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Sun 13 Feb 2011 12:00 AM

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High profile

From the Presidential Palace to the first blue-collar worker city in Abu Dhabi, RW Armstrong treats all its projects as high profile.

High profile

After five years spearheading RW Armstrong’s Abu Dhabi operation, Mona
Salem has been appointed vice president. This was recognition for her role in
steering the international engineering and design consultancy through
recession, and for building up a prestigious portfolio of projects across the
UAE and supporting operations throughout MENA.

“The most exciting thing for me was not the recognition
personally,” she says modestly, “but more the recognition of the entire team.
The truth is I have never felt like I have needed a title to do what I have
needed to do.”

Speaking about how she chose her career, Salem explains that she knew she had wanted
to be an engineer from the age of two. “My father was an engineer and there
were a lot of other engineers in my family, so I grew up surrounded by the
profession. To me, there was no question in my mind what I wanted to be since I
was very young.”

But surely being a woman in a male-dominated industry must
have been a challenge? “My dad told me a long time ago not to define ourselves
by gender, but rather by your actions and what you accomplish, so I never pay
much attention to that,” she says. “I tend to focus on what I can deliver and
what I can contribute, and I find that people are quite receptive. I had heard
before I came to work here that being a woman in construction could be an issue
in the Middle East, but actually I have not
found that, especially not in the UAE. In fact, I would say it is about the
same as in the US.
People are the same everywhere. If you just focus on your job, people respect
you and it does not become a problem.”

Her biggest issue, in fact, is less about being a woman in
construction and more about balancing a family life with a career. “Of all the
challenges I have, technical issues, finance and other problems, the biggest
challenge is getting that balance between having a career and being a mother.
But I have learnt that it is about compromise.”

Responsibility and big decisions are, however, never easy,
irrespective of confidence and gender. For Salem,
her biggest decision since working for the company has been to move to the UAE,
having settled permanently in the US
some years earlier after an upbringing between America
and Egypt.
“I loved my career in the US,
and I had established social roots there. It was very difficult to leave and
start from scratch. But at that time RW Armstrong was starting its global
operations. They knew about my Middle Eastern background, and they had talked
to me about coming here. So I took a leap of faith.”

As expected, 2006 was a difficult year for all those working
in the fledgling Abu Dhabi
operation of RW Armstrong. While the company had no regional contacts and
limited local knowledge, part of the operation also involved launching a brand
new service offering. “When we started out we were not a known firm. We were
not known locally and we were not known in the building design services market
period. And we only had a small team on the ground here, so we all worked
really, really hard. We worked seven days a week, 365 days that year. I do not
remember any of us having any time off, but it was very exciting.”

Asked about the branch’s biggest achievement to date, Salem says it is most
certainly the operation’s growth. “We went from having one contract with one
client to 28 contracts with nearly 20 different clients. That is something I am
very proud of.” The firm managed this, she explains, by approaching the market
with caution. “Our owners had a very good vision when they started looking at
the Middle East in 2005. At the time they
thought about Dubai obviously, as everyone was
going to Dubai, but they decided on Abu Dhabi; they realised
it was going to be the next big thing.

“Also because we were not known in the market our approach
was to try and build trust. We did this by teaming with some great partners who
had the history, who were known locally and who understood the local business
market, such as Hyder, Ian Banham and Architectonica. And we started out slow,
providing part of the services and then expanding as our name grew,” says Salem.

Current projects include mostly prestigious developments,
ranging from the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi
and the Masdar headquarters in Masdar City to the Al Waha mixed-use development in Libya and the Pyramids
Heights business park and residential
township in Egypt.
“The Abu Dhabi Presidential Palace project is one of our key projects. It is
very exciting to be involved in this, because it is going to change the
landscape of Abu Dhabi.”

According to Salem,
the company regards all its work as high-profile. “Even projects like Modern
Residential City,” she says, “which is a quasi-governmental, blue-collar
accommodation project for 25,000 residents in Musaffah, Abu Dhabi, is
prestigious because it is one of the first residential worker cities designed
to modern standards.”

As for more recent wins, Salem says the company has landed projects in
new markets as well as new sectors. In addition to two new projects in Saudi Arabia, one of which is the Canary Park
luxury residential community in Al Khobar, the branch has also won work in the
industrial sector, namely Abu Dhabi Investment House.

“The industrial sector will be one of our main focuses this
year. Abu Dhabi
is going to see a lot of industrial projects coming on-line, and that is going
to be a nice line of new business for us. We are also trying to enter the oil
and gas sector, because this is solid and stable. If you have these anchor
clients and base markets, it helps you weather some of the storms.”

Evidently, the firm’s strategy is like that of many
companies in the post-recession period – one based on diversification and
expansion into emerging markets. Thus while it is already working across MENA,
with projects in Morocco, Libya and Tunisia, its plan involves
expanding into other markets as and when they become available. “During the
recession we faced challenges; 2010 was particularly hard in terms of projects
getting delayed. Cash flow was an issue and resource leveling was an issue
because you could not very well shrink your organisation only to win another
project and have to expand it again. So as a firm we focused on diversifying
our client base and expanding into new markets. We focused quite a bit on Saudi Arabia,
and successfully completed this work out of the UAE office. We also supported
our Libya
operation significantly, as there continues to be significant growth there.
This year we will be totally focused on Qatar.”

And then, of course, there is Egypt. “We are, along with the
entire world, watching what is happening there. I think it is premature to make
any decisions as to what you will do with your operations. Egypt is a
great country - the position, the geography, the manpower that is there – all
make it a good place to do business. I would say this is just a blip on the
radar, and I think eventually things will settle. Once they do, construction
companies and engineering firms should be prepared to assist with
reconstruction. There is bound to be change regardless of what the outcome is,
and with that change I predict there will be a lot of focus on infrastructure
improvement. As for us, we are going to be ready and available to be part of
that rebuilding effort.”

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