By Emma Procter
For nearly 30 years, Dubai’s Centena Group has been a leader in the engineering, development, application and transformation of cutting-edge technology into innovative products and services. And it has won plaudits too – including being named one of Dubai's top small and medium enterprises at the Dubai SME 100 Awards 2015.
But it’s a success story that could easily have not happened if fate hadn’t stepped in.
The group’s chairman and managing director Sanjay Raghunath said the company’s very existence was down to him being in the right place, at the right time back in 1995 when, as an Indian management graduate with an IT background, he was living in Dubai and setting up an identification company.
“I was busy working when I happened to meet the founder of Maritronics – a marine electronics sales and service operation – on a sales call, and we got chatting,” he recalled. “In fact, I ended up marrying his daughter and so it was just by chance we brought both our businesses together.”
At that time Maritronics was a small company primarily into servicing large, ocean-going vessels and Raghunath admits the maritime industry was completely alien to him then. But he had other skills to bring to the table. “My strength was finance and marketing and Maritronics needed some financial restructuring – so in that sense it was a good time for us to join forces,” he said.
The pivotal moment came in 2001 with the decision to expand operations and actually market the products they were servicing – under the name Centena. Maritronics became a division of the group, maintaining its flagship status. Centena was to provide support services, and become the umbrella company, which holds investments for the group’s individual companies, providing full support including IT, HR and finance.
The expertise the company acquired in business operations as well as in technology meant it could expand into applications in other fields and industries than maritime. Centena spread into life and analytical science applications – notably for the oil and gas sector – industrial control automation, identification and security, and educational and training systems. Administered within the group, these operations were run under Emphor, Tensosys, ScreenCheck and Atlab companies.
A brave new world opened up after this as they quickly built a respected name for innovation.
Molding the next generation of thinkers
Interestingly, Centena has seen a lot of success in the education business too, and it is an area they are rightly proud of. They added it to their portfolio about three years ago on the back of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice-president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai’s Expo 2020 vision of creating a first-rate education system in the emirate. “It is experimental, hands-on learning,” explained Raghunath.
“These are fun-based systems for schools, colleges and vocational training centers, and include innovative ways of imparting knowledge.”
The education side of things is branded under Atlab. It strives to offer hands-on training and lab solutions to help students more easily get to grips – literally – with technical systems and scientific equipment, and in shorter time frames.
“We are moving away from the idea of kids just learning things through repetition and memorizing facts, as this curtails their creativity,” said Raghunath. “We favor involved learning where they get to try things out for themselves and experiment. We are looking to help them be innovators.”
From small acorns…
Beginning with just a handful of original workers back in the 90’s, Centena has bourgeoned into a team of around 200 employees. “Our growth is very much people-centric,” said Raghunath – who advocates a cautiously ambitious approach for SMEs.
“Our business model has always been [to] consolidate, diversify, expand, and then integrate. Which means we are always one foot on the ground and one foot up – we don’t leap with both feet. We have had an ambitious yet cautious approach to growth.”
The keyword here is perhaps diversification – and has undoubtedly been central to Centena’s success, allowing as it has the group to reach long-range financial goals, while minimizing risk.
Smart thinking in an era where nothing is guaranteed on the economic stage.