By Thomas Shambler
Ahmed Alhatti built his property company from scratch, and is now responsible for some of the most iconic buildings in the world. We sat down with the enigmatic CEO of Cayan Group, to discuss passion, leadership and trusting your gut
The Cayan Group has a rather interesting backstory.
Cayan was started not because it would be a good business opportunity. It all started after looking to buy a few units in Dubai for myself and a few friends. We had certain requirements that the property needed to achieve, and finding one was proving difficult. So I said, "Okay, why don't we build one ourselves". That's was the start of Cayan in 2004. To this day, we don't do things because of the financial rewards. For us, a project is based upon how much we like it, how much we enjoy it. This is how we started and this is how we have continued to do business ever since.
That's quite a revolutionary idea, putting the bottom line second.
It's a belief. Different people have different beliefs. I think if you just want more money, there are many ways to do that. But we are after something else, the achievement aspect maybe. It's our philosophy. For example, we've been invited several times to participate in projects that would bring in very good money. Low-cost housing for labour camps, for example. This is far, far easier for us then building landmark buildings, but projects like that don't inspire us. That is not what we enjoy doing.
So what projects have that 'wow' factor?
We like smart projects. But it's hard to say it's down to this or that. For every potential project we have a committee meeting. We have representatives from sales, marketing, finance, engineering and admin. They meet and discuss the project and give me their recommendation. Then they have to answer a simple question, 'does this project meet our standards?'
So Cayan Tower – or the twisted building to give it the colloquial name – that obviously fit the bill. Having developed something so iconic, a building that received worldwide attention, is there pressure on putting together a successor?
There is no successor, that's one thing we need to keep in mind. Cayan Tower is Cayan Tower. I don't think even ourselves can beat it. It set a standard for us, which means people now expect that level of quality for every single project we put together.
What sort of leader are you?
Maybe you should ask my team! At Cayan we have a very nice management style that includes everyone. We truly believe that we are a family here, and everyone gets along. A potential employee might have top notch credentials, but if he doesn't fit with the chemistry of the team, he can't stay. We support each other. For example, I don't think the team here work for me. They work with me. That's what I keep teaching them. Of course, I have to lead by example. I am very hands on and I work very hard, as hard as I can. Which I believe makes the entire team work hard. I am very proud of them.
What do you look for in an efficient team?
Number one is their character. Their ethics. Their morals. It's more important than their experience in business. We have rejected people with outstanding records over one or two incidents in their past. Number two, I care about how smart they are. I only want smart people as we're not a large team.
Before you left your career in banking to start Cayan, were there doubts?
A lot. I did not sleep for a few days back then.
What got you past them?
During the first three, four months of work, I would say that I found myself. I loved it. Passion is the word, because I enjoyed my work. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed working in banking, but this was something else. This was a challenge. Developing a building is not like any other job in the world. You see it like a baby in front of you. I spend time in Dubai and Saudi Arabia, but when I arrive back in Dubai I sometimes go straight to one of my properties. It doesn't matter the time of day, or even if it is one o'clock in the morning, but I have to go and visit it. I can even just sit there, staring at these buildings for hours, because they are special. That feeling is beyond compare. I can't find that in any other job.
You have a very personal connection to your developments. What happens when something happens beyond your control? Like when the market crashed in 2008?
It was killing me. Many businessmen will say it's wrong to get so attached to what you do. I agree with them, that's how it should be. But it's unrealistic. Unless you are really attached, unless you love what you are doing, you can't be a hundred per cent successful. You can be successful to a point, but to go further you need to love walking in to the office every day. Of course, being this attached to your job comes with a price. Yes, I worried quite a lot at that time and it was stressful, but thankfully that made me wiser. I learned a lot in the financial crisis, and I am very thankful for that opportunity. I feel that Cayan is much stronger now than it would be if the crisis never happened.
What would you say your greatest strength is?
Relationships. It's much more important than money. It's a bigger influence than luck. Your relationships are more important than anything, and they are worth investing in. Good relationships are what made me, it's what made Cayan.
Who do you look up to in business?
I'm one of the millions who are inspired by Warren Buffet. I like this man, I respect him. I like the way he thinks and how genuine he is, and how he gives back to his community. You know, I would love to be more like Richard Branson. He's spontaneous, and that's how I like to do business sometimes. I go with my gut. When we chose the design for Cayan Tower we had a competition between five consultants. I was head of the committee that ranked all five designs. The entire team settled on one design, but I liked the twisted concept. I loved it, so that was what went forward.
The building you see now was actually ranked number three by the committee. I don't regret that decision, I chose it because I loved it. Not always doing things by the book.