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Strategy through execution amid disruption

In advising Asean clients to deal with change, PwC gets down to the nuts and bolts of business, experience and technology

'Our consultants are helping clients in Asean transform in the midst of disruption by providing perspectives on amazing user experiences alongside effective business strategies and emerging technologies.' - Sundara Raj, CEO and markets leader of PwC's South East Asian consulting services.

TALKING to Sundara Raj, chief executive officer and markets leader of PwC's South East Asian consulting services, allows one to peek at the latest forces driving the region's largest corporates. In Vietnam, a telco is trying to link its back-end systems with a Web-based payments gateway. A regional financial services giant wants to reach out directly to customers through digital platforms. "Disruption in Asean is very real, driven by increased urbanisation and global technological trends," says Mr Raj. "Whether it is a mature business in Singapore or a growing business in Indonesia, the desire from our clients is the same: I want exponential growth and want to leapfrog where I can."

PwC assists its clients from strategy through execution by bringing its methodology of business, experience and technology to life - what it dubs BXT. "Our consultants are helping clients in Asean transform in the midst of disruption by providing perspectives on amazing user experiences alongside effective business strategies and emerging technologies," Mr Raj says.

Understanding the heart of business

Mr Raj however emphasises that any business change starts with deep questions of how it views and conducts itself, and what is its purpose. For example, some of the biggest stresses wrought by technology fall on financial services firms. They also have to deal with increased regulatory pressures, he says.

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"These stresses go all the way up to the board level. Board members find their role much more onerous than before," Mr Raj says. Boards therefore need to understand various risks, deal with anti-money laundering regulations and cyber security threats.

To deal with these challenges, he advises clients to "really know their business". "It's clichéd but really true. Once you understand the heart of your business and concurrently consider the perspectives of BXT, boards will be able to discharge their duties more effectively," Mr Raj says.

Regional reach, local presence

Apart from the BXT philosophy, what is also notable about PwC's South East Asian consulting business, says Mr Raj, is that its regional nature and territory presence is embedded in the way it is organised. This strengthens its execution capabilities, he says.

Previously, PwC's South East Asian consulting businesses were self-contained in each territory. In 2013, the firm put in place a South East Asia regional structure, and in a couple of years merged this regional consulting business with Australia and New Zealand.

The strength of the regional structure is derived from consulting teams being on the ground and closely connected with clients, he says. "For example, the local teams in Thailand speak Thai and can readily relate to specific client needs, compared to someone who just flies in and out."

PwC can tap on its global network of consultants to bring in best practices. Yet what is also important in Asean is how it aims to develop country and culturally centric solutions.

For the Vietnamese telco, while PwC could have easily ported over models that already worked well abroad, it did not. Instead, consultants analysed the telco's customer base and found unique patterns in how consumers spent time on the Internet.

PwC then tailored the user experience to a Vietnamese population. For example, during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, the client could push out offers that relate specifically to the holiday season.

Humility despite growth

The firm espouses valuable traits in the consulting world: Humility and Integrity. "We realise we can't do everything from strategy to execution in areas where others have distinct capabilities. So we tie up with them where appropriate. Humility is important," Mr Raj says.

PwC is not averse to working jointly with other organisations such as enterprise applications giants like SAP, e-commerce firms like Amazon, or tech companies like Google, in what PwC terms as alliances.

"We have alliances with many big players. For example, if we do an enterprise applications (EA) rollout, we may work with established EA solution providers," Mr Raj says.

In 2014, PwC also acquired consultant Booz & Company which is today known as Strategy&. The move significantly strengthened its ability to drive strategy through execution, Mr Raj says.

"If you go in with arrogance, you will fall flat on your face. So we occasionally tell ourselves that our clients know better than us and we should listen and learn from them." This philosophy comes even as PwC's consulting business in South East Asia expanded significantly in recent years. Revenues have more than doubled since 2013, growing at a double-digit percentage clip every year. Headcount has also grown significantly.

Looking ahead, Mr Raj says PwC will set up more of what it calls "impact centres" in Asean. These are essentially centres of excellence where the firm brings together specialists, infrastructure and knowledge to serve clients across the region. The cybersecurity and analytics impact centres in Singapore do just that.

Additionally, a global intelligence centre of excellence is based in Kuala Lumpur which allows due diligence to be done on client's business partners. There are also plans to expand PwC's "experience centres" in the region, which brings PwC's BXT methodology to life.

"Say the sales and marketing department of a bank wants to sell new wealth products. We can bring them to the experience centre, talk about segments, bring up relevant data, and test the user experience for apps developed for customers, all in one destination."

His biggest mission is to ensure PwC's consulting business is relevant to its clients. That can only be achieved by being close to the ground, understanding disruptive trends and keeping up with client demands.

"Consulting is a people business and my job is to make sure our people are highly skilled, energised and are able to relate to Asean's business and cultural diversity in order to bring the best to our clients in a region full of opportunities," he says. "What motivates me is driving value for clients, and watching our people's careers grow."