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3M VP on his life, work and dreams

Irfan Malik, vice president of technology giant 3M for the Middle East and Africa, tells Suchitra Bajpai Chaudhary how he leads using a combination of strategy planning, focus, determination, execution and, most importantly, creating a great team spirit

  • According to Irfan, his job is “to make sure people feel smart and that is half the motivation for them. Image Credit: Dennis B. Mallari/ANM
  • Irfan says he didn’t ever chase a position – he was just happy with what life gave him. Image Credit: Dennis B. Mallari/ANM
  • With son Zuhair, wife Saima, daughters Nadeen and Manahil at a get-together recently in Dubai. Image Credit: Supplied picture

Innovation is no fluke and involves years of research, deliberation and hard work. No one knows this better than Irfan Malik the vice president of 3M, the 110-year-old innovations-based American company that has held sway over our everyday life like no other. The manufacturer of everything from Post-its and Scotch Tape to stethoscopes, car-window films, traffic lights and sophisticated aircraft equipment has more than 44 technology platforms with 60,000-plus products.

"It is a very humbling thought to be able to head an organisation like 3M that touches our lives every day," says Irfan, 47, who began his career at 3M over 22 years ago as a costs systems analyst. Today his job goes beyond financial management as he looks after the organisation's interests in the Middle East and Africa, managing over 1,000 employees.

"I chose to join 3M after my graduation," he says, adding that he was very inspired by a book written about companies including 3M [Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by James C Collins and Jerry I Porras], which has been part of the management programme for many years, and talks in depth about the organisation's ability to build leaders, and its consistent innovation engine. "I figured out very quickly that at 3M it did not matter very much who you were or where you came from. What really mattered was performance. Over the past 20 years I have had a change in the nature of my job every three to four years. The management is very open to giving people new challenges - changing departments, countries and businesses," he says.

A passionate team leader who allows the responsibility of a multi-billion-dollar company to rest lightly on his shoulders, Irfan entrusts his team with the freedom and space to perform. "My job is to make sure people feel smart and that is half the motivation for them," says Irfan, who spends a lot of time recruiting the right kind of people for his company - people driven by innovation, who have a passion to excel in life, are flexible and adaptable and know how to stay ahead of the curve. "I think the basic culture here is to walk the talk and that is what I endeavour to do," he says.

Here, the dynamic, multitasking leader describes how he likes to personify the multifarious interests of his organisation and inspire his team.


My workday starts at around 7.30am. I am in the office by 8am. I look after the company's interests in the Middle East, Africa and Pakistan, and also liaise with our US office when the markets open there in the evening.

My lifestyle is very demanding, very fast-paced and I travel for around 15 days in a month. I start my morning with meetings with the finance group, the consumer team, meet government officials and try to multitask as much as I can through the day. I am constantly changing gears to adjust to the needs of all departments.

3M is an organisation that handles diverse technology and we make practically most of the things that you see around, be it domestic products, office stationery, health-care products or equipment for oil and gas or aviation sectors. Although the company was established in the US in 1902, it was established here 35 years ago and began to gain prominence over the last 15 years. I joined the company in Sharjah in 1989 straight after completing my education in the UK.

A lot of people think I must have been a meticulous planner, having worked out the finer details of my career. But the truth is far from it. I never chased a position in life. I felt happy in whatever life gave me and at what others got. I think one has to give a lot of credit to the system. I started as a cost and systems analyst having completed my chartered cost and accountancy degree in the UK. I was a jack of all trades. I also did business development for the company. I went to Belgium, then became MD of 3M Pakistan, before becoming MD of the operations in Europe. I came back to the UAE to Dubai as the head of finance in 2005 and eventually became the regional head of the company covering Middle East and Africa.

I would say I am constantly learning. I knew about finance and IT and then picked up important lessons in strategic planning and marketing and over the years got a well-rounded knowledge of how things worked within my organisation.

As the leader, I have one rule - not to accept anything but the best from your team. I work hard to keep them highly motivated.

I believe business is like war - a combination of strategy planning, focus, determination, execution and, above all, a great team spirit.

We regard people who work here as our strongest asset - a robust human capital. At 3M we have mastered the skill of finding talent and moving it around. We have 1,000 employees, 24 nationalities, and a variety of cultures. We basically represent Dubai in a microcosm.

I give my employees enough space and flexibility to do their work. There is of course a code of conduct that forms the outer boundary and then there is a level of accountability.

I believe if you have the will and the passion you will be successful. It is a difficult organisation to get into as recruitment and placement is a tough process.

What we try to ascertain at the time of the interview is if the person is really the right fit for the job. I think anyone who respects his team mates and has the passion can grow with the company. He has to share in our value system.

At 3M we have very good business ethics. We have strong corporate values, we pay all our dues, are environmentally conscious. I think if your business ethics are in place, business will always be there for the picking. You might lose today, but you are bound to find business tomorrow.


I think I owe my success to the love that was instilled in me by my parents who always made me feel I was the best. I spent my childhood in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. We are three siblings -I have a brother Imran who is now in Australia and a sister Farah who is married and settled in Lahore, Pakistan.

I was the youngest and naughtiest of the kids and had a very protective father. My grandfather would often chide him for spoiling me. We were a very close-knit family and had a large extended family of cousins, aunts and uncles. During the summer all of us would gather at our grandparents' home and enjoy a great vacation together.

A lot of my confidence comes from the confidence my parents had in me. My father Naeem Malik was in the army and was a great disciplinarian. We would come home from school by 1pm and had to finish our lunch, rest and do our homework before we could play outside with friends. We had to return between 6.30 and 7.00pm before the Maghrib prayers and be in bed after an early dinner.

At college, too, I was naughty but got away with a lot. My uncle, who was a professor in economics, told my father - "your son is very smart, he does things and still we are unable to lift a finger as it is difficult to nab him".

So I continued leading a happy-go-lucky life, playing pranks until I was sent by my father to London to do my professional accountancy course. It was then I realised how much he had to sacrifice so that we could get a sound education. I was 19 and suddenly the realisation changed my outlook - I wanted to be the best. My father is 83 today and my mum 80. To this day I enjoy a great relationship with them, especially with my father. Over the years he has become soft and relenting.

I always loved being outdoors and now enjoy gardening. I love tending to my patch of garden at my home in the Meadows. Every morning when I am leaving I discuss the blooms in season, and the changes required, with my gardener. On weekends I spend time gardening, pruning the hedges, trimming the branches of trees, and it really de-stresses me. I feel there is a great lesson to be learnt from nature that has made all these plants real survivors. I have seen a part of my hedge which was really a creeper, throw out its shoots and curl around whatever was available the moment it gets an opportunity, although I have trimmed it many times. It tells me one can shape things the way one wants.

I also love animals. At home we had parrots, dogs, rabbits and fish. Here I have a cute angora rabbit as a pet. He likes to sit in my study.

I travel a lot for work, but I make sure I am home on the weekends as I love spending time with my children.

My eldest daughter, Manahil, is 19 and studying bio-medicine at London's King's College. My son, Zuhair is 17 and doing his A levels at Jumeirah College while our youngest daughter Nadeen, 12, is at the Emirates International School in Meadows.
I credit my wife Saima for holding the tenuous threads of the family together. I travel so much but I try to balance my work and life by travelling in small slots.

I love Lebanon, London and South Africa. People are lively and outgoing in these areas and doing business is good fun!

I try to be back home by Thursday evening and let my wife manage the social calendar, which she does very well.

Saima is a very grounded person. We savour the time we get with each other after the day is drawing to a close. We chat about everything, sipping our Moroccan tea and nibbling on some dates.

A lot of my success comes from the comfort of knowing Saima is there handling things, managing the children.


I have big dreams for my kids. I want them to be good human beings and reflect the values my wife and I have worked hard to ingrain in them. Bringing up kids I realised you cannot completely mould an individual. You have to introduce ideas and values and leave them to reflect on those values when the situation arises. For instance, recently Zuhair volunteered to be a shadow for a disabled child at school and he was very caring, considerate and thoughtful.

The blueprint for an individual's personality is laid out during childhood. I see Manahil as a very smart and persuasive person, while Nadeen is her mother's pet who loves kids. I can see her as a good team leader.

As for my company, I feel I am very fortunate that it has given me the opportunity to be involved in vital expansion of projects. I would like to leave a legacy behind that will sustain the company for many years to come.