Hussain Al Nowais with a piece from his collection of art. © Gulf News
Having grown up in the twilight of a fading era and the dawn of a bright new one, he has seen and experienced a lot.
"Yes, we've seen, experienced the old world, the struggles and hardships our parents went through," says Hussain Al Nowais, chairman and managing director of the Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Holdings. "But, now we are reaping the benefits of a rich country.
"In the late '50s, a glass of purified water was considered a luxury and an air-conditioned room unthinkable. Abu Dhabi was like a deserted village... my family used to live in the old Corniche area at the time - Al Husn (the old fort, which is now Majama Zakafi Cultural Foundation), was the centre of the town."
Since schooling in Abu Dhabi was inadequate, the young Al Nowais was sent off to a school in Qatar. It was the norm, as a number of families had migrated to places such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia to escape hard times.
But, when the UAE President, His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, became Ruler of Abu Dhabi, most families returned, including Al Nowais family. A pearl merchant, Al Nowais's grandfather soon became a trader of building materials and foodstuffs. Thus the family business started as a trading organisation.
After completing his high school in Abu Dhabi, Al Nowais left for the U.S. to continue his education there.
Nowais with two of his children... making time for his family too. © Gulf News
Armed with committment, dedication, luck and intelligence (as he terms it), Al Nowais then plunged into the family business and made it a successful manufacturing, distributing, contracting and trading company. "I had to build it up almost from scratch," he recalls. "I started off being an agent/sponsor of companies but then moved on to developing a partnership with them."
A turning point in this budding entrepreneur's life came when he bagged a contract to supply electrical equipment to a government department. "It gave me a credibility which I capitalised on entirely," Al Nowais adds.
Al Nowais also pursued a path of growth by acquisition. "The name of the game was acquisition, I used to buy over unprofitable companies and turn them around. That's what I enjoy most and that's my forte - making ailing companies tick," he says.
When the Gulf War started, Al Nowais smartly looked at what he calls a recession-proof industry - the food business. He decided to acquire failing businesses in that line and restructure them.
"It's really a challenge which I love. I love to build a strong management team, set up the infrastructure, the warehousing and the IT systems." Today, his Federal Foods, a 500-staff company, has a strong manufacturing facility in Dubai and is a success story.
Al Nowais has been in the forefront of change, proposing improvements in UAE business practices especially in the spheres of procedures and investment opportunities in industry/trading.
As chairman of a number of committees set up by the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce, he has made many suggestions. For instance, he was the one to suggest a one-stop shop for licensing.
After a seminar in Japan... learning experience. © Gulf News
"The kids of today want the easy way out. They have everything and they lack challenges. You need a motive or need to love what you do," he says.
"I remember how amazed I used to be whenever I returned to Abu Dhabi (during my holidays from the U. S.) to see a different city - each time I came back, there were changes, the boom was happening..."
His experiences in America too were amazing, he recalls. It was the first time he was experiencing life as an expatriate. Recounts Al Nowais, "Nobody knew where the UAE was located. I had friends who were south Americans and Japanese.
What was hard was maintaining my religious belief in that kind of set-up. For example, they just could not understand fasting during the Holy Month of Ramadan."
"But I loved the cafes and my school in Oregon, in northwest America. I worked in New York too during my last year as a trainee in an investment bank on Wall Street," he adds.
"When I was in America, I mixed with students from all nationalities. I believe that makes a lot of difference, you come to understand their mentality and style of functioning and gives you an open mind," he adds. It also gave him an awareness and knowledge of other cultures.
"Knowledge of other cultures especially helps in the UAE where we work with so many different nationalities. When you talk to a Korean or a Japanese or Italian, you need to understand them first to be able to communicate with them effectively," he points out.
In his spare time, Al Nowais reads or spends time with his family. He has a library in his home where the shelves are stacked with books by writers such as Michael Porter and Lester Thoreau, professors of management at Harvard and MIT, respectively, history books on Islam, the West and the U.S., autobiographies of Colin Powell and Margaret Thatcher.
He nearly took up flying as a hobby. "I was egged on by a Saudi friend to learn flying. I finally agreed, but the day before I was to enroll in a flying school I learnt that the flying instructor had died in a crash. That was the end of my dream to fly," he laughs.
He loves to travel. His favourite place is the island of Sardinia in Italy. "I've passed the stage of making money, I just love to educate myself all the time," Al Nowais says.
For a man in his 40s and a successful one at that, it seems an incredibly humble thing to say. His dream is to pass on this belief to his children: to keep growing and not to take the easy way out.
Knowledge is power
© Gulf News