Damac Holding chairman Hussain Sajwani started work at his father's shop in the Deira Souq at the age of 3. The harsh experience drove him away from the world of business until he eventually realised that the entrepreneurial spirit was in his blood. The head of the largest private property developer in the UAE tells Shalaka Paradkar that you only really learn through failure
It's hard to believe that Hussain Ali Habib Sajwani once hated the idea of being a businessman. After all, he was the school boy entrepreneur who made a princely profit of Dh2 for every 24 chocolate bars he sold his mates.
"I ate all my profits," recounts the chairman of Damac Holding Co LLC with mock seriousness.
The candy has been traded for a real estate empire and the profit has swollen to an estimated net worth of $2.1 billion. But when he was an adolescent, becoming an entrepreneur was about as welcome a notion as a root canal.
Business equalled a long, daily grind from 7am to midnight, toiling at the watch shop his father owned in the Deira Souq. Sajwani wanted, instead, to be a white-collar professional with a degree who worked regular hours.
He ignored his father's diktat to join the family business and chose to study medicine instead. A disastrous time at medical college in Baghdad ensued, when he failed his first year and he went to the US to do an engineering degree. The rest, as they say, is history.
Destiny and genetics intervened. Sajwani rediscovered his latent entrepreneurial talents while studying in the US. During his summer break in his final year, he sold timeshare products in the UAE and made a killing. It was one of his early business ventures as an adult.
Twenty-six years later, he has been listed by Arabian Business as one of the 50 richest Arabs in the world, with a net worth of $2.1 billion.
The 53-year old Sajwani oversees a business empire spanning 18 countries, with 7,000 employees that covers real estate, hospitality, industrial projects, investment, logistics and commercial trading.
Damac Properties is the largest private developer in the region and is expanding rapidly in North Africa, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar and the Far East.
You cannot drive on a road in Dubai without bumping into a sign advertising one of Damac's sleek towers (there are more than 80 in its $4 billion portfolio).
The investment arm, Damac Invest, has more than $1 billion in assets. Damac Holding also operates the largest catering company in the Middle East.
An industrial engineering and economics graduate from the University of Washington, Sajwani built his empire from scratch: Damac grew from a local catering company to a global conglomerate in 20 years.
Not bad for a man who professes to live a simple life. For Sajwani, business is a bit of a game, where billions can be made or lost. "I don't lose sleep over it. I don't stress," he says.
"At the end of the day, all the enjoyment and emotional fulfilment in life comes from your family. Business is fine, but the love of my wife and children means so much more."
I did not dream of this kind of success. On the contrary, when I was a teenager, I used to hate business and what it represented. I had been forced to help out in my father's shop since I was 3. As my father was hard on me, this made me hate the idea of doing business.
Even in high school, I was an entrepreneur of sorts. I would buy chocolates at wholesale prices from Bakar Mohebi in Bur Dubai and sell them for a profit at school. A lot of things in life do not happen through planning, but because they are supposed to. Call it destiny.
Do I have any regrets? No. Until I started my restaurants, I was single. My life was my work. I would get to work by 8.30am, have a burger for lunch and continue working until 10pm. Even today I don't enjoy socialising as much as my peers ... others enjoy golfing or fishing, I love working.
I am not stressed by big issues and problems. I may lose Dh1 billion, but I come home and sleep like a baby. My strategy is to continuously review my mistakes and try not to repeat them. Small problems irritate me, but not the big ones.
Me and my father:
I grew up in Dubai. My father was a businessman and, interestingly enough, my mother was a businesswoman, albeit on a very small scale. She would buy fabric from the wholesale market and sell this. My family was solidly middle-class.
I had a busy childhood: going to school in the morning, attending to my father's shop in the afternoon and being at Engineer Adnan Safarini's office from 7pm to 9pm, as my father was also a small-time developer and handled projects out of his office.
It was a routine that did not give me much time for anything else, except to have a sandwich for dinner and fall asleep. My father kept his shop open seven days a week; he sold watches and pens in the souq.
My greatest teacher was my father. He was entrepreneurial and very hard-working, working from 7am to midnight with just an hour's break for lunch. He taught me, pushed me and gave me a lot of knowledge.
Basically, he contributed to my love for hard work. He taught me to be precise as he was when it came to numbers, details and documentation. When I made a mistake, he was quite hard on me, so I learned the hard way not to make mistakes.
Particularly when I was in the shop. If I made a mistake while adding up figures, he would warn me the first couple of times, then the next time, it was corporal punishment.
I was an average student until Grade 8. Suddenly in Grade 9, I was the top of the class. One big reason behind that was that my father was not in favour of me going to university or even completing high school. He wanted me to join his business.
As he put more pressure on me to drop out, it had the opposite effect - I became more interested in academics. That's been a constant in my life since childhood - whenever anyone throws a challenge at me, I perform far better than I would have otherwise.
I grew up in a very conservative family with a very tough father. Since I was the eldest, my father's dream was that I join the family business.
And in the spirit of teenage rebellion, I was determined not to do so. Since my father was not very educated, he wasn't sure how to handle me.
Me and my career choices:
In the last four years of high school, I made up my mind that I never wanted to be a businessman. I wanted to be a doctor or an engineer. So I joined the medical college in Baghdad.
Again, that was against my father's wishes; he wanted me to work with him and I refused. I applied and obtained a government scholarship to study medicine in Baghdad.
Another of my entrepreneurial ventures took off when I was at university. Since it was under a socialist regime then, Baghdad had no luxury goods. Even soap had to be purchased from Kuwait.
My friends asked me to get them things when I went to Kuwait. On my next trip, some businessmen from our community asked me to bring back some more stuff - like cosmetics, which were three times more expensive in Iraq.
In Baghdad I wanted a car, but didn't have enough money to buy one. So I borrowed money from a friend and saved some from my scholarship. That summer I went to Germany and bought a car, drove it to Dubai and sold it for a tidy profit. I then went back to Germany and bought myself a Volkswagen - another venture!
I wanted to dress well, travel the world, live well and make the money needed for these things.
However, I failed medical college. Like most things in my life, it was a blessing in disguise. The medium of instruction was English, a language I barely spoke. I arrived late ... and was never able to catch up.
After I failed, I came back to Dubai. My father approached me again to join the family business and I refused again. We were on bad terms up until the time I left to study industrial engineering in the US.
I had learned many things from my Baghdad experience. It was my first failure and it affected my life; it had a bitter, harsh taste.
On the flight to the US, I wrote about nine pages on the reasons why I had failed and what I would do in the US. I still have that piece of paper.
Baghdad was the first time I had stayed away from my family. I did not use the newfound independence wisely, perhaps spending too much time socialising. But I had learned my lesson.
Me and the food business:
I returned from the US in 1981 and was quite keen to do an MBA. I was offered a job with Abu Dhabi Gas Industries Ltd (GASCO), with the provision that after two years of being employed, they would sponsor my MBA.
While I was at GASCO, I decided to start a catering business. It was a joint venture between me and a British company.
A year later, I could not go for the MBA as I had incurred a lot of losses in the business. I had a choice: to let the company go bankrupt or resign from my job and work on turning it around. I chose the latter. I think it was a good choice.
I had invested $200,000 of my own money in the company. Six months after I started the business, I realised the losses were about $1.2 million. There were vendors and creditors who had to be paid.
Our operating costs were largely manpower and food items. The British company had mismanaged it so much; they were buying raw materials from fancy supermarkets instead of at wholesale prices.
Having grown up in the souq, I went and bought my materials there, shaving 30 per cent off the price.
The other big overhead was manpower, where we had twice the number of people we needed. I had to make some hard decisions - to fire some people and change others. That was the toughest time.
The employees ganged up against me as a trade union and would not let me fire anyone. I went to Sri Lanka, where most of the workers came from, and recruited a new team of Tamil workers.
This worsened the situation, as the Tamils and ethnic Sri Lankans didn't get along. It was quite a learning experience. But somehow, by the end of the year I had managed to turn the company around.
We then started winning more contracts and opened branches in Abu Dhabi, Muscat, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Things were going well. Our next step was to venture into fast food. In 1988, we got the franchise for Pizza Inn.
The first year was successful, we had an early mover advantage, then we started having problems. Some big players entered the market, in particular.
The big companies threw hundreds of millions of dollars into advertising and promotions - the game had become much too big for me. Two years down the road, we had to downsize.
We took a lot of losses, we had to swallow that and move on. We shrank our operation and sold our companies in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. We closed four fast food chains and retained the few Pizza Inns we still operate in the UAE.
Me, property and high-tech investment:
In 1996 I made a lot of money on the Omani stock market. It was boom time and I played it well. At the end of 1997, I was lucky again. I sold most of my equity in the stock exchange in December, not long before its crash in February. I was plain lucky!
I poured those profits into the Dubai property market. I built four three-star hotels in the Rigga area, sold them for a profit and that was the start of my real estate business. We built five hotels in Deira before the market for 3-star hotels softened.
In 1998, I went to the US to take part in the tech boom as a venture capitalist. We invested in more than 60 internet companies. In two years there, I learned more than my 20 years of business.
I have a tremendous respect for the American way of doing things. Nobody can match them when it comes to building big businesses. Unfortunately, the tech boom did not last. We managed to break even and had to get out of it.
I do take risks, I make mistakes, but I learn and move forward. The fact that I invested in the internet and it did not do well did not put me off technology stocks. You just have to learn how to do it better and differently.
If you try something new every time you fail, you are not accumulating experience. Knowledge comes from doing the same thing, failing, and then learning how to improve on the past.
So how does it feel on being named the 28th richest Arab businessman?
It depends on how you value things. Being No 28, No 280 or even No 1 is not the issue. I enjoy my work and my success. I live a simple, humble life and am not hankering to be ranked on any billionaire's list ... it is publicity that I do not enjoy, want or like.
For the past 25 years I have been in business, we only started advertising four years ago. Now I do not have a choice in the matter, we have to advertise. We need the publicity to build our brand name.
Success in life depends on luck and God's blessings. There are people who work harder, are more intelligent and don't make even 5 per cent of what I make.
If you leave that aside and consider why a person is successful, I believe it's always the same ingredients. You've got to work hard, work smart and do your homework. People who don't do their homework right take blind risks.
What's your strategy to handle irate customers?
For me, customers are always right, no matter how hostile or rude they may be. You have to solve their problems. Customer care was one of the most important things I learned in the US.
Will you slow down anytime soon?
I am not thinking of retirement. I enjoy my work, but perhaps there will be a day when I will need to slow down.
As your family grows, you need to spend more time with them. I do take more time off nowadays.
I take a couple of hours off for lunch to spend with the family. In the 17 years I have been married, every year I have taken a month off in summer and a week off in the winter to spend with my family. So it's not as if I work around the clock.
What are your dreams for your children?
Like any father, I hope my children have a good education and, more importantly, good morals. They should be humble and not proud of their father's wealth.
That's the big challenge for them - and me. I come from a humble background, I built my business from scratch. They have been born with a silver spoon. They need to work hard, stay grounded and understand that no matter how big they become, they need people.
The richer you are, the more you need people. I need to be friendly with bankers, lawyers, contractors and employees. The more my business grows, the more I depend on people's goodwill.