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Sun 3 Jun 2007 12:00 AM

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Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair: A brand new challenge

For Mashreq CEO Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair, the bank’s recent rebranding is just the first of many bold initiatives.

"Do you remember the last time we met?" I ask Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair, long serving CEO of the newly rebranded Mashreq, formerly Mashreqbank, knowing exactly what he's going to say next. He stares at me intensely for what seems like a lifetime and then slowly cracks a cheeky grin. Of course he knows, but he's determined not to let on.

He wants me to do all the work and to play the game. "Business is serious, but sometimes you have to make it interesting," he tells me.

"I was interviewing Mohammed Omran, the chairman of Etisalat and it was one of my first for the magazine," I explain. "Just as I was walking him to a quiet room so we could talk more discreetly you intervened, stared me up and down and told me that any of Mr Omran's engagements had to be handled through you, his personal assistant. This went on for two minutes and I fell for it hook, line and sinker."

"Of course I remember," the newly-elected first speaker of the Federal National Council (FNC) adds after another long pause, grin widening. "It was great fun."

On the surface Al Ghurair appears to have an extremely tough exterior and one that is hard to break. But in a sense he should, he knows his business empire and, above all, Mashreq, inside out. Once you sit with him for a while, however, glimmers of his extra-dry sense of humour become visible. Every now and then he'll throw something in that is completely unexpected. For one, nobody ever knew he was a 53 year-old adrenaline-filled sports fanatic. "I went paragliding in Hawaii. I had to jump off a cliff 6500 feet high and float in the air for 45 minutes. If I'd hesitated I would have rolled down to sea level.

"I've also been bungee jumping. I did this to challenge myself. You tell yourself ‘okay I can do it'. I had my kids with me and wanted to show them not to be afraid. Be careful of life but don't be afraid."

Sporting prowess aside, his memory and alertness are impeccable but it is Al Ghurair's passion for what he does that has created and developed an estimated family fortune of US$8bn across almost every business sector. There is one very lucrative area, however, that he says the family has never even considered entering. "The family code does not allow us to enter the hospitality industry for various reasons including the fact they sell alcohol, which we can't deal in. It's a profitable business but our values prevent us."

That's no problem to the 53 year-old. "We are almost in every sector. We have 45,000 employees scattered all over the country doing various things, and you cannot be in every single business as well.

"It's already challenging enough to continue to grow in your own business than to be a dominant player in every business. It's nice but it's not possible."

His most transparent trait however is openness. Al Ghurair has been in business for over 30 years and is notorious for telling you exactly what's on his mind. Almost every question I ask is responded to directly and with great frankness. I just hoped no more jokes were being formulated in one of the Middle East's most successful business brains.

On the subject of whether UAE companies should become more transparent with their quarterly and annual results, for example, Abdul Aziz, as the majority of people call him, immediately explains that people are "introverted" and that cultural issues can often hamper progress. Straight to the point without a second thought.

"People don't like to talk about themselves and their companies. ‘This is my private business', they'll say, but I think good stories should be shared. I think we should overcome this. I like the culture as long as it helps me but if my culture becomes a deterrent to my success maybe we should change that culture."

He is determined to be different, to buck the trend but without taking any unnecessary risks. "I've always been a conservative investor over an aggressive risk-taker," he adds. This was the case when Mashreq pulled out of a bid to acquire the Bank of Alexandria in Egypt. "The price was simply too high, not because we don't have the funds, but because we didn't want to pay that sum. We take a conservative approach and never gamble on any risks - that's been our style for 40 years and we will never change."

Mashreq is said to be sitting on a massive estimated US$2bn warchest, patiently waiting to pounce and acquire the right business at the right price. It is less likely, however, that Al Ghurair's main interest will follow in the footsteps of the ongoing Emirates Bank and the National Bank of Dubai's mega-merger. Nevertheless, he doesn't rule out such a move, one that would strengthen its dominant position as the UAE's leading retail, and increasingly corporate, financial institution as well as allow it greater flexibility to expand into other markets. I ask, however, whether acquisition is the quickest path to growth.

"It is the fastest but also the most expensive and most difficult. Nothing is available for cheap anymore. You take a bet on your own capability, whether you can do a better job or not, and also whether the economy has the potential to grow.

"If you do an acquisition in a declining market I will not do it and no smart bank will do it either. It's only when someone says this economy has the potential to grow that I move in."

He tells me that an acquisition is firmly at the back of his switched on mind. The bank, which his 80 year-old father Abdullah Al Ghurair, chairman, started from scratch with US$1.6m worth of investment capital 40 years ago, is his prime concern and has also been his core focus over the last three years.

"The shareholders didn't pay one million dirhams extra - they didn't have to invest any more dirhams," he tells me.

"By the end of 2007 it will have cost us US$68m to rebrand the bank but it has been more than worth it," he says clearly talking about the subject he is most comfortable with. "Our philosophy in the bank when rebranding is that it's crucial to continue to evolve, after all 40 years has passed," he adds.

The bank's facelift, however, has not just been external but also internal. Mashreq, the pioneers of the ATM and credit card in the Emirates in 1991, is now heading into a modern era where the customer wants and needs substantially more from a bank than they did 15 years ago. Newly liberalised property law has opened up the mortgage market to banks, for example, while Islamic finance is rapidly attracting an increasing number of regional and international business. "We have gone through a fundamental change over the last three years to really understand what the customer wants; how they like to see us going forward; what kind of bank they are looking for; what makes them feel good or not about a bank and we kept on asking and asking ourselves these questions," he says.

"This involved a lot of soul searching to fit ourselves into the overall competition and put us at the front. Once we found out what the customer wanted we knew that if we combined this with a change in internal processes and ways of thinking we would become a different and very modern and forward-thinking bank," he adds.

Al Ghurair refers to the re-branding as "re-fixing our gene". From a new "friendlier" logo and dropping the word ‘bank' from the tail end of its name, to pumping millions of dirhams into training staff in order to "think customer first" and to sell ethically, whatever the scenario, he believes he has created the first business formula of its kind in the UAE and the wider region.

"We removed the bank name because it gives us a friendly approach. If you look at the English name we didn't capitalise it. We think a capital ‘M' is very defensive and sits there like a fortress so we simplified it," he says.

"This [logo] is the culmination of all the changes and internal processes we've done, re-fixing our gene and identity, moving forward with a completely new approach on how we handle ourselves with a customer, therefore we have made the logo very transparent and very simple. It almost makes you happy to look at it."

Mashreq's new philosophy he says, will revolutionise the way customers view the CEO's pride and joy.

In the past, he admits that Mashreq used to be "product pushers" and that staff were set high targets to sell on. "They would sell to anyone they came across but not now," he says adamantly. "We will understand the customer requirement and give him the suite of products that fit him. If a customer comes over to us and says ‘I want to buy this product' we will tell him ‘no, it's not good for you, it doesn't fit your profile, we suggest you buy this product'."

Al Ghurair even goes as far as to suggest that if Mashreq doesn't have the product to fit in with a customer's individual needs it and its staff will recommend buying from a competitor because, in his own words, "we're not the best bank at everything".

"We have to go down this route, change things and introduce ethical selling," he says. "Customers expect this and we move with them. If you're a new member of staff coming in we don't want you to bring in your old philosophy from your previous organisation, we want to give you Mashreq's new philosophy and ensure all employees work within the same theme, direction and values.

"We are pioneering this stuff. If you stop change it's a decline. Every few years change takes a big theme within the organisation and we move forwards. This is a reflection of the fast speed and pace of change this nation is going through. Therefore we have to be dynamic, have to be fast to react and be ahead of the market."

Mashreq is taking advantage of this surge in Gulf growth, with plans to double its Qatar branches to 10 and add even more in the Emirates. It is constantly recruiting and increasing its headcount. It has doubled its staff in the last three years. "This is phenomenal growth, nobody is growing at such a high percentage annually. In Europe it's unheard of," says Abdul Aziz. "If shows on our bottom line, on our balance sheet and means we have to cope and be ready for even larger amounts of staff and the growth is continuing."

Change, however, has not only come from a customer perspective, the cost of living (Dubai was ranked 14th highest in the world in terms of rental prices in a recent report) has also caused businesses to re-think their short and long-term strategies. "We try and segment products to fit our customer's lifestyles, because that determines what kind of banking you go for. If you're young your requirement is different to when you are middle-aged. Income levels vary greatly and prices are rising."

The CEO realises that the UAE has been kind to Al Ghurair, his family and their interests over the years and he tells me that it is now time to give something back.

Abdul Aziz was recently elected to become the first speaker of the FNC. He says he can't really talk too much about it as talks are still ongoing on how the body will work, but you do get the sense he can't wait to get started.

"I am what I am because of my nation. If I worked in another country I probably wouldn't be the same person. If I was in Somalia, for example, I wouldn't have this chance so I think one has to pay back this nation for allowing the prosperity and success I have. The FNC is a great way of paying back this country I have served and that has given me so much."

Although focused on business, the bank and the growing importance he will play in the UAE's political future, Al Ghurair is also looking to follow closely in the footsteps of Dubai Ruler HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum's US$10bn education charity donation, and improve and encourage widespread philanthropic activity in the Emirates. Being individually recognised for giving wealth away to charities, he adds however, is another cultural issue that needs to be broken down.

"Here people say you should give with your right hand and your left hand should not know what your right hand has done. The majority of people believe in this.

"I am part of the Emirates Foundation, the largest philanthropic organisation here to take care of education, society, arts, and the environment. We cover a whole gamut of issues that touch society. I am a member and we are steering it in the right direction, trying to institutionalise philanthropy."

He says that the majority of philanthropic work is done on an individual basis, but he firmly believes that in the UAE "it has come to a stage where we should allow institutions to come in".

"We should manage philanthropy like we manage business. Our economy and our philanthropic work is no longer small so it should be managed as an institution. Therefore, we [the Foundation] encourage people to use this institution and funnel it to their own specific causes.

"It will also encourage other business leaders to come out and share their wealth with the Foundation. Many business leaders do it but very quietly. We have people who donate to the foundation and who want to remain anonymous. ‘This is between me and Allah, and this is what I believe in', they say.

"Putting a framework, putting an institutional feeling around it and at the front end is very important. You raise awareness, you encourage people to do this kind of work and some people feel they need they need more transparency in where their money is being spent. This institution with the right board of governors will encourage this money to be spent in the right direction." He cites the example of a meeting he had with another organisation which had a budget of US$660m and that spent 50% of that money on administration. He calls the idea "crazy" accusing them of spending money on "themselves".

"Okay if 20% of the money goes to administration and 80% goes to the charity. People want make sure their money isn't being wasted. Once they get that comfort level more companies will come forward."

As we wrap things up Al Ghurair tells me that as long as he is having fun he will never step down as CEO. His role in the UAE, the Middle East and beyond is growing as he gets older. His responsibilities with the FNC are huge, and the benefits he can give others through the Emirates Foundation are priceless. And so, as I found out to my cost, are his practical jokes.

Al Ghurair: life lessons

Time management

"If you manage your time, if you're disciplined, conscious of your time and your people's time you'll be amazed how much you can do.

"If you're sloppy, not clear, waste time every single meeting and have a meeting without a conclusion, without any resolution then you spin your wheel again and again and again. It forces the individual to be a lot more disciplined, more careful.

"My PA works harder than ever to make sure there is no single minute wasted, every meeting is valuable and there is a clear agenda of what has to happen, a time set for that meeting is important."

Discipline and motivation

"I have become extremely disciplined. I am more disciplined now with exercise. I exercise at 6am every morning to ensure that I am fit, energetic, have the stamina to last until the end of the day. The key is motivation.

"Before I sleep I say I'm going to get up and do it. It's hard when you get up and when your coach comes and pushes you hard in the morning but when you take a shower and you start your day I can lift a table with no effort. I was amazed. I feel very happy when I exercise. I don't like getting up but once I'm past that first 10 minutes resistance it's all over.

"I've been doing this since last Ramadan. I used to do this in the afternoon and there was always a reason and I used to skip it because of certain commitments. So in the morning I have no commitments. I also always eat the right things and have never worried about this. It is quality not quantity for me."

How to handle meetings

"Meetings stretch themselves according to the time allocated to them. If you say the meeting is going to last two hours somehow the meeting will finish in two hours but if you say I only have half an hour for this meeting, somehow you get the same conclusion within half an hour.

"People focus, they take off their bluff and go to the core issues, raise it, agree, disagree and move forward."

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