By Thomas Shambler
Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, CEO of Aldar, talks building some of the Emirate's most iconic landmarks, what makes a good leader, and the helicopter ride that changed his life
For the few who might not be familiar with the business, what's the story behind Aldar?
Aldar was founded just over a decade ago in 2005, and is now the leading real estate lifestyle developer in Abu Dhabi. Since we began, we have always pushed boundaries, resulting in some of Abu Dhabi’s most iconic real estate projects.
Our business focuses on two main areas – real estate development, and managing a portfolio of leased assets across commercial space such as Aldar HQ, Yas Mall and our hotels on Yas Island, along with almost 5,000 residential units.
Our development business is driven by the goal of monetizing our significant landbank within Abu Dhabi – 75 million square metres, and we do this by focusing on our primary destinations – Yas Island, Al Raha Beach and Shams Abu Dhabi on Reem Island.
We have delivered some of Abu Dhabi’s most high quality real estate assets and we have a number of developments under construction across the destinations. These range from the mid-market Shams Meera, to the luxury villas of West Yas, as well as Yas Acres featuring an array of products from two bed townhouses to six bed golf front villas.
Ultimately, we want to enrich the lives of all those who call Abu Dhabi home through the creation and management of dynamic, safe, sustainable communities.
If all goes well, where would you like the business to be in the next five years?
As a developer, much of our success has been down to our ability to capitalize on the demand for well thought out communities. Quality is a major feature of our work, regardless of the ticket price of the unit.
This means that whether you are buying a mid-market studio or a luxury villa, you will see the same quality throughout. We are confident that the strategy that we have in place is the right one which is to focus on Abu Dhabi.
As a strategy, this provides Aldar with the direction required, but also ensures that we can remain flexible, and adapt to the market conditions that we see in front of us as well as enabling us to innovate. One such area is mid-market housing.
In other comparable cities, such housing would be located outside of the main urban areas where land is cheaper, but amenities are also scarce. At Aldar we are different – Shams Meera, our first mid-market offering, launched in 2015 is adjacent to Abu Dhabi’s new CBD.
What's the biggest challenge facing your industry at the moment?
We prefer to focus on opportunities rather than challenges, such as a more transparent real estate law, a steady flow of new companies moving to Abu Dhabi, as well as increased levels of foreign direct investment from countries like China, India and Saudi Arabia, makes 2017 and beyond an exciting prospect for not only Aldar, but the entire industry.
Where do good ideas come from within the organisation?
One of things of which I am most proud at Aldar is the strength of our team. From the rest of the C-Suite and filtering down through the organization, Aldar employees are dynamic, intelligent, and motivated.
Great ideas come from across our entire team on a daily basis. One of things which I instil into all members of the Aldar family, is that we are all one team, and as such we all have a role to play in making an Aldar the best company that it can be.
How do you encourage creative thinking?
We hire the right people, and develop strong partnerships and relationships with vendors and contractors, and when those fundamentals are in place, only then we can achieve great things.
You can see this in everything from our sales tools and techniques (we use state-of-the-art VR technology and touch-screen technology) to our projects – the internationally-recognised HQ building, the Gate and Sun & Sky towers on Reem Island, the F1 Circuit, and the first hotel ever built over an F1 race track, Yas Viceroy, and Yas Mall – which are now Abu Dhabi landmarks.
How do you make decisions? How does Aldar figure out what it should be doing next?
Our decision making begins and ends with our customers. At every level within Aldar, it is our customers which guide our decisions – how will they be impacted, how will they benefit? Being customer centric is in our DNA.
Regardless of whether or not an Aldar employee deals with customers on a day to day basis, their actions will affect whether a customer has a positive, negative or indifferent experience of Aldar. Coupled with the customer is the need to be excellent in everything we do.
Whether through finding efficiencies, or the design, or the way in which we handover a project, it is our performance which will determine how the customer experiences Aldar.
Is there someone who has had an impact on you as a leader? Someone you look up to?
The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and in particular, a conversation we had a few years ago when we took a helicopter trip over Yas Island.
When we flew over it, he asked me what I saw – and at that time, the island had a couple of ostriches, a rest house, plenty of sand, plus blue oceans and mangroves on either side – so I said, “Your Highness, I see a beautiful island,” and he responded, “I see the future. I see theme parks, golf courses, shopping malls, hotels and homes — all interconnected, and all happening now.”
The next day, I devoted myself to the development of Yas Island concept, and to bringing it to life – and since then, we work relentlessly to make that vision a reality.
What are three characteristics that every good leader should possess?
Courage, vision and importantly, humility.
Is there any advice that you would give to someone going into a leadership position for the first time?
That it's important to trust your instincts, but don’t be afraid to seek the counsel of your peers.
How do you prepare for uncertainty? Some things you can't predict or plan for.
Contingency plans, and being agile enough to adapt to market dynamics. The Abu Dhabi real estate sector has developed significantly over the last decade and Aldar is perhaps the most striking symbol of the maturation of the industry.
Nevertheless, we always have more than one contingency plan in place to respond to the different variables of the market.
How do you manage a large company and still find time for things like family?
Family is incredibly important, and so is the need to provide for them. I have an incredible leadership team in place at Aldar, which means that when I am not in the office, I am able to focus on my family.
That being said, I was raised with a strong work ethic, and this is something that I look to pass on to my children – the value of hard work, taking on responsibility, and being accountable.
What does a typical work day look like for you?
No day is typical as my job can take me from the Boardroom at HQ, to a construction site, to meetings with vendors, dignitaries and academics.
Every day is different, and because I am privileged to work with and meet so many interesting people, this keeps me passionate about the work that we do at Aldar, and is one of the many reasons why I love what I do.