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Sun 21 Oct 2012 10:16 AM

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Best of 2012: Rubicon Group interview

Randa Ayoubi started Rubicon Group Holding from scratch eighteen years ago. Today, the Jordan-based digital content production house has become one of the industry’s greatest success stories on a global scale, with an IPO expected in the next two years

Best of 2012: Rubicon Group interview

It takes a while, but eventually Randa Ayoubi gives her secret away. “Young people can work out of Amman in Jordan for a company in Holland and never travel to Holland. All they need to do is be well-educated to understand what the world needs, provide a good service at a competitive price and be ethical.”

If anyone deserves to write the book on how to do the above, it should be Ayoubi. Nearly 20 years ago, she quit her day job at a local bank to create a company with “a soul.” Today her Amman-based firm has 500 staff on the payroll, boasts revenues in excess of $40m and is partnering with some of the biggest names in Hollywood to co-create feature length films and cartoon series such as Postman Pat and Pink Panther.

From multi-platform digital production, to educational content and location-based themed entertainment, Ayoubi has turned Rubicon into one of the world’s most sought-after digital content production houses. Rubicon offices and studios have sprung up in Dubai, Manila and California, as it lines up strategic partnerships with giants including Sony, MGM and Turner Broadcasting.

“I started Rubicon in 1994 but it didn’t really start until 2004 because it took ten years to raise capital. Without money you can survive but you cannot thrive,” she says.

Eighteen years later Rubicon is thriving and it is little wonder the firm is also ploughing ahead with plans to sell its shares to the public in an initial public offering within the next two years. Ayoubi admits that letting go of the company she spent so many years building up could be one of her toughest challenges to date. “We’re currently in the phase where the investors [which include the Bahrain-based private equity firm GrowthGate Capital] are discussing what the best option is,” she says.

“I don’t want to be unfair to them, they have some emotional attachment to the company but nowhere near my emotional attachment,” she adds. “I don’t think it’s a long way off, I think its maybe a year and a half to two years of mainly preparation but where [we list] wouldn’t be chosen by me.”

One of the company’s highest profile projects is the design and project management of the $1bn theme park in Aqaba, in the south of Jordan, which was announced last year. The 184-acre Red Sea Astrarium resort will include a Paramount-produced Star Trek-themed attraction, as well as a series of other attractions that will feature Jordan’s Nabataea, Babylonian, British and Roman influences. The project, which is partly being funded by the King Abdullah II Fund for Development (himself a Star Trek fan), is slated for completion in 2014.

Working on such an ambitious project in Jordan not only enables Rubicon to be involved in a project that will help boost much-needed revenues for tourism in the country but has also helped open doors for Rubicon in countries as further afield, says Ayoubi.

“Every company needs validation in its home country,” she says, adding that the firm has since been asked to create pre-concept designs for theme parks in Perth, Australia and China.

“For this region the nice thing about [the Red Sea Astrarium] is that we didn’t simply bring Mickey Mouse and put him in a robe or a headscarf and say now he’s a regional character. Star Trek remains Star Trek but the entire concept of the project is that it talks about all of the civilisations that have impacted the region since the beginning of time,” she adds.

Rubicon, which has already completed the schematic designs for the concept and expects construction work to begin shortly, is also working on the pre-concept designs for a theme park in Australia and a second $3.6bn resort in China. If the firm is successful, it will establish new offices in both countries, says Ayoubi.

Given the sheer scale of the projects Rubicon is currently working on, it would be easy to forget the many years Ayoubi struggled to get the business off the ground. The Jordanian entrepreneur survived on an initial investment of just $140,000 for a decade before persuading eleven family and friends to invest $3m.

“In the beginning the first round of capital was mainly friends and family and this group of people at the time, they did it because they thought maybe it will, maybe it won’t. No one put in large amounts of money — it was something they did because it sounded good,” she explains.

Back then Ayoubi’s business plan centered on creating multimedia learning tools for schools but when education institutions turned her away, refusing to “put a penny into such as foreign idea”. Ayoubi switched her focus to the banking sector, partnering with banks to create multimedia training for employees.

“It was a very calculated move because banks usually have more money to spend on training than other institutions and they have a high turnover, at least in low level jobs,” she says. “I didn’t have enough money to provide the content so we did partnerships — they would give me the content — and I would give them a share of the profit. That went on for ten years.”

In addition to creating training content for banking institutions, Ayoubi spent a decade developing Rubicon’s expertise in animations, programming, linking animated content with the internet and technology. “We opened the horizons at least in terms of planning for if we had the money what would we do?” she says.

Rubicon’s big break followed shortly after 9/11 when it launched its own cartoon series, Ben & Izzy. The cartoon, which was launched to great fanfare in 2006 at a gala dinner in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, tells the story of the sometimes rocky friendship between two eleven-year-old boys, one American and one Arab, who travel through time on archaeological expeditions.

The show, which was first screened in English for international purposes before being dubbed into Arabic, quickly became a symbol of a bridge between the east and the west. “Around that time September 11 happened, the world changed and I thought why don’t I do it for the international market and use something that doesn’t exist now — stories that are told by us for us,” she says.

“It took two years for MGM to be convinced to give us a chance. We started doing demos to show the quality of the work [and] about three years later we signed our first big break in the sense that we were given the chance to work with a studio at that level and partner with them,” she adds.

The partnership with MGM for Ben & Izzy has since led to several other similar joint ventures with other iconic film studios. Rubicon now counts the likes of Classic Media — which it is currently creating a feature length film of the British cartoon character Postman Pat with — and Toonz amongst its partners.

“One of the things we’ve done since [signing Ben & Izzy] is that we don’t work for hire, we go into partnerships so we co-own and have a vested interest so we do that,” she says.

Producing film content and designing rides for theme parks are just two areas of Rubicon’s business. The company has also stayed true to its roots, continuing to produce multimedia educational material for children; creating licensed merchandise such as DVDs, games platforms and online and social media for brands such as Monsters In My Pocket and also produces games and apps.

“Education is the least moneymaking but it’s something that has a huge sentimental value to me. Its mainstream education and corporate education for children [aged] four to eighteen years old. We have things that are very mainstream [material] such as mathematics and science but in a very interactive fun way,” says Ayoubi.

“We have stuff that’s not mainstream like teaching children in KG, four to five years olds about self worth, about the difference being an individual and part of a community… things that we’re very passionate about,” she adds.

In addition to her work with Rubicon, Ayoubi also mentors a number of budding entrepreneurs, a subject she is clearly passionate about, having endured the struggles of her own business. “I always tell young people…that you just need to forge forward with or without government [support],” she says.

“The issue with the world in general, the Arab world specifically, is there is no way any government in any Arab government is able to provide employment to a level where people can feel they can support their family. We must teach our kids and young children that the future is something that you design and that you should never wait for people,” she adds.

mohammad 7 years ago

I started Rubicon in 1994 but it didn’t really start until 2004 because it took ten years to raise capital. Without money you can survive but you cannot thrive,” she says.
i am starting with your quote; i am mohammad atiyeh co founder and chairman of abu mahjoob creative production www.mahjoob.com , our company was established about 10 years ago ,and i feel exactly what you mean with the above ,all we need is the capital growth for us to really take off , we have 20 000 shares for sale out of a total of 70 000 which is our registerd capital , i strongly belive RUBICON could be an ideal partner .