation. “With every senior hire that I’ve brought on board, I’ve given them this vision on their first day. And we’re the only department in this entire group that constantly goes back to this vision and points to it and says, ‘This is what we promised, here’s how we’ve delivered on that promise, and here’s what we’ve missed’.”
And the team has delivered a lot—not only in IT efficiencies, but in business process results. “My team tells me, ‘Vijay, you need to showcase what we’ve done more’,” Mehra says. “Just to give you a sense of where the value comes from, in steel, we’ve reduced the number of steel grades from 575, defined in an ad hoc way, to 75 grades on international standards. We’ve changed the order entry cycle time from about 27 days to two days. And for the repetitive part of our business, we’ve reduced it to two hours.”
Mehra’s vision of using IT to propel business, rather than simply to fuel it, is beginning to bear fruit. “The idea I’ve conveyed to everyone at Essar is that you’ve got to learn to respect technology,” he concludes. “It can help you, and it can kill you. You’ve got to make sure that it serves your business purpose. There’s much more to be done, but we’re successfully driving success in the business today, and Symantec is an integral part of that success.”
Mark L.S. Mullins is a managing editor of CIO Digest and manager of Symantec’s Global Customer Reference Program team.