By Neil King
Saif Belhasa, founder and chairman of the Saif Belhasa Group of Companies, explains how diversifying his interests has helped the group to thrive, and why the future is exciting for businesses in Dubai
As I sit and talk with Saif Belhasa, it becomes clear I’ve met him on a good day.
“I started the group on 13 October 2001,” he says. “It was a lucky day in my life. I try to keep everything on 13 — it’s a lucky number for me.”
It hasn't been luck that's been the primary driver behind Belhasa's company since then, but it has played its part.
And whether through numerology or pure hard work, the group’s fortunes have continued to rise.
Starting the Belhasa Driving Centre with just 15 cars, that one branch of his business alone boasts several hundred cars serving thousands of students, expanding from its first branch in Al Wasl Road, to locations across Dubai — most notably the main centre in Al Jadaf, where the group is also headquartered.
Since those early days, Belhasa has branched into various transport-related areas, including vehicle testing, training for buses, lorries and construction vehicles, taxi training and staffing, as well as car and bus rental.
Add to that companies focusing on metals, stones, advertising, travel, money exchange, recruitment, real estate, trading, and more.
Perhaps the most well known area of Belhasa’s group to the public, after the driving centre, is its recent foray into cafes and restaurants. The group holds the Gulf franchise rights to the Alison Nelson’s Chocolate Bar, Canadian cafe MBCo, Mexican diner Cantina Mariachi, and Egyptian grill concept Studio Masr.
Further F&B outlets are on the horizon too, with Chinese, Japanese, and seafood eateries close to launch. It’s this kind of diversification that Belhasa believes has been the secret to his success.
He says: “The market is always going up and down, so we don’t want to keep just one of the businesses. We have to be ready for anything.”
Part of this readiness means having to play a dual role in managerial terms — passing on a lot of responsibility while also being extremely hands-on.
“Each of the companies has its own manager,” he explains. “It’s their line of business, and we get monthly reports from each of them.
“But I am involved in each thing. I like to know exactly what’s happening, and I like to interfere when it is appropriate. When they have a problem, I need to be able to solve it.”
It makes for a busy day for the boss, who says he arrives at the office at 6am every day in order to “go through my files, sign what I need to sign, and get started with the day when nobody else is here to interrupt me”.
And while he endeavours to instil a supportive environment in the group, he demands a lot from his team as they build towards the future. Something he believes has given the various companies strong foundations. “I deal with my staff as one family,” he says.
“I’m not rude with them at all — I try to make sure everybody is comfortable here and that nobody wants to leave. There is a time to talk and joke and be friends, like a family, but there is also a time to work. I don’t always like too much talking. I don’t always want to hear ‘I’m thinking of doing this or that’ — I want to hear ‘I’ve done this and that’. There has to be a time for action.
“Because of this, all the companies are making a profit. None of them are not growing. If a company is not doing well, I’ll close it — I’m not interested to keep anything like that. The market here is a promising market, and we should be taking advantage of that.”
For Saif Belhasa Group, as with most business in Dubai, the UAE, and the wider region, Expo 2020 is one of the reasons the market is currently so fertile.
The chairman believes it marks a big opportunity for companies in the Emirates in the coming years.
He says: “Everybody is excited for Expo 2020. Dubai has a big challenge, and has made a big commitment. We have to be ready for 2020 — there is no U-turn, so the business will be there.
“As business people, this is an amazing chance, especially as we have the government supporting us as much as it can to bring our companies to the next level. They are supporting us all the time to be part of the growth that’s taking place.
“If you look at what’s happing around the world as well — Syria, Iraq, and so on, the UAE is getting the benefit of that. We’re a stable market, Alhamdulillah. We enjoy a mix of different nationalities and religions, and we have shown we can have that and succeed.”
Stable it may be, but that hasn’t stopped various analysts, business leaders, and media outlets from putting a question mark over the short-term ambitions of some property developers and banks.
The dreaded question ‘are we heading towards another bubble?’ has become a common one in recent months, but Belhasa does not seem taken in by any potential scaremongering.
“All the time we advise that we don’t want too many projects to come at once,” he says.
“We have to learn our lessons from 2008. It was very bad for Dubai — we faced a lot of problems. But the government is well aware of this, and they will not let it happen again.”
He does, however, add something of a caveat — returning to Expo 2020 to justify the recent rise in plans to develop the emirate’s infrastructure.
“With the commitment to 2020, there is a need for a lot of things to happen,” he continues.
“We need the hotels, we need the roads and transport systems to be the best, we need the restaurants — five-star, seven-star — we need them, and Dubai is ready for them now. Nobody wants 2008 to happen again. We’re back to where we are — maybe even better than before — and we’re seeing a lot of important projects that we’re excited about.”
Belhasa plans for himself and his group to be a big part of that commitment to 2020, explaining that he has a number of targets to hit before the World Expo arrives.
“We are only doing about 30 percent of our potential business,” he says. “I want to achieve the other 70 percent by 2020.
“We can achieve anything — nothing is impossible — this isn’t in our vocabulary. Business is good, and we can achieve more.
“If you think about it, 2020 was not in the plan until recently. It has come in front of us thanks to the hard work of the government and team, and it will be very important for us all.
“The next question is looking at what happens after 2020 finishes. People are asking what will happen. I am sure our leaders are working hard to keep things going, keep things happening. We don’t talk about Dubai, we talk about the Emirates — we work together to make things work for the best. And everybody is happy at the moment.”
Still relatively young on the global scene, the Gulf region has had to learn quicker than most about how to cope with such crises, as well as manage growth during the good times.
Belhasa admits there’s a steep learning curve, but it’s one he’s happy to be on.
“It’s interesting to keep learning and doing more — that’s one of the good things about being where we are. There’s a lot happening now.
“When the World Cup was announced for Qatar in 2022, we went and opened a company there, and we’re getting business there already. We’re always moving with what’s happening in the world — especially close to home. We don’t just want to focus on Dubai.
“We have learnt a lot from recent events. Not just 2008, but other things as well. There were problems in 2000, and then, like we would do now, we adjusted ourselves. Sometimes you do more business, sometimes you do less. That’s normal. What’s important is to take something positive from every situation.
“In 2008 my group wasn’t too badly affected. Profit came down, but not as much as a lot of other groups and companies. There is a time to make money, and a time to accept the situation.”
With his eyes constantly scouring the horizon for the next lucrative opportunity, Belhasa knows a thing or two about the next potential growth areas.
Travel and tourism, in particular, is one sector his expects to boom.
“In the past people had to work hard to get a ticket from a ticket agent, but now it’s different. You just go on your iPhone or whatever you have, and you can get it immediately. It’s much easier.
“So more people are travelling, and more people are coming to Dubai. We’re building more malls, preparing more desert activities, and targeting those visitors. It’s an area that will grow, no doubt about it. The number of people coming here is increasing all the time.
“But it’s not just that one. Look at retail. We’re going to have the biggest shopping centre in the world. In Dubai we have a psychological problem — we want to be the best for everything. That pressure is carried on our shoulders all the time. It’s actually exciting — you work harder because of it.”
I wonder whether that pressure ever gets to Belhasa and his peers, but he nonchalantly bats away the question.
“You have to love your work — it can’t be a pain for you. And I do love my work. You spend more in the office than you do at home. If you enjoy your business, and love what you’re doing, you’re going to achieve much more.
“I come in at 6am because I love my job. If you love your job, your staff will see that and feel the same. Then the pressure is reduced a little.”
He is equally cool when I probe about figures, concluding: “We don’t really talk about figures and numbers apart from one — the number one. It’s that psychological problem again — we always want to be number one.
“That’s our target with everything — we don’t accept number two. That attribute is helping us to grow, helping the government, and helping customers. It’s very important to have that mentality to be number one.”For all the latest transport news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.