Exclusive: New Unisys Head Discusses the State of Colombia’s Bank Technology, IT Talent & the Best Sushi
Carlos Ferrer has been making moves since taking over as the general manager and vice president of Unisys LACSA, encompassing all of Latin America except Mexico and Brasíl. Running everything from his Bogotá office, Ferrer is responsible for leading over 2,000 employees, including those in Unisys’ managed service centers in Bogotá, and Rionegro (outside Medellín). Ferrer comes to Unisys after stints as an entrepreneur, and in companies like HP, EDS, and AT&T.
Finance Colombia’s executive editor Loren Moss recently sat down with Ferrer for an exclusive and in-depth interview discussing the technological state of Colombian banking and talent, his plans for Unisys moving forward in the country and the region, and even Colombia’s best sushi.
FC: Then you spent some time in Colorado getting your Master’s degree, and now you are here in Bogotá. How did you arrive in Bogotá? And then tell me a little bit about how you arrived as the regional head of Unisys?
Carlos Ferrer: So, I actually arrived in Bogotá about twenty years ago. When I got back from getting my Master’s degree, I was working for a telecommunications company in Colombia called EPM (Empresas Públicas de Medellín). A few years later, I moved to Bogotá to create a new telecommunications company called EMTELCO owned by EPM dedicated to provide Value Added Services, Data and Internet services. After four years in EMTELCO I moved to Firstcom, a US Telecommunication company, then months later changed to AT&T Latin America and I was the head of AT&T in Colombia for about four years, then I moved to the US as vice president of mergers and acquisitions of AT&T Latin America. After some months I decided to come back to Colombia and then I moved to an entrepreneurial initiative in which I created my own company dedicated to systems integration and project implementation around the telecommunications industry. Most of the solutions were related to the geographic information systems and OSSs for telecommunications and utility companies. In 2004 I moved to EDS (Electronic Data Systems) as the head of Colombia, and then the region: Pretty much Latin America, except Brazil and Mexico. After that, HP Acquired EDS and I took the responsibility of head of HP Enterprise Services for the same region. In 2010 I moved to Enterprise Service Sales Leader for Spanish Latin America (Mexico was not included) and in 2012 I also took responsibility of sales for Mexico.
I joined Unisys about nine months ago, as the head of this region called LACSA, which is Latin America, the Caribbean, and South America. This does not include Mexico or Brazil. So I am very happy in Unisys, taking this responsibility for the region and participating in all of the transformation that Unisys is executing right now, because we are in a reinvention of our business after Ed Coleman turned around the company, from the previous issues that company had, and make it a profitable and very well-established company again. We are en route to keep growing, just as we were before.
FC: Let’s talk about the IT talent available in Colombia. Are the universities turning out the talent that you need and do you have a large enough pool of the qualified engineers and support people that you need? And I ask that because when I go to symposiums wherever in North America, in the U.S., and even here in Latin America, the biggest challenge that I hear executives talk about is availability. When we talk about a location, the question I hear is, ‘Is there enough talent there and is there the quality of talent that we need? We can find a hundred people, but can we find a thousand people?’ What is your experience in not just the ability to source the talent that you need right now, but strategically, in the long term? What do you see for Colombia as someone who employs IT talent?
Carlos Ferrer: I think Colombia has a very unique position with regards to talent and it’s also improving year after year. The level of education is improving, not only in public schools, but also in private schools. The access to bilingual people is growing a lot, especially in locations like Bogotá and in Medellín. Those two cities are investing a lot of money in having bilingual education in many of the institutions. In most schools in Colombia, it is mandatory for the students to have a high level of English in order to earn their degree, so when you get people from the universities, you know that you are already getting people that at least have a good level of bilingual ability, and especially in English, which is very important for a country like Colombia which has a lot of business with the United States.
I think that worldwide there is a challenge in engineering because students are less and less interested in dedicating their time to engineering. New types of careers are starting to dominate the field in terms of education. We could call them more soft careers, social related careers, than engineering or technical careers, but there is still a lot of interest in our community in having an engineering degree or an engineering technical background. So you can differentiate an engineer from a technician, which has a different level of education; five years compared to three years, but depending on the service that we have, a technician level is enough to then get into Unisys and start learning about our processes and systems and solutions and everything that really makes them ready to attend to our customers.
We provide all of the Spanish help desk services from Colombia to every global customer that Unisys has.
One of the things that is important, at least in our country, is that cities like Bogotá and Medellín where we have the major locations, both cities have more than three to four million people so access to educated students or access to educated young people is easier than in small countries or small cities so we still have a lot of well-educated people that can fulfill our requirements for the region. Actually, if you see the way in which we have developed our business in Medellín, we actually built a location in a small city near Medellín, Rionegro, and we have about 450 people working in that location; and about 80%are from nearby: They are from small towns around Rionegro, not necessarily Medellín.
Many of the people from those small cities used to migrate to large cities because they had no opportunity to work in their areas of interest in those small towns. So as we get into those locations, what we have given to those people is the ability to remain living in their area but also to work in technology, if that is what they want. We are also identifying areas in which we could have good access to a large volume of educated resources in the technology fields that we need. We can build our own locations around those areas and give access to good jobs to those communities, making them more engaged with the company, because the company is getting closer to their locations, nearer to their communities and their families. We then invest a lot in training and education and we get them aligned to our way of doing business. I think Colombia has a privilege in that way compared to many other countries in Latin America.
FC: What percent of customers that Unisys is taking care of here are Colombian enterprises vs., maybe global enterprises that have Colombian Operations?
Carlos Ferrer: In Colombia right now, we have about 30 to 35 clients that we serve from Colombia and about 80% are global companies; so we provide all of the Spanish service desk services from Colombia to every global customer that Unisys has. And for local companies or regional companies from LACSA, which is not only Colombia but also the region, it is less than 20%, so there is a large amount of exportation that we do around the services that we offer from Colombia to many other countries.
FC: Ok, so it’s not just an issue of Unisys being here to service the local market, but as Unisys in Colombia is actually servicing the region and the globe.
Carlos Ferrer: The operation in Colombia is the third largest operation for global services for Unisys after India and The United States. And the operation that we have in Rionegro (metro Medellín), individually is the second largest service desk that we have worldwide. We are expanding that location because we are already full of people.
FC: Wow, ok, why Rionegro?
Carlos Ferrer: Many things. First, it’s a free trade location, so that gives us a tax benefit. Second, it’s a low-cost area of operation. Third, we have access to qualified people and resources. Rionegro has a very unique situation. There are four or five small municipalities around that location. So it is not only Rionegro. It’s Rionegro, Marinilla, Guarne, La Ceja, El Retiro, there are many communities around Rionegro and it is already close to Medellín, so if you need some specific high quality resources, you can bring them from Medellín very easily; it’s not far away. Rionegro has a very unique location that helps us have access to a large community that can bring resources to that location, and the communications are very good because we have access to a very high level of data infrastructure from the telecommunications company in Medellín.
FC: So tell me about your goals, you are fairly new at Unisys. What are your goals for 2015 and for 2016? Where will the growth be? What sectors? What are the growth sectors in Colombia and for Unisys?
Carlos Ferrer: We have a solid presence in specific industries. We are very strong in the financial industry, retail, communications, and we are starting to look more deeply into the government and the public sector. We have other industries in which we have very good solutions, like transportation and so forth, but I think that financial industries, retail, and communication are our focus in Colombia for 2015. We are also starting to get more involved with the public sector.
What you end up with as a company is that if you go to Amazon, you have Amazon tools. If you go to Google, you get Google tools. If you go to Microsoft, you get Microsoft tools. Then you have your own tools, so you end up having five, six, seven systems to provision manage all your critical infrastructure and you have issues knowing what application goes where, and so forth. So we have a specific offering for mission-critical operations that helps the customers or clients manage all that complexity, along with consulting.
Now in terms of the horizontals, we have specific solutions which are very aligned to the strengths that we have in those industries. One area is security services. We are investing a lot in security services for our Colombian companies. We won a large contract last year for security operations in Colombia, also providing worldwide support to that company from all of the other locations that we have. One of the strengths that we also have supporting solutions in multiple industries is a data center transformation practice which is very sophisticated, but with the new portfolio that we are launching this year, with a new solution called Choreographer, we will be able to serve all the mission critical solutions and infrastructure that the customer has at the same time, while overcoming the new challenges brought about by the cloud. Usually when you talk to the providers, it’s either the traditional way or the cloud, but the reality is that it’s not any of those. It’s multiple clouds, plus traditional, plus something-as-a-service which may not even be cloud, or whatever.
So it is a mix of multiple offerings that the customer is really getting from those multiple providers. Managing that complexity in a mission-critical operation is quite difficult because what you end up with as a company is that if you go to Amazon, you have Amazon tools. If you go to Google, you get Google tools. If you go to Microsoft, you get Microsoft tools. Then you have your own tools, so you end up having five, six, seven systems to provision manage all your critical infrastructure and you have issues knowing what application goes where, and so forth. So we have a specific offering for mission-critical operations that helps the customers or clients manage all that complexity, along with consulting.
We are also investing a lot in consulting this year, based on the expertise that we have, in those verticals. Helping the customers define their strategy around applications and doing application modernization, transformation, also helping them to migrate those applications into that infrastructure complexity that they will have to manage right now. So those are portfolios that we will be pushing really hard this 2015 across all those industries. I think that that makes us very unique.
FC: As soon as you have multiple cloud applications and then you start to get them talking to each other through the API, you might think that one is secure, but you just open up, you know, holes and that is not just a multiple of complexity, but it really is exponential because you have all these different ways to get into something that hasn’t been looked at.
Carlos Ferrer: Yes and one of the issues for the client is that when they get into the market and talk to all of the providers, each one is trying to sell their own tools, but no one is really looking at the whole problem. In some way, we are very agnostic. Even though we have our own technology, we have ClearPath, we have Forward!, we have our own technology. We serve every customer’s technology in a mission-critical operation, no matter what kind of manufacturer they use. And our software solutions are being built to serve in those kinds of environments, not only in a Unisys environment. That is also something that is very, very special for our customers. In addition, that is being done at the level of sophistication that we have been investing for during many, many years in our operations. What we do in data center operations, what we do in a service desk, it is very sophisticated compared to the other companies.
FC: You mentioned the finance sector, you see it as an area of growth. Colombia has a strong banking sector. Medellín is the home of Suramericana; Groupo Aval just did their New York Stock Exchange issue. Where is Colombia’s finance sector, from the viewpoint of technological sophistication and not just in things like security and compliance, but in being able to deliver next generation types of services to consumers? And what kind of support challenges do you see as a provider to the banking and finance sector? Where is Colombia’s finance sector now compared to the region? And then where are they compared to the world, even considering North America and Europe and Asia, and are they being aggressive in adopting new technologies and new delivery methods? Are they behind the curve?
Carlos Ferrer: I think there is a very diverse level of sophistication. Technology has revolutionized the finance sector in Colombia, depending on what company you look at. Probably the largest bank in Colombia has the highest investment in technology compared to other banks, which makes them unique in the way they operate. They have invested a lot in mobility. They have invested a lot in making it easier for customers to use their services anywhere, anytime. So you see some banks that have invested a lot of money and have defined a clear strategy around how technology helps them evolve in their business. For example, that specific bank, over the last five, six years, they have grown in size by a multiple of more than ten times. Such growth places huge pressure on their systems, staying updated, being able to support the level of transactions, the volume of transactions, the complexity, and the new kinds of transactions that customers are requesting from them.
So, you see, banks are investing a lot of money in process. The main challenge that they have in the end, is security. As you transform and invest and add new services and products, and you put in mobility, and you bring your own device or whatever other alternatives, then you open doors that you need to close and protect. That’s the main concern right now for that bank; the security to guarantee that all that transformation is maintained in an agile transformation process, but doing it in a way that they can protect what they are doing.
Technology has revolutionized the finance sector in Colombia, depending on what company you look at.
Then you see other banks—I consider those the second-level technology banks, which are investing a lot right now in transforming their business. They’re changing their systems. They are investing in mobility. They have e-banking already, but even though for the customer sometimes, it appears to be well-developed and sophisticated and so forth, but probably internally, it is still not tied to best practices. So they are doing a lot of investment to improve their internal systems to guarantee that what the client is also looking at, is internally operating in the right way. Trying to unify the way they do business in one bank with the way they do business in the other bank.
There are some banks that have made investments in Colombia just a couple of years ago, and they are just now in the process of integrating those subsidiaries with their headquarters. There’s a level of financial institutions which are quite behind and they remain quite behind, in terms of technology. There’s a huge opportunity for those. But there’s a huge challenge for those banks to catch up with what the other banks are doing. So if you look at the Colombian banks, all of them are very profitable. Each bank has its own niche and has its own customers and clients. But internally, when you look at the way they operate, it is completely different. There are some banks in which doing transactions is very easy and you feel more secure; or the ones that are older and have traditional (legacy) banking infrastructures.
FC: Right, and that’s going to affect profitability for the bank because if they’re less efficient.
Carlos Ferrer: In the long term, yes, because right now they still have a large amount of customers which are old-fashioned customers. But as new generations are coming, these guys don’t like anything old-fashioned. They don’t even like talking to people. They only want texting. So if you’re not prepared to attend that new set of customers, which is the young community getting into business, then you will end up with no customers. Your customers will be dead [laughs]. So catching up with what the other banks are doing, to be prepared to attend to that new community that is interacting with society in a different way, it is going to be a challenge for those banks. From my perspective, I think that some of them are already late in making those decisions. But what is interesting in this business is as soon as they make a decision to move forward, all of the pressure is going to be transferred to be providers [laughs]. The banking system in Colombia compared to Latin America; it’s not as big as Brasíl’s banking system, but I think that in terms of evolution, it’s probably the second after Chile. Chilean banking is more evolved than the Colombian banking in some ways, and probably for the rest of Latin America, including Mexico and Brazil, I think that the level of sophistication that the financial sector in Colombia has, is even higher than in the rest of the countries. Compared to the US, it depends. If you look at the top banks in Colombia, it is similar to what we get in the large banks in the United States. You know, the United States has a unique banking system. You have these large global banks and then you have community banks, which operate in an old-fashioned way also.
FC: State chartered versus federal. And then you have credit unions.
Carlos Ferrer: I remember when I was in Colorado. My bank account was in a bank called First Bank or First One, or First Banking, but they had probably like four or five branches around Denver and Boulder. That was everything they had. It was old-fashioned. You would sit down, have a coffee, talk, and check your account. There wasn’t much sophistication in the way they did business.
FC: If you wanted to get a loan, you would go talk to the president of the bank.
Carlos Ferrer: Yes, of course. They wanted to know your family, and that was the level of relationship they would build. Then you have Citibank and those other kinds of banks.
FC: JP Morgan, Bank of America…those guys.
Carlos Ferrer: Yes. So the more sophisticated banks in Colombia are very competitive compared to U.S banks or European banks. Not that big, but very profitable, very good banks.
FC: Do you see Colombia becoming a destination for shared services and global in-house centers? As far as not just in outsourcing, but have you seen any activity in that area, as far as global in-house centers for companies looking at Colombia?
Carlos Ferrer: There are some. You know, in the last five, six years, they look more like Costa Rica, Panama, and other countries. Argentina even was a good location for that kind of operation, but I think that in the next five years, Colombia is probably going to lead that transformation in the region, for many reasons, as you mentioned before. Costa Rica and Panama and Uruguay are countries where access to qualified labor is very difficult. In Colombia, you get better, and you get more access to labor. Then if we finally sign this peace agreement with the FARC, most of the things that have stopped other multi-nationals from coming and looking at Colombia for investment go away. You know there’s a lot going on in Mexico, so people are becoming afraid of what is going on, and even though it is very close to the United States, people don’t want to go to Mexico and that is very sensitive for business. So we are still looking for countries that will serve those services in a better way.
If we finally sign this peace agreement with the FARC, most of the things that have stopped other multinationals from coming and looking at Colombia for investment go away.
I think Colombia has a unique, privileged location to provide those services, if we end up signing this peace agreement; definitely for multinationals to build operations in Colombia, to serve global companies. For example, Colombia has one of the largest operations for Telefónica with their call center and contact center. Colombia is very strong in contact center services and the next step is getting the multi-nationals. For example, Procter and Gamble has a large operation in Panama, but they moved a lot of people from Colombia to Panama and from Venezuela to Panama, so now there isn’t much more opportunity for growth in Panama. Probably companies like that will look at Colombia to build their internal operations.
Last question. You have a reputation as being a gourmand; What are your two favorite restaurants in Bogotá and two favorite in Medellín?
Carlos Ferrer: You know, we have a problem with that! There are many good restaurants, but I don’t qualify a restaurant based on its whole menu. So if I want a good piece of meat, I go to one place. If I want good sushi, I go to another one.
FC: Good point, ok. Criollo or global?
Carlos Ferrer: So, in Bogotá, if you want good sushi, the best sushi—I have brought people from the US and from Europe, never from Japan, but they said they had never gotten better sushi, even in their countries and even from San Francisco or New York, where you get good sushi. There is a place here called Watakushi. They have the best sushi and the best sashimi you can get in Colombia—now you don’t get twenty different kinds of fish, but what you get in that restaurant is high quality, very, very good.
The second one will be tough because it depends on what you want to eat.
FC: Colombian food.
Carlos Ferrer: The best frijoles (beans), the best Paisa (Medellín regional) food in Bogotá, you get it in El Portal de la Antigua. They moved to another place. The owner is a guy named Alirio. They have the best frijoles there, the best Bandeja Paisa. Two other good places that I love to eat in Bogotá are Primi—Primi is a quite new restaurant. I don’t know if it’s Italian, but its good because you have many small things. The pizza is unique. The pasta for the pizza is unique. It’s incredible, so crunchy, so thin, that you don’t get it in any other place. That’s a good one. If you can, try it. The other one that is next to Primi is La Brasserie, I like La Brasserie a lot.
FC: And when you go to Medellín?
Carlos Ferrer: The problem in Medellín, I have been living in Bogotá for over twenty years, and they have opened many good restaurants. It depends on what you like to eat. One that is traditional and very good is called La Provincia. That is French food. It’s very good quality, very well prepared. Every dish is excellent in that place. Hato Viejo is also very good, it’s Colombian food. But Medellín has many good restaurants, and Bogotá has a lot.