How big are sustainable smart buildings, as a concept in the UAE? How mature is the sector and how do you read its expansion in the coming decade?
To be very frank, it’s still developing and the curve will only rise, given the post-Covid scenario and health and safety concerns. And we are already witnessing this. In essence, he who will not economise will have to agonise. And when you save, every penny saved is every penny earned. So, now sustainability is going to pick up big time, a trend that has already been evident to us, during the pandemic. To quote Barack Obama –“The easiest way to save money is to waste less energy”.
Long before the Covid crisis, when we began building the Intelligent Integrated Command and Control Centre (ICCC), at the SB group customer experience centre here in Dubai, the question we were asked was “what’s the need?” At the time, my response was that “it is the need of the hour”. In a way, we preempted the future. And then Covid happened. All I can say is that we won a lot of business, during this crisis, because we were prepared.
For instance, Netix Global solutions, in partnership with ODS Global (our system integration/ service provision arm) won the contract to handle the building management systems (BMS) for all of Damac’s towers. This is a landmark achievement. It’s the first time that a single vendor has taken on the onus to handle the services of seven different brands spread across 24 towers. Again, this accomplishment was not something we achieved overnight. Damac initially gave us the contract to handle one of their towers when we first associated with the brand a few years back. Then we were handed a second tower, a while later.
After we earned their trust in our professional capabilities, we were awarded the contract for their portfolio of 24 buildings. Although a single entity handling the BMS for a brand’s entire network is quite common in the US and Europe, it’s not so here in the Middle East, it’s something new here.
We then took on 11 buildings for a prestigious banking institution across the UAE, before signing on to handle up to 77 buildings for Etisalat. We tied up with four major malls across the UAE and Bahrain to connect their BMS grid. We also won major bids in July and August, to handle the portfolios of two major developers, which comprise of 29 and 41 buildings, one of which happens to be Emaar.
Please provide a bit of background on your firms, Netix Global BV, Teknoware Middle East, ODS Global DMCC and Exenture Global BV, and the product portfolio each of them provides.
Having worked with Honeywell Middle East for over a decade, I came to the realisation that immense opportunity existed in the field of life safety, specifically emergency lighting. I observed that an American brand had a monopoly in the sector, owning up to three sub brands, which together commanded up to 95 per cent market share.
I did my own research on companies offering similar products and services, initially scouting in Germany before finally settling for a Finnish company called Teknoware. The Finnish brand was a well-kept secret, a hidden gem that is evidently well known in offering lighting solutions in the automotive world. It is a very prominent brand in emergency lighting in Europe, but was not well known in the Middle East.
I decided to bring their brand to the region by establishing Teknoware Middle East here in the UAE, on the promise that I would increase their annual business from 20,000-30,000 euros to 2 million euros within two years and up to 10 million euros within a decade. They were skeptical about my claims but agreed to come on board.
I kept my promise, delivering them annual revenues of 2 million euros within a year and a half before delivering them 10 million euros worth of business in just eight years. My team and I were able to establish Teknoware ME as a brand, including an association with Dubai Metro, which has led to the brand being chosen to provide the central battery emergency lighting system, for the project.
ODS Global DMCC was established through a local partnership, initially to act as a support system for Teknoware, but then we started tying up with other agencies and offered multiple solutions in the form of building management and ELV (extra low voltage) solutions. The business has grown to take on close to the 2,000 projects and 1,200 service contracts, which it manages today.
An aspiration to create an international footprint led to the formation of Exenture Global BV, headquartered in the Netherlands, which deals in extra low voltage systems, with an emphasis on life safety, security and automation systems. Everybody needs products, quality and service and I thought why not provide all three to prospective customers globally!
We initially started with Exenture Europe, before moving into India - a market where we had experienced phenomenal growth. Barely three years after its inception, Exenture India had already bagged prestigious projects like Amazon, Google, JLL and JPMorgan Chase etc.
The business experienced a 500 to 600 per cent growth. Though in embryonic stage, the India market is very promising and hints at further expansion plans for us. Exenture India has its head office in Mumbai, with a regional presence in Bengaluru and Delhi and service projects pan-India. Our project portfolio is constantly growing and we recently added the Chennai Metro to our list of clients.
Netix Global BV, also headquartered in the Netherlands with R&D facilities in Finland, offers IoT & AI solutions for buildings. It offers Intelligent Integrated Building Management Systems (IIBMS), energy management, connected buildings, intelligent command & control centre, predictive maintenance, machine learning, smart metres and more. We believe our regional offices in the US, UAE, India and Singapore have a promising future, with several big ticket opportunities, due to the massive shift in the buildings management industry. IoT is taking centerstage in the sector and Netix has the capability and the solution portfolio to address these needs.
The bouquet of industries you have shown interest in and diversified into is quite varied. How did setting up Exenture Films India come about?
This might surprise you, considering what I’ve discussed so far about my career, but I was actually a part of the Indian film industry before I got into setting up all the firms I just mentioned. In fact, growing up I always wanted to be in films. I was an assistant director for Indian film director Indra Kumar, in the making of the 1997 hit Bollywood movie Ishq. I was associated with Kumar’s team for close to two years, but my entry into the industry was actually expedited by Indian cinema legend, Amitabh Bachchan.
Bachchan was making a comeback in the late 90s, after a 6-7-year hiatus. A movie project entitled Rishta, launched by his own production house ABCL, was to be directed by Kumar, for which I joined Kumar’s team as an AD. Now Kumar’s team was struggling with the storyline, which is when I stepped in, suggesting I could pull one off for the team. Kumar and his team were skeptical, but I managed to deliver the goods and that too overnight. When they got the story in hand the very next day, they were pleasantly surprised with my efforts. I got them onboard, over a 45-minute script reading session, and there I was, suddenly right in the thick of things.
However, I always say “if you want to make God laugh; tell him your plans” So, what happened with the movie was that the project proceeded too slowly and the movie did not see the light of day, even after four years of production.
This was the year 1996. I then made the plan to move to Dubai, work in the UAE for two years, make some money, and get back to India to continue my career in the film industry. As things panned out, I only managed to get back to movies in India 16 years after I moved to Dubai, which was as an investor. Again, there is a cost associated with learning and when you give it to others to learn on your behalf, they do it their way. I selected a television director, Ravi Rai, very popular in the TV industry in the 90s, to direct my movie.
The movie was directed well, but was a tad too long and shortening and editing it to meet the stipulated industry standard of two hours did not satisfy me, hence I have still not released it.
I see all this as part of the experience of setting up a business. I will definitely get back to movies as it’s always been my first love. It’s a great business to be in, but requires skill and patience in equal parts. Besides I am much wiser now, thanks to my past follies, and I hope my experience in the trade will help me make this arm of my business portfolio as successful as my other ventures have been.
CEOs nurture ambition and aspiration among staff and their peers. As the CEO of several firms that you have founded, do you believe in leading by example? Also, how important is EQ or the emotional quotient that a CEO helps foster among his people?
People make all the difference. If your team feels great, and motivated to perform at their peak, you can set yourself apart from your competitors and emerge as an industry leader. A team leader needs to inspire people and one can only do this through leading by example. Just telling your team what to do does not work, you need to embody it yourselves as a team leader.
For instance, we call ourselves the YYYE company - that’s Integrity, Synergy, Agility and Balance. During the initial Covid phase for instance I always stressed to my teams that it would not be the survival of the fittest but the quickest. Those who could set the ball rolling fastest, by coming back from the brink and providing solutions to pertinent issues in double quick time, will prevail. And the final one of those priorities, Balance, is critical, because anything in extremes is no good at all for team work, you can’t be underworked but you shouldn’t be overworked either.
I also don’t really believe in a system of hierarchy, I like my staff to come up and speak to me, discuss ideas, present suggestions and be critical, only this sense of transparency breeds successful staff members and a successful team is always good for business.
About CEOs and the EQ connect, one of my favourite quotes of all time is by the late US poet and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou who said, “I’ve learnt that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. It’s a quote that I relate to a lot. Being a very emotional individual myself, I am firmly of the belief that you can’t always drive people with your brain but you can always lead them with your heart.
Again, I compare being a leader to attending an audition all the time, so you have to be careful all the time of what you are saying and doing. But that said, being candid, frank and transparent inspires your staff to speak the truth as well, and truth inspires confidence. This stems from fostering the emotional quotient that you mentioned, within each and every member in the team. It’s all interconnected.
What are the inherent qualities of a successful firm?
When you go beyond working with just your two hands, you fall back on the talents of your team, a team that you put together and built as the leader of the firm. This is when the kind of people you select matters most. If things go wrong then it’s the team leader who is to blame, as it is he or she who selected the wrong people.
In my instance, I have not been successful all the time, wrong decisions were taken sometimes. But I will never blame the team for the mistakes committed, only myself for having been wrong in choosing and setting up the wrong individual for the task at hand. I have learnt from experience that people make a huge difference to the quality of work any firm delivers. In the case of my team, my HR team and I play critical roles in the success my firms enjoy. I am clued in on every individual my HR team selects to be associated with my firms.
Earlier, for instance I wouldn’t bother if an intern came in on a project. But now I make it a point to meet the interns when they come in on college projects, because the impression that this creates on young minds is amazing. That the company lead takes the time out to meet the interns gets the best of young talent, and they begin to seriously consider my brands as desirable platforms for them to initiate and even grow their careers. And we have witnessed it.
As an expat, how do you feel living and doing business in UAE?
UAE is home to me, a place where you feel secure not only for yourself and your family, but also for your extended family – which includes the people you work with. It’s a very safe and business friendly country - a land of justice and fairness. I can say this with conviction as I have experienced this first hand. My local sponsor tried to take away one of my businesses in his name, however, being a staunch believer in the justice of the land I filed and won the case at the Supreme Court.
I always believe in doing the right thing. Though it may take time, truth always prevails.
As a prolific entrepreneur heading several successful firms, what advice would you offer up and coming entrepreneurs?
I feel it’s most critical for aspiring entrepreneurs to be passionate about everything they set out to do. They need to lead from the front in everything they do. When you do get your hands dirty, you will find a way to tackle every problem that crops up, and will inspire your team to also rise up to the challenge. This is my belief. This is what experience has taught me.