By Neil King
John St. Valery explains how The Links Group of Companies started and what the major issues are for businesses looking to establish themselves in the UAE
For any company starting business in a new country, there are numerous legal, cultural, and procedural challenges to overcome.
Barriers to entry can be many and varied, wherever the market may be, so having a helping hand can be invaluable, ensuring you establish a presence in a new region with minimum fuss through expert local knowledge.
Dubai-based Links Group of Companies has been performing that role in the UAE and Gulf region since 2002, introducing hundreds upon hundreds of foreign businesses to the Middle East though its UAE and Qatar offices, and helping them set up through its range of services which cut through red tape and time-consuming bureaucracy.
Licensing, visas, ownership issues, networking, legal structures and much more are taken care of by Links Group, allowing companies – foreign or domestic – to focus on their business plans.
A Dubai SME 100 ranked company, leaping from 56th place in 2012 to 13th in 2013, Links Group was founded by a man who already knew what it took to establish, close down, and sell a foreign business in the emirate.
John St. Valery arrived in Dubai in 1997 to head up the regional branch of a UK financial services firm. Arriving at a time when infrastructure was much more rudimentary than it is today, he explains that he had to work hard to understand how things operated.
“Back then it was quite difficult to find any assistance. We were Central Bank licensed, so we had a lot of hoops to go through – I had to learn a lot about establishing a business, which wasn’t easy to do.”
St. Valery and his team of about 20 consultants built a presence in the region before the parent company in the UK announced it was closing down, ordering the Dubai office to do the same.
“We were told to look after the staff, close down the business, and move on,” continues St. Valery.
“We’d built a pretty good network and presence over the years, so we sought permission from the UK to sell the Dubai office to a financial advisory firm that was coming here from the Far East.
“We got approval, so we sold the company in 2001 and I spent that year with them to help them find their feet. I never planned to stay with them beyond then, and it was really thinking time for me.
“My wife and I decided to stay in Dubai with our young family and seek opportunities here rather than go back home. And so The Links Group was established.”
Putting his experience to good use, St. Valery and his business partner set up the advisory company for foreign businesses coming into the region, but he soon saw that people wanted more.
“They wanted practical assistance,” he says.
“It was all very well giving advice, but there were certain things that foreign companies wanted hands-on help with. Perhaps the biggest thing was the issue of ownership.”
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Before the introduction of free zones in the UAE, all foreign businesses were required to have a local partner who held at least 51 percent of the company’s capital. This was a cause for concern for business owners who wanted to enter the market, but not hand over the majority of their company.
St. Valery says: “With Links Group we saw that there was a big barrier for these foreign companies, so we worked on changing the partnership structure. We tried to establish practices that simplified the process for foreign companies, ensure they would have beneficial ownership of their company, despite the ownership laws.
“My partner was a mid-to-senior official in Dubai, and we formed a corporate nominee structure, which meant you could have a company as your local partner rather than an individual.
“We spoke with some fairly influential people in the area and said foreign companies were interest in the region. We could attract them here but have to make the landscape more transparent. It all boiled down to the 51/49 percent arrangement. How can companies reconcile giving away the majority of their business?
“What we did was ensure foreign business owners had control, and it drew a lot of people to the region. It was a big turning point for Links Group.”
Being an entrepreneur in Dubai at the tail end of the 1990s and early years of the millennium was an exciting experience, according to St. Valery.
The emirate, and the UAE in general, was yet to undergo the kind of large-scale development we see today, providing huge opportunities for those already living in the area.
He says: “It was such an interesting time. It was already a vibrant market, but nowhere near its potential yet. There were so many plans and expectations, and everybody was looking at the next big thing – the next big change or development. Everybody was talking about the potential for future projects, from property markets to free zones.
“It was an exciting time to be here, and very interesting from a business point of view.
“My year with the company we sold the UK business to was really about looking at all of this and figuring out where we could fit in. I saw there were lots of plans, but so much bureaucracy. So our idea was to simplify things.
“If we could make it easier for businesses to come here, then we could help develop Dubai much more quickly and effectively.
“Things were gathering pace in the UAE, and it was a fascinating market to be in, but there were a lot of improvements to be made, and we believed we could help make them.”
With about 300 companies on its books at any one time, Links Group has become a major player in the region, not only in terms of its own success, but also in terms of Dubai’s.
A large number of the businesses Links Group brought to the market in its early years were in the construction and real estate sectors, which worked on building some of the infrastructure we see today.
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Now, says St. Valery, companies are coming into Dubai to use its infrastructure as a base for regional expansion.
He says: “Dubai’s infrastructure has taken it to the next level. We used to bring companies in to build the infrastructure, now we’re bringing in companies to use the infrastructure and enjoy access to the wider region.”
The proven influence of Links Group led to more success for St. Valery and his team.
An alliance with Dubai Investment Office helped increase the amount of foreign investment in the region, and trade missions with Dubai’s government have led to a greater level of trust in Dubai among other countries’ business environments.
St. Valery says: “We recently did an event in London where we took government officials to meet companies there, rather than bring companies out here. There was an audience of about 100 UK companies who wanted to explore this region, and by taking the government to them, if helped them see the safety and security they would have in Dubai.
“Having ties to the government really validates our model. It shows that barriers to entry can really be removed. It’s also a badge of honour that we’re very proud of.”
Confessing that Links Group doesn’t work with as many start-up companies as it used to, St. Valery is nonetheless an active figure in entrepreneurial circles, speaking at various events, workshops and round tables, and offering advice to budding business folk in the region.
His experience as, and among entrepreneurs has led him to identify the issues facing new businesses in the market.
“Start-ups in this region have different things they need to pay attention to compared to other parts of the world. There are obviously many similarities between here and other markets – the rules of engagement are generally the same, and everybody needs to find ways to be cost effective – but start-ups in Silicon Valley, for example, don’t need to take commercial office space like businesses do here.
“Mark Zuckerberg probably didn’t have to think about that, meaning he could focus his attention on more important things.
“Another thing I see is that not enough start-ups are told to think about their exit strategy.
“From our advisory side we always speak to companies about this. It’s so important when it comes to taking your business to investors, to raise capital, and knowing how you and your business will develop.
“But the biggest thing for start-ups is probably still costs. More needs to be done in terms of assisting these businesses and giving them the best chance possible.”
One way St. Valery believes this challenge can be overcome is through the development of more incubator models and co-operative models.
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“The one’s we’ve seen in recent years show it’s a good idea,” he says. “It’s important to grow the ecosystem where people can share ideas and develop together, but licensing has to allow for that. It’s being worked on and there should be a lot more happing in the coming years.
“The entrepreneurial scene is becoming very strong here. Things like Dubai SME, Foreign Investment Office, and government initiatives are really helping, though some of it has been a little too focused on the Emirati community.
“There are also so many great networking groups coming up which are about education and sharing of experiences. Interacting with like-minded people is important. What I love about Dubai is that people are here to assist others. People don’t shy away from giving advice.”
Having built a stellar reputation in the market, St. Valery knows what it takes to be a success. He explains that Links Group has a mantra when it comes to maintaining that success and ensuring foreign companies continue to see it as their first choice when entering the reigon.
“We always look at STEPS,” he says. “That’s security, trust, expertise, professionalism, and speed.
“As a company we sell security and trust. Why would anybody put their trust in unknown company with no track record? It’s about our history, our work with the government, and testimonies of the last twelve years. The security is there.
“Trust in an interesting word to use. In a legal sense trust agreements are not recognised in this part of the world. Nut for foreign companies it’s important to them to put their business into your hands knowing its safe and secure. They have to know that your company has experts. We’ve invested a lot of capital into HR and making sure we have the best people.
“Foreign companies also expect there to be a high level of professionalism. We’ve established a self-regulated code of conduct and standards. It’s not obligatory to have this but we believe it’s important and we’re pushing quite strongly for it to be established in the region. It’s what clients want.
“As for speed, it’s all very well to have security, but most companies want to get going straight away, and we can help them do this.”
As for advice, there are certain things St. Valery views as sage words of wisdom across the board.
“We always tell foreign companies not to cut corners. It can be a costly. We also advise them to interact with the Emirati community. We’re all here as guests, and sometimes people lose sight of that.”
Looking back at Links Group’s role in Dubai’s development over the past decade, it may be tempting for St. Valery to allow himself a congratulatory pat on the back.
But he offers a much more modest reaction.
“We’re a tiny part of what’s going on in this region. We’re not doing anything that other people can’t do, but we are proud to have made a contribution.
“We’ve got some household names on our books that have started here as entrepreneurial businesses and grown significantly. They are businesses that have grown as Dubai has grown, and gone on to help other businesses do the same. We’re proud to have been able to play a small part in that growth.”