In 1975 a young, ambitious man from India reached Dubai, dreaming of making a mark in business in the UAE. He did not know then that one day he would make it big in Dubai's real estate sector and hotel industry. V.A. Hassan has come a long way from his early days in Dubai and today he is the head of a Dh50 million firm, SBK Real Estate.
His company not only stood up to the challenges of the global economic downturn but has grown stronger in the last few years. "Everybody was talking about recession in late 2008 and early 2009 but we managed to survive," Hassan says. "We didn't reduce the number of employees either. In fact, we continued to hire even during the crisis as we managed to bag more projects and ventured into property management."
SBK Real Estate, which had only 85 employees before the downturn, now has more than 150 people. Hassan admits that profits are not as high they were before. But he adds, "In the current market conditions, though the profits are comparatively less, we are doing very well. Rents are now stabilising in the market."
Hassan, who never worked in his native India before moving to the UAE, started his career in Dubai. His first venture was a small shop selling ready-made garments and jewellery in Deira that he opened a year after he arrived. Soon after, he opened a general services shop, a small restaurant and later some pharmaceutical shops and polyclinics.
Hassan says his growth as a businessman was slow and steady. He ventured into the real estate sector for the first time in 1995 and by 2000 he had entered the hotel industry. Today, he owns various hotels and hotel apartments under the brand name Flora.
"My experience in the real estate sector helped me identify the best locations for hotels and hotel apartments. In Deira, we now have about six hotels and one more is now under construction," says Hassan, who was always passionate about the real estate industry even before he became a part of it. "The real estate sector is a very vibrant field to work in and the hotel business is very glamorous as well," he says.
SBK Real Estate has registered tremendous growth over the past few years. The firm was set up with a small investment and its initial turnover was Dh1 million. Starting as a real estate brokerage firm, it now offers a number of services including leasing of residential and commercial units, feasibility studies, property management, facility management and shopping mall management. SBK also manages one of the oldest landmarks in Dubai, Karama Shopping Centre.
"When it comes to property and facilities management, we offer a comprehensive range of services, including building security and maintenance, janitorial services, landscaping and irrigation, energy management, handling of tenant complaints and requests and advice on rental levels etc," Hassan says.
During the boom, SBK focused on long-term leases, which proved to be a big revenue generator. However, when rents started to show a sharp decline after the downturn, the company wasted no time changing tracks and began to focus on property management and short-term leases. "Property management is all about giving good service. When the city is growing, everybody is looking for quality service," Hassan says. "Overall, the quality of property management is getting better in Dubai as people have become more demanding."
He expects the rental market to stabilise further in the next six months as SBK looks to get back to its former stronghold in the city - long-term leases.
SBK manages more than 50 buildings comprising about 1,000 units, including apartments, offices, villas and warehouses. "We are increasing the units we manage month by month and we will be taking over three more buildings that will have about 250 apartments. Every year, we are seeing an increase of 10 to 15 per cent in the number of units. It is a positive sign for us," Hassan says.
"We are currently looking for more buildings near the Metro stations because we feel the demand for these units will definitely increase in the future. People are using the Metro more these days. So I feel we have to focus more on real estate and hotels close to Metro stations," he adds.
Hassan says that the company is planning to launch a facilities management consultancy division whose primary responsibility will be to provide consultancy from the conceptual design phase through to operational management support. The idea is to cover all facets of maintenance and design, including the preparation of in-depth reports, specialist surveys, energy management schemes as well as advice on best practices.
While the company's focus has always been Dubai, it also has a smaller scale real estate wing in Abu Dhabi. Hassan also has businesses in India in the automobile, hospitality and shopping mall sectors.
Having spent decades in Dubai, it is not surprising that Hassan calls Dubai his home. He still remembers his early life in Dubai when the emirate was nothing like what it is today. In those days, the expatriate community primarily comprised Indians and Pakistanis whereas today, people of more than 200 nationalities live in the city. "The only high rise building then was the Dubai World Trade Centre building," Hassan recalls of his first years in Dubai.
He believes it is his faith in Dubai that has helped him grow his business over the years. He is optimistic as he says the market is witnessing considerable activity.
"We analyse the inflow of tourists and investors. As per our understanding, more investors are coming to Dubai and setting up businesses," he says. "Because of the unrest prevailing in countries such as Libya and Egypt, people look at Dubai as a much more secure market to invest in."
Growth during the downturn
SBK Real Estate shifted gears when the global financial crisis impacted the Dubai real estate sector towards the end of 2008. The firm began to focus more on property management rather than long leases, which helped the company grow considerably and the number of employees increased from 85 to over 150.
Designation: Vice-chairman & CEO
Came to Dubai in: 1975
Role in the organisation: A strategist and visionary, he is the driving force behind the company's growth.
Came to Dubai in: 1987
Role in the organisation: He is in charge of business development in the company. He is actively involved in the real estate business.
Designation: General manager
Came to Dubai in: 1990
Role in the organisation: He heads the group's business interests in the hospitality and real estate sectors.