Deep Dive: Sarah Naqvi, CIO – HMSHost

H. Michael Burgett
Contributing Writer

A few years ago, senior management at HMSHost promoted Sarah Naqvi to Executive Vice President and CIO. They saw someone who was not just a long-tenured IT professional, but someone who can lead and transform technology for the retail and restaurant organization, which operates in nearly 120 airports around the globe, and 99 travel plazas throughout North America.

The company, a division of the Autogrill Group, must be pleased with that decision as Naqvi has spearheaded digital technologies, like the newest Host2Coast mobile application, overseen several strategic infrastructure improvements, and continued to position technology as an enabler of business transformation. She oversees a team of more than 75 professionals, manages an annual IT budget of about $30 million, and manages technology relationships with many vendors, airports, and retail partners.

In this edition of The National CIO Review, we sat down with Naqvi to discuss her work with the Bethesda, MD-based HMSHost.

Walk me through your CIO Path. How did you decide to pursue a career in technology, and how did you come to be a CIO at HMSHost?

I came to the United States from India in 1988 with programming experience and received some certifications, but the main reason was because I married an IT professional. I joined HMSHost 18 years ago and my first project was to lead a large PeopleSoft implementation. Thereafter, my focus shifted from application development to leadership and strategy. Along the way, I obtained my Bachelor’s and MBA degrees at the University of Maryland, and was recognized for my leadership capabilities, and my responsibilities grew from there.

I’ve been married for many years and have two boys, one is an orthopedic surgeon, and another is in IT, and my daughter is pursuing a career in nursing.

Would you consider yourself a CIO, CTO or a hybrid? Why? What are the essential differences?

I would say both, and that the role of the Chief Digital Officer is relevant too, which is somewhat under my responsibility. The CIO’s goal is to align technology investments with strategy and business needs, the CTO enables technology processes, and the CDO’s role is to ensure that value is derived from IT investments.

How do you maintain a balance between being hands on with the team and pivoting to play your role on the business model outside the IT box with, for example, other C-level executives?

It’s a balancing act for sure and the key to success is forging trusting relationships with your direct reports. If you have the right talent and trusting relationships, then all those interactions will be successful.

What are the key issues facing a CIO in your industry today?

We are rapidly changing with the hospitality industry in which a growing percentage of investments are outside of traditional IT, with the key issues being digital technologies and security. This will result in the emergence of new IT roles in recent and future years, and where they belong within the organization.

What initiatives have you overseen to date in the time that you’ve been with your current organization? What’s on the horizon?

Digital initiatives have been a huge focus. We recently launched Host2Coast, a free mobile application which allows travelers to find restaurants, view menus, and even preorder and pay for their meals in hundreds of airports across North America. We will be also looking at ways to transform internally by using new solutions to reduce network and infrastructure costs.

How do you foresee HMSHost being different in two years, and how do you see yourself shaping that change?

I see us developing more interactions with customers and with our retail, airport, and airline business. We will continue to collaborate with them for common solutions that keep the customers in mind and improving their experiences. From an information standpoint, we will become more sophisticated when it comes to customer relationships, loyalty solutions, and the like.

What new or disruptive technologies or emerging trends do you see as impacting your industry in the future?

The main source of disruption comes from the speed at which consumer devices are changing and, to some degree, a lack of integration. For instance, more and more consumers are utilizing mobile payment solutions. The ongoing disruption is to align with those customer demands, and to adapt to those technologies.

Share your thoughts on the availability of IT talent in the current marketplace. What strategies do you employ to stay ahead of the game?

The search for available talent continues to be an issue for some of the new technologies. Here at HMSHost we constantly invest in training to make sure employees are prepared for their futures and for the business needs. Plus, we align ourselves with area universities so that we can tap into future talent pools and to drive innovation.

What personal traits and attributes are essential for today’s CIO vs. say 10, 20 years ago?

Leadership skills are important, but it is most important now to understand and connect with the business, which is perhaps why a growing number of CIOs will be coming from the business side, not the technology side. They must be more acclimated to the business side than ever before.

What advice would you give to someone who aspires to be a CIO?

Having the solid understanding of technology allows you to ask the right questions. It is also important to leverage think tanks like Gartner as this helps you to re-evaluate and validate. You must understand that you are only as good as the team you have and need to consistently communicate the vision which is part of your leadership skills that will ensure success.

Who have been your biggest influences, and why?

There have been many as I’ve had some great mentors here at HMSHost and throughout my career. I’ve also been fortunate to have a wonderful support system at home, too, from my husband (an IT director for a software company for the airline industry), and my three wonderful children.

Which books have you gifted the most over your career? What are the top books that you recommend?

Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek and The Speed of Trust from Stephen Covey are my two personal favorites. I’m also a very big advocate of the Emotional Intelligence series from Daniel Goleman.

What are you most passionate about?

People, and developing them! Honestly, I don’t see anything as mine anymore and I take great passion and responsibility for seeing people progress. That is what gives me great satisfaction.

What advice do you wish you would have followed when you first entered the workforce?

Historically, I’ve been a very trusting person and sometimes that can be difficult so striking a balance vs. giving unconditional trust and being cautious. Another would be on risk taking but through the years I’ve realized that all decisions come with inherent risk.

If you weren’t doing the job that you have today – what would be your dream job?

Good question! I haven’t had time to think about that, but I would probably work focus on volunteerism and giving back to the community. If it was a paying job, I would probably be a middle school teacher.

We have asked you many questions, but as a final question what would you want me or our readers to know about you that we haven’t asked?

Well, in spite all an industry norm in which many say is dominated by males, I’m truly blessed that I have never experienced any such stereotypes. I dress differently, and I look differently, but I don’t know what discrimination looks like.

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