By Ed Attwood
Saif Ahmed Belhasa may be most famous for his driving school, but the Emirati entrepreneur has a five-year plan to take his seventeen other companies global
Outside Saif Ahmed Belhasa’s cavernous office in Al Jadaf, there’s a hive of activity. Hundreds of Nissan Sunnys are inching their way across the tarmac, attempting to avoid a series of obstacles. Despite the baking heat, the queues of students at the Belhasa Driving Centre are huge — perhaps symptomatic of the new surge in Dubai’s population over the course of the last year or so.
Belhasa himself is well acquainted with the heavy traffic in Dubai. He sweeps into the office, blaming the traffic for his delayed arrival, and showing off a couple of pictures he’s just taken on his iPhone of dodgy drivers on the roads. But although the driving school is by far the most visible part of his empire, there’s plenty more to the Saif Belhasa Group of Companies than meets the eye.
“It’s my baby — it’s how I started my group,” Belhasa says, of the firm that started out with 15 cars in 2001, and which has grown to include 650 cars, serving 5,000 students, with offices dotted all over the emirate. It also has a lucrative sideline in providing training for buses, lorries and forklift trucks, meaning that its fortunes are linked directly to the property sector.
“Dubai is booming right now, and we can see it in the business,” he adds. “Any time a construction project starts, they need drivers, and they come to us. You can see cranes everywhere in Dubai right now.
“There was a time when we had less business; we had to reduce a lot of classes. But I always said that Dubai can get sick, but she cannot die. She was on antibiotics for a while, but is now looking more beautiful than ever.”
Belhasa may have a good line in metaphors, but he’s also a canny operator in terms of the sectors into which his group — which he founded — has diversified. Dubai’s economy is based heavily on the ‘three Ts’ (trade, tourism and transport) plus affiliated areas like property and retail.
Three of Belhasa’s divisions, Savanna General Trading, Bridgeport General Trading and Saif Belhasa General Trading play a large part in exporting and importing food, commodities and equipment to and from Dubai. For the construction industry, the group also provides maintenance services and is a provider of paving stones and kitchenware. The group also has a real estate brokerage, a travel agent and a money exchange outfit, and it also runs several restaurant franchises. In addition, its Petrixo brand caters to the oil and gas industries.
It all adds up to a busy working day for the chairman, who says he likes to have a hands-on approach to all of his companies. Belhasa says he normally gets into the office at 6am to sign papers, and leaves at around 2pm every day. After that, he heads off to the Dubai Muncipality, where he is a judge on one of the rent committees. Following a review of about 20 or 30 cases, Belhasa tends to arrive back at home at around 8pm.
So how are the group’s numbers? The chairman won’t provide specific figures, given that the company is not listed, but he does say that results in the last year or so have shown that the firm has turned a corner.
“All of the companies did well last year,” Belhasa says. “I can see the improvement, sales have increased and the profits are there. Some of our companies have gone into Abu Dhabi. In the restaurant franchise line, we never stopped.
“For our money exchange division, we had one branch — now we have six and we are opening more. In the travel market, we can see the business improving, especially in the summer.
“Business is better than before. We cannot compare it with 2007 and 2006, and compared with the last two years we are doing much better. In those years, we had to send some of our labour back home, but now we are bringing them back.”
But any immediate major international expansion plans Belhasa may have had in the past have been put on hold, partly as a result of the unrest that has been afflicting the region. Two years ago, its Savanna trading arm had set up shop in Iraq, in a bid to export baby milk products to the market, but the chairman says those plans have been mothballed.
“We are not going for the international expansion at the moment,” he says. “We were doing good business in Iraq, but a lot of things happened in the neighbouring countries, so we had to be careful — so we slowed down on that.”
Instead, the group has looked closer to home for growth. Several of its units — including the car rental business, franchises and Belhasa Metal — have opened up shop in Abu Dhabi. In addition, Belhasa also holds the Gulf franchise rights to the Alison Nelson Chocolate Bar, a café concept built around chocolate products. The firm has already signed deals to open the franchise in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and is also hoping to launch in Kuwait in the near future.
In line with the rising numbers of tourists to Dubai, Belhasa’s family of restaurant franchises — which include the Chocolate Bar, Canadian bakery concept MBCo and Mexican eatery Cantina Mariachi — have all seen brisk expansion. The firm is adding to that list with the launch of Studio Masr, an Egypt-based grilled food restaurant, in Abu Dhabi this month.
“We are also in the process, inshallah, of signing off a new concept,” Belhasa adds. “It should be within one month, we’re just trying to finalise the location. It will be a Japanese food concept. We are always trying to come with something new — we never stop.”
“We can see the change compared with last year and this year,” he continues. “We can see the number of Saudi tourists who are coming, especially during the Eid period. They are making our restaurants busy and you can see how crowded the malls are.”
Most retailers and restaurateurs have been complaining about high rents in the city’s landmark malls, but Belhasa is sanguine about those rates.
“Of course the prices are high, but we don’t have any choice,” he says. “As the shopping centres say ‘we are bringing that many customers to you — you have to respect the place where you are, and you have to pay more for that.
“It’s usual practice. And if you are planning to set up in a new mall, they will ask you to pay 25 percent of a year’s rent in advance. It doesn’t matter if the mall won’t be finished for another three years – you still have to pay 25 percent of the first year’s rent upfront — and we do that.”
Back in the last decade, the plan had been to take the Saif Belhasa Group public, particularly given the success of the driving schools and building materials parts of the business. But in 2010, Belhasa said that a plan to list the firm in 2010 had been delayed due to market conditions, and that he would reconsider going public in three years time. That decision was in line with moves by several big local companies to put off their plans to list. Last year, Khalaf Al Habtoor, the chairman of the Al Habtoor Group, announced and then delayed a plan to list his firm, while Daman Investments managing director Shehab Gargash has also put plans for an IPO on the backburner. So, with a slew of potential IPOs on the Dubai bourses on the horizon, is it finally now time for a big family firm to list?
“Still no — I have it in my mind, but it’s not the right time,” Belhasa says. “I am looking at 2017 or 2018, I will have a look at it then.”
In terms of long term goals, it seems that the chairman has set the second half of this decade as the time for serious expansion.
“For myself, I feel that I have done about 30 percent of what I would like to do,” Belhasa says. “I don’t talk about it, but there are a lot of things that I’m doing that will take the group to the next stage.
“My challenge is to grow the business more and more. I built it by myself, without help from anyone, apart from my wife, and I want to bring it to the international market. It will happen one day — by 2017, that’s my plan.”
Hello Mr Saif ,
All the Best ...... to you , your business and expansions that are in the line .
Hats off to Mr Belhasa and similar strong characters who have built successful business conglomerates from scratch. They exemplify Dubai's ambitions and drive and deserve all our praise and respect.