Known formerly as Cyril Sweett, the newly-rebranded Sweett Group is set to consolidate its presence in the Middle East. International MD Eamonn Kerr says the name "has maintained the theme of Sweett; it coincides with the original name, so that clients get used to the idea. I think it is also more contemporary; it looks and feels different as a single word."
Kerr explains the reasoning behind the rebranding: "As we have expanded our business across the globe, part of that expansion has involved mergers and acquisitions. I think there has been a point where we had three or four different brands sitting within the group because of mergers and acquisitions.
However, now that we have reached a critical mass as a global business, we want to see the Sweett Group start to be the prime focus. Internationally that name has now gained some traction. This pulls all of them together into one vision and one set of values, and I think that is a much more comfortable place for everybody."
Kerr says the rebranding process commenced in Australia and India, followed by the Middle East. "We will follow with Europe and North and South Asia." Given the current state of flux in the region and the world, it seems an opportune time for the Sweett Group to reassert its identity. "I think so. I think it is a point in time where the region is maybe just rethinking about where it is going, how it is getting there over the long term and what it is going to do. I think we are at the beginning of that road with our company in terms of being able to launch a common brand across the GCC," says Kerr.
"Also, you inevitably gain relationships, and that is always how business is best done, through relationship management. People like a clear and simple understanding, and when they see or hear different names, it slightly clouds the picture for them, so I think the single brand with a single set of values and a single strategic approach is very comfortable."
The fact that the Sweett Group has deliberately maintained a low profile could lead to the mistaken assumption that it is new to the region. "We have a registered business in Libya, although we are not entirely sure about the current status of that particular country; we have projects in Syria that are on hold that are about to commence; we have a registered business in Iraq. We registered our business in Iraq on the basis that we would be there when the market became secure both commercially and physically for us to operate in. We have some very talented Iraqi members of staff who work for us here. "As far as Libya is concerned, we see it certainly as an emerging market - and probably even more of an emerging market now. It is a Mediterranean country; it is relatively close to the UK in terms of being able to service it from there and here. Of course, we are in Egypt and Morocco, where we are already undertaking quite significant projects there. However, I see those locations as opportunistic rather than strategic. Our strategy will remain focused on the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and probably Qatar and Kuwait, as our strategic delivery points," says Kerr.
Kerr says the Sweett Group has been looking at Kuwait "for probably the last two years, but it has always actually been very difficult to drive projects over the line." He adds that Kuwait is a market to watch in the future as it has a lot of infrastructure development on the cards, which is a perfect fit for the Sweett Group's "particular strengths in things like health and PPP."
As for Qatar and the potential impact of the 2022 FIFA Football World Cup, Kerr says: "I think the competition in Qatar is huge, and that has driven down some of the actual commercial attractiveness of it. That said, I still think there is always a market for good-quality services and people. We already have invitations to go and help and support projects. Again, there is a danger in any business; as I always say, you do not want to be in a position where you have got 100% of your work 80% done.
"That is something people have done in this region. It is about making sure your quality of service and delivery capability is of the international standard for which you have been appointed in the places that you are present, and that you get repeat business on the back of that, which is of course the best business of all. Certainly by 2020 we will be in Qatar doing things, and frankly I imagine that by the end of 2012 we will be in Qatar, as we will be in Kuwait. But I foresee our primary focus remaining in the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the short and medium term," says Kerr.
"Our focus really in the Middle East has been to have a commercial management hub out of the UAE. We find Dubai to be very good in terms of communications; it has a good airline; it is a good geographic location; you plug your computer in the wall and it works. Abu Dhabi has always been a strong market for us, and continues to be so. But we will continue to push hard and diversify in Saudi Arabia. We have two to three other interesting projects in Riyadh and in Jeddah that we are working on. Then we will look to probably also move into other areas of the Gulf which we see as stable and sustainable in the long term sustainable, such as Qatar and Kuwait."
The Sweett Group has an office in Riyadh servicing the CMA Tower, a high-rise project just under 400m that is one of the tallest buildings under construction in the world at present. "It is a big project, and a complex one. We have been working on it for two years now. The latest completion date, I think, is realistically about spring 2013. The foundation pour, which we managed at about this time last year, was the biggest-ever in the Middle East, involving the continuous pouring of 13,000m3 of concrete over 36 hours. That is a hell of a lot of concrete," says Kerr.
The Sweett Group is project manager and cost consultant on the CMA Tower. "It is a complex building project, not just because of the height of the tower, but because of the mechanical and electrical installation to service the stock exchange. It is also an incredibly prestigious project in the King Abdullah Financial District, so it is politically important as well. Saudi Binladin is the contractor, a powerful and well-respected contracting group in the region. There is lots of complexity to manage, which makes it a challenge - which is a good word I hear used these days," says Kerr.
It seems as if the Middle East is a natural fit for the Sweett Group. "I think every business accepts that, if you want to operate in the Middle East, it is not going to be an easy place necessarily to do business. As a business region, it is growing and learning, and the companies who are operating in it are growing and learning; both sides have something to bring to that process.
"It is a bit like America in that when people talk about the Middle East, I actually do not think there is such a place. Saudi Arabia is such a different operating environment to Dubai, which again is different to Kuwait. America is 50 different places, and I think the Middle East is probably 20 different places. All have very different challenges. I think the value proposition and how you manage that within those different environments and markets needs a lot of careful thought, because certainly there is not a common answer to all of them," says Kerr.
"What we have offered is a good quality of service, and we have maintained integrity throughout. We also tell our clients we are here for the long term. There has always been this concern about suits that fly in and out. We have first-class people here and bring them to bear where they are needed, and that is appreciated by our clients, who expect the Sweett Group to deliver the best-calibre people.
This pragmatic approach characterises the Sweett Group's involvement in the region to date. "I guess the Sweett Group generally as a business is a little bit understated, and to some extent that has worked as a double-edged sword. We had opportunities, but did not expose ourselves to the mega projects. We were invited to work on The World, The Palm and various other things. Being a relatively conservative - let us say prudent - company in the way we approach things, we actually undertook much more deliverable-type projects as we saw them. I guess in the long term that stood us in good stead.
"We were involved here from about 2001 via sister companies, or via other companies in the region who invited us to help or support them. It was not until about 2007 that we actually came and planted a flag in the sand, establishing our initial office in Emirates Towers in Dubai. We arrived here and very quickly managed the roll-out of the Holiday Inn Express - again, a very deliverable and understandable type and size of project," says Kerr.
Kerr reflects this was the period when the Dubai market, in particular, was over-heating. "People were being picked up at the airport; l mean, people were literally on their way to other clients and were being met at the airport. It was madness. I guess I always had a sense there was a limit, and also we are a company that delivers on its promises. It is all very well taking on huge projects, but actually the ability to provide the right calibre of people and to be able to deliver on what you say you are going to deliver is an important part of our sort of ethos."
In 2008 the Sweett Group clinched its first major project in the region when developer Aldar Properties invited it to work on the retail component of Yas Island. "Retail is very much one of our specialist areas. We are known throughout the business, particularly in Europe, as a retail specialist," says Kerr. This was also due to the Sweett Group's involvement with the architectural practice Benoy, the designer of Yas Island.
"We knew them well, they knew us, and inevitably personal relationships count in these things. It is ironic that a lot of the people whose doors I walked through I had known in London, so inevitably they quickly said, ‘the boys from Sweett are down here, let us get them on board'. We met people in Aldar who had been clients or colleagues in the UK. That was our first sort of major project on which we embarked. I think we had about 25 people on that project at one time when it was at its height. We did a good job and had a happy client." The Sweet Group has also been involved with projects such as Al Reem Island and Central Market.
The Sweett Group also served as claims consultant on the Dubai Metro project, a current commission it actually only completed about three months ago. "That was a joint Japanese/Turkish contractor we supported on the claims-management side. Again they liked what we did and the way we conducted ourselves. The client on that is talking to us again about whether or not we can help them in other parts of the world," says Kerr.
The main focus of the Sweett Group's service offering is project management and cost consultancy, but it does not restrict itself to this. "We have always provided, let us call it, ‘additional' services or ‘slightly up the value chain' services, which are things like value engineering, risk management, sustainability and dispute resolution." This is linked to the company's focus on public private partnerships (PPPs) as a financing mechanism.
"For example, lifecycle costing links back to PPP in that we have an excellent database of information and knowledge in terms of being able to give the true cost of a building over 35 years. I think sustainability is clearly not just ‘green'. Actual sustainable design and development is incredibly important, and is at the core of what we do. We are a business in this for the long term; we have deliberately diversified our business globally, which spreads our knowledge, spreads our risk and allows us to move expertise from different parts of the business and different parts of the world into where it is most needed. That is sometimes easier said than done, but it is a philosophy we have so far adopted very successfully," says Kerr.
Commenting on the adoption of PPP in the region as a new means of financing projects, Kerr says: "PPP in the region is not necessarily understood the way it is in the UK, where we have become very adept at PPP. I think here it is a combination of understanding the principles, mechanics and payment structures, along with not allowing that to stop progress.
"I also think the agenda is slightly different. In Europe, the agenda has been about governments seeking to manage capital expenditure and yet still deliver the services they need. Here I think it is more about quality of product, and then maintenance of that product over a 35-year period. It is not that they do not necessarily have the funds in terms of the capital cost; it is that they are not necessarily able to engage the expertise to deliver the quality of product that they want, and then to maintain it."
Kerr says the Sweett Group's cautious approach to taking on work also impacted on its overall growth. "It was rapid growth for us, but relative to some of our competition, who went from zero to 500 in six months. I think we went from zero to 60 in a year. If I say that was deliberate and planned, that is probably not entirely true, but what we did not want to do is throw a load of resources in, and that turned out to be a good policy, right through to today, where we now have some very significant projects.
"We have a very good reputation because we are still around. We have not yo-yoed in terms of numbers of people, we have managed to hold onto the majority of our staff, and either diversified them to other locations within the business or in the Middle East. That has been a very positive experience for us."