Thursday, February 16, 2006

Canadian solution for Arab companies

Sikander Z. Hashmi

Saskatchewan may be known for its wheat, but that’s not the only thing the prairie province is growing for the world.

Amanah Tech Inc. grew out of Nezar Freeny’s Saskatoon
apartment storage in 2001. Today, the successful web hosting and enterprise solutions provider is offering services and support in Arabic to clients in the Arabian Gulf, albeit not from the land of the living skies.

Freeny, 33, immigrated to Canada
from Sudan in 1992, and after completing high school in Toronto, left for Saskatoon where he completed his bachelors in computer science at the University of Saskatchewan.

He worked for the university and the private sector, but it wasn’t too long before Freeny’s family genetics got the best of him.

“Since I was in grade one, I used to help my dad run his…furniture manufacturing business,” says Freeny. “When I was approximately 13, I was running the business in his absence.”

While dot-com companies crashed, burned and evaporated, Freeny managed to find a niche market with virtually no competitors.

Arab companies were getting their web hosting primarily from providers in the U.S.
, but none were offering services and support in Arabic.

Freeny jumped at the opportunity to offer comparable quality and price with service in Arabic, so customers “don’t have to worry about feeling different.”

An understanding of Arab culture proved invaluable for Freeny. For instance, Arabs like dealing directly with the CEO of a company instead of employees. As well, older Arab executives don’t take young people seriously, something Freeny overcame by being well-presented, learning history, and building good rapport with multiple contacts at large companies.

Geopolitics played a role too.

“They found it the right opportunity, saying that we are Canada
, we are neutral, (and) we are at peace with everyone.”

In 2002, the company signed a $1 million, three-year deal with Saudi internet company Dar Alasr.

At the signing ceremony in Dubai
attended by Canadian ambassador David Hutton, Dar Alasr president Fouad Alfarhan expressed surprise over finding a Canadian IT company offering support in Arabic.

“We never thought we would be able to find a Canadian IT company who provides 24/7 support in Arabic," Alfarhan was quoted as saying in the Khaleej Times. "Partnering with Amanah Tech allows us to provide high-end technology that our clients are looking for in Arabic.”

Amanah – Arabic for “trust” – has established itself in web hosting and is now moving forward with “Prime Digital Solutions,” solving problems for businesses and individuals through innovative solutions.

For instance, the company recently made waves in the Arab media market by developing software that automatically translates the Reuters news ticker feed into Arabic for DubaiTV, sparking interest from other Arab TV networks as well, according to Freeny.

The company has also designed a cell phone stock tracker that sends stock price fluctuation alerts directly to investors’ cell phones.

Amanah Tech, now with seven employees and $5 million in annual sales with about 50 per cent of it profit, relied heavily on federal government grants in the beginning, but the company is now seen as a Canadian success story, with a visible presence at trade shows in the Arabian Gulf.

Sales are up by 50 per cent from the previous year.

The company outgrew Saskatchewan
last summer and has since settled in Toronto with over 150 other tech and telecom companies at 151 Front Street, one of North America's most connected buildings. It also offers local support from British Columbia, Cairo, Dubai, and Riyadh.

So what is Freeny’s secret to success?

“Customer satisfaction,” he says after a pause, later adding patience and no advertising to the mix.

That means becoming a doctor for businesses and keeping small clients who pay as little as $10 a month for web hosting along with some of the wealthiest businesses in the Arabian Gulf

“You will never see someone walking to a doctor saying, ‘Today, I am feeling very well. What should I do?’” he says. “They will be crying…‘this is hurting me and I need something, how can you help me?’

“If you are not addressing them, they will go somewhere else. So it’s very important to be patient and to be a good listener.”

Freeny doesn’t believe in advertising and thus his advertising budget is zero. The savings are used for improving quality and retaining big clients with perks, such as flying big customers to Toronto
for a tour of facilities.

Hatem Al-Sibai, chief information officer at one of Amanah’s larger customers, UAE’s Al Ghurair Group, is “quite satisfied” with the company and plans to increase business with Amanah next year.

“They have managed to meet or exceed or service level requirements,” Sibai wrote in an e-mail. “This is possible because (Amanah) has a hi-tech infra-structure, multiple redundant connectivity to the backbone of the Internet and state of the art security,” adding that the company has been “eager to listen…and understand special requirements and needs.”

But the attention given to larger customers hasn’t left smaller ones disappointed.

Amanah Tech has provided web hosting to Regina Huda School
for the last three years and president Dr. Ayman Aboguddah has nothing but praise for the company, describing his experience with Amanah as “great.”

The Huda School
website makes extensive use of multimedia and it will soon offer live webcasts from classrooms, Aboguddah said.

Freeny works towards his dream of heading a multi-billion dollar publicly traded corporation with a simple philosophy.

“There is a philosophy in business, ‘build it and they will come’. My philosophy is, ‘build it as they come.’”