New beginnings

After working for some of the Gulf’s biggest blue chips, expat Alex Andarakis decided to set up his own management consultancy. The results, he says, have been surprising
By Ed Attwood
Tue 31 Jan 2012 04:15 PM

Alex Andarakis is in a genial mood. This is somewhat surprising, considering he’s just arrived in Dubai after a delayed flight from Riyadh, and is already running late for his next meeting with a major new client. But then again, the Australian has never been satisfied with taking life slowly.

2012 marks the 20th anniversary of Andarakis’ arrival in the UAE, and in those two decades he has compiled a CV that is the envy of most expats. From Emaar Properties to Aujan Industries, and from Al Islami Foods to Omniyat Properties, the man who calls himself first and foremost a marketeer has left an indelible imprint on some of the Gulf’s top blue chips.

Two years ago, however, he decided to invest all his experience — and a sizeable sum of capital — into creating his own management consultancy. Today, 21 months in, Andarakis Advisory Services has had 200 discrete jobs, counts 21 clients around the Middle East and South Asia as dedicated clients and provides a portfolio of services, including everything from corporate strategy to marketing, brand strategy and corporate identity.

So what keeps him going?

“I want to get to maximum potential,” Andarakis says, smiling. “That was what drove this decision. Can I do this on my own? When I was interviewed by Arabian Business a few years ago, I was asked what were my key drivers? My own personal mission in life is freedom — and I define freedom as personal, professional and financial.

“Part of that is being able to impart my own management philosophy and ideas, as well as learning from others as you go along,” he adds. “The beauty of it was that although, yes, there is a global financial crisis, I had the backing of my family, I had financial freedom, and I could afford to do this an experiment.”

There’s no doubt that Andarakis’ experience at the sharp end of the Gulf’s best-known firms has helped him along his way. After Unilever shipped him out from Australia to look after marketing for some of its top brands, he was poached by Saudi Arabia’s Aujan Industries, where he spent just shy of three years working on the transformation of a family-run, locally-focused soft drinks major into a regional giant.

Today, the fruits of Andarakis’ work with Aujan are there for all to see. Credited with the firm’s ‘555’ strategy — to achieve $500m worth of revenue with five brands in five years — Andarakis’ tenure at the firm is being seen as the first step on a road that culminated in Coca-Cola’s decision to take a $980m, 49 percent stake in Aujan in December last year.

“The company really caught the attention of the region — we went from being a sleeper company to a dynamic company,” he recalls. “All credit to the chairman of the company [Adel Aujan] — he made the investment and he took the gamble. He backed us 100 percent and at the end of the day, if you look at the business now, it’s verging on a billion-dollar company.

“A lot of people ask me what was the number-one thing you achieved during your time at Aujan? The greatest success is not what happened during my time as CEO, the greatest success is today. Because whatever we did during the time I was there, obviously the people were well-trained and developed, and my successors have done a great job in continuing that business, and the testament is there today.”

From Aujan, Andarakis returned to Dubai in 2007, taking on a role as executive director of sales and marketing for Emaar Properties, at a time when the mega-developer was in the midst of the local property explosion. Many executives would have found the move to a completely different sector somewhat daunting — but not Andarakis.

“That was a personal challenge — could I switch industry?” he says. “But I’m a firm believer that marketing is highly adaptable irrespective of industry. At the core is — do you understand brand? What’s the belief system of that brand? How do you create a set of followers, and how do you stimulate those followers to keep following you?”

Andarakis remains extremely proud of his time at Emaar. While the Dubai property crunch has taken its toll on the city’s many developers, Emaar is still regarded as a firm that has delivered on its promises. So how did Emaar get it right when so many others got it wrong?

“The number one thing was that corporate governance was very strong,” Andarakis says. “Management discipline was very strong, and delivery was unquestioned. So, if we were to launch a product, our chairman [Mohamed Alabbar] pushed every single person in the organisation to make sure they delivered.

“The belief system was: we’ve asked someone to make the biggest single investment in their lives, and they’ve given us their hard-earned money in trust. We will deliver, come what may.

“I remember one time being asked the same question — and the tongue-in-cheek response at the time was that we had about 30,000 more keys than anyone else,” he adds. “So the proof is — someone actually bought something. They’re not imagining what their life could be like — they’re actually living it.”

In early 2008, as the cracks in Dubai’s property market started to appear, Andarakis left Emaar. He admits that “having a heavyweight marketing guy at the top wasn’t going to be the right thing to do” in that environment, and took some time out of the workplace.

From Emaar, Andarakis added further strings to his bow through the managing director’s role at Omniyat Properties — “I got to learn about development, asset management, construction and project financing” — and Al Islami Foods, where he was CEO and acted as an advisor to the CEO of the full Al Islami Group.

It was while he was working at Al Islami Foods that he made a final decision to set up his own company. But why was early 2010, with uncertainty still hovering over much of the key Gulf markets, a good time to put time and effort into a start-up? But Andarakis said that the flight of top executives from companies actually gave him a unique opportunity.

“I looked at the market and saw that a lot of firms were shedding people,” he says. “And by shedding people, you get rid of top talent. Because top talent tends to be the people that are paid the most. So they may be left with talent that is good enough for maintenance, but not good enough to get them out when the market is picked up.

“So I saw that and said, ok — from a management consultancy perspective — I’m not a cheap resource, so for me to go out into the marketplace, I might not have found the job I wanted,” he adds. “So why don’t I play on the fringe? Walk in, make my proposal and present my ideas to companies where I could come in and assist. At the end of the day, the positioning of my company is to inspire, propel and partner.”

Nowadays, Andarakis says, his firm is causing “serious headaches” for the big consultancy firms.

“I don’t walk in with a cast of thousands,” he adds. “If I’m at the first meeting with the client, I’m at every meeting with the client. I won’t come in, present my credentials, and then you’ll never see me again.”

It’s a strategy that appears to be paying off. Andarakis won’t allow the names of his clients to be published on record – which is testament to his policy of staying on the sidelines and ensuring clients take credit for their achievements – but his portfolio includes some solid firms both in the Gulf and India.

“I had a hit list when I was starting out,” Andarakis says. “I wanted to pick up real estate clients and I wanted to pick up beverage clients to begin with — because that was my expertise. Real estate took a little bit of time to come because they were a bit shy on consultants, and fast-moving consumer goods [FMCG] came almost from day one. And then business started to snowball.”

Much of what drives Andarakis is a determination to bring wider recognition for Arab brands. In any list of the world’s top brands, Arab firms — with honourable exceptions such as the Gulf’s airline giants — tend to be absent. Instead of a battle lost, however, Andarakis sees this as a fantastic opportunity.

“The region’s got to the point where the level of expertise and the level of talent is there — you are seeing more and more companies coming through,” he says. “Take firms like Almarai, Nada Dairy and SADAFCO — these are really nice companies with really big portfolios.

“As a generalisation, if companies have strong processes, talented people, good innovation, and a great product that evolves with the requirement of a functional or emotional benefit, then they start to become the Unilevers and Nestles of this world. Take Emirates and Etihad. They haven’t been around as many of the other airlines, but they’re leaving them behind. They’ve taken the core of what the industry represents, added benefits and done it quickly.”

But to make that switch — in other words to carry out an Aujan-like transformation — Andarakis says that regional firms need to adopt a new mindset.

“A lot of companies in the region focus on supply-based strategies,” he says. “So whatever my factory can make, I will make it and then I will try and force-feed it into a consumer requirement. One of the successes of Aujan was that they went back and asked, what does my customer want? And then — can I find myself a proposition that’s unique, compelling and for which people are prepared to pay?”

Judging by his track record, don’t bet on Andarakis failing to deliver on his promises.

“When I’m 60 years old and sitting on the front porch of my home with a view of Sydney Opera House, I want to be able to think of Arab brands that have made it to my local supermarket shelf in Australia and say — I had a role in that. That’s what really turns me on.”

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