The art of the re-start

Alex Andarakis explains how he has been in a start-up mindset for his whole career.
By Neil King
Tue 03 Sep 2013 12:47 PM

For many people, reinventing themselves has been the key to sustained success.

Richard Branson has continually changed his line of business, while entertainers such as Madonna, Robin Williams and Will Smith have adapted and changed as their careers have progressed in order to sustain their popularity.

Change can be a positive way to stay fresh, relevant and excited about your work, but not all change can work in your favour. Making rash decisions without the required research can lead you to failure, so it’s vital you calculate your every move.

Which is where Alex Andarakis gets it right.

The Australian entrepreneur and former corporate high-flyer is well versed in the art of the re-start. Having emigrated to the UAE more than two decades ago, his career has been varied, successful, and – importantly for him – continually challenging. Something he ascribes to his constant need to be in a start-up frame of mind.

“If you go through the history of my jobs, I’ve always been starting up one way or another,” he says.

“My first job was Unilever in Australia. The company was not a start-up in itself, obviously, but the term start-up doesn’t just relate to starting a new company. I was responsible for a number of new project launches, and was part of the team responsible for making the Australian and New Zealand offices one company.

“We effectively had to think that as a start-up, and create a new version of the company. We had to launch as a start-up, look at where the market was, how to position ourselves, where the opportunities are, and so on. We had two very different models, two cultures, and we had to redefine the organisation, the structure and products to accommodate them both.”

Moving to the Middle East with Unilever, Andarakis went on to work for Aujun Industries, of which he says: “We had an existing company which had to undergo a huge redevelopment. It was another case of having to re-start.

“During my time there it went from eight markets to seventeen markets. For each new market, we were a start up. We had to reinvent the company a little bit each time according to the market we were going into, doing all the hard work being a start-up entails.

“I then went from fast moving consumer goods to real estate with Emaar, so that was a start-up for me. I had to start again in a new industry, learning new customers, new markets, new ways of selling, and so on.

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“Every job I’ve had has had a start-up element to it. The planning has to be there, the vision has to be there, the financing, the research. It’s all what pure start-ups have to consider.”

In 2010, however, Andarakis underwent what he calls his “ultimate reinvention”. Having risen through the ranks to become a managing director and then a CEO, he decided to leave the corporate world and take the plunge into private business.

Having exercising various start-up techniques throughout his career, he decided to create a pure start-up company – Andarakis Advisory Services - which he says not only represented a personal and professional change, but also gave him a renewed passion for business.

“It felt like going back to 21-years-old again. Chasing customers, trying to win accounts, and so on. I get a great buzz out of that.

“Obviously this was a start-up business, but it was a big change and challenge in other ways. The hardest part wasn’t actually getting the business up and running, but whether I could manage my ego. Could I go from calling all the shots to being a service provider? That was the greatest challenge for me. I had to park the ego.

“I had to begin listening more than talking, because that’s what consultancy is about – listening to stakeholders, to clients, and so on. You’re forced to look at yourself in that situation, which can be hard.”

Based in JLT, Dubai, Andarakis Advisory Services is a management consultancy which helps individuals, brands and corporations develop strategic growth platforms. With a particular focus on corporate, marketing, communications and market development, Andarakis explains that by starting his own business, he was allowing himself to return to his first love.

“My passion is marketing,” he says. “In my wish-list for my career I wanted to be a CEO, but when I got there I didn’t like it. I found it lonely. I was having to do things I didn’t really enjoy doing, and when I decided to do my own business it was because I wanted to go back to doing what I love.

“I wanted to design brands, help people through challenges, train people, and all the other things that give me a buzz, such as mentoring. Helping somebody who doesn’t have the depth of experience they need feels great. It feels great to give back to the place that’s given us so much.”

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With clients as distinguished and diverse as Emaar, Majid Al Futtaim Group, Dar Al-Arkan, Sony Ericsson, GlaxoSmithKline, Mall of the Emirates and more, Andarakis’s business can truly be seen as a global success, but for Andarakis himself, there is always a need to stay grounded and work on the basics.

He says: “We don’t have déjà vu days. Our clients are all so different that we have to think and act differently with each of them. It’s a real challenge of our own talent and we have to be very aware of what we’re doing. We definitely can’t rest on our laurels – we have to be as alert as we were when we started out.

“We have to have a start-up attitude every day, whether it’s relaunching a brand, relocating, going into a new market, or anything else.

“The secret is how many of these start-ups can we make successful. Not every new business is successful. They have to do the basics really well, have a sound business plan, and so on. And we have to do the basics well too, as well as the more advanced stuff.

“I believe that prior to 2008 there was a lot of arrogance because everything people did was successful due to the market being in boom days, and I don’t believe people had enough rigor to decide what was working and what wasn’t working.

“There was so much momentum and growth, but there wasn’t right amount of rigor to see where the growth was coming from, which is why so many companies found it so difficult in 2009. They couldn’t manage the fall. We’re starting to see this again, so it’s important that businesses, including us, understand what they need to get right in the first place.”

Helping business start out in the right way is a key element of what Andarakis Advisory Services sets out to do.

As well as working with some of the region – and world’s – biggest names, the company helps both new and existing businesses find their feet in the competitive marketplace.

Andarakis highlights two cases in point – one a UAE-based start-up, another an established Indian company looking to launch in the Emirates.

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“One client was part of the Khalifa Fund,” he says. “She needed help with the development of her business plan, brand identification, costing projects, where to put her shop, the store lay-out, and things like that.

“She came with an idea but didn’t have the experience to put it into a business plan and implement it. Through our own experience we were able to guide her and help her start her business the right way.

“Other clients we’ve taken on have been established in other countries, but wanted to start afresh here in the UAE. One was from India, where they were very successful, who wanted to take what they did there and put it in the Middle East.

“You can’t replicate 100 percent what you do in another country, so they asked us to do the market strategy so they could establish their company in virgin territory. They needed a strategy for entry, a new organisation structure, ideas for potential partnerships, and so on. We gave them a soft landing into this market.

“We had three of our own staff under contract with them for a while so they didn’t have to employ anybody else. They could work out of our office until their business plan was ready to go.

“We get a thrill out of that because we can see the impact of the work we do. We love to see our clients progress and prosper.”

As an entrepreneur himself, occasionally helping other entrepreneurs, Andarakis knows the value of a strong and supportive business environment. And he believes it’s important entrepreneurs continue to take the lead in diversifying the UAE’s economy and consumer options.

“My view is that any healthy economy has to have a good share of private businessmen and entrepreneurial activity because they become another offshoot that’s creating employment opportunities, generating money, and showing commitment to this region.

“What we and other private businesses are doing is important. It provides customers with opportunities outside of multinational companies. In many cases an entrepreneur will provide a more personal service for the client.

“The type of business you’re likely to get from an SME is very different from what you would get from a large multinational.”

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However, despite the important role small businesses in the Gulf play, he doesn’t believe there are enough products to help SMEs flourish in the region, pointing to financing as a major issue, as well as visas.

“It’s a basic thing. You have to apply for a residency visa every three years. I’ve lived here more than 20 years, bought properties here, set up business here, and put a lot into the country, but I still only get a visa for three years.

“It doesn’t allow me to be as permanent in this country as I’d like. It makes me nervous to make long-term decisions, so every decision we make can only be medium term. We have to question every long-term investment we make.

“So many people here have shown great commitment to the region and community and have been here a long time, so maybe the authorities could look at the residency laws and perhaps introduce longer-term residency visas for people who warrant them.”

Despite issues such as this, Andarakis believes the future is bright for his company, entrepreneurs looking to start up, and businesses aiming to relaunch in the UAE.

With ten active clients at any one time, 52 clients since forming, and a growth in the services it offers, he believes Andarakis Advisory Services is well positioned to continue its success, and sees a lot of potential for other diligent, hard working businesses.

He says: “The opportunity for talented people is massive in this region, as long as they put in the right ground work. The quality of their idea is important, as is their ability to amplify what they want to say to people, which can take a lot of work to get right.

“This market is young and multi-cultural. It’s not homogenous, which is not the case in places like Saudi Arabia, where things are very different. This has obvious benefits, but you also need to be able to wear several hats at one time. You have to know how to market things to Arabs, Europeans, Asians, and so on. It requires a lot of understanding and a lot of work, but it’s worth it if you’re going to get it right.”

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