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George Thomas is the founder and managing director of Pinnacle Computer Systems in Dubai. Jake Badger for The National
George Thomas is the founder and managing director of Pinnacle Computer Systems in Dubai. Jake Badger for The National

Sharp-edged compassion

The Life: George Thomas, the founder of Pinnacle Computer Systems, is thought of by his peers as being compassionate. But after 18 years in business, there is surely a smidge of ruthlessness too.

Propped up against the wall of George Thomas's office on top of a pile of folders sits a framed scalpel. Beneath the instrument reads the caption "Ruthless compassion."

"My business coach gave me this," says Mr Thomas, the managing director of Pinnacle Computer Systems in Dubai. "He knows I am all about the compassion and he wanted to bring [out] the ruthlessness."

Mr Thomas founded Pinnacle 18 years ago and has since weathered many ups and downs, even managing to retain all his staff and grow the business after the economic downturn of 2008, when so many other companies foundered. But he had inspiration.

Mr Thomas's parents were among the early wave of expatriates from India to settle in Dubai. They founded their own contracting company in 1977 and after finishing his bachelor's degree in engineering in Bangalore, Mr Thomas joined them in the Emirates and started work as a systems analyst. After two years he went to the UK to do a masters in computer science, later gaining an MBA from Cardiff University and returning to the UAE and systems analyst work. Then he decided to tweak his career path.

"I changed my career to be an IT networking engineer," he says, adding that he became one of the first certified Novell engineers in the Middle East. In 1995, he left his job to start up Pinnacle with only three members of staff.

Having had entrepreneurial parents who blazed a trail of their own, Mr Thomas found it relatively easy to navigate the complexities of setting up a business in Dubai. He was also fortunate to receive seed money from his father - and over the course of the next 13 years could rely on his parents' financial backing whenever there were cash flow problems. His father "cut off the pipeline" five years ago and Mr Thomas now visits the bank when he needs credit - although he does this only after careful consideration, he says.

The trickiest aspect of starting up his business was altering his way of thinking.

"My mind was that of an engineer, not a business person," he recalls. "I get my kick out of solving a customer's problem and the paperwork can wait until later, so that had to change."

This has been an ongoing challenge and Mr Thomas admits he is "still not yet there". But he is able to rely on a good business network and a community of fellow entrepreneurs, and they challenge and encourage each other to perform better.

It is important "to keep that learning mentality," he says. His coach, Rajesh Nagjee has been with Pinnacle for more than a year, and it's not just the top management that benefits from coaching but all 50 members of staff.

Mr Thomas appreciates the value of having a good team.

"It's also about having the right people under you," he says. "I don't have certain skills but the next layer compensates for it. Then the net effect can be magic."

The businessman stuck by his team during the 2008 recession and kept everyone on during tough times. "We somehow managed to keep the people," he says.

But that compassion perhaps conceals a more hard-nosed business rationale.

Firing people then "taking people on again then retraining them - that would have been a lot of pain there," he admits. "Retaining the people - that was something that worked for us."

After expanding the business through the recession - in what he describes as "steady growth" rather than "big leaps" - Mr Thomas is now looking at other ways to grow Pinnacle. His deputy looks after the day-to-day running of operations while he looks after business development. He wants to move the company away from hardware provision, which he says is low margin, and is looking for more high-margin opportunities.

His other project is Pinnacle Vidya, a staff-wide initiative to provide education for 1,000 underprivileged children in India and Africa by 2018.

"We haven't started it," he says. "Plans are in place. It will evolve over time."

Ruthless compassion. Perhaps it is a formula that works.

 

lgutcher@thenational.ae

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