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Sat 9 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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A family affair

Andrew White meets the woman charged with keeping BinHendi Enterprises ahead of the competition.

Andrew White meets the woman charged with keeping BinHendi Enterprises ahead of the competition.

On her way home from work every evening, Miss Amna BinHendi hits the mall. Alongside thousands of other shoppers, she strolls from store to store, casting her eye over hundreds of designer brands, and taking in the tiniest details. Is she shopping? Occasionally. Learning? Always.

"It's like taking care of your own baby instead of a nanny taking care of it," she explains. "You have to be hands-on, especially if it's yours - and if I'm not there then I don't think people will care as much as I care."

Believe me, if you enjoy the work [you do], I don’t think you get stressed.

Such dedication suggests that the family business is not the only thing that Amna has inherited from her father, Mr Mohi Din BinHendi. Over 30 years ago, when he opened the emirate's first international fashion outlet - Pierre Cardin, in Deira - he sowed the first seeds of a business empire that has since successfully introduced more than 60 prestigious international brands to the UAE.

Still headquartered in Deira, today BinHendi Enterprises might as well be a world away from its humble beginnings. With over 3000 employees, Amna is CEO of a company that is renowned across the GCC and India for its achievements in fashion and food retail. Brands such as Hugo Boss, CK Jeans, Porsche Design, Japengo and Bella Donna mean that, whether we know it or not, we've all bought BinHendi.

"Believe me, if you enjoy the work, I don't think you get stressed," she smiles, when reminded of the task in front of her. "I love what I am doing, and I know I can give more, achieve more, and address any issues that need changing.

"I like to work with a team of people, and because it's my company I never feel insecure - I always try to get the best people and to be successful," she continues. "Of course, my senior management makes some decisions because dealing with 3000 employees isn't that easy. I focus on the smaller things when I can, but you have to be able to delegate as well, and that's why we have such a strong management team in place."

Amna's confidence in that team is undoubtedly buttressed by her experience working in other positions at BinHendi Enterprises. Having studied at Latifa Private School for Girls and the American University of Dubai's School of Business, Amna graduated from Zayed University in 2002 with a Bachelor's in Business Administration and Information Technology.

After a three-month work placement with Dubai e-Government, she finally joined the family business working in the Human Resources (HR) & Information Technology division.

"When I first joined the company I went through each division, spending a couple of weeks in each department to get to know how they worked," she recalls. "I am very social and like to deal with people, so I quickly gravitated to HR, where I took courses and had the opportunity to work on implementing new systems within the company."

One such system involved creating a grading structure for BinHendi Enterprises' entire workforce. Of three competing proposals on the table, Amna's was selected as the strongest, and was implemented as companywide policy.

"Having only recently graduated it was very challenging for me, but despite the long hours I enjoyed learning how the business was run," she says. "When we used to be at home we would hear that ‘this is happening' and ‘that is happening', but actually to be there on the field was quite different and very exciting."

In September last year Amna was asked, with just a couple of days notice, whether she felt ready to take on the challenge of CEO. Taken aback - "it was a complete surprise to me," she laughs - Amna nevertheless felt that five years' experience at the company meant she was ready to take the helm.

"When I first worked with Dubai e-Government I had many offers from government sectors and the private sector," Amna recalls, matter-of-factly. "But I thought ‘why should I go and work for someone else when my dad needs me to be with him?' My father had always left it up to me, but I knew I was in the right position to take on the challenge."
Amna's experience with Dubai e-Government and at BinHendi Enterprises has helped to counter the inevitable whispers that her accession was a consequence of bias as opposed to merit. Moreover, she is determined to prove to any remaining skeptics that her father made exactly the right choice in promoting his eldest daughter.

"It is difficult to deal with, but eventually the work shows, and I can prove myself through what I do," she insists. "If I'm made CEO because I'm Mr BinHendi's daughter, and I don't do anything, then obviously those people are proved right. But I have proved myself through my work and through my decisions, and that's why I was made CEO. Critics just give me an added incentive, and I know that the outcome is the most important thing."

When I first joined the company, I spent a couple of weeks in each department to get to know how they all worked.

I note that over the course of our 40-minute conversation, Amna only once refers to her father as ‘dad'. Otherwise, it is strictly ‘Mr BinHendi'. Is there a certain professional distance between father and daughter?

"He is my father, but to be formal it is ‘Mr BinHendi'," Amna smiles. "And Mr BinHendi is there any time I need him, even if I have a small question. Even though I am a decision-maker I will still pick up the phone, because he's a good person to guide me - it is enough to learn from him."

While Amna is happy to take lessons from Mr BinHendi, her example is perhaps one that others could learn from too. After all, she is a young, successful woman in a market that has long been synonymous with male-dominated management structures.

She is also a UAE national, and feels strongly that the Emirati workforce is capable of more than it is currently achieving. "Most of the UAE nationals work in the government sector and they think the packages are better, and that they have more benefits, but actually that is not true," she argues.

"I feel we have so many potential stars, but they aren't courageous enough to leave the government sector and come to the private sector, because they are worried about a perceived insecurity."

With the region's governments determined that the burden of job creation should fall on the private sector over the coming decades, Amna is adamant that companies such as BinHendi Enterprises can lead the way. She points to the many UAE nationals already in prominent positions at the company, and insists that the old mentality is finally changing.

"We have many people from government sectors who were working as policemen or working in the municipality, who have now joined BinHendi," she says. "Nationals have the potential, but they just need people to convince them to actually make that change."

Likewise, women in the UAE and across the region are beginning to make their voices heard in the workplace. Amna feels that family firms, in particular, represent a unique opportunity for women to be appointed to positions of power and responsibility in the business world.

"I think we have many women that can prove themselves but they too just need the push," she says. "We have so many talented female UAE nationals that can do much better than men, but women need support from their families in order to go out and work.

"Many private sectors have proven that there are women more than capable of doing this," she continues. "I think that most of the family businesses have women taking more of a role, and this is another example of the mindset changing.

"I don't see it as a fight, but before people just had different mentalities - they weren't used to seeing women driving or women travelling or women working," she adds. "But over the last few years we have seen that the roads are half full with UAE women drivers, that so many UAE women are working, so I think the mentality of our people has changed a lot."
The issue of attracting and retaining talent - from within the national community or outside - is one that Amna is particularly committed to. Her background in HR stands her in good stead when it comes to tackling a problem that business leaders around the region concede will shape the future of the Gulf economies: in the decades after oil, talent will differentiate the success stories from the failures.

"We are always trying to come up with new ideas to motivate the staff, because Dubai is such a challenging place, particularly in recruiting," Amna explains. "It's difficult to get good people and it's also difficult to retain them, so we try to give them good incentives through commission, good packages, and so on. People have left us for other jobs, but then within a couple of months they come back, even with senior positions, which shows that it's a good company to work for."

I realised how important it was that people could change their career paths within BinHendi. After all, with the products we deal across, you name it and we have it.

For Amna, this is another challenge facing the region's family businesses as they move into their second and third generations. Such is the diversification of the modern family firm - for example, as well as fashion and food retail, BinHendi Enterprises has interests in advertising, publishing, interior design, construction, education, currency services, the media, floral design, energy, real estate and import/export services - that there is no such thing as a one-man (or woman) show.

It's all about getting the right people in the right positions, and then making sure they stay there. "It's not just about salaries, and incentive schemes are very important for motivating our staff," Amna insists. "We have a good name in Dubai - that's why a lot of people when they first come to the country come straight to us.

"We usually try to promote people from within the company, that's our first priority," she continues. "There are so many people that have so many different backgrounds, but the only opportunity that they have in their country is to come and work as waiters. Yet they have qualifications which can really make a difference.

"That is why we offer career changes, where people can actually work across the company. As long as they have the qualifications, once they have finished their initial contracts they can apply to work across the board, in things such as fashion or accounts. The career change gives people a future."

This scheme, Amna recalls, was borne of a conversation she had with a Philippino staff member while she was working in HR. The man had been a waiter for three years, and saw no future in continuing to serve tables.

"Having 30 waiters in an outlet, all 30 of them cannot be managers, so I asked him what he would like to do," she remembers. "He said he had another offer as a salesperson, so I said ‘why don't you stay with the company?' and he was over the moon. Now he's working in one of our fashion outlets, and I realised then how important it was that people could change their career paths within the BinHendi group. After all, with the products we deal across, you name it and we have it."

The issue of talent brings us full circle. On the BinHendi website, Mohi's philosophy is quoted thus: "You ask me what the most important elements for achieving success in business are. I would say that they are pursuing your goals, loving the business you do, and doing it with originality, style and with the right people."

Again, it is apparent that control of the family business is not the only thing that Amna has inherited from her father.

JAPENGO: from local to globalJapengo Café is BinHendi Enterprises' flagship F&B outlet. Serving an eclectic mix of international cuisines with a strong Asian influence, the group is convinced that Japengo has the recipe for success at an international level.

"Japengo was Mr BinHendi's own idea," Amna recalls. "Not everyone likes sushi and when we used to go out on business lunches or for dinner, we realised that families couldn't go out for sushi while the kids were eating burgers or whatever, so that's where the whole idea came from."

As well as plans to open two branches in Abu Dhabi, and on the corniche in Muscat, Oman, there are plans afoot for a franchising of the brand across the GCC and even further afield.

"We are in the stage of finalising the franchise contracts," she reveals. "We have learned a lot from the franchisees that we have franchised from over the years, and you wouldn't believe the amount of phone calls we have had in the last few years.

"We are open to franchises in the US and all over the world," Amna continues. "The franchise agreement is going to be ready before the end of this month, and then we are open to launch it, and to advertise that we are ready to franchise Japengo.

"Most of our F&B concepts will make strong franchises," she concludes. "But Japengo is Mr BinHendi's baby, and he just adores it."

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