15 Mar The technologically canny approach
RAMON AGUILAR, CEO, GBM CORPORATION, HAS SEEN THE TECH SCENE GROW IN COSTA RICA OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS; HERE HE LAYS OUT WHAT MUST BE DONE FOR A HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL FUTURE.
GBM celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. Since 1991, the company has become a key player in Costa Rica’s information technology market, but also in the whole region. GBM has garnered numerous awards this year, including Lenovo’s Best LA HCI Specialized Partner and CISCO’s Central America Partner of the Year. As CEO of GBM, could you give us an overview of GBM. What have been some of your proudest milestones in the past few years, and what are some of your latest business performance highlights?
GBM was created in 1991 when IBM decided that they wanted to sell their subsidiaries in the region. They started looking for investors, and our chairman, Carlos Pellas, a Nicaraguan businessman, was interested in buying the subsidiaries in the region. He put together other investors, such Stanley Motta, our vice chairman and a Panamanian businessman who is very well known. They bought the subsidiaries from IBM and, later in 1993, IBM offered Dominican Republic. That is how GBM was created. At the beginning, we were just a normal IBM office. Then, we started adding products and we became a partner to CISCO. The CISCO partnership was our second alliance. Then we started adding brands and through the years; we have been transforming GBM to what the industry and the markets are looking for. At the very beginning in 1991, we were a normal IT company. We used to sell a lot of hardware, some services and almost no software. Through the years, we have been changing our go-to market trying to answer customers needs. Although today we still sell a lot of hardware, we are an IT service company and leaders in that area in Central America and the Caribbean.
More than half of GBM’s revenue comes from services. For example, we built a network of data centers around all Central America and the Caribbean: today we have 11 data centers. We also added to the portfolio a lot of software services and outsourcing services. The latest additions that we have had is an outsourcing unit which is growing very fast, it almost doubles every year. We just opened a software factory in Colombia, and we already have around 300 programmers.
GBM is aiming to become a real partner for our customers; we want to assist them and manage all their IT needs, so they can focus on their business. We can manage the IT infrastructure, lead the digital transformation, offer consulting services, program, manage and serve all the IT needs of our customers. Our idea is to become the IT department of our customers, at least as much as they want.
We have very high standards. In the last 6-12 months, we have been very focused on security services because of all the hacking that is going on. We already have a very strong practice in IT security. We just built our Security Operations Center in Central America, from where we serve all the different countries. All these services are available to our customers so they can pick and choose whatever they want: monitoring, advisory services, cloud cybersecurity services, endpoint protection, vulnerability management and much more.
Our services are available 24/7, 365 days a year. We use tools that sometimes are very expensive for a customer to buy, but because we get it for many customers, we achieve economies of scale and customers can access very sophisticated tools for a limited cost. We are very focused on processes and quality. Now that customers are starting to move toward the cloud, they really need us to provide better, cheaper, more secure, processes. Right now, most of our engagements with customers are regarding digital information, cloud migration, cybersecurity, or to design the best solution for them. That is our focus today.
GBM boasts a broad range of business technology infrastructure. It represents industry giants like IBM, SAP, Lenovo, Red Hat, Microsoft and Cisco. How does the group contribute to the acceleration of Costa Rica’s IT and tech proficiency and of the local business development?
With the U.S. looking at “nearshoring,” Central American countries have a big opportunity. However, we must be very intelligent in how we approach this subject. There is a great opportunity for Costa Rica to capture a share of the services and manufacturing that the U.S. used to have in China or Northern Europe. Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia are well positioned to understand what the U.S. market needs. We can build all those necessities here, so we can capture most of that business. Companies like GBM have to contribute to helping Costa Rica and its IT industry to understand the opportunity. In GBM we are working with universities and technical colleges to see how we can produce more programmers because that is what American companies are looking for mostly. They want to export their software development to these regions. This represents an opportunity that can not only help the country, but help deprived kids.
You can take a kid that was not born in the best environment, teach them English and teach them how to program, and in a year-and-a-half or less, you can bring them from a bad future to a very bright one. With a career in IT, they can start making $1000 a month, which will turn their and their family’s fate around. If we as a country put a goal to produce to 60,000-70,000 programmers a year, all of the people will get jobs and improve their lives. And this can also help reduce poverty in Costa Rica.
Thanks to Intel we have a very good reputation, and US companies will certainly keep coming here and consider Costa Rica first. We must prepare ourselves as a country and develop the best programmers. We have to have institutions working on this matter. For example, INA, among other teaching institutions, needs to prepare these young people for what the market needs: English and programming skills with some soft skills as well. Technology is a fast path (faster than being a lawyer or a doctor) to improve an entire family’s life. Companies like GBM, Microsoft and IBM are already on board with this idea, and we are trying to convince the government. We’re trying to engage with the government to put out a country wide program.
In parallel, we need to keep helping the companies improve, help them go through this digital transformation. We sit down with businesses and see what they can digitize, how we can help them improve their processes, which ones to keep, and which ones we can automatize, and how they can use technology to improve their businesses as a whole. We’re very focused on that in all industries, from banking to manufacturing to distribution and more. We are going to keep building these excellence centers in Costa Rica and Colombia, where we can also find a lot of talent.
In addition to the company’s connection to North America, GBM currently has a presence in eight other countries across Central America and the Caribbean, including Costa Rica.
We serve nine countries. We serve Central American countries like Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Dominican Republic, and those are our main countries. In our contract with IBM, we also serve Belize and Haiti, but we don’t have offices there. We serve Belize from Honduras, and we serve Haiti from the Dominican Republic. Then we have an office in Miami; we use it to sell Lenovo to the Caribbean and for logistical reasons, and we started a few years ago with operations in Colombia. Colombia will be our 10th or 11th country.
What are your plans for expanding your commercial presence, growing your distribution network, and crafting new collaborations and partnerships? Which markets are you prioritizing?
You can grow in two ways: expanding into new territories like we are doing in Colombia, or you can grow by adding new products and services to the current portfolio. For example, we just opened a consulting practice to help companies in their digital transformation journey. We also opened a cybersecurity center which has grown 200 percent more than what we expected in only a year of operations. GBM is becoming a very big company and we keep on expanding our IT services. We are really focusing on that, and we are trying to grow in an intelligent way.
This year the Costa Rican government has battled a series of unprecedented and disabling cyber-attacks against nearly 30 government institutions. Could you share your views on the national efforts to reinforce the country’s cybersecurity, and what opportunities for collaboration does cybersecurity mean for industry players like GBM Corporation?
A big part of IT security comes from education. Educating the customers is key, as most attacks today start with a human error. For example, somebody clicking on the wrong link because they were not trained and not warned. Education is a big part of IT. The other important subject is availability: to have our services available for our customers. GBM has already a department dedicated fully to cybersecurity, and we have the cybersecurity center in Guatemala from where we can monitor all the security for all the customers that want the service. And lastly, you also have to have the right alliances. We have partners such as IBM, CISCO, Microsoft and many more, because no company has 100 percent of the right solutions or answers to the clients’ problems. As GBM, we sit down with our clients to understand their needs. After that we design, with the help of our partners, the solution and pick the best products and services for that. Regarding cybersecurity, even if we have the right security architecture in place, and even if we educate the people, the right approach is always “trust no one.”
We have been working with many public ministries and institutions in Costa Rica. Cybersecurity is all about having the right architecture, the right processes, the right education, having somebody monitor your security, somebody that doesn’t sleep, that is always watching your company so that it doesn´t get hacked. In our cybersecurity center we use a lot of artificial intelligence, big data and modern technology solutions, so we have a lot of information and people to take action very quickly.
Now that the customers are going to the cloud, the cloud is more dangerous than the on-site. It is very unsecure and as the security tools get better, the hackers get better too. You need to keep improving the processes, the education and the tools. If you want to go digital, you need to spend money on cybersecurity. It wasn’t an expense before, but now it is; like insurance, like paying electricity. You cannot do business without good security. These attacks are very extreme and can cost huge amounts of money, so it is better to invest upfront to prevent them.
According to the World Bank, ICT service exports in Costa Rica reached 16 percent in 2021. The country has long consolidated itself as the regional leader and a trade hub of tech and IT services and is at the forefront of emerging global trends today. What would you say are the main trends, challenges, and opportunities in the sector at present, and how does a group like GBM come into play?
The big opportunity is nearshoring. A lot of nearshoring is going to come to Costa Rica, and I believe it is going to be mostly for our software services, software factories, IT managed service centers, and more. Companies like GBM have to build the structures, training, certifications, personnel, service, etc. for those American companies to have what they are looking for. As a country, we need to do a better job of producing more engineers, more programmers. Unfortunately, because we are not producing enough people, IT engineers are just getting better offers, and the market is becoming a little bit expensive salary wise.
If we want to be successful as a country, we need to fix that. We must make a country wide effort to produce all the manpower that all these U.S. corporations are going to look for in IT. I think we are producing half of what the market needs. If salaries keep increasing because of the scarcity of human resources and talent, then competition between IT companies will increase and, eventually, they will go someplace else if Costa Rica is too expensive. They may go to Colombia, which is becoming very attractive because they just had a devaluation of almost 30 percent, so the salaries in Colombia are very cheap now. Therefore, it must be a country wide effort. It cannot be just GBM or IBM or Microsoft alone. Costa Rica has the name, the reputation, and the IT companies have the personnel, the knowledge, the basis. Costa Rica started investing in labs for education around 30 years ago, with Fundación Omar Dengo and Ministerio de Educación. There are about 3,000 labs in schools here, so we have kids at a very young age with exposure to technology. We just have to take those kids and teach them English, programming languages like Python, Java or any other, and they will get a job very fast.
What is your strategy for promoting GBM’s brand reputation and image both regionally and globally?
Our strategy is to become the partner that business companies need to run their IT. All our product and service portfolio are defined in order to support all their IT needs. The idea is for them to let us run their IT, so they can add real value to their clients, by dedicating their time and energy to innovate and run their core business. We can manage their IT cheaper, faster and better, 24/7 and 365 days a year, in a very secure way. That’s our strategy and we have been very successful by doing that. We manage a lot of systems from different companies in different industries like banks, government, manufacturing and more.
The idea is to continue building better services and be more affordable. We started at the tip of the pyramid, with big companies, big banks and big government institutions.
We are also very focused on trying to help companies migrate to the cloud, but in a secure, smart way with better architecture. It’s not just moving stuff up there; we are trying to help customers build a better IT architecture the smart way. A lot of people want to move some of their systems to the cloud, but instead of moving the whole system, they are also building new ones in the cloud (what is called “cloud native”). They were not migrated, they were born in the cloud, so that’s very different technology, very different architectures, and we are creating a lot of services for that. We can help companies migrate to the cloud, from zero, and even in a hybrid way. We know both worlds (cloud and on premises), so we can help companies build that hybrid architecture, which we are already doing for many companies.
That is what differentiates GBM today: you have the hardware vendors on one side and consulting firms on the other side. The hardware vendors don’t know a lot of consulting and the consulting firms don’t know a lot about hardware. We are both merged into one and with a lot of added value. The idea is to build the end-to-end IT process for companies, and that is what we do. We can do the consulting, the solutions architecture, we can build, and we can even manage everything regarding IT.
We are a company that evolves, hand in hand, with great strategic partners who have trusted our work. Our exclusive alliance with IBM and strategic work with world-class companies such as Lenovo, CISCO, SAP, and Microsoft, among others, allows us to provide our clients with business solutions based on industry trends. The foregoing, coupled with our principle of continuous training for our staff, allows us to offer and maintain a level of excellence in the delivery and support of each of the solutions we provide.
At GBM we focus on providing adequate solutions to our clients according to their needs. That is why one of our differentiators is the advice and support that we provide from the beginning to the end of the service, with the aim of making them feel supported in their decisions. In addition, our portfolio has been adapting to your requirements, which is why innovative solutions and products have been developed that can provide a great experience to your internal and external customers.
As GBM continues to cement itself as the leading IT company in Costa Rica, what would you say are your key priorities for the next 3-5 years?
Again, build better services, cheaper and more available for the whole market. Today, we are trying to extend our high end, premium services to smaller companies, probably not with the same scope, but with the same purpose. We are trying to become a more reliable company. That is why we invest in processes and certifications, because when you are running somebody else’s systems, you have to be perfect. You cannot fail. You have to be 100% because mistakes are more acceptable for a client. When you have an outsourcing contract and you are external, there is zero acceptance for any mistake. You cannot be reactive, you have to be proactive, and you have to act before anything happens.
What is your final message to the readers of Newsweek?
Costa Rica is a great country to hire or contract services. We have good people. I think that if we as a country produce more programmers and more companies like GBM, we can really bring all the services that the American market is looking for. There are a lot of American companies already here. There is a big opportunity for software factories in Costa Rica, for call centers, for support centers, and I think this country can really serve those markets.
What makes our country and our company different is the people. Our GBM workforce is one with knowledge, professional skills, but also many important values such as courage, discipline, constant improvement, teamwork, transparency and a lot of passion. Our collaborators are a fundamental asset to achieve each of our objectives. The dedication, constant improvement and passion of our country´s people are an incomparable element in the market.