The Grand Habtoor

Khalaf al Habtoor started from scratch to become one of the world’s richest men. In a rare interview, he tells Alicia buller about the secret of his success.

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By  Alicia Buller Published  May 28, 2006

|~|26-DSC_0174-200.jpg|~|Success: Khalaf Al Habtoor has been behind some of the biggest projects in Dubai for the past two decades.|~|Khalaf al Habtoor started from scratch to become one of the world’s richest men. In a rare interview, he tells Alicia buller about the secret of his success. Curious smells cloak the air. A mélange of leather, Arabic tea, and the finest wood. The chairman’s hands are sinewy and well worn. They rest on a regal-looking desk, facing out into a vast office glittering with trinkets of days gone by. But in his eyes there is little sign of the past: Khalaf Ahmed Al Habtoor’s electric gaze is fixed firmly on the future. Some 35 years ago the chairman was pretty much like you and me. “I started with no money because I had nothing,” he claims. “Nothing,” he repeats. But that was then. He leans back into his opulent brown chair − he is small-framed, alert, intelligent, and − ever so slightly − bored. Today the name Al Habtoor Group needs little introduction. The chairman now runs his eponymously titled, self-made multi-billion empire like clockwork, with the help of some 14,000 staff. Last year, Forbes.com also named Mr. Habtoor the world’s 548th richest man − with a personal fortune of US$1.2 billion − in its annual listings. Quite a feat, considering that the chairman began his career as an employee in a local construction firm. But it wasn’t long before he branched out on his own and established a separate company − the Al Habtoor Engineering Group. “There was nothing in the UAE then, no construction,” he says plaintively, “so I got lucky.” What the chairman means is that, as a young man, his father, Ahmed Mohammed Al Habtoor, introduced him to the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. The two men developed an excellent rapport and soon began to map out some of the world’s most ambitious construction developments. And, so, today, Al Habtoor is a diverse group: a prided home-grown treasure that is comfortably sprawled across six mass industries − engineering, motors, real estate, leasing, education and hotels. The group has been involved in many landmark projects within the Emirates, such as the world’s first seven star hotel − the imposing Burj Al Arab that rises to a staggering 321 metres on a man made island in the Gulf. Other successes include the Jumeirah Beach Resort and, more recently, the striking multi-million dollar Dubai-based Habtoor Grand and Madinat Jumeirah complexes. But one thing’s for sure, however powerful the chairman thinks the forces of destiny may be − it’s rare, if not, impossible, to ‘get lucky’ to the tune of a personal fortune worth over $US1 billion. “There are other factors too,” he admits. “There is luck, first, then opportunities, and then time,” he explains. “Of course, hard work is necessary, but that goes without saying. I started with no money, no capital. So if you can see an opportunity, you have to grab it, otherwise there’s no going back.” Another key to Habtoor’s success lies in his indomitable energy. The chairman is in his sixties − yet he claims that he finds the time to play tennis everyday, as well as being able to make himself available to oversee every aspect of the business on a day-to-day basis. “All of our units within the group are important to me; they are equally prominent. Our plans are to improve our overall growth because there is stiffening competition in the market and it is no longer easy,” he says. “We are trying to improve things by focusing on the personnel and directing them, so that they are ready for the day of competition when it comes. And I think that time is starting now. But just because all of our main units are doing very well, it doesn’t mean that we are doing greater than other companies. However, we are looking to improve − to be better than anyone else.” This is typical of the way that Habtoor speaks − a little murky, guarded, and even pushing towards riddle territory. Perhaps when you’re a man of the chairman’s stature, it makes you wary of your words. But it doesn’t help us to get any closer to the real financial performance of the Al Habtoor Group. At times, the chairman’s reticence and bandying around are on a par with some of the world’s most obtuse politicians. Ever the diplomat, he says: “All of the sectors interest me, it’s difficult to pick out anyone in particular. Every unit has so much growth. I like them all.” When asked which sector is making the most profit, he laughs out loud. “They all complement each other,” he snorts. For a man who has so much cash, he certainly doesn’t like to talk about it − at least, on a business level. But how does it feel to see his own name up there with the big boys on the world’s definitive list of the wealthiest people? The chairman visibly relaxes. Gone is the diffidence, and he becomes noticeably animated. “Maybe I’m a different type of person because I think that in this world you have two groups of people: those who are rich, and those who are wealthy,” he explains. “Some people are rich because of the fact they have inherited money, but some people are rich in everything, not only in money. In their capability. In their professionalism. In their assets. I always look to this side, not just to the wealth of finance and money.” But while Habtoor might possess a more holistic view of wealth than most, the man who was once named a “Leading Intellectual of the World” by the American Biographical Institute, eventually concedes that: “Money as a factor is the most important, whether you like it or not. Money is the most important thing in the world,” he says “But you have to have other things in your mind too − your culture, background, history, and your own point of view.” He shakes his head. “You cannot forget this.” And, well, he should know. But to look at Habtoor, you wouldn’t know he was a billionaire (whatever billionaires look like, that is). What comes across most strongly is his humanity and hard-earned experience. A quick look at his biography confirms this. The chairman has received a swathe of prestigious awards in many fields: culture, politics, peacemaking, education, and charity, among others. And from 1994 to 1997, he was the only non-US member of the World Board of Governers of the American United Services Organisation, but resigned in protest over America’s Middle East policy. But just last week he hosted a lunch for a group of Council on American-Islamic Relations delegates in his own home − a sprawling peach mansion replete with a special visitors’ annex, where the guests were treated to a feast of home-cooked braised mutton and traditional local dishes. The prestigious party included Larry Shaw, a US senator, and Paul Findley, a former US congress member, whom Habtoor calls “his best friend.” Just before lunch, Habtoor pleaded with his guests to remember: “there is a lot of Americans who do know our culture, history and background.” He also revealed that he is helping to support a US$50 million media campaign to improve the image of the Arab world in the States. Ever shrewd, the chairman knows that it is a small collective price to pay for smoother US-Arab business dealings in the next 50 years, during which time America is expected to remain a world superpower. “We can create a bridge between the US and the Muslim world,” he says. “It is a very difficult task, but also very required.” The fractured relations between the US and the Arab states sadden Habtoor because, more than anything, it is clear that he is a man who is eminently proud of his country. “The UAE is fast growing,” he says with surety. “Each Al Habtoor unit is fast growing, along with the success of the country. For example, let’s take cars. Because the UAE is growing, we are selling more cars. In addition, we have a leasing company where we used to have just 30 cars, now we have 6000.” The chairman explains why he thinks the UAE is so popular with visitors and ex-pats. “It is because it is cheaper for everybody to come here. A lot of tourists come just to visit and they end up buying property, which they cannot buy in their country. The facilities are less expensive so they get a better environment.” “Tourists are coming. New corporations are coming. So even in 10 years time there will be growth in all areas. This is largely because construction and tourism are booming,” he says, his hands in the air. “While these two industries are moving, it is like the blood circulation in the country’s body – everyone benefits: the hotels, the shops, electronics firms, the butchers, and the fisherman.” Finally, he pauses. “Yes, everything is moving.” With all this action and swelling within the company, it’s a wonder that the Al Habtoor Group has yet to go public and capitalise on the gold rush. “We have been studying the IPO idea for 13 years now, looking at different scenarios but still the time hasn’t come yet,” the chairman says. “When the time comes, though, we will definitely go in for the IPO. I feel that a family company that goes private is much more sustainable for the future. Let’s say, if the leader of the company dies or something happens − it means that the business doesn’t just go to the inheritor and the family doesn’t fight. The shares determine it all: You want to stay? You want to go? OK − Bye-bye," he adds. It is only when asked if he ever plans to give up the chairman’s throne that Habtoor’s real steely core − the very crux of what made him the powerful man he is today − shines through unequivocally. “I’m not going to give my shoes to anybody. Ever,” he says. “Though I try to pass on a little responsibility to my sons in case something happens.” Despite Habtoor sporting a bank balance that is beyond most people’s wildest dreams, the charismatic chairman claims that he is a man with a taste for simple things. Of course, he owns a Bentley or two, but he insists that he only likes cars so that he can be “transported from place to place in comfort.” His biggest indulgence? A spot of tennis in the garden − away from his exploding business, and the ever-increasing roar of Dubai’s cranes and planes.||**||

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