By Tom Arnold
ECCE managing director Dr Marcus George discusses how he is steering his firm through the downturn.
Dr Marcus George, managing director of Engineering Consortium Consulting Engineers (ECCE), discusses how he is steering his engineering, architectural and planning firm through a decline in the UAE's construction sector.The growth of Dubai's Cityscape has mirrored the success of Engineering Consortium Consulting Engineers (ECCE).
Set up 12 years ago from a small office in the emirate, ECCE has developed to become one of the foremost engineering, architectural and planning firms, responsible for a number of the gleaming towers that make up Dubai's impressive skyline.
Dr Marcus George, the man who built ECCE from the ground up, is already eyeing expansion in Dubai's neighbour Abu Dhabi and Qatar.
As well as employing 50 staff in Dubai, ECCE has an office in Abu Dhabi and is looking to open another branch in Qatar before the end of 2009.
This ambitious growth plan is despite one of the most severe economic downturns to have hit the Gulf in recent years, forcing cash-strapped developers put on hold existing developments and drastically cut the number of new project launches.
ECCE has not escaped completely unscathed by the fallout from the crisis.
It has seen 32 of the tower projects it was working on put on hold, according to Dr George, managing director of ECCE.
"Like everybody, we have been affected by the crisis but it doesn't mean we don't have projects - so we have to take it from the other side and be positive."
Indeed, George has good reason to remain upbeat about his firm's outlook.
Against a backdrop of difficult market conditions, ECCE has managed to sign contracts for three significant schemes in the past four months.
Two of those are projects for developer Damac Properties and one is a building for the UAE Ministry of Interior.
In addition, it is locked in negotiations on a consultancy contract for a major supermarket development in Abu Dhabi.
"We do complete design from architectural and structural to electro-mechanical," explains Dr George.
"Typically, our work involves studying the project, then giving the feasibility study to the client and the concept design, then after approving the concept design we do the detailed architectural design and after that we prepare the structural and electro-mechanical details, then get licences from the authorities to start the construction."ECCE's new projects are on top of a healthy existing order book valued at around AED 2bn ($54m). "We have 12 projects ongoing between design and supervision on site stage. We supervise the building to the end until we give the keys to the client," says Dr George.
ECCE's portfolio covers a broad spectrum of developments including commercial towers, industrial units and hospitals.
But with a slowdown in the commercial property sector, Dr George admits that in order to pick up future work ECCE will have to adapt its business focus.
"There is tough competition now and since we've had so many projects put on hold we need jobs.
"In future we have to focus on infrastructure, hospitals, schools and other buildings, which serve the people and where work is continuing," he notes.
This shift in focus brings new challenges for the consulting firm, not least in providing the different expertise civil infrastructure projects require.
However, ECCE is managing to overcome this hurdle by securing partnerships with specialist firms.
"On hospital developments we have joint ventures with a specialist firm and a joint venture with company from Australia on the landscaping. For big malls we have joint ventures with international firms who give us their expertise," says Dr George.
An Assyrian-Iraqi, Dr George has built a formidable reputation in the UAE's construction sector and is a recognised expert in his field. He received his first diploma in civil engineering from Baghdad University, followed by a PhD from the University of Glamorgan in the UK.
He began his career in Iraq's public sector where he worked with a wide range of international companies, including renowned US architectural firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM).
After spells working in Kuwait and Canada - he holds a Canadian passport - Dr George moved to Dubai in 1992.
Five years later, he launched his own consulting firm in 1997.
"When we started we had a small office and for six or seven years I built the company to be one of the foremost companies. Now, we can take any type of building, even if it is 50 or 60 storeys high, at the beginning it was just ground or one or two floors high," he says.
So when does Dr George see a recovery from the downturn in Dubai, the commercial and financial hub of the Gulf, and ECCE's home market?
"The crisis came to us like a tsunami," he says. "But it's good that the president and prime minister of the UAE tried to control the crisis by injecting money, that helped the banks to start little by little giving loans and the government started paying contractors.
"Looking at the market things are starting again and by mid-next year I am expecting things to go to normal, but we can't compare it with the last two years, which were 2007 and 2008 - those were abnormal years for growth in Dubai."