Assa Abloy's Nicolás Aznar marries anthropology, technology

Assa Abloy makes sure virtual keys are safer than real ones. Photo credit: Assa Abloy Global Solutions (Assa Abloy Hospitality Vostio)

In order to understand how people use technology, it is important to understand why people do anything. That’s where Nicolás Aznar, president, Americas at access-control company Assa Abloy Global Solutions, has an advantage: In addition to studying information technology for business at the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina, he also studied anthropology and gained valuable insights into human behavior.

“In Buenos Aires, the university is free, so you can study whatever you want,” Aznar said—and he wanted to study people. “If there’s something that anthropology helps you understand, it’s how people interact with each other and with things.”

Early in his career, as managing director for South America at Micros Fidelio, one of the world’s biggest property-management system companies, Aznar was in charge of building teams to keep operations running smoothly, as well as determining what products the teams should focus on. This made his education in anthropology valuable on two levels: knowing how individuals in teams work together and how people use products.

“It’s not about thinking up the best product and then nobody can use it,” he said. “It’s about how people navigate in the world and their challenges and their problems and trying to build the right solutions, the right tools.”

While he had never expected to apply this particular training as an executive in global corporations, he said, he recommends studying anthropology to anybody who has—or wants—a leadership position.

Nicolas Aznar. Photo credit: Assa Abloy Global Solutions

Aznar first joined Micros’ Latin America/Caribbean regional office in Argentina as a product manager. “I was always a bit of a nerd, so I thought it was my position in the world to work there,” he recalled. “I sent an email to the CEO and he hired me.” In those early days, Aznar learned about how different companies use the same products in different ways. “If you understand about [food-and-beverage] and hospitality, and you think it’s all the same—well, it’s not. Every company has its own qualities and success stories.”

After four years with the product-management team, he moved into several different positions, learning a wide range of customer needs. “I was director of strategic accounts, where I learned how to deal directly with customers and to try and deal with their problems, and I was in charge of the service organization for Latin America/Caribbean, which is also a very challenging job.”

He moved to the company’s Brazil office to be a general manager, and then was managing director for South America for new startup solutions.

“And then Assa Abloy came after me, and they didn’t [stop] until I said yes,” said Aznar. Tim Shea, then the president/CEO, showed Aznar a roadmap of how the company would create “a seamless, open world,” where users have both access to everything and control of their information. “It was a vision of the future where you could be secure without knowing that you are,” Aznar said.

He remained in Brazil for for four years in the role, and then moved to the U.S. a little more than 18 months ago to be in charge of the company’s Americas division.  

Safety and Security

Assa Abloy, Aznar said, is seeking ways to make security smarter even as technology is exposing new vulnerabilities—and opportunities. For example, Airbnb has become a persistent thorn in the hotel industry’s side, but the concept’s need for traditional keys makes guests vulnerable.

“Anybody can have the key and make a copy and get into the apartment or house,” Aznar pointed out, adding that as Airbnb gains ground, the problem will only get worse. In terms of guest safety, then, Airbnb is behind companies like Hilton, which allows guests to unlock their doors with their phones. 

While there have been any number of concerns about the safety of using smartphones as keys for guestroom doors, Aznar believes they are safer than traditional cards. “One, the phone has its own security, like biometrics or a password,” he said. “A card doesn’t have that.”

If a keycard is taken by a third party, the guestroom is vulnerable until the front desk deactivates the card. An app, meanwhile, can be isolated to just one phone, so even copying the device’s data to another device won’t open the door. “It’s incredibly secure,” Aznar said. 

Aznar is regularly in contact with both hospitality IT teams and security teams, determining what each brand or property needs for automation, access, efficiency and safety. And some of those customers are willing to try out new concepts that may become the new normal in coming years.

For example, Assa Abloy’s marine division is developing electronic medallions for cruise ship customers that will store all of their credentials for charges and access to various spaces on the ship. “It may be a little while until we can offer this into the hotel industry, but that’s what helps us,” he said. “We have all these verticals and we work on different trends and we can incorporate these trends into the hotel business to make it successful with our customers. And of course, we listen to our customers, which is what I was saying about being an anthropologist—it’s a very important thing.”

Logic in Logistics

“Innovation is a challenge because we are the leaders and in order to be the leader, you need to be the one who brings new things to the market. We did it consistently. We invented the punch-card locks in 1978, we invented the [radio frequency] ID lock, we invented the Bluetooth lock. Those are all [intellectual properties] that our company has, and the digital safe as well, which was invented by VingCard Elsafe, which is now [part of] Assa Abloy Global Solutions ... Innovation is the most challenging thing because we have to think what is going to be next and come up with it, and it’s much more painful than the followers because the followers copy what works and discard what doesn’t. We need to do what works and what doesn’t to find out what works. So it’s a lot more money invested, but that’s the decision that Assa Abloy made.” 

Clicking with Clients

“We go to trade shows. People expect to see us. We have people in the field who go visit groups. They are close to the end customers, to the hotels. [There are about] 30 around the country doing that. At the same time, we have key account management that goes into big brands ...They take meetings at every level every week [meeting with hotel owners and brand leaders]. Both need to be comfortable with our solutions. That’s how we try to do it. We have accounts that are important because of volume, visibility, maybe problems that they had in the past. We assign key account managers to those people to have a close relationship.”