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Wed 18 Nov 2009 04:00 AM

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Millennium man talks

President and founder of Millennium & Copthorne Middle East Ali Lakhraim explains how his Abu Dhabi roots have contributed to his success and reveals his ambitious vision for dominating the Middle East hotel industry.

Millennium man talks

President and founder of Millennium & Copthorne Middle East Ali Lakhraim explains how his Abu Dhabi roots have contributed to his success and reveals his ambitious vision for dominating the Middle East hotel industry.

Millennium & Copthorne Middle East president and founder Ali Lakhraim cannot hide his competitive streak, which derives from his passion for the industry.

Lakhraim is best known for his initiation of Millennium in the Middle East and for his role as vice-chairman and founder of Pearl Azure Hotels, through which he owns the Crowne Plaza hotels in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Sheikh Zayed Road among others.

Lakhraim is also founder and vice chairman of Emirates Hotels Company (EHC), which owns various hotel interests such as the Vista Fujairah Beach Resort and is the majority share holder in the National Corporation for Hotels and Tourism based in Abu Dhabi.

But, in spite of his achievements, Lakhraim admits his tendency to "personally stay below the radar".

While he might not shout about it, Lakhraim graduated as a telecoms engineer and within 13 years had engineered one of the region's most successful hotel operations, but he remains very low profile.

"We're always in stealth mode, that is why you don't tend to hear a lot about us. The most promoted part of the business is our subsidiary joint venture, Millennium Hotels," explains Lakhraim.

The partnership is the only one in Millennium & Copthorne's history where the company has a pure management focus, allowing it to grow at an unprecedented pace.

Under Lakhraim's leadership the company has grown to 35 hotels in the Middle East, with plans to reach 40 by the end of the year.

By 2010, the company intends to manage 50-plus hotels.

"An engineer can do a lot of things and if you love what you do, you give more. I work from 8am until 9pm and I travel at least one or two weeks every month; visiting owners and potential owners. I spent yesterday in three different cities," he says.

But Lakhraim does not take all the credit for the group's success. One of the corner stones of the company is its "good people", he says.

"I always surround myself with excellence. I believe I have the best team in the industry because they work harder than I do.

"We've built an excellent team locally and we've been growing that team and choosing certain people from different competitors."

And it's that workforce that gives Millennium an edge, says Lakhraim.

"We know the market and we know the mentality of the people better than any other company."

Abu Dhabi-born Lakhraim believes he also owes some of his success to "being a local guy".

"This business is driven by relationships. I have a lot of contacts in the Middle East and have formed relations which mean that I'll receive a more welcoming reception than someone coming from Singapore, London or Germany, who has to cross that cultural barrier.  We don't have to go through that, we can approach any of the royal highnesses or ministers without a problem".

However, being a UAE national did have its disadvantages. For one, when Lakhraim was embarking on his career, it was generally unheard of for a young man from Abu Dhabi to have an interest in the region's new and emerging hospitality industry.

That's perhaps one of the reasons why today Lakhraim considers himself as "the only guy from the UAE who has an international hotel operating firm and isn't government hired".

He says this with pride, having risen through the ranks to deputy director general at Abu Dhabi National Hotels (ADNH). He reveals: "The government has some shares in ADNH and it controls the company. My passion went beyond that. I wanted to grow the industry on a regional and global level by straying away from the government and the way the old mind thinks. ADNH is moving too slowly, it's an old-fashioned company and I've tried to change a lot of things".

When Lakhraim first met with Millennium Hotels Plc partner, he saw his chance to move on from ADNH.

"Millennium did not exist in the Middle East, which was a good thing. We were starting something from scratch. Secondly it was important that we could work well together as partners with the same interests.

"Two minds met and we've been able to create a successful enterprise out of nothing," he says.

Six years later and Lakhraim has high hopes for the enterprise: "Millennium is going to be the largest hotel group management company in MENA by far.

"I have no doubt by 2015 we will be sitting on top of the pyramid as the region's most successful operating company," asserts Lakhraim.

"Our success won't come from natural growth, it will be based on agreements set up with local investors and high networth individuals, I will acquire hotel management companies and we are already in the process of converting some of our Emirates Hotels-owned properties into Millennium Hotels. We have a plan and we're pursuing it very aggressively."

Part of that plan will involve the group continuing to "educate" owners, he explains.

"In this region, a lot of the time operators need to make the decision for the owner. Around 99% of people developing hotels do not know what they're getting into. Often they're doing it for their own ego or because someone else is and the majority of owners are real estate investors.

"People come to me and they do not know whether to establish a three star, a four star or a luxury hotel. We're trying to educate the owners to develop the right product in the right place and at the right time. So we take the hands of the owners and guide them," he explains.

Following this technique, the group aims to operate 100 hotels by 2015 across the MENA region.

But that is not Lakhraim's only ambition. Eventually, when the "ship is cruising well" and he has appointed someone professional to continue the hotel group's growth, Lakhraim will focus on something "closer to the soul rather than the bank account".

"I want to concentrate on charity, health and education," he says.

"There are a lot of poor countries and people who are in need in the Middle East and I would like to focus all of my time on helping them in the future, but not just now. Now is very busy," he concludes.

Millennium timeline

1995:CDL Hotels International acquired the Copthorne group of hotels with properties in the UK, France and Germany, (a brand that had been growing since the mid-1980s), in a deal valued at US $359 million.

1996:Millennium & Copthorne Hotels PLC (formerly CDL Hotels) was floated on the London Stock Exchange.

1999 (Spring):Millennium & Copthorne Hotels plc purchased the majority hotel interests of its main shareholder, CDL Hotels International Ltd in South East Asia and Australasia, for a sum of $912 million.

1999 (November):The company acquired the Seoul Hilton in Korea for $230 million.

1999 (December):The company acquired Regal Hotels in the US for a sum of $648million.

(June):As part of a capital restructuring, CDL Hotels International sold its shareholdings in Millennium & Copthorne to City Developments Ltd (CDL).

2000 (Autumn):CDL Hotels International changed its name to City e-Solutions Ltd, a hospitality solutions provider. Spearheading CES strategy, is SWAN Holdings LTD; jointly owned by CES and Millennium & Copthorne.

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