INTERVIEW: Abed Shaheen, CEO, InfoFort

How are information management solutions helping to enable the efficiency of supply chains?
Abed Shaheen, CEO of InfoFort
Abed Shaheen, CEO of InfoFort

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Safe records management has always been a priority for every type of organisation, not just those operating in the logistics sector, and with the Middle East and Africa expected to post the world’s highest cloud traffic growth rate by 2018, customer demand for digitisation and secure data storage can only increase.

The current leading records and information management solution provider in the Middle East and Africa is InfoFort, an Aramex subsidiary established in 1997.

Its services cover records management, electronic records management, media and tape vaulting and rotation, and secure data destruction, which InfoFort states all play a key role in supporting corporate and economic activity, particularly logistics, through the protection of information and preservation of intellectual capital.

“We’re a hidden industry but we enable supply chain and logistics operations through records management and securing information,” says InfoFort CEO Abed Shaheen, who is also an active member of the Aramex global management team and its information security council.

“Our clients are mostly government bodies, financial institutions and Fortune 500 companies, so we’re not specific to one sector. We protect data and preserve the knowledge capital of companies, industries and eventually countries, enabling the progress of cycles.”

He adds: “If you properly safeguard your information, you can better advance in the future. By securing data, we enable progress.”

Shaheen explains how information management makes up one of three supply chain pillars. “If you look at supply chain management, you’re talking about how you approach the movement of goods, products and raw materials, between wholesalers, suppliers, factories, retailers and consumers.

“The second part of the flow is the exchange of money – goods move from point A to point B but money flows backwards because somebody is paying for these things.

“And the third pillar of supply chain flow is information; supply chains are about the movement of goods, finances and information, with information flowing back and forth to enable to movement of goods and finances.”
Consequently, information needs to be preserved and ideally backed up digitally.

“Physically, we store original documents for companies across different industries and we can actively manage these, delivering documents back and forth as needed to enable transactions, but we also provide digital records management. This is where we digitise documents, transforming information on paper into digital data so clients can access it better and control the flow of this information quickly and efficiently,” Shaheen shares.

InfoFort has vaults for the backup data in digital formats to be stored properly that Shaheen remarks “look just like banks’ vaults for cash but store tapes of data instead”.

He continues: “Paper is transferred to digital, digital is backed up on tapes and the server, and we give clients the software to manage all of these things electronically.”

Succinctly explaining why digitation is so important, he tells Logistics Middle East: “If you pile the documents
we have on top of each other, it would probably double the size of the Burj Khalifa; if you lay them next to each other, they’d probably circuit the earth twice; and if you lay them on the ground, they’d probably double the size of Monaco.”

In the lifecycle of documents, InfoFort also disposes of clients’ data, shredding it and recycling it, then giving the companies relevant green certificates for the purposes of detailing their environmental footprint.

The company’s secure locations, which InfoFort refers to as record management centres, can be found in every GCC country as well as Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana and Tanzania so far.

Discussing growth plans, Shaheen says: “We are expanding within the countries in which we’re active today, which will allow a stronghold in the GCC region, and we are expanding significantly in Africa through organic growth and acquisitions that we want to do in countries of interest.

“Just as Aramex has expanded, we are creating the same story with records management. We are the only company in our industry with a regional presence in both the Middle East and Africa, allowing us to service the same industries in different countries using the same technology, same systems, same account management, same policies and procedures.”

Shaheen confirms that InfoFort benefits from Aramex’s global presence, with the subsidiary and parent company complementing each other. “Aramex delivers goods and we deliver information,” as he puts it.

With the aforementioned necessary expansion underway, awareness of the importance of secure information governance is clearly growing, though Shaheen warns many industries have not yet accepted the benefits of digitally preserving records yet.

“The UAE has the highest awareness but there is still a lot of work to do even here. Industries vary; banking, for example, is fully aware of the importance of information governance and information management but other industries are behind. They need to move beyond paper and adapt to new technologies,” he asserts.

“We offer the software that helps but first you need to raise awareness [for the specialised requirements]. You can’t have, for example, a company storing its records in just any warehouse because you need a proper record management centre with appropriate security, humidity control and environmental systems to protect the paper. It’s not enough to just store papers in any room.

“We are trying to raise awareness of the importance of information governance, especially because this region’s is developing rapidly – it is more exposed [in this sense].”

Further exploring how companies are at risk, Shaheen highlights three main risks companies are facing.

“First, information leakage; think of WikiLeaks – information can be leaked that causes damage overnight. Second, natural and man-made disasters; think of the floods we have seen in Sri Lanka, Japan and Asia.

“Third, the social change that we’ve been seeing in the region; think of the Arab Spring, the London riots [in 2011], the economic issues in Greece. When there is social change, people can get violent and buildings can get burned – and these buildings may contain precious data.

“Loss of information hinders progress and economic development. If you take care of information and have proper information governance then you are resilient; you may lose an office if something goes wrong but you don’t lose your data and your entire company.”

He reasons: “You can still operate if you have lost your physical space but your information is backed up elsewhere. Preserving your knowledge capital and protecting your data is key for development and, ultimately, this is how you enable progress of economies and countries.”

Going hand in hand with backing up data is building a water-tight strategy for every ‘what if’ scenario, which is becoming increasingly critical given instability witnessed in some parts of the Middle East recently. As Shaheen says, disasters happen but how a company responds is key.

“We have business continuity planning so we identify in advance if a disaster was to happen, what would we do and how would we operate the next day. We don’t depend on one facility and we don’t store all of our IT systems in one location. We simulate disasters to make sure if something happens we are able to continue to operate properly.”

He cites a real-life example of an incident that occurred that affected part of one of InfoFort’s warehouses. Owing to the company’s business continuity planning and risk management, Shaheen says InfoFort was able to operate the next day at 9am without clients feeling any impact.

“Manage the risks, think in advance and ensure your business continuity plan is in place so you can be up and running again in just a few hours,” he advises.

“If you don’t do this, you panic and risk losing clients and if you take of your information, you can remain in good shape. And choosing a proper service provider is key – a company might offer to store all of your documents for a cheap price but that’s not how you should do it, and anyway it is very risky to depend on just one facility with no back-ups,” Shaheen adds.

Discussing competition in this niche market, Shaheen states: “There are organisations that simply store documents in warehouses that are not fit for storing information. InfoFort has evolved from paper storage to information management, which is similar in logistics terms to being into warehousing versus supply chain management.

“There are not really companies doing what we do and we are one of the very few companies [of our nature] to have a regional presence. We manage the whole information management lifecycle. Anyone can open a warehouse and store documents, but we’re going beyond that.”

Speaking about how InfoFort can specifically benefit the logistics industry, Shaheen reiterates that it “enables” logistics companies, citing Dubai’s Jebel Ali Port, one of the busiest ports in the world, as an example.

“Millions of containers arrive every year in Jebel Ali and each shipment has invoices and documents, creating a huge volume of records each day. Solutions for the shipping industry are being implemented today there where bywe digitise records for every shipment going in and out, enabling companies to look at that information easily,” he comments, before adding emphatically: “This is how we enable logistics and trade, contributing to an efficient supply chain network so companies can trade faster.”

With thoughts turning to the future path of the company, Shaheen confirms InfoFort’s aim is to take the brand global, with a few countries in Africa being the next natural step now that its new records management centre in Jebel Ali Free Zone (Jafza) has launched.This facility doubled InfoFort’s space in the UAE and will provide enough capacity “for the next five to seven years”, according to Shaheen.

Revealing immediate plans, he concludes: “This year we are doubling our space in Kenya, having recently opened in Ghana and Tanzania. We are expanding in the GCC countries as well – new facilities are opening up in the next few of months and we are seeing a lot of demand for our services from organisations who want information management rather than just the ability to store documents.

“We are heavily looking at technology and we will be more active in this field when it comes to content management and information management in terms of keeping up with the progress of technology and constantly evolving.”

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