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Sat 23 Jun 2018 02:47 PM

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Meet the head of the all-woman team leading France's largest trade council in the Middle East

French Business Council managing director Agnes Lopez is helping bring a touch of France to the UAE economy

Meet the head of the all-woman team leading France's largest trade council in the Middle East

The French Business Council Dubai & Northern Emirates (FBC) turned thirty last year: “A symbolic pearl anniversary in the UAE,” as the organisation’s managing director, Agnes Lopez puts it.

The FBC now has over 800 members representing 450 companies. It is currently France’s largest chamber of commerce in the Middle East and tenth largest globally.

With a small team of 16 employees, supervised by 12 elected board of directors, Lopez has led the FBC and its staff to considerable achievements to date. She’s been in Dubai for a decade now, and in April, helped the council receive the Dubai Quality Appreciation Award for Representative Entities, presented by Sheikh Maktoum Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Deputy Ruler of Dubai. Last year Lopez also met with French President Emmanuel Macron during his trip to the country, echoing the French government’s sentiment to boost trade and cultural exchange with it’s second largest trade partner in the GCC.

Candid and bursting with energy, Lopez confesses she has more on her plate now than she’s ever had before.  But it’s not a job she’s prepared to step off the gas on. “Our main mission is to promote and develop the business links between UAE and France,” she tells CEO Middle East. The UAE is vital to France’s interests in the region “We have ambitious goals and much remains to be done,” says Lopez.

What are the main responsibilities that your role as MD of the FBC entail?

From a purely legal point of view, FBC is a nonprofit association. But we are in reality a self-financed small company with a permanent team of 16 employees, supervised by a 12 elected member board of directors. The MD reports directly to the President of the board. The responsibilities entrusted to the MD are extremely broad such as defining the commercial, human resource and communication strategies, ensure the organisation’s financial sustainability, guaranteeing the quality of service at all levels, seeking sponsors for our events, while also representing and promoting the interests of our business community to Emirati and French authorities… and reaching out to the community with an interview on behalf of the FBC such as this!

How do French businesses contribute to the UAE  economy?

The Franco-Emirati relationship is very special; the UAE hosts the largest number of french companies in the region. They include start-ups, SMEs and large corporates that are remarkably innovative, engaged and integrated in the local environment.

The French presence in Dubai is around 700 subsidiaries active across energy, transport, healthcare, construction, food and beverages, luxury and retail and technology. Thanks to the opening of Louvre AD last November, we now have a growing presence in the culture and educational sectors as well. Additionally, there is large ‘French Tech Ecosystem’ in Dubai with more than 50 of ‘la crème de la crème’ French start-ups already based here.

In figures, France exported 3.4 billion euros (Dh15.27 billion) to UAE in 2017, mainly  consumer goods, equipment and transport equipment. UAE exports to France represented €1.1 billion in 2017, mainly hydrocarbons.

Can you highlight how the FBC helps French businesses become a vital part of the UAE economy?

We organise more than 100 events per year and have a dedicated business club for CEOs of French MNCs based in the UAE, as well as for startup and SME GMs.

Our annual gala dinner, at which we also now host our annual French Tech UAE awards, is now one of the largest corporate events in the UAE, bringing in more than 1000 guests. It is is much more than a glamourous evening with fine french cuisine. It is an effective lobbying tool for French authorities to showcase the know-how of our French business community in the UAE. It is also an event dedicated to our members:  90% of the tables are booked by corporations inviting their partners and clients or their own staff as a team building event. At the end of the day, the audience is a real melting pot.

Last year we also organised the first ever UAE-France economic forum in November. Organised with our sponsors, the Dubai Chamber, with support from the French Embassy, it was held on the occasion of the first visit in the middle East of the President Emmanuel Macron. The forum enabled a meeting of some 400 MD and C-level executives to discuss opportunities that lay with thje Dubai Expo 2020 toward which all eyes are now turned.

Lastly, we are now opening a second business center in Dubai Silicon Oasis to strengthen our function as a hub for gathering entrepreneurs. The opening of the business center is a significant milestone in the chamber’s development, as it will allow us to further diversify our sources of income while providing an effective tool for our French entrepreneurs to develop their business in the UAE and the region.

How tough is the local market to manoeuvre, even beyond the eco-political turbulence it is sometimes prone to?

It is indeed not easy to promote the Middle East region despite of the huge potential we have here. That’s why my team and I go on a regular basis to France, organise  roadshows and meet entrepreneurs and companies wishing to develop their businesses in and from the UAE. First contact is essential to assess their projects and from time to time to remove stereotypes. Businesses need to be aware of the cultural diversity of the country and be patient; business in the region takes time and requires having a good and strong business network. The language barriers can also from time to time be a challenge. But at the end of the day, a desire to doing business together means finding a way to speak the same language. Meanwhile, the UAE is also a mature and competitive marketand you have to come with a real competitive advantage.

What are some qualities in your line of work that are invaluable to have?

The most difficult part of my job is financing the various projects that we do. So being resilient, creative and having excellent communication and PR skills are essential. The job also requires strong knowledge of the ecosystem to anticipate where the trends are leading to. And it doesn’t hurt to have a strong network. Being passionate can help bring it all together because this is a very special job, unlike any  other in the corporate world!

What are some qualities that you always look for in your staff?

My team is nicknamed ‘the Amazons’; we are a 100% female team that never gives up. It requires solidarity and polyvalence, because despite job descriptions. in such a small entity you have to be ready to lend a hand. I also always look for a strong business background, someone who goes the extra mile, is creative, and is intellectually  curious.

You mention creativity quite a bit?

Creativity is part of French DNA. Before working for the FBC, I worked in MNCs in the telecommunications sector. Working for the FBC is a very different story: in such an organization with a limited budget, if you have ambitions you have to be creative. My motto is: if you can not enter by the main door, try the window.

What is a leadership lesson you have learned during your time at the FBC?

Leadership in excellence is a long journey and I have still a lot to learn. It’s a marathon not a sprint. But a good leader, in my opinion, helps others to shine. Human resource is our greatest asset and we have a responsibility to support the ambitions of every individual in the organization. This is why at the FBC we have a succession plan for each employee to limit turnover and encourage internal mobility.

Another tip: don’t be too emotional (which isn’t easy for a French woman like me!).

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