Arabian Business exclusively publishes extracts from Dubai business legend Khalaf Al Habtoor’s new autobiography. Here, Al Habtoor recalls the moment he decided to leave his old job and set up his own company.
Ever since my resignation from Al Mulla, every minute of my time had been dedicated to seeking a decent income. Mohammed Saeed Al Mulla was far from happy to see me go. “How can you quit when you don’t have any money?” was his reaction.
That was a good question. There were moments when I reflected that my decision to leave had been hasty. My paltry savings were running out fast and I was now responsible for providing for my wife and two sons, three-year-old Rashid and one-year-old Mohammed. I regretted that living in Abu Dhabi meant I hadn’t been around to see Rashid take his very first steps or utter his first words, but I knew that my father had lovingly watched over him as my surrogate and I was resolved to give both children every chance to get ahead… For their sake, failure wasn’t an option. There was no time to waste.
I was pleased that I was no longer a ‘weekend Dad’ and each time I gave my beautiful boys a cuddle, I couldn’t help wondering what their futures would look like. Responsibility weighed heavily upon me because I knew in my heart that their lives would in large part be shaped by my decisions. For their sake, failure wasn’t an option. There was no time to waste.
I perceived that Dubai was in dire need of new hotels, villas and apartments to accommodate the newcomers, and was eager to establish a construction company or build a fine hotel. However, such grandiose projects were way beyond the reach of someone like me without access to land or capital. I had no choice but to cut my canvas according to my means, which I did literally.
Owning a hotel was out of the question, but after coming across a brochure advertising beautiful Scandinavian-manufactured tents, I thought they were the next best thing. I imagined myself as a major importer of tents with warehouses and shops.
Excited by the venture, I ordered a number of tents and scraped together the cash to pay for them. But what a terrible disappointment when the consignment finally arrived! They had appeared huge in the catalogue, but in reality, they were one-person tents used by Western outdoor types for camping.
I had announced their imminent arrival with great fanfare and made the mistake of unveiling them to a few of my friends. They stared at them, touched them, held them up for inspection and then broke out in uncontrolled laughter. My humiliation wasn’t over. Each time I got together with my friends, my tents were the butt of their jokes.
There wasn’t much call for such leisure items in late 1960s Dubai. I was unable to offload them and they were left to gather dust along with my fantasy. Al Habtoor Tenting was not to be. Thank goodness for that!
Undeterred, I borrowed 50,000 riyals from Mohammed, my brother, to import refrigerators from Europe. Finally I was on the right track. Just about everyone I knew wanted one. Within no time I had sold all of them to people I knew. Everyone was happy; everyone, that is, except me. They all loved their smart fridges but were unable to pay for them. I chased those payments for ages without success.
You’re probably wondering why I didn’t insist on getting paid up front. It was different in those days. People generally trusted each other. It wasn’t that my friends had contrived to fleece me. They had every intention of honouring their word. It was just that most of them were still living from hand to mouth. When they were presented with the choice of putting food on the table for their families or paying me, there was no contest.
After all my efforts I was practically penniless, in debt to my brother and feeling slightly dejected. I thought it might be helpful to approach Mr Al Mulla to ask for his advice. He listened patiently to my tale of woe and seemed interested in my ideas until he finally said, “Why don’t you come and work for me again? Your old job is waiting for you.” That wasn’t what I wanted to hear at all. “Thank you very much for your offer, Sir,” I said, “but I want to be my own man.”
It was time to gamble even if that meant going for broke. This is it, I told myself... sink or swim time. I decided to aim high and set about establishing my own engineering company. I did it on a ridiculously low shoestring budget. My capital could hardly cover laces, never mind shoes.
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