Business | Features

Sultan Al Habtoor sees market returning to growth

Al Habtoor established his dealership in 1982 — the same year they signed a contract with Mitsubishi and Bentley — starting by selling hundreds of cars which eventually became hundreds of thousands of cars.

  • By Zaher Bitar, Staff Reporter, Gulf News
  • Published: 00:00 January 11, 2010
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Megan Hirons Mahon/Gulf News
  • Sultan Al Habtoor, President of Habtoor Motors, in the Bentley showroom on Ittihad Road in Deira.

Dubai: Sultan Al Habtoor, an iconic automobile dealer who has been in business for over 30 years and owns a collection of world's most expensive motors, says he hates motor racing.

"Motor racing has always been, and always will be, a dangerous sport by its very nature and I'm afraid if the drivers are aware of the risks when they choose to participate."

Al Habtoor goes so far as to say that motor racing is not a sport. Flinging a fragile human body around a track at a very high speed is looking for trouble, he says.

But Al Habtoor, who is also the president of Habtoor Motors and vice-chairman of the Al Habtoor Group, admits that risk is everywhere — even if you are walking alone in the street — but with good management and proper consultation the risks can be overcome.

Al Habtoor established his dealership in 1982 — the same year they signed a contract with Mitsubishi and Bentley — starting by selling hundreds of cars which eventually became hundreds of thousands of cars. The company has since been recognised as the best car dealer in the GCC by the brands the company sells.

Reputation

Al Habtoor still remembers the first 300 cars that were imported from Japan to the UAE. He believes that the Japanese gave them the rights because of the good reputation the family had in local business circles.

"The Japanese want to know everything about you before granting you anything," he added.

Back then, they were selling about 100 cars a month at a time when the number of cars in the country was very small.

Al Habtoor says that commitment and first class customer service in addition to the progressive development strategies are his company's stepping-stones to success.

Driven by professionalism and quality, he says, his company offers the highest standard of customer service, which has helped it make its name synonymous with Mitsubishi, Bentley, Aston Martin and Bugatti.

The company also owns the world's first showroom designed by the Bentley company, in addition to another seven showrooms across the UAE supported by eight service centres. It employs 1,300 workers. Al Habtoor Motors recently opened two facilities — one in Abu Dhabi and another in Ras Al Khaimah. The biggest Mitsubishi facility in the world will open in Jebel Ali in March.

The group is number one in sales for the four licensed brands they have in the GCC. In terms of bulk sales they are number two in the UAE after Toyota.

Growing up

Al Habtoor comes from an upper class family with a good reputation and big business establishments in the UAE.

Although his brother Khalaf established the biggest engineering company in the UAE in the 1970s, he said, "We can't forget that our father was a wealthy man and has developed a big business at the time. The Emirates were very poor [back then]."

Al Habtoor studied politics and economy at Emirates University in Al Ain and joined the group immediately after graduation. Describing himself as democratic, he remarked that two generations of Al Habtoors are now involved in business.

His youngest son, Ahmad, 11, loves to come to work with his dad on school holidays and he said that his dream is to drive the powerful Bugatti when he gets a driving licence.

Today, Al Habtoor Motors sells an average of 45,000 Mitsubishi cars annually. In 2008, when the market was at its peak, the company sold around 55,000 cars. However, last year the company recorded a 35 per cent drop in sales.

"The car market was excellent in the last few years, but with the world economic crisis the business suffered a tough setback," he said.

The luxury car market was not affected as severely by the economic meltdown since that segment has different customers, but the company still witnessed a 10 per cent drop, he says.

"In the last few months everyone has suffered from a squeeze in cash flow, but the wheels of the market have started moving again. We are starting to recognise the signs of recovery and see an increase in our sales." Describing the credit crunch and the slowdown in the market as a typical down cycle, Al Habtoor said that investors and businessmen in the UAE reacted to the market with caution and fear.

Thank God, he says, that the market is reviving and can restore investors' confidence with [federal] government's initiatives.

Auto show

Al Habtoor told Gulf News it was his family that founded the Dubai Motor Show in the 1980s.

"In our hotel, Habtoor Metropolitan, the motor show was running as an annual event and would last for a week with the participation of all car dealers in the UAE," he said.

"It was quite simple in terms of organisation and participation. We used to have fixed stands around the hotel for the car dealers to meet and build contacts every year."

Asked how the family conceived the idea of the motor show, he said; "It had not been adopted but at that time in the 1980s the location of our hotel on Shaikh Zayed Road was very far from the downtown area, so we found such an event would attract people's attention to it."

"We achieved this," he adds with a smile. "Crowds of people were attending the motor show and it lasted for around eight years before acquiring its current international character."

The show was very costly, so the government adopted the idea of the motor show and made it an international event, Al Habtoor said.

"Today, the Dubai International Motor Show is one of the best in the world and we still support it as a car dealer in the UAE."

Profile: Multinational group

Established in the 1970s, Al Habtoor Group has grown with the UAE, and while best known for construction, it is also recognised in the hotel, automotive, real estate, education, insurance and publishing sectors.

One of the UAE's most respected and successful businesses, the Al Habtoor Group today operates in the UAE and international markets. The multinational staff now exceeds 50,000 and is expected to continue to grow in line with planned expansion.

The group's construction division, Al Habtoor Engineering Enterprises (now part of the Al Habtoor Leighton Group), has a rich portfolio, having created some of the world's most stunning landmarks.

They include the icon of Dubai, the Burj Al Arab, and the multibillion-dollar construction of the new Terminal 3 Concourse 2 project at Dubai International Airport.

Habtoor Hotels owns and operates six top rated hotels, including two new five-star properties — the Habtoor Grand Resort & Spa in Dubai and the Habtoor Grand Convention Centre & Spa, Beirut.

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