Iron Man of the Middle East? Meet Dr Fahad Saif Harhara, CEO of NIMR Automotive

Dr Fahad Saif Harhara, CEO of NIMR Automotive, on building military vehicles, protecting clients (quite literally) and using martial arts to handle stress
By Thomas Shambler
Mon 20 Mar 2017 09:26 AM

So what's the story behind your business?

NIMR Automotive is the official manufacturing arm for military vehicles for the government of Abu Dhabi. We create tactical vehicles, mainly in the 4x4 and 6x6 domain. Our parent company is Tawazun, which took over in 2008. In 2013 we broke ground on our new factory, which is operational today.

I was assigned by Tawazun to be the CEO in July 2013. Back then we had just 80 members of staff, and today we have over 850 employees. We've gone from producing just two variations of the vehicle to over sixteen, and now have a full order book through to 2020.

Where would you like the company to go beyond 2020? Are you looking to produce more vehicles? Create more variations?

The thing about our industry is that every single car is unique. We have a saying in our company that no two vehicles are alike. This is because our clients require vastly different configurations, depending what they are doing and where they are doing it. At the moment, we are currently in a new procurement cycle. Most military vehicles have a lifecycle of around 25 years.

The last great procurement cycle was in 1991, post-Gulf War. That was when the region looked to upgrade their fleets. That cycle is about to finish, and everyone is going through a new cycle of purchasing. And everything has changed. The theatre of battle has changed, the level of protection required has changed.

Most of what needed 25 years ago is obsolete today, and there are many more requirements. Vehicles must have greater payload capacity; they must be more agile but also smaller and easily transportable. We hope to capitalise on this procurement cycle, while also expanding from outside the UAE and GCC regions. We are now targeting South East Asia, and even testing waters with supplying vehicles to European countries.

It seems like your industry is dominated by entrenched heavyweights. How do you go about competing in this very mature market?

It is all about establishing your product. Once you have done that, then you can look at tackling things like marketing. For the past few years, ever since Tawazun took over, our number one mission has been to validate our portfolio of products. We do that by going to lots of proving grounds, and third-party testing centres.

We don't just ensure we meet performance standards, but we exceed them. That was where we began. Then we differentiated ourselves. We understand this terrain better than anyone else. We live and breathe here; this is our home territory. And we understand our extreme environment better than anyone else.

With regards to moving into Europe and competition with heavyweights, it is quite a challenge. Especially since every Ministry of Defence tends to have its standards and specific requirements. That's why we remain flexible, and will sometimes partner with suppliers we know and trust. Only then do we approach a customer.

What's the biggest challenge facing your industry at the moment?

Everyone wants to have the most performance and mobility, for the smallest price. Now, I can use advanced technology to increase performance, but that will also hike up the cost. So it's an ongoing challenge to try and meet all those requirements but with the right price sweet spot.

Of course, we're talking about military vehicles – so it's not just the cost of the motor you need to consider. You pay for the logistical package inside, the training of the drivers, the spare parts, and all this must be guaranteed for a minimum of twenty years.

With such a long lifecycle, do you run into challenges when it comes to producing new vehicles? How do you start planning a vehicle that won't be needed until 2030?

This isn't a unique problem just for us, but we do have a unique way of solving this challenge. Our engineering team is in excess of 85 staff – the total amount of experience is over a thousand years. When we began, NIMR succeeded in attracting the literal who's who in the world of military vehicle manufacturing. So we have a massive research and development house that watches out for future developments every lifecycle.

But here's how it works for us. A client may purchase a range of vehicles, let's say they want them to be highly mobile as that's what is required. Ten years go by, and as a result of certain changes – in the theatre of battle, for example – greater protection is required. 

It would be prohibitive to buy a load of new, more protected vehicles, so instead a client will come to us, explain the problem, and my team figures out how to do that retrospectively. A complete redesign takes twenty years, but we upgrade our vehicles to keep them relevant.

Where does innovation come from within your company?

Customer feedback is huge for us. Traditionally, military design has been based on performance metrics, not on feedback. But the days of a client shopping for a thousand trucks, for example, is no more. Clients now want to be involved in every aspect, from the design to the manufacturing. Here's a case in point: a typical military tactical vehicle has around 50 or 60 different switches and knobs in the cabin.

The amount of time you need to spend just training a driver on this system, well, it takes a long time. Our idea was to simplify this and make the cabin as close to something in a commercial vehicle. Now, all our vehicles come with touchscreens – military grade, of course – which means less time training, and more time driving.

How do you ensure quality at your company? It's one thing to make sure your vehicles don't break down in the dessert. But you have to do more than that if something goes wrong with one of your products it can cost lives.

The quality control in the military domain is one to one. What I mean by that, is that every vehicle that leaves the shop goes through checks, and there are no shortcuts. We have our own testing track in the facility, and each vehicle goes through this testing. Then, it's testing once again with the customer. Each step of production also has its set of standards, from the materials you select to the manufacturing process. So even the building blocks have quality standards, and then you go from there.

Keep in mind, many of these vehicles are mission specific, and require different capabilities that all must work together seamlessly. A customer, for example, might require a night-vision camera attached to the vehicle. Even though we don't produce this camera, it is still our duty to make sure it works with our platform 100 percent of the time. It is our responsibility, not the clients.

What led you to become the CEO?

My background is in engineering, and then I did two masters and a PhD. Over that time, I was only ever a part-time student, also employed with the Abu Dhabi Government at the time. The UAE is trying to become a knowledge-based economy and to do that; the locals need to be highly educated and highly involved.

I consider myself to be quite lucky, I was given several responsibilities and delivered them successfully. So in 2008 I was called into my CEOs office at Tawazun and asked to be the new CEO of NIMR. That was July 2013.

What's your decision-making process? How do you make tough calls?

To make difficult decisions, you need to empower your team. Because they are your first line of decision-making. I have ensured that my directors at the company have enough empowerment to run the day-to-day work. But of course, with empowerment comes responsibility and accountability.

In my line of work, you can't be a lukewarm decision maker. Sometimes you have to make tough calls, but if you have a good team working with you it makes it easier.

How would you describe your management style? Are you very hands-off? Or do you tend to micromanage?

I do not like the word micromanage, but I fear I am quite close to it. And it's not because I feel the need to be in control of everything, or that I don't trust my staff, more so because of the enormous responsibility that comes with being in the military domain.

When your customers have questions, they don't go to sales people; the questions come to me. And if the CEO doesn't know something, that puts the company in a tough position. It's not so much that I micromanage, and more that I am very hands-on with the business.

All of that responsibility must create quite a bit of stress, would you agree?

It is a stressful job, and it becomes even more so when your product is involved in operations because you are on edge. Safety of those using our vehicles is always a priority, so I need to make sure that if they need any immediate support, then I am ready to provide it. During operations, it is quite stressful.

How do I cope with that? Personally, I use physical fitness. I have been in martial arts for the past 16 years, and I train on a daily basis. I keep myself sane and under control in this way.

How do you manage a large company, and find time for things like family?

I have three children at a very tender age. When I was this age, my father as always there for my family and me. So I need to ensure that I repeat that cycle of being there for my children. There are times when this is difficult, like when I am travelling for example. But I always try and give my kids the weekend. I also ensure that I have two breaks per year, one in the winter and another in the summer. I would love to say that I switch off my phone each holiday, but I often don't.

What's a typical day look like for you?

I would say that I don't really have a typical day anymore. As well as my responsibilities at NIMR, I also still have a role at Tawazun. I am the Technical Investment Adviser for the parent company. I sit on several boards, including a federal board. The way I manage all that is by using technology. The commute to work takes 45-minutes, for example, so I employ a driver. This allows me to get a start on the day.

Every day starts with a quick debrief with my senior leadership in the organisation, followed by customer interaction – which is quite important given the nature of some of our clients. I have lots of regular meetings with all parts of the company, but I make sure no meeting lasts longer than 15 minutes. This keeps everything efficient. I tour the factory at least three times a week – unannounced – to keep everything on track.

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