Mobin Saulat, FCMA, CGMA, thought accounting would be a reasonable choice of career, if not an exciting one. He had finished his undergraduate education in Pakistan with high marks in physics and mathematics, and it seemed he might follow his father's path as an accountant in the country's civil services.
"I'll be very blunt," he said. "Back in those days, any student who got a reasonable background with respect to the qualifications ... the expectation was either to become an engineer, or a doctor, or an accountant. We didn't have the luxury to explore any other thing."
He took the accounting civil services exam to enter the bureaucracy. His aptitude for management and analysis, however, would lead him far beyond those expectations. Decades after taking that exam, a time that included jobs around the world, he headed home to Pakistan to work in project management at the grandest scale.
Today, Saulat is the managing director and chief executive of the state-owned Inter State Gas Systems Limited, currently coordinating close to $7 billion of natural-gas pipelines that will reshape markets in the Middle East. He is responsible for planning and delivering some of the largest infrastructure projects in Pakistan's history.
"That's a huge task and one of the most challenging experiences," said Saulat, a speaker of Urdu, Arabic, English, and Japanese. "... All these projects, they're one of a kind. We don't have such precedents in Pakistan."
So, how has he found his way?
He points first to the White Oil Pipeline, a $500 million project to run a 26-inch pipe across nearly 600 miles of Pakistan. Budget-wise, it's not even a tenth the size of the portfolio he's now working — but it was an introduction to national projects.
This project, he said, was of "huge strategic value," as it would allow Pakistan to reduce its dependence on roads for oil transport. He was familiar with the subject matter, having worked in setting up infrastructure projects in Saudi Arabia — but that's not what his new employers wanted most.
"It was actually the project management skill that was of most interest to them," he explained. "They wanted to set up an entire financial management system, dealing with this challenging task, in our part of the world."
He identified a few key challenges early in the project. First, it would span from the port city of Karachi deep into Pakistan, meaning that transportation and coordination of materials would be a challenge. He also knew he'd be working with a consortium of Chinese and local companies, with no room for deviation from the design.
The team started by sorting the project's tasks and components on two major axes: required lead time and required foreign assets.
"The task was to identify which items are critical, which items are not locally available, and what sort of timelines are involved to get them into Pakistan," he said. This analysis revealed, for example, that there were no local manufacturers capable of building the pipeline's pumping stations. Instead, Saulat helped the team source the equipment from outside Pakistan. By identifying this and other obstacles, the team were able to ensure that they finished ahead of schedule.
"Most of the projects in our part of the world failed because of this lacking of capacity," he said. "We were able to expedite this process."
Of course, projects at this scale depend on people, too. Knowing that they faced a "huge communication gap", the managers intentionally hired numerous interpreters to keep on hand at all times.
Meanwhile, Saulat was developing an eye for talent that would prove crucial as he moved on to even larger projects.
During the White Oil project, he said, "there definitely was a realisation that certain expertise was not available." He had insisted on bringing in experts from abroad to fill that gap in the short term, but he focused that recruitment on Pakistani people living abroad, hoping to bring their talents home, and he required that consultants transfer knowledge and technology to his local team.
Over the years, this strategy has built up a team of more than 60 engineers, accountants, and others at Inter State, greatly improving Pakistan's capacity for larger and larger international projects.
"We started with almost 100% dependency on international expertise. Now we are almost less than 50% dependent on those external advisers," Saulat said.
The executive himself has learned a few lessons in working at the state scale, too. Because his work is tied up in the procedures of government, he has memorised the bureaucracy just as well as he and his father learned the rules of accounting. He works, he said, with the understanding that he will be under constant scrutiny.
Working with ministers and other government leaders, he added, "you need to help them not only to formulate a strategy but also to make sure the procedures are being followed."
And, still, Saulat traces his own success to the transformation in his thinking that came when he left Pakistan and stepped into a world where accountants do more than count.
"It's all looking ahead, taking a futuristic view, applying the financial skills, and understanding the implications on the decision-making," he said. "The role of the financial controller is always to see what is happening in all the segments of the project — and, going back to my experience in the White Oil pipeline project, I realised immediately that everybody is looking to you."
Andrew Kenney is a CGMA Magazine contributing editor.