By Jola Chudy
CEO Middle East's Young CEO of the Year Oweis Zahran, founder of OWS Auto Parts, shares his entrepreneurial journey from car aficionado to one of the industry's trailblazers
What’s the story behind OWS Automotive?
It started as a hobby and a necessity. I’ve always been a modern car collector and that is an expensive hobby. However, what’s even more expensive is the upkeep of the cars, especially in the GCC where new car dealers aren’t very merciful when it comes to after-sales support. I started by importing remanufactured spare parts for my own small fleet of cars. Then the circle expanded to friends and family. Eventually we expanded into supplying government fleets like Dubai Taxi and RTA. From there we earned a good reputation and government entities started approaching OWS Automotive to add more value to the Emirates’ automotive services.
In less than 12 months my plan is for OWS to be listed on NASDAQ and we will be a nationwide company. We’re growing exponentially year on year and my ultimate vision is to grow further.
What’s the biggest challenge facing your industry today?
Honestly, unlike many other industries, ours doesn’t have a bad time. When things are tough, people hold on to their cars longer, buying more parts and requiring more service. When times are great, people still buy cars that would require our services. I can see electric cars posing a threat, but that only comprises 1.9 per cent of cars today. I think it is safe to say that we have clear sailing for about 25 years more!
How do you encourage creative thinking within your organisation?
It comes from my team. We have over 700 people under the OWS banner and everyone has a chance to submit their ideas. They are recognised, celebrated and awarded. This keeps motivation and loyalty high.
What is most important: mission, core values or vision?
Our core value is written on every wall. ‘Honesty’ and ‘trust’ are the core of our business because the automotive world can be a dark and shady place. OWS is different in that regard and we intend to stay transparent with our customer service no matter what. That’s what I believe has been the secret to our success.
What’s your decision-making process?
It’s quite simple. If it doesn’t jeopardise any of our core values, and it makes money, then it’s a GO!
Do you believe social networking has impacted your organisation or yourself?
Social networking is important in today’s age. There are two schools of thought on success. Some say being low profile is better; I tend to believe that if you are doing the right things the right way, then get out there and show the world. It has led us to many of our current partnerships and markets that we are in now. Also, you get to share your best practices and learn from other leaders as well. The sharing of real-time information is the key to social networking personally and professionally.
What do you enjoy the most about working at your company?
The fact that everyone is accessible, happy, growing, innovating and leading by example. My team and people are what I enjoy the most. Watching them implement success is my greatest joy.
Can you name a person who has had an impact on you as a leader? Perhaps someone who has been a mentor to you? Why/how did this person impact your life?
Dr M. Zahran. AKA my dad. He taught my brothers and I everything we know about business and networking. He takes the credit. All of it.
What is the most important decision you’ve ever had to make for your company?
Selling everything to pay salaries. Everything: cars, my home, watches and more. That was hard. But a decision I would proudly take over and over again.
What are three characteristics that you believe every leader should possess?
Humbleness, trust, honesty.
What advice would you give to someone going into a leadership position for the first time?
Lead by example. It is easier said than done, however, as a leader people look up to you, even at times you might not notice it. It can be small things like the way you park your car in the morning, or the smile you give the reception. It is all noticed and perceived as being directly associated to your position.
What’s the best way to prepare for uncertainty?
Train hard, fight easy is what I tell my staff. Be ready for every possible scenario.
When faced with two equally qualified job candidates, how do you determine whom to hire?
I tend to dig into more of who they are. Ask for examples of how they handle tougher situations that are unrelated to their academic qualifications. The one that gives the best answers wins. Academic qualifications are important to me, but the person behind the skills is more important.
What’s your greatest fear in business?
I enjoy my business, I honestly don’t fear for much. There is a solution to every challenge and hence it doesn’t scare me. My biggest fear is to one day lose faith in myself as I truly believe that would cause hundreds of families that OWS supports to suffer one way or another. Those families motivate me.
What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
Most people believe my success comes from my dad. It does in the sense of what he has taught me but no financial support has come from him at all.
What’s one productivity tip you wish everyone else knew?
Sleep less! We don’t have the time to sleep 30 per cent of our lives. I believe most people should sleep five hours a day only and the rest of your time should be you looking for ways to better yourself - spiritually, mentally or financially.
What is your most prized possession?
My background is my biggest asset. The way I was raised and the training I received at a very young age.
What is the biggest luxury in your life?
If I were to answer this question two years ago I would say my Richard Mille or one of my flashy cars. Today it’s my family and the time I can spend with them.
If something were to happen to your business, what would be your back-up plan? Start over again, learn from mistakes.
How do you manage a large company and still find time for things like family?
It’s hard I have to admit, but a solid schedule is the only way to do it. It’s all about organising my priorities during the day and being punctual.
What does a typical day look like?
I wake up at 4:30 am, exercise for an hour then drop my daughter to school. I am in the office by 7:50 every morning. I am in meetings until about 2pm then I pick up my daughter and have lunch with her and the rest of the day is ‘me time’, which can be dinner with friends or family, or attend a business event or even spend it reading or doing something fun.