Privani Pillay on navigating change, and finding balance in IT and beyond

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AECI’s Privani Pillay embarks on a journey from vacation work to leading change in a global team.

As AECI embarked on its most significant transformation yet – consolidating substantial contracts and business streamlining – nine team members left the business due to resistance to change.

In 2016, Privani Pillay, who is the group head of ICT and business relationship manager under the guidance of her CIO, Toni Serra, spearheaded the massive project, while facing major pushback from resistant team members.

At the heart of their mission was a simple yet profound objective: “running IT without a fuss”. With unwavering determination, Privani and her team set out to achieve precisely that.

Several years down the road, they have achieved an impressive feat: they successfully downsized the company’s roster of vendors from an initial 350 to a mere 50. Privani revealed aspires to further reduce this number to just 10.

Conveying challenging messages with poise

Serving as a catalyst for change necessitated severing connections with the current vendors. “My job was saying, ‘Dear So-and-So, thank you so much for your services. We will no longer be needing them,’” she says.

One significant shift she orchestrated was the adoption of a vendor-agnostic approach, particularly in printer services. The changes brought about a newfound level of accountability within the organisation.

Nowadays, when proposals to onboard new vendors cross her desk, Privani’s approach is meticulous. She interrogates the proposal, posing a barrage of more than 200 questions, guarding the course of change.

But the transformation at AECI did not end there, as the global business recently off-boarded multiple ERP systems and migrated them onto a unified SAP system.

“Toni is leading the charge, steering the company on a transformative journey. It’s a remarkable feat considering the company currently operates with five different ERPs; it’s truly a challenge of epic proportions.”

However, change is not unfamiliar terrain for Privani, who spent her early years in the midst of apartheid-era South Africa, nestled in Palm Ridge, Germiston. She recalls her nine-year-old self marvelling at the sight of a flushing toilet for the very first time.

This left an indelible mark on Privani, instilling within her a profound awareness of the deeply rooted inequalities that persisted in South Africa. Further, it ignited a philanthropic spirit that continues to drive her today.

Privani reflects on this experience, saying, “If you were to speak to anyone here at the office, be it my colleagues or even the cleaning staff, they’ll tell you that my door is always open, and I’m approachable about anything.”

Passion beyond the world of tech

In a world brimming with possibilities, career choices can often be as diverse as the individuals themselves. For Privani, the path to her current role at AECI was initially paved with a different ambition – the heartfelt dream of becoming a veterinarian.

A proud mom of an 18-year-old son who is in Matric this year. Privani is an animal lover and the owner of one of Instagram's most popular Boston Terriers. Her mind was firmly set on a career devoted to animals’ wellbeing. She imagined herself tending to the needs of furry, feathered, and scaly creatures, bringing comfort to both pets and their anxious owners. To her, this was the destined route.

Privani jokes that her husband firmly believes that if she had pursued a career as a veterinarian, she might have ended up bringing her patients home with her.

However, destiny, it seems, is woven into family life. In the Pillay household, technology and innovation held a prominent place. Privani’s mother was deeply entrenched in the realm of information technology (IT), her brother-in-law managed IT operations at Murray & Roberts, and her sister was a proficient programmer. Her father was an entrepreneur by trade.

“I just got into it because I went to work with my mother, and they needed help. It was school holidays, and her boss was looking for someone to help with asset tags and documenting the machines, so he asked my mother to find someone.

“I said, Mommy, this looks so simple; I’ll do it. Even in my work life today, I’m not one to shy away from work. If you tell me you need help and it’s got nothing to do with my job, I’ll do it. For me, every task is a learning experience. That stemmed from a very young age with me.”

Though her younger sister chose a different path that led her into the world of law, Privani was surrounded by a family of tech enthusiasts and the allure of IT was undeniable. The impressive quality of her holiday work resulted in Privani being invited to lend a hand on another project. During her senior school years, she devoted school holidays to assisting with various IT-related inquiries.

Following the completion of her studies, Privani embarked on her professional journey at what was then known as Price Forbes, now rebranded as Alexforbes. “I started from the ground up, gradually moving up the ranks to eventually become their branch technology champion.”

The art of work-life balance

Leading a global team and overseeing the well-being of 4,000 individuals at AECI undeniably places Privani in a high-pressure environment.

While she has long relied on practices like yoga, mantras, and the pursuit of inner peace, she recently introduced boxing into her repertoire, finding support and motivation from her trainer, Simba, to stay committed to her fitness journey.

However, within the realm of her professional life, Privani operates on an entirely different fuel: an unwavering passion for her work. “I’m genuinely in love with what I do. People often ask me, ‘How do you manage it all? How do you stay energised?’

“I can’t quite put it into words. I just do it, and it’s this sheer passion that propels me forward,” she says. “I’m inherently self-motivated, and I don’t wake up dreading the day ahead. I don’t think, Oh, it’s another day at AECI. Instead, I embrace each day with enthusiasm.”

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