By Barnaby Chesterman
Muhammad Al Goheer made a lot of noise in Pakistan and Australia as an IT whizz-kid who was in hot demand. Now he’s turned his attention to the Middle East, and he wants everyone to hear him roar.
Muhammad Al Goheer made a lot of noise in Pakistan and Australia as an IT whizz-kid who was in hot demand. Now he's turned his attention to the Middle East, and he wants everyone to hear him roar.
When you look at this 21st century techno-yachtsman relaxing in the summer sun by Jumeirah Beach, it’s hard to picture him as the GM of one of the youngest and most dynamic start-ups in the Middle East.
It’s harder still to imagine that he wanted to be a fighter pilot, his family calls him Jerry Lewis and he has a friend called Mickey Mouse, but more of that later.
For starters, that’s not even his boat, it’s just a photo-shoot set-up. The laptop’s not actually on and he doesn’t normally work outside in shorts and sandals.
He’s actually a busy executive whose company is launching at Gitex 2000 with the view to becoming the regional IT services leader in three years time.
Muhammad Al Goheer is one of the youngest general managers in the region at just 25 years old, but his company, Millexell Middle East FZ LLC is backed by one of the largest groups of companies in Saudi Arabia, HAK Algahtani.
He’s come a long way since finishing school in 1993 and joining the Air Force in Islamabad where he was born and bred. Al Goheer’s uncle had been a pilot and he always wanted to be a fighter pilot. As a boy he dreamed of flying an F16. But his eyesight wasn’t up to scratch and he didn’t make it.
Al Goheer was forced to join the ground field staff and studied aeronautical engineering for a year. But never one to be the errand boy, Al Goheer wasn’t prepared to stick with it as the ground staff were never the ones likely to make it to the top.
The chief of staff position was always filled by an ex-pilot. He wasn’t about to take a back seat role; it was Hollywood or bust for him.
He left the Air Force and started studying economics, but soon became bored and switched to Computer Sciences at the National College of Computer Sciences in his home city.
Until then computer science had been his hobby, but that was the point his life changed and he took his first step on his path of destiny.
In 1995 he won the all-Pakistan software competition in the student category with a package he designed and named ‘Cyberpunks of Cyberspace.’
“I just picked up the name Cyberpunks from the Billy Idol album,” says Al Goheer. There was no particular reason for the name, he just liked it.
The programme was a fake mail simulator. A type of auto e-mail responder, it could read e-mails on your computer, allowing you to access these when away by sending it an e-mail.
That was a great achievement for a first-year university student, but Al Goheer had bigger fish to fry.
The next year he won the professionals category in the all-Pakistan software competition, having set up a one-man company specifically to allow him to participate at the higher level.
He was competing against genuine teams of employed software developers, but he beat them all.
“At that time I developed a 32-bit programme for Windows 95. I developed a communications suite that had a modem connector, a modem dial-up, a fax receiver and an Internet browser with a Java plug-in,” he says. He had to get special permission from Sun Microsystems to use the Java plug-in as it was still in development.
He was a pioneer member of the Internet society of Pakistan and set up the first Web server ever installed in Pakistan, called Paknet. It was done in collaboration with Apollo Telecom and it was at that point that Al Goheer became known as The Lion King over the Net. That was when he met Mickey Mouse and the two set up PakNet together.
Quite why Apollo Telecom decided to entrust a major project to a duo known as Mickey Mouse and The Lion King, is something of a mystery. But then again, it’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world.
Towards the end of his Bachelor’s degree course, Al Goheer had set up his own consultancy, almost completely by chance. When advertising his old 486 to help fund a new Pentium 100 laptop, he ended up selling it to the son of the coordinator for the Anti-drugs Liaison Office for the five Scandinavian countries in Pakistan.
The boy twice broke the computer soon after buying it, but Al Goheer fixed it for free both times. This led to being asked to fix a problem in the Norwegian embassy.
They wanted to hire him but he was still studying, so they employed him on an hourly rate whenever they had a problem.
From there Al Goheer was also called up by the Swedish and Irish embassies, the Russian Information Agency, Chinese Radio and even the French ambassador called him up to solve problems his wife was having with her home PC.
His father had invested the family jewels in him and now he was earning three-times his father’s wage. Al Goheer was living it up.
“I had bought my own car and my own mobile phone. In Pakistan they were very expensive and considered a luxury. But for me it was a necessity because I had to move around to conduct all this business,” he says.
He got his consultancy off the ground and called it Gulead International, which stood for Goheer’s Ultimate Lead. He was the toast of the town and was in the national newspapers and interviewed on national television.
The headlines were screaming ‘Muhammad Al Goheer, the Lion King, is the whiz-kid of Pakistan and wants to be the next Bill Gates.’
“I didn’t really want to be the new Bill Gates but this woman suggested it on TV so I just agreed,” he says. “That got me into good circles and people started taking me seriously.”
Pakistan is a very age-conscious society and you normally need 20 years experience before anyone would consider giving you a manager’s job. But Al Goheer proved you’re never too young and was in hot demand all over the city. “I was doing really well at that time, but then I left all that,” he says.
He had wanted to study abroad after completing his Bachelor’s and so moved to Australia to take a Masters in Information Technology at the University of Western Sydney. After a few quiet months just studying, it was all go for Al Goheer in Australia.
He set an all-time university record by achieving four high distinctions in his first semester. “The thing was,” he says, “I was in a new country and didn’t have many friends. The computers interested me; the hi-fi equipment in the labs fascinated me so much that I would sit in the libraries and read books all day and I would spend nights in the lab and then take classes the next morning before going back home to sleep. Days were nights and nights were days and sometimes I slept in the lab.”
He was like the nutty professor and even bought a sleeping bag to keep in his lab for those quite moments when he could catch 40 winks. His success was duly noted and the University asked him to run their Customer Service Centre.
Two months later he was promoted to IT manager, but it wasn’t long before bigger fish were eying him up.
The Commonwealth Bank of Australia was looking for a Web developer to take up its Internet banking project because the present manager was leaving half way through.
Al Goheer was offered the job and saw the project through to fruition, setting up the Bank online to provide services to its customers.
He lasted just eight months before the Ministry of Finance and Science and Technology picked him up and he joined them as their IT manager.
He restructured the whole IT department and stayed there for about a year and a half before he tired of the general running of the department.
“It was boring stuff just handling the MIS [management information systems] department for them. So I decided it was time to move on,” said Al Goheer.
In May 1999 he sent his resume to the top 10 groups of companies in the Middle East. He wrote personal letters to the CEOs and almost immediately he received a call from the HAK Algahtani Group.
“The president spoke to me and said, ‘you’re not going anywhere else, you’re coming here. I want you here. We want someone to clear up the mess.’ So I said fine and decided right then to go there,” says Al Goheer.
It took four months to move to Saudi Arabia because of the bureaucracy and difficulties in obtaining a visa, but Al Goheer didn’t waste the interim period.
He contacted several universities in Singapore and Pakistan and held one-day workgroups and seminars for final year students to give them some first hand knowledge of what to expect from the market.
When he joined HAK he centralised its MIS department and created an efficient system to run it.
Then he proposed Millexell Technologies. “This is my baby, my brainchild. I’ve been thinking about this and working on it since I was in Australia. I thought if I don’t get a job then I’ll start my own company. Now I have the backing of HAK Algahtani Group, which is even better. Millexell would not have been on this scale without the financial support from HAK.”
Millexell is the first company in the HAK Group to be based outside Saudi Arabia.
It’s part of a new strategy by HAK to move 40% of its business outside Saudi Arabia into other Arabic countries.
Millexell is launching at Gitex in October 2000 and will then move into DIC when it opens on November 1.
Currently, the company is operating out of Al Goheer’s apartment on Sheikh Zayed Road. It’s a small apartment but the kitchen doubles up as a store-room and his secretary’s room. His living room houses the majority of his staff and his bedroom is his office.
Al Goheer decided on DIC because he thought it would be the hub for IT business in the Middle East. And he has big plans for Millexell and wants to push the business forward. He can’t wait to make Millexell the sultans of swing in the Middle East.
“I’m never going to stop,” he said. “When I’m 175 years old I’ll still be working. I’m not retiring. Millexell is going to be the regional leader in IT in three years time. In 2003 you will know the blue chip [on the company’s logo] and the M [for Millexell]. Everyone will close their eyes and they will know Millexell and what it is doing.”
Al Goheer has found his spiritual home and he isn’t planning to move on. He never stayed long in any job as there was always a new challenge to occupy him, but now he feels Milexell can satisfy his every need.
“If I want to go any further I can use this as my base,” he says. “In 2003 it will be the regional leader in all 18 Arabic countries and we will have 500+ people working here. We are going to be the big leader. I’m going to make that happen, and it will happen.”
Jerry Lewis was the King of comedy. The Lion King was King of the jungle. Al Goheer wants to be the King of IT. And just like the young Simba, he can’t wait to be King.