US companies excel at exporting their concepts around the world, as many global high streets now illustrate. But in an underdeveloped part of Spain, some local entrepreneurs have imported a US concept and are putting their own Spanish spin on it, with an astonishing success rate.
Polaris World, which comprises more than 60 different companies, was set up to transform acres of agricultural land in Murcia, Spain into one of the largest residential developments in Europe. It was based originally on the American retirement resort development concept.
Polaris World is using American golfing icon Jack Nicklaus as front man and course designer for the golfing element of the organisation but there is a great deal more than golf to this company. It has grown around a little village, created by a dynamic team of local businessmen and is based about 30 km from the City of Murcia itself.
The region of Murcia already has around 80,000 companies operating there and is now one of the most dynamic regions in Spain. In the last five years it has contributed more to Spain’s GDP (3.7 per cent last year) than any other area.
Local builder Fucundo Armero and engineering specialist Pedro Garcia are behind the company. Garcia had been working with an engineering company in the US and was impressed with the resorts he saw in California. He wanted to create a similar environment to the US concept but to adapt it for Murcia, so that it caters both for the local people who live there, as well as foreign visitors. The first project was a development called Mar Menor. Francisco Sardina Costa, deputy general director of the organisation comments: “Both men are self made, Pedro developed the idea because he had previous experience and knew how to convert the concept to reality.
“Essentially Polaris World delivers the US model to a far bigger target market. It includes onsite services like hotels, cleaning, filling the fridge, day-care and medical services – not randomly but all built and planned together. The organisations providing those services are subsidiaries of Polaris World.”
Taking a company from zero to a 600 million euro turnover in four years is a pretty heroic feat and usually associated with teenagers putting together an online winner then selling it to the likes of Google or Amazon for an amazing amount of money. It is not one usually associated with the construction industry, hardly known for its aggressive growth, forward thinking and innovative use of IT. But then Polaris World argues that it is not a construction company at all but a collection of more than 60 organisations designed to develop the region of Murcia.
For the IT function at Polaris World, there are two main priorities: supporting the varied subsidiary companies; and managing the systems in the face of extremely fast growth. Francisco JosÈ Salinas S·nchez, CIO of Polaris World, believes his biggest challenge is keeping up with the constant and fast growth of the company and making sure 200 odd projects stay on track. “The company is growing so fast. We are thinking ahead and trying to grow the IT with it. Business is driving the IT and the function is managed as a business, so aligning IT with the business direction is critical. If not you crash,” says Salinas. “The main Polaris World datacentre is quite heterogeneous. It takes into account the fact that Polaris has different companies that offer different services. These range from the building and sale of properties and golf courses to services for residents of our resorts, like gardening, telecommunications, health services, cleaning services, hotels, travel agencies and restaurants,” says Salinas.
“For this reason, we have Intel servers with Linux Red Hat Advanced Server, Microsoft Windows and Unix-Solaris UltraSparc IV servers.” When Salinas began working for Polaris in August 2002 the company had only a small server and a network of about 10 PCs. He had been working as a Capgemini consultant with another local company and specialised in Oracle. At the time the company needed to decide on and implement a stable ERP system that would be able to cope with its rapid growth. Salinas considered SAP, Oracle and Navision, before opting for the Oracle option.
The IT function provides central support to the whole group’s information systems, procurement and its constantly growing user base. It does this in conjunction with Polaris World Telecom, which handles internet and telecoms support for the company’s back office operations, its residents, customers and partners.
Bringing IT home
At the beginning of implementing the ERP system, Salinas says Polaris World used consultants and outsourced development work but gradually began to take work back inhouse as they gained the skills sets they needed. The IT function has a team of 25, and depends on a mixed skills set. “We have a range of inhouse skills – systems, technical and administration,” says Salinas. “Although SAP predominated at first, we found Oracle was more flexible, and we had more skills in both managing those systems and in the development work.” Polaris World now has a single integrated database function for more than 30 companies and some of those have very different needs, according to Salinas.
“At present, we are implementing a process of centralisation and virtualisation with the acquisition of IBM Blades and storage cabins, and VMWare. Obviously, we have the usual IT elements that any company has such as LAN servers, anti-virus servers, Proxy servers, web, FTP, email, broadband managers, load balancers and firewall systems. We also manage Veritas NetBackup, which has got us out of a dangerous situation more than once. All offices are connected to the central office, so the maintenance of servers is an easier job than when it was a distributed network.”
Polaris World is included as an Oracle global customer reference and uses the ERP Oracle E-Business Suite as a base for all sales and financial information.
“We live very near the Oracle Fusion Project,” says Salinas. “This is more than the simple integration of Siebel, Peoplesoft and Oracle. We hope that Oracle will develop a truly advanced product with the latest and most advanced technology.”
Salinas says the IT function is run as a business with different parts of the corporation putting in their systems requirements to IT. “We try to budget IT for each company, like Polaris World Garden or some of the retail companies. Each business has its own IT service manager and they review projects the business needs and put in place a budget for the development. One systems technician looks after the individual servers and the relationship with the main systems. It would be the same for whichever company. For some, the sales elements are not necessary, PW hotels for example. But they will have one person assigned to them who specialises in its needs. It works better for that company and the IT,” he says.
Like many IT directors, Salinas’ biggest challenge is keeping up to speed with the changes the business is undergoing.
“We have many meetings with the general director to find out what he is doing next. If there are project delays it affects the whole company.”
The 200 projects the IT operation is working on include mirroring the datacentre, unifying the call centres and building a datawarehouse for a business intelligence implementation.
The IT operation is also implementing Oracle HR, which will unify all employees and customer data, as well as creating a dashboard of sales for all the companies so that senior managers can see at a glance what is going on across the board. “We are keen to keep standard systems not only in IT but also to use standard definitions and avoid any organic growth problems,” he says. “We have an important goal of being able to measure everything – the time to purchase; time to deliver; availability to refresh company data every 15 minutes; and to measure the availability of the corporate intranet. It is all about availability, scalability and future proofing. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel but use standard methodologies like ITIL to achieve our goals.”
As the organisation and its IT operation grow, Salinas is keen to recruit the best skilled staff in the region. He is working with the historic University of Murcia to develop IT engineers by investing in project innovation and development in the IT engineering faculty. “We have invested in several projects there, which has produced a high return for us and it is a good source of recruitment. The University is excellent,” says Salinas.
Murcia is now a thriving economic region of Spain and there is an excellent cross-cultural exchange in the area, brought about in part by its fast economic growth and the University. “The people are young and very open to this project,” says Javier Navarro Vazquez, international commercial director.
“We are not creating ghettos of different nationalities at Polaris World but a true mixture of cultures and interests. It illustrates how far the Spanish economy has grown and how fast it continues to grow.”
It may have begun as an American concept but the next five to 10 years will see Polaris World continue to grow. After that the companies that support the residential areas will take on the economic mantle.
“Murcia will continue to be industrially active, and we will be encouraging different activities, with new lines like Home Style, establishing solar power and doing any number of things to serve needs of the company, partners and the region. It will become a trading emporium for the Murcia area and create an environment that will continue to flourish once all the building has been completed,” Navarro adds.