Qatarlyst’s chief executive spoke to GR about the challenges facing the technology industry in the MENA region, as well as the “evolution not revolution” of e-business in the London market


How does your business work?

It’s all about finding counterparties. It’s a bit like the first fax machine. If you own the first fax machine, it is fascinating but pretty useless until someone else owns one. So we have been busy over the past few years building up a community of counterparties around the region, but we realised there was a bit of a missing link. That link was the London market, which is hugely important in commercial insurance, and it is where the major global brokers focus their major operations. That is where they exert a lot of control over their international business, but regions like MENA are very influential. We wanted to find a way in which we could harness their power.

So how did you harness that power?

Well, we had the opportunity at the end of 2010 to buy a London business very similar to ours called RI3K, which we successfully acquired. It was slightly opportunistic actually. It came on the market at just the right time and for the right price, so we snapped it up very quickly. It has been relabeled under the Qatarlyst brand and is seen by 3,000-4,000 individual users across the London and Bermuda platforms.

What are your upcoming plans?

We are busy designing a new application that will take the best of what we have in London and what the MENA market requires, and we are going to be able to connect the two communities. We aim to do that by the end of this year or early next year. That is a very exiting prospect, but it is a very intense time for us because of the work going on. We are effectively managing two separate services at the moment while building another one. Then we will need to migrate all of our users onto the single platform.

What has been the biggest challenge in this process?

The biggest challenge has been building up this fireball where everybody can find all his or her counterparties. The maximum benefit of a service like ours is when you have all the counterparties doing all of their business in the same way. It is making sure we have a complete community to do that.

What are your plans for the next five years?

We want to be firmly entrenched in the MENA region as the e-business provider. I hope that we will have broken out into other regions, such as Southeast Asia and Africa. We want to be the e-placement provider in the London market. So yes, just moderately ambitious isn’t it?

There have been some very high-profile technology failures in the insurance business over the years. What has the industry learnt from these failures? And what have you learnt personally?

Technology is not the issue. It is there. It is available. Getting it all bolted together on time every time is a bit of a challenge, but it is not the hardest part. That is getting people to change the way they do things. We are not necessarily asking people to change processes but to change the tools they use to support particular processes. People are very comfortable with the old tools. Moving people from Telex to fax and from fax to email took time. It was a real challenge. People refused to be open to the new technology. That is our biggest challenge. Getting people to understand that the new technology is easier and getting them think about the corporate, not the individual’s, gain. It is true that our technology does make it easier for the individual, but the biggest winner is the business. People think: ‘What I am doing isn’t broken. It works.’ So the challenge is motivating people to put their self-interest aside for a moment and take the time to learn new technology.

Is it easier to influence a market while it is fresh and in its birth, like the MENA market, rather than trying to shift perceptions in a 300-year-old market like London?

Each market has its own challenges. In London, it is all about no one wanting to get out of line. They are incredibly business-like and don’t want anything to disturb the status quo. One of the biggest challenges is getting people to move at the same pace in London. But in Qatar, it is about the individual and getting them to accept that there is a benefit for the business. It is also about convincing them that it is not about a threat to their job.

There is always the fear with technology, though, that it will cause a loss of jobs in the market. Does that cause issues for you?

I just look at it completely differently. I am giving people the opportunity to free up their time to do something far more interesting. If it is something that is helping the business, then it gives people more time to develop their career. It is not a threat, it is an opportunity.

How long do you think it will realistically take before the market is majority technology-based?

Ultimately it will be an evolution, not a revolution. Once all the technology is connected through back-office processes, then it becomes seamless. Customers become stickier as a result. It will happen, it is just a question of when.

James Sutherland is chief executive of Qatarlyst

Click here for GR’s coverage of MultaQa Qatar 2012.