Dubai Airports CEO Paul Griffiths plays digital computer organ at his home in Dubai. Image Credit: Oliver Clarke/Gulf News

The first thing that greets you when you enter the Griffiths home in Dubai is a pair of Ducati Monsters parked on either side of the foyer. The immaculately spotless Italian beasts, famed for their exposed engines and tubular steel trellis frame, offer us the first glimpse into a rather intriguing household.

Ambling past the glistening bikes, as we step into the wide expanse of the living room, we are awestruck by the other beast lodged at the centre: a musical beast that is.

The massive electronic organ that occupies the pride of place at the Griffiths villa was specially commissioned by its owner when he moved from London to Dubai, and was installed at the house by organ maker Hugh Banton from Cheshire in 2009.

It’s probably the only one of its kind in Dubai, and Paul Griffiths is particularly proud of it.
As someone who grew up studying church music in the UK and playing the piano, oboe and the harpsichord apart from, obviously, the organ; as someone who almost became a career musician and has performed organ recitals at St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and several English Cathedrals, and as the Vice-President and former chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Royal College of Organists in the UK, he has every reason to be.

When he’s not playing the organ, however, Griffiths’ main job keeps him rather busy – he’s the Chief Executive of Dubai Airports, managing the operations of both airports in the city: Dubai International, which is currently the world’s fourth largest with an annual passenger traffic flow that crossed 50 million last year, as well as Dubai World Central in Jebel Ali.
But what connects the dots between running one of the world’s busiest airports and remaining a devoted musician playing something described as the most complex man-made instrument after the telephone exchange?

“I think there’s a great similarity between being a musician and leading a team in a big enterprise that is a 24x7 customer service-based enterprise,” explains Griffiths. “You are trying to pull together in both fields a lot of intricate moving parts to make something that’s actually a fully-coordinated effort. When you are playing the organ or conducting an orchestra or running an airport, the techniques are largely the same and I think the skills require your brain to be wired in a particular way.”

Impressed by music and numbers

His interest in commerce, particularly in scrutinising large-scale enterprises to find ways to improve their efficiency and profitability, were piqued in his early years. At around the same time, he also encountered the organ. “When I was 10, my best friend at school asked me if I wanted to join the choir at the local church. At that age you say no to such things, but when he said I’d get paid for it, my interests were aroused,” says Griffiths. “When I went along for the choir’s audition, I was very impressed by the organ at the church, by this big instrument with all its keys, levers, stops and pedalboards… I was immediately struck and I wanted to play the organ from that point. So I took some lessons and got to grips with it quite quickly.”

The other interest Griffiths nurtured growing up was aviation.

“I wanted to understand how an airport schedule worked, how the turnaround time for planes could be reduced, how to make the most of a flight schedule and that sort of things,” he says. “My interest has always been to try and look at things that are quite complex and make sense of them; that’s why I’ve always been keen to be an instrumentalist at orchestras apart from being an organist.”

Griffiths could have easily ended up playing in one, apart from being a solo organist. But when the time came to choose a career, his father intervened.

“I think that the life of a musician is quite a perilous one and in this day and age if you are struggling to provide for your family and struggling to make artistic headway, it’s a pretty tough life,” says Griffiths. “My father was a jazz pianist and had some experience of what it was like to be a full time musician. His advice at that time was to keep music as a fantastic hobby but not as a profession. I disagreed with him at that time, just as most teenagers disagree with their parents on most things. But on hindsight, he was absolutely right. I’ve been very fortunate to have performed in some very high-profile musical engagements and at the same time build a professional career in quite a decent discipline.”

So, would he advice the same to his three children, especially considering that his wife Joanna was an organ scholar at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge and is a composer of choral and orchestral works?

Griffiths retreats into CEO-esque carefulness: “In this day and age, it’s important to be passionate about what you do, and I’ve been very fortunate to pursue a professional career and a musical career that have enabled me to be passionate about everything I do. My advice to anyone starting out on their career is to follow your passion and your ideals and let that carry you through.”

Indeed, Griffiths himself has never wavered from following his passions. Embracing a career in the travel industry, one of his major breaks came when he met Sir Richard Branson in the late 1980s.

“My first encounter with Richard was an interesting one. I had written a software to optimize the use of airline assets such as aircraft revenue, fuel, turnaround time and other such aspects. I met him while running my software company and was able to convince him that the program would dramatically improve the revenues for his [Virgin Atlantic] airline, which was then a small operation. After a couple of years of using that software, he was so impressed with it that I was appointed to the main board of the Virgin travel organisation and became commercial director of the airline,” he says.

“I got involved in scheduling airplanes and making the most use of an aircraft and making an airport operation profitable and so on. Then I went on to rail systems for similar optimisations and from there to running airports. So I have done planes, trains and airports,” Griffiths says, reclining with the satisfaction of a conductor who has just overseen the performance of a perfect Beethoven’s Ninth.

His time with Virgin Atlantic, he says, “was an amazing period , because we went through a period of high growth”.

Interestingly, Griffiths says, Emirates Airline was formed around the same time, “but the growth of Virgin through the 1990s was faster than Emirates. So when I left in 2002, Virgin was a bigger business than Emirates. Of course with its order of the A380s, Emirates got a big push and with its subsequent jet-speed growth, it has become the biggest airline by passenger distance flown. But it’s been interesting plotting the growth of two airlines which were born almost at the same time.”

From Virgin, Griffiths moved to British Airports Authority (BAA) in 2004, becoming the Chairman and Managing Director of Gatwick Airport, a position he held until 2007, when he was offered the top job for Dubai Airports.

The next big landmark: Concourse 3

How does it feel to be at the helm of an airport that’s only behind London, Paris and Hong Kong in terms of passenger traffic and is slated to overtake all of them within years?

“When I was offered the opportunity to run Dubai Airports by Shaikh Ahmad Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of Dubai Civil Aviation and Chairman of Dubai Airports, I felt very privileged. Over the last 4-1/2 years, the airport has seen dramatic changes in both traffic levels and the quality of service that we offer. The traffic has doubled in the last five years and we now heading towards the spot of the worlds largest international airport, which I think in three to four years time we’ll probably get to.”

There have been a huge number of challenges, such as providing the right amount of capacity, ensuring the optimum level of customer service and managing innovations across the airport, Griffiths says, apart from plotting the right growth strategies for Dubai World Central, the new airport which opened in 2010. “For Dubai International, our volume will be 57 million passengers by the end of the year, and that’s going to be quite a challenge. And when Concourse 3 opens in the first quarter of 2013, it’ll be yet another landmark in the journey of Dubai aviation: it’ll be the world’s largest concourse specially designed for the A380s,” he says.

Understandably, there are a zillion stakeholders Griffiths must deal with everyday doing such a job. “We work very much in partnership with Emirates, FlyDubai and the other 150 passenger and cargo airlines which serve Dubai International and Dubai World Central,” he says.

Finding the perfect work-life balance with such a stressful job under the belt must be difficult, and doubly so when you are an active musician as well. Or isn’t it?

“The key to a happy life is a balance of different things,” he says. “I tend to pursue to the maximum of my energy and ability all the four corners of my life: that’s my music, my role running Dubai airports, my family and my hobbies. Whichever quadrant I happen to be in, it’s always something that I’ll be doing at maximum speed, velocity and energy. Getting these four things in balance is very important to me – having a good musical engagement is something that’s stretching me, running an airport is something that’s professionally very stretching; and I think here in the UAE the social life is structured around the ability of the family to be very much part of that – so that’s also very important to me.”

I am curious about a typical day in the life of Dubai Airports’ musician CEO.

“The good thing is that I don’t have a typical day,” he replies. “Most of my time is spent to ensure that things are working properly – that people are communicating effectively together, that projects are on track, that we are actually pursuing the things that we need to pursue for the decisions we make for the future, and just making sure that our customers – which are both the people who travel through the airport and the airlines which operate out of it – are actually receiving what they need to receive to make their businesses successful.

“And then outside of that, if you are doing my job you are never far away in this day and age of wireless devices, you can have emails and phone calls which just happen any time of the day. So usually I can stretch my day to be as long or as short as I need it to be, thereby leaving a bit of time to play the organ as a complete escape or to swim or to get fit: to do those things that one has to do to make sure that body and soul are acting in perfect harmony.”

Organ at church: Appeal for contributions

He is also an active member of the community, as we saw from his participation with the Dubai Chamber Choir in the week before our interview, for a concert at a very unusual venue: Christ Church in Jebel Ali. It’s the first time that an organ – typically an instrument installed at churches and cathedrals rather than at private homes – is being played at the church, and it’s all for a cause.

“For hundreds of years the organ, hailed by Mozart as the 'King of Instruments', has been a powerful part of musical life worldwide. Sadly, at present there are no organs of any quality in Dubai that are accessible to the public,” Griffiths explains. “Given the excellent acoustics of Christ Church, an organ would be a fantastic addition and would provide an instrument to give solo concerts and to accompany the various choirs in Dubai, thereby enriching the city’s musical life,” he says. Obviously, such a project needs substantial investment and Griffiths appeals to everybody, including the audience spellbound by his solo recital of a Henri Mulet piece and his accompaniment of the choir on the sublime DuRufle Requiem, to donate generously.

Back at his villa, I ask him whether he finds any time left to pursue other hobbies.

“I have a passion for anything that moves – planes, trains, motorcycles, anything. I also love fast cars – I have already driven around the Hungary circuit in an F1, and later this year I plan a spin around the Paul Ricard circuit in France,” he says. “However, I don’t think that’ll be my next profession somehow,” he adds very earnestly. 

As for the Monsters, he says: “Very early on a Friday morning, a run out to Kalba is a fantastic release from a busy professional week.”

His wishlist for the future sees him as an eclectic mix of the aviator, the musician and the master organiser.

“Dubai is a very interesting place both within the Arab world and also at the crossroads of dozens of cultures: I think it’ll be a great opportunity for Dubai to put on the map the best musical traditions from each of these cultures. It’ll be wonderful if we could have a conservatoire where we could combine tertiary music education with wonderful arts and music and performance venues. I am hoping at some point in the future I might be influential and helpful in developing such a venue.”

He also longs to play the harpsichord again, which he probably can’t in Dubai because they are very sensitive to heat and humidity.

“There’s quite a lot of repertoire, particularly from the 17th and early 18th century, that’s written for the harpsichord and small orchestra… Handel’s Messiah has got a wonderful harpsichord part and whenever I got the opportunity to play that I always jumped at the chance [in the UK],” he says.

Back at his England home, there’s something else that he looks forward to.

“When we came to know we’d be coming to Dubai in 2007, we decided that it’d be really nice to have a proper pipe organ made especially for us. We went to southwest France to a very small abbey to meet an organ builder called Bernard Aubertin, who has produced some of the most wonderful organs at his workshop,” Griffiths says.

“They literally take years to build and perfect: he makes all of the parts himself – he makes all the wooden parts, he casts his own pipes using metal, and in the end they are a masterpiece of ingenuity and craftsmanship. We commissioned him in 2007 to start building one; it’s still not complete, but we hope one day it will be sufficient to be installed in our house back in the UK. It will be the first significant organ to be installed in a private house in the UK in nearly 150 years.”

And what about playing at orchestras?

“As a musician it’s absolutely fascinating. In an orchestra, you’ve got 60-70 odd people from different nationalities playing different instruments; but when you hear an orchestra you don’t judge it by the individual player, you judge it by the overall quality of music. It’s exactly the same running an enterprise here in Dubai: you’ve got different nationalities and different backgrounds, and we are very proud of the fact that 24% of our workforce is Emirati. Getting that workforce to work together with nations from around the world is something we can celebrate here in Dubai as one of the great success stories. To me, a key ingredient of that success is the harmony that we can leverage by getting all the different nationalities within our workforce to come together to impress the customer. Because I also want Dubai International to be the world’s best airport in terms of customer service…”

He goes on talking about future plans, as I realize with horror that Paul Griffiths the musician has deftly switched off from his quadrant of Bach and baroque music and the organ and the oboe, and switched on the quadrant of his other passion: the maximizing CEO busy taking his airport to the top of the world.