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Sat 4 Nov 2006 08:00 PM

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A bright future

The chairman and founder of Qatar’s Regency Group, Ibrahim Al Asmakh, talks to Andrew White about his vision for the group’s future, and his hopes for Qatar.

Money is definitely something you work for. However, once you reach a certain amount, you want to do something to pay back the country that made all this money for you. It is time to do something that will make people happy, that will make the government happy, and that will pay back into society some of what you have made.” For Ibrahim Al Asmakh, that time is now.

The chairman of Regency Group, one of the leading family groups in Qatar, aims to ‘pay back’ his country in some style. “Next month we will become a holding company, as we’ve finished all the documentation, and we are thinking of putting it on the stock market very soon,” reveals Al Asmakh.

Analysts suggest that even a conservative estimate of the group’s listing worth would be in excess of US$1bn. Al Asmakh, however, is far too modest to place a dollar valuation on his thriving group. For him, a listing is simply the best way by which he can step back and allow others to reap the benefits of the group’s extraordinary growth.

“When we put Regency Group on the market, this will not be another family-owned business that will continue to be so,” he explains. “We will not keep more than a 20% interest in it, whereas all the other family companies, they own 40-60%, and they float 60-40% on the market.

“I want to retire, and I mean that. I would like new people to come in, and I would like the new shareholders to join in the growth and prosperity of this company,” he continues. “I think new blood always gives you an edge to develop faster.”

Indeed, Al Asmakh is no stranger to fast-paced development. Regency Group was founded less than 20 years ago in 1987, as a small real estate business with a sideline in travel agency. The real estate bug was one inherited from his father, Hassan, and Al Asmakh emphasises that the group “began by following in my father’s footsteps.”

Hassan was one of the leaders in the industry, dominating the real estate business in the late 30s and early 40s, and securing a large area of downtown Doha, that to this day is called the Al Asmakh area.

“Time has changed so much, but the philosophy of real estate in the Arab world is that it is ‘the good son’ – ‘al ibn albarr’ - it always gives you a return,” says Al Asmakh. “Sometimes it is high, and sometimes the market drops so you do not make as much as expected, but you always get a return on leasing and developing real estate.”

Such confidence was demonstrated in the young Al Asmakh’s approach to real estate acquisition. The fledgling group cut a swathe through the Qatar real estate market, and with Al Asmakh at the helm, raising capital through supportive banks was not a problem.

“The real estate market was not that expensive at that time, it was easy to buy as much as you wanted at very reasonable prices,” he reflects. “I bought as much as anybody could think of - as a matter of fact I was scaring the banks because I kept buying when things were not moving in the country. I never scared myself though, and I was always confident.”

This confidence, borne of a first-class education and a degree in Finance and Business Administration from the US’s University of Arizona, led to a job at Qatar Petroleum, where Al Asmakh first realized the full potential of the Qatari market.

“At Qatar Petroleum I worked with lots of expats, so saw where the country was going and what was needed in the market,” he says. “I started doing what was not already available at that time, instead of just copying others.”

The group’s activities now range from real estate development to hospitality services, to travel and tours. Yet the group’s rapid expansion has meant that, in one respect, Regency Group has been forced to conform to at least one industry standard.

“I used to run the whole show, until we became this multi-billion dollar company,” Al Asmakh shrugs. “Now you have to have CEOs everywhere! It’s not like before, you can’t have it as a one-man show."

“I delegate responsibilities to them, and I give them a lot of authority,” he continues. “I have nine or ten CEOs, we almost seem to be adding one a month. I’m losing count, but nevertheless you have to have the right team with you - that’s very important.”

Yet despite this increased delegation, Al Asmakh remains a hands-on manager who keeps a close eye on every aspect of the firm. “I hate to lose, and I always look to come back as soon as possible. Just get it out of the system,” he says. “Accept the loss, or it will delay your progress and slow you down. After all, sometimes a budgeted loss is acceptable."

“A professional business plan for any new business will give you a budgeted loss for a while,” he continues. “However, a loss that is beyond expectation should be cut off."

“For example, if people had accepted their losses on the GCC stock markets at an earlier stage, they would have been much better off. They waited too long to realize that the loss was going to get greater and greater. This applies to everything in life – loss becomes greater and greater if you sleep on it,” he adds.

He insists that, aside from the long working hours, he enjoys his management role and the opportunities it offers to experience and learn from new challenges.

“It’s always fun. I select the businesses I want to get into, and I always make sure I understand the businesses I’m getting into,” he says. “Even on the stock markets I like to understand the company, and the business the company is in."

This strong connection to the everyday running of the group is particularly emphasised by Al Asmakh’s progressive management philosophy.

“We have management meetings once every two weeks, and individual meetings once a week, not to mention one-on-one meetings on a daily basis,” he explains. “It’s an open-door policy - my managers are welcome to come and discuss any weakness, or any problem that they might face in the market.”

This progressive management style is based on fast decision-making, and the strict avoidance of red-tape entanglements.

“Bureaucracy is something that killed this region for a long time, and we don’t have it in this group,” he says. “We need people who can move things forward very fast.”

Indeed, moving forward, the next few months should see significant changes at Regency Group as Al Asmakh launches his plan to ‘pay back’ Qatar. Yet he has already done a considerable amount to further the country’s international standing, through a fierce commitment to the growth of Qatar’s booming tourism industry.

Appointed vice-chairman of Qatar Tourism Authority upon its establishment in 2000, Al Asmakh and his colleagues were charged with turning Qatar into a viable tourist destination.

“Qatar has always been a business destination, but people have not seen Qatar as a tourist destination at all, so this was our target,” he says. “We aimed to increase the number of rooms in the country, by inviting investment, and by changing some rules and regulations."

“For instance, we made the visa requirements easier, and visited many of the leading tourism authorities around the world. We can learn a lot from the successful ones, especially ones such as Dubai,” he adds. “We had a lot of ties with Hamed Bin Sulayem and his group, and I really think those guys are leaders in their fields and have done an amazing job.”

While Dubai’s skyline bristles with hotels and high-rises, Qatar is also making great strides to accommodate the tourism boom. A year ago, there were just 2600 bedrooms available, whereas by the end of 2007 there will be 11,000 ready to accept travellers from all over the world. Leading chains including Kempinski, Hilton, Hyatt, Movenpick, and Marriott, all have hotels in Doha, and meanwhile Qatar Airways is flying record numbers of visitors in and out of the country.

“It [Qatar’s growth] is going so fast that we’re running out of breath,” says Al Asmakh. “It is just shooting skywards so fast, faster than anyone ever thought it would go."

“The Government of Qatar is one of the most supportive governments you could find to the business industry,” he continues.

“Everybody here tries as hard as they can to help the private sector, and of course international companies are always welcomed here,” he adds. “The new rules and regulations are updated as much as possible to make sure that private business is accommodated in a professional way.”

Yet despite praising Dubai’s meteoric rise, Al Asmakh is keen to differentiate Qatar’s rapid development from that of the nearby emirate.

“Qatar and the UAE are going in two different directions, and have two different goals," he insists.

“The economy in Qatar is very different to the Dubai economy,” he continues. “The Dubai economy depends heavily on real estate tourism – they have sold many properties to foreigners who will themselves become future tourists to the UAE, regular tourists who when they come are going to spend a lot of money.”

Qatar, he emphasizes, boasts a very different economy based on an expanding number of strategic industry sectors.

“Doha’s economy is solid, based on oil and gas as a number one industry, and then the development of other key sectors,” he explains. “Qatar has developed its sports facilities into a sports industry, and created an education industry - which has become one of the strongest in the Arab world by bringing the world’s most well-known colleges, like Cornell, to Qatar.”

He pays tribute to the vital contribution of the Qatar Foundation, one of the most successful such foundations in the region, and also praises recent moves to develop Qatar’s medical industry: “In the Arab world, anyone who has a major problem flies [out of the region], and that needs to be developed.”

Such wide ranging concerns have gained Al Asmakh recognition across the Arab world – an achievement that is reflected in his appointment to the Al Rouad group of six pioneering Arab business leaders at the forthcoming Leaders in Dubai ‘Business Forum’ 2006. He will represent the region alongside Maha K. Al Ghunaim and Yousef Al-Essa from Kuwait, Faisal bin Juma Belhoul and Ibrahim Belselah from the UAE, and Esam Yousif Janahi of Bahrain.

“I’m so proud to have been selected to be a part of Leaders In Dubai, and it’s an honour to be with them,” beams Al Asmakh. “This year’s forum is about driving changes, and my message would be that you must make changes when you are at your peak. That is the time to carry out a change. Changes are essential in life.”

Should all go to plan, then one such change will see Al Asmakh spending less time in the boardroom, and more time with his family.

“I want to retire. I wish that I could get out as soon as possible,” he admits. “It is very tiring, it is time consuming, and it is health consuming. I really wish somebody could take over."

“I really don’t find that anything in my job is hard, beyond the working hours. I have got where I am through hard work, hard work, and hard work. I start early in the morning, and I finish late at night - working from nine in the morning until 10 or 11 at night - and now I am ready to change,” he says.

“The weekend is something I really respect, and I like to keep for myself and for my family,” he continues. “It’s a family thing that I don’t like to break – it clears my mind and I have the habit of locking everything out when I leave the office. When I go home, I try to forget everything.”

Al Asmakh’s plans for the future clearly do not involve spending much more time in the boardroom.

“I like to travel. I travel now, but I’d like to travel more, and enjoy life and spend more time with the family,” he continues. “I want to enjoy life, and to live life like a normal relaxed person, without 20 meetings a day.”

If Al Asmakh does get his wish in the not-too-distant future, then he will have essentially stayed true to his own stated principle – he will be a man embracing change at the peak of his powers.

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