Founder-CEO Interview Series

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Alex Zarrabi

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Alex is CEO of Touchless Biometric Systems (TBS), the world technology leader in biometrics for access control and time & attendance. TBS holds multiple patents, including that of the unique and multi-awarded 3D touchless benchmarked by the EU as the highest accuracy fingerprint globally since 2010.

Founder-CEO Interview Series

With: Alex Zarrabi

What made you decide to join TBS?

I wanted to take on the challenge to help the company become a world leader in its specific niche of biometric technology alongside a team that I deem amazing – their can-do attitude, the great collaboration and above all, they are just nice people, as human beings.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced and how have you overcome them?

Making the company profitable was the first challenge. The second challenge was sustaining a high technology innovation pace with a limited number of employees. High-tech is all about resource allocation. That sums up the core challenge.

Managing to produce the most versatile platform with a team that is far smaller than our competitors is the art. We could achieve this through a very flat and empowered staff structure, putting the team achievement first, and allowing for mistakes to be made.

We need to be ahead of the curve, that is a necessity for a Swiss company because we live from innovation.

Tell me about some of the highlights so far.

In 2019 we could assert that we are, in our niche, the technology leader. That was an important step. Reaching profitability for a young company and receiving awards from the FBI/IARPA and the EU were also highlights.

Commercially, protecting some of world’s largest or most critical projects like nuclear power plants, key US government premises, airports or nation-wide projects also put us in a special league. Another commercial highlight was signing a global agreement with Siemens for 80+ countries.

Best and worst part of being a CEO?

The best part is having the opportunity with the team to make a positive impact on lives. For instance, I care for ethics in our society. So, we coined the term “Responsible Biometrics” and are creating likely the most advanced technology on the market to protect citizens’ privacy in a world increasingly dependent on biometrics. It’s also a wonderful privilege to be in a position to guide and influence talents and see them grow and flourish.

The worst part is that for some challenges, you cannot rely on anyone else to help with the burden. You must do it yourself by spending long nights and weekends at it. Most of the time no one notices that you’ve fixed the problem. They say good management is when it looks like a company doesn’t need management.

As CEO, you act as a glue, to create cohesion between different groups of people, be it investors, customers or different parts of the team, and to ensure full adherence from all stakeholders. You need to think well and build a message that is absolutely agreeable to everyone. It’s an art of compromise.  If things are done well, it should look obvious to everyone. The best reward is the team’s success.

We reduced our plastic content in shipments by 99% last year to protect the environment. A modern company must act responsibly in many ways.

What does a typical day look like for you?

First is ensuring everything is under control through different channels. I then attend to any urgent matters.

There used to be a lot of travel, which is now replaced by many conference calls. Aside the daily matters to attend, I spend quite some time pondering where we will go 2-3 years ahead and instill it in my actions today. I look at everything through that prism, it is key to team alignment.

There is also communication with the team. It is very important to understand what the team is doing and make them feel my appreciation for their contributions through regular feedback.

Can you elaborate more on thinking ahead?

One aspect is the solution and the value that we are proposing to partners and end-users.

Another is how to create value for the shareholders in terms of the growth of the company, the areas we want to go into, and decide where we need to add more resources.

Finally, trying to foresee how different markets will respond in the next years, what they will want and prepare to supply this on time. We need to be ahead of the curve, that is a necessity for a Swiss company because we live from innovation. Ideas come from everyone, they grow stronger as we discuss them together, so the thinking process itself involves teamwork.

As an example, we foresaw the extension of biometrics usage to various management applications, and today, we enable restaurants on national scale to manage their workforce.

What are some early career experiences that have helped you become successful in your current role?

I started my career as an engineer. A project came from a part of the world where we had no salesperson. Instead of declining, I stayed at the office the whole night, prepared a file and went to the management with a solution that would be in the company’s interest. They accepted my proposal and I moved into a successful sales/business development career.

It proved that aligning personal and company interest is a win for everyone, and I started thinking as a business owner long before being a CEO or founding my own company. Putting the common interest first goes a long way.

I learnt that as a leader, no matter how high I will one day sit, I must remain open to all opinions, for others might see vital parameters invisible to me.

Where do you get your energy from? 

There are so many rewards, creating together solutions for a free and less invasive future for our children, being a world leader in a high-tech niche, creating jobs with the team and our partners, etc. Essentially it is the sense of purpose that gives me energy.

What makes TBS unique? 

Agility, deep competence – 70% of TBS staff is of PhD level  – with an incredible array of technologies and innovation. It is rare to have both the agility of a smaller size group, and the competence to create and deliver so many high-value products.

Our extreme care for personal data privacy is often highlighted, but what people know less is the care we take in respecting stakeholders at large. For instance, we reduced our plastic content in shipments by 99% last year to protect the environment. A modern company must act responsibly in many ways.

How would you describe your leadership style?

One of my past professors would call it leveraging “the collective genius” – The team is always smarter than any one of us. Therefore, I like to listen to everyone, to all ideas. I don’t believe in knowing things better than anyone else.

This is very Swiss by the way; we are a lot into consensus. It might not be the same in other places, but that works well for me.

Any lessons learnt that you can share?

As a junior manager, I once told a senior leader what changes we needed to do technically in order to stay in touch with the market. The leader didn’t listen. I was unfortunately right, not because I was so clever, but because it was obvious from my specific position. The thriving solution fell behind within a few years.

I had already left but the business collapsed, and a hundred employees lost their jobs. It was sad and I never forgot that. I learnt that as a leader, no matter how high I will one day sit, I must remain open to all opinions, for others might see vital parameters invisible to me.

What are your hopes for TBS?

Despite Covid, we are ahead of last year and growing, so that’s a pretty good place to be in a market where many are suffering. We are launching next year a groundbreaking solution, our best one yet. I believe that it will give us 5 years advance and much success.

We also receive strong support from our investors for our expansion. I’m excited and confident about our future. Most importantly, our groundbreaking solution will have a positive impact for society and the privacy of citizens.

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