Emaar chairman Mohamed Alabbar looks back at what made his company a world beater, the pain of the recession that followed, and what the future holds for both him and the company
Over the course of two hours, the many sides to Mohamed Alabbar all come out. Casually dressed, sitting in the lounge at one of the many great hotels he built, The Address Downtown Dubai, Alabbar is busy juggling his iPhone, a cup of black coffee and a croissant. This is Alabbar the family guy: warm, engaging, charming and carefree. You would never guess he runs a $9.3bn company, as he shows me a video of his daughter appearing in a school play.
“She’s gonna be a star,” he says proudly.
By the time the second course of coffees and croissants arrive, the Emaar chairman is ready for introspection. He starts to bare his soul. We have just come out of the worst financial crisis in living memory, and boy, does he know it. Kicked, lampooned and cornered, Emaar went from stock market darling to investor pariah.
“If I had the chance to do this all again, I would probably go private… Normally, I’m a fast learner, but on this one it took me a bit of time for things to sink in, and realise that it’s a continuous pressure. You have to be man enough to handle the pressure, but I realised late,” he says.
Ninety minutes later, the metamorphism is complete. The passion, the swagger and the drive are back. Shares are rallying, towers are rising, profits are rocketing. Emaar’s obituary writers, not for the first time, have been put out of business. And what a business Emaar now is, with a staggering $167bn of future projects in the pipeline. When you cut to the chase, make no mistake: Emaar is back. Mohamed Alabbar is back.
“In the next ten years, I hope that I will have built at least three more Downtowns. Will I do the world’s tallest tower again? Of course I want to. I am looking. I have a wish. I will try.”
Don’t bet against him doing just that, as the latest phase of Emaar and Alabbar’s rollercoaster ride begins to take shape. This is a company that has delivered an average of $1.8bn worth of projects every year for the last thirteen years. The 2012 results showed an 18 percent rise in net profits to $577m from $2.24bn of revenues, numbers that have been good enough to give the stock market a heavy dose of endorphins.
The shares have moved up 85 percent in the last year, with January alone recording a 30 percent jump – that’s the best start to a year since the company went public in 2000. Last July, the share price was AED2.85, this week it is at about AED5.40. What investors like most about Emaar is its recurring revenues, with the shopping malls and retail side of the business accounting for $740 m last year – a 27 percent increase on the previous year. Good? Clearly not good enough. “I think we will do better,” says Alabbar.
That would be some achievement. Forget Marlon Brando resurrecting his career in The Godfather, or Bill Clinton’s second term in office. History may well judge the Emaar story and the Alabbar story – both intrinsically linked – as the greatest comeback of all. It was never meant to be so good in the first place, it was never meant to go so wrong, and it was never expected to turn around again so spectacularly.
All this has taken place in the space of fourteen years. Back then, Emaar launched its first project at Emirates Hills, led by a 39-year-old hotshot with plans to take on the world. In 1999, Alabbar already had an impressive track record, having been director general of the Department of Economic Development, and having launched the Dubai Shopping Festival. Three years earlier, Advertising Age named him as one of the “International Marketing Superstars of the Year.”
But property? That was a whole new ball game. The world knew Alabbar, but nobody knew Emaar.
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