He is part of the creative brain behind the interiors of the iconic Armani Hotel in Dubai and Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi and yet Talal Gazi Saeed’s first love was always computers. While he aspired to become the owner of a computer firm, Talal also enjoyed helping out at his father Gazi’s interior design company in Dubai when he was younger. Slowly he saw and fell in love with designing and interiors, realising their potential to change projects.
“I was intrigued by how the interior of a building could change with just a few deft touches of paint or with a novel theme,’’ says the 49-year-old founder and managing partner of Dubai-based Fino International, an interiors finishing company, which counts Ibn Battuta Mall and Crowne Plaza Doha among its clients.
A chance meeting with an associate of a major UK-based furniture-making company led him to set up and move into interior design full time. He has not looked back since.
“I firmly believe it is important to explore new worlds, grab opportunities and create things that the next generation would be proud to look up to,’’ says Talal, whose company has an annual turnover of Dh300 million. Talal tells Friday how design has shaped his life:
As a young boy, I had a passion for computers and my dream was to own an IT business in the UAE. In 1976, when I was 12 my father brought me to Dubai. I lived here for a week before he packed me off to the UK for three months to work on my English skills.
I then went on to get a degree in computer science from the University of Detroit and Idaho and arrived in the UAE raring to go. But my father insisted I first needed practical experience in a business setting before I floated my own venture. So from 1989, I worked for 18 months for a local IBM dealer in Bur Dubai, where I learned the business of selling computers and associated products.
At the same time, I also used to help my father in his interior-furnishing business, meeting clients and understanding their work specifications, offering ideas and suggesting themes. Although I was not qualified in interior design at the time, I learnt a lot by seeing and following all that my father was doing. My dad used to import decor from the UK and sell it here. I used to monitor his inventory, learn from him how to choose pieces, gauge the trends in the market, and study people’s buying tendencies and choices.
But that was just my part-time job. I wanted to set up a computer business, so in 1992 I launched ASA Computers. It was a small operation that I started from my father’s office.
I was doing very well, but in 1995 I came across a new opportunity. It happened while I was attending the International Design Exhibition in Dubai, one of the largest events in the region catering for the design industry. There by chance I met a gentleman, Ken Faraday who worked for William L Maclean, a British furniture manufacturing company.
One thing led to another and we began discussing bringing an interior-outfitting contracting service to the UAE. We wouldn’t just source or manufacture the products required for a building’s interiors, but we would also carry out the interior decoration as well. It was novel idea at the time as most firms used to either source the products or handle the interiors, but not do both.
Always looking for new challenges and ideas, I gave up the computer business and together with Ken established JC Maclean, providing complete interior decor solutions. As managing partner, I was actively associated with doing the interiors for, among others, the Al Faisaliah Tower in Saudi Arabia and Ibn Battuta Mall.
In 2005, I decided it was time to chart a path of my own. So I left Maclean and teamed up with the well-known Dubai businessman, Ahmad Abdullah Al Shafar, chairman of Al Shafar Group, which is involved in construction and retail, to launch a company now known as Fino International.
We landed a contract to build and furnish villas on three of the fronds of Palm Jumeirah and soon other high-profile projects followed.
One of my favourite and most challenging projects was furnishing the Armani Hotel in Dubai. It was an ambitious project – the first Armani hotel to be built here so there were no prototypes to follow. Everything, even the paint formula, was meticulously created from scratch. Five thousand Fino personnel worked three shifts a day furnishing 48 levels of the hotel.
It was a huge learning curve because we had to work against a tight deadline and produce the best quality work possible. I realised that one needs to believe in oneself and be confident of one’s strengths. The other important lesson I learnt was to have the will and determination to take on any challenge and to choose the right people to manage and work on a project. The managers should not only be skilled but result-oriented. Instead of just pointing out a problem, they should be people who offer solutions.
I believe if a job is well done, recognition follows. More contracts materialised:
The Address Downtown Dubai, Le Meridien Abu Dhabi and The Crowne Plaza in Qatar. It was exhilarating to work on the Dubai Metro too. Beginning in 2008, we executed the interiors of all entrance pods to the Metro stations on the Red Line.
I believe that success depends on efficient delegation to qualified people. The qualities I always look for in managers are responsibility to do things independently, maintain deadlines whatever the challenges and never to cut corners in terms of quality.
I wish to create business leaders not followers. I always tell them that I am there for strategic guidance, but they need to chart the route to progress and execute plans perfectly.
One feature you will not find in my workplace is a closed door. My office is always open because I believe I should be available for my staff at any time. I also take in around ten new graduates from the UAE every year and provide them with work experience. This is my way of moulding future managers.
Whatever I do, I like to approach it with a hands-on, go-do-it attitude. I like to finish all work at the office where it belongs and detest taking work home.
I grew up in Al Jizeh, close to the city of Daraa in southern Syria. Its lush, fertile plains are ideal for growing wheat and lentils. I lived with my mother and grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins on our family farm. I used to see father just once a year as he was busy shuttling between the UK and the UAE where he was operating a furniture and fittings firm.
Even though my father was not close by, all my material and emotional needs were adequately met by my uncles and aunts. These days, I unwind after a day’s work by hitting the gym, or sometimes just sitting outdoors with friends. Visiting and interacting with my friend and business partner Ahmad at his majlis is particularly relaxing.
In 1997, I married Amal, who is from Syria too. We have six children – Lina, 13, twins Hiba and Gazal, 11, Gazi, eight, Rama, five, and Omar, three. Family vacations are often spent in the Far East and the Mediterranean – Turkey and Malta are favourites.
Thursday evenings are usually dedicated to my father, siblings and special friends. We gather together and play some board games and enjoy good food.
Fridays are spent horseriding or watching my son, Gazi, play football, which makes me miss my younger days when I used to play the game myself.
On the business front, my dream is to lead Fino to become the number-one outfitting company in the region. We have ongoing projects in Doha. Hopefully, efforts to foray into the markets of Saudi Arabia and the Far East will bear fruit.
Another dream of mine is to build a small hospital where it is most needed. It would be in a developing country and would be a facility where the poorest receive free treatment. I am working hard so that the rewards of my success can power this dream.
I believe that if we work conscientiously – keep gathering knowledge and views on the subjects that concern us, take practical steps, and most importantly are adaptable, we will succeed in whatever we undertake.