Flexibility and the ability to adapt to change were the qualities that helped Harbor Real Estate to weather the stormy conditions of the global downturn. Headed by Mohanad Alwadiya, who has played a major role in making the firm one of the top real estate players in Dubai, Harbor even managed to expand its business both during and after the crisis. The company continues to surge ahead even as the world is busy discussing the possibility of yet another financial downturn.
The history of Harbor Real Estate began in 2001 when a group of investors and entrepreneurs got together and decided to venture into real estate, long before the boom days of Dubai's real estate sector. "Real estate has always been an option for investors looking for long-term capital appreciation," says Mohanad. "When the boom started towards the end of 2006, investments picked up pace and so did development projects. The group of investors realised the need for an institutional real estate service provider that could offer transactional services such as marketing, sales and leasing and property management. Thus, Harbor Real Estate was born. I joined Harbor in November 2007."
Today the firm handles three groups of services — transactional services, property management and property inspection.
"Transactional services include marketing, sales and leasing," says Mohanad. "You need to have a strong marketing foundation to be able to sell or lease a product."
He adds that, while property management is all about representing the landlords and managing their portfolio, the property inspection service, which is the latest addition to Harbor's profile, helps investors, buyers and users to ensure they receive their units in good condition without any compromises.
Change of strategy
Harbor was busy managing a number of portfolios when the global financial crisis struck the property market. It was time for Harbor to take another look at its strategy.
"By the end of 2008 things started changing and we really needed to shift gears and become more flexible in order to adapt to the crisis," says Mohanad. "Otherwise we would have ceased to exist — a lot of companies were shutting down left, right and centre," he explains, adding that he thinks Harbor Real Estate saw the crisis coming earlier than many others: "I sent out emails to clients in early 2008 warning them not to invest in property costing more than Dh1,000 per square foot, whereas the average price at that point in time was around Dh2,000 per square foot."
Harbor was hired by many developers, including entities of Dubai Holding, to undertake market research. The firm surveyed investor feedback and market dynamics in terms of demand and supply, concluding that there was a bubble and it was about to burst.
Armed with this foresight, Mohanad says that Harbor was prepared to face the challenge ahead. "While many in the industry chose not to react to the upcoming situation, we did react to it and began devising new services. We didn't downsize or reduce salaries at all."
Sensing that leasing would be the most active segment of the market after the crisis, Harbor started to expand its leasing team to suit the new market conditions.
The number of Harbor employees grew from 14 before the downtown to 40 after the crisis and the company is still continuing to expand.
"Following the crisis, leasing has been dominating in terms of volume. But sales get higher returns. We have been doing very well on both fronts.
"Because of the long-term relationship we had with our investors, we managed to keep them with us and help them to invest during the crisis, because a lot of opportunities actually emerged during that time. We were ready to help them make the most of those opportunities," says Mohanad.
According to Mohanad, in more developed real estate markets, people have a ‘family' real estate agent in the same way as they might have a family doctor or lawyer, but it doesn't work that way in this part of the world. Harbor is now trying to cultivate that ‘family' real estate model. "We already have many investors who deal with our company exclusively," says Mohanad.
Harbor's strategic approach led to it also being part of some sizable sales deals during the financial downturn. These included the sale of the landmark Hard Rock Café plot, the sale of 41 apartments in a Tameer Holding project in September 2009, and the sale of 36 apartments in Jumeirah Lakes Towers in April 2010. It also sold units at ETA Star projects.
"Leasing was a major revenue generator during those days and the firm struck a number of deals with a lot of end-users and corporate giants such as Emirates, Emirates Catering, and so on. Even during the crisis, we were still getting about 350 leads weekly. We get a lot of referrals. In a service industry, you get most of your business through referrals," says Mohanad.
The current market turmoil
Almost three years after the major economic downturn hit, the global financial markets are once again under pressure. Mohanad admits that investors both regionally and globally are now extremely nervous.
"Given the deep and far-reaching effects of the recession and recent negative financial developments in the US and European markets, this nervousness is as understandable as it is unavoidable. People have lost confidence and trust in the global economies and worldwide headlines drawing attention to US debt woes simply adds fuel to their scepticism," he says. He adds that the political instability that areas of the Middle East have been enduring for the past few months has left most investors confused about where to invest.
However he points out that, despite all the challenges and criticism the city faced, Dubai managed to weather the recession extremely well and is now expected to become the focus for those who wish to invest in a safe and solid destination. "The rest of the world will look on with envy," he says.
Realising the need to ignite a recovery in the real estate sector, the government is planning to introduce a three-year residency visa to those who invest in Dubai, according to some media reports.
While the details of this rule are not clear yet, Mohanad says that this is a positive move to reinstate confidence in potential investors. "For the past three years, the challenge has been to keep pace with the rapid development of the industry.
"Investors, especially those from overseas, need to feel that their rights will be protected and that a resolution will be accessible, equitable and timely if any dispute arises. The opportunity presents itself now for the rapid development of a legal framework that investors feel they can rely upon if things go awry ever again," he adds.
Despite the fears of yet another recession, the Dubai property market has, over the past few months, seen some activity, with banks being more liberal as far as lending is concerned.
Mohanad believes that the flow of credit into the property market during the last quarter of this year should speed up its pace as more mortgage providers and investment financiers start lending again. "The recommencement of financing by Tamweel was a very positive step and will hopefully encourage more lenders to start injecting liquidity to support the end-users," he says, adding that he believes the property market in Dubai will go through a period of acceptance and renewed confidence in 2012.
"Dubai has learnt from the past three years and will end 2011 stronger, smarter and more mature," Mohanad concludes.
Harbor Real Estate was founded by a group of investors and businessmen primarily to manage their portfolios. Mohanad Alwadiya, the company's managing director, joined Harbor in 2007 and has played a major role in making it one of Dubai's leading real estate agencies, expanding its services to include property supervision.
Team Harbor Real Estate
Designation: Managing director, Harbor Real Estate
Came to Dubai in: 1988
Education: BBA in marketing and communications and a higher diploma in construction material management
Previous experience: Prior to joining Harbor, Mohanad worked with several companies such as Leo Burnett, Sama Dubai and Residencia Real Estate in senior positions
Role in the organisation: Managing the firm's strategic growth and operational plans
Designation: Sales and leasing director, Harbor Real Estate
Came to Dubai in: 2005
Previous experience: Mohammad worked with a number of firms such as Deloitte and Touch, Global Investment and Forex Canada, and Golden Sands before he became a part of Harbor's team
Role in the organisation: Setting and implementing the transactional guidelines of the organisation in accordance with the corporate vision and best global practices