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Sat 7 Nov 2009 04:00 AM

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Mr Fix It

Sheikh Maktoum Hasher Maktoum Al Maktoum speaks to Claire Ferris-Lay about the pressures of the family name.

Mr Fix It
Mr Fix It
Sheikh Maktoum is best known as being the driving force behind the A1 Grand Prix.
Mr Fix It
In a 2007 interview with CNBC, Sheikh Maktoum was one of only a few of the city’s leading businessmen to say that Dubai’s real estate sector was headed for a strong correction.

HH Sheikh Maktoum Hasher Maktoum Al Maktoum speaks to Claire Ferris-Lay about the pressures of the family name.Sheikh Maktoum Hasher Maktoum Al Maktoum is not a happy man. Al Nasr Sports Club has just lost its match to rivals Al Ain 2-0. For the nephew of Dubai’s Ruler, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the game is more than just a fan’s loss. In April, his uncle, HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE’s minister of finance and industry, appointed him the football club’s new chairman.

The team, Dubai’s first and oldest, hasn’t won a league title since 1986 so Sheikh Maktoum has his work cut out. But the club’s poor track record hasn’t stopped him instilling an aggressive new board to rebuild its squad and sign a host of new players. “I’m being known as Mr Fix It,” he grins as he sits back and relaxes. “It’s a high accolade to have but it’s also a very high pressured job because you don’t get to run normal healthy companies.”

Sheikh Maktoum doesn’t look like someone on a losing streak. Dressed in a traditional white dishdasha with an accent that tellingly reveals his education abroad, he represents the growing number of young Arabs educated abroad, who have returned home to run the family firm.

“When I travel and do business I don’t see myself as a Sheikh or an Al Maktoum, I am a businessman trying to do a business deal,” he says when asked about the pressure of the family name.

Sheikh Maktoum, who speaks no less than seven languages, studied business at Suffolk University in Boston before returning to Dubai to enter the world of business. At 24-years-old he became one of the founding investors of Virgin Megastores in the UAE. Today, as well as being the chairman of Al Nasr Sports Club, Sheikh Maktoum — or ‘Maek’ to his friends in America — is also the CEO of the UAE-based conglomerate Al Fajer Group, president of its real estate arm Al Fajer Properties, and director of Shadar Holdings, which in addition to Virgin Megastores also counts brands such as Promod, Pull & Bear and Bershka among its subsidiaries.He is, however, probably best known as being the man behind A1GP, a motorsport which pits national teams, all racing in the same cars, against each other in a series of races. Sheikh Maktoum — himself a keen motorsports fan who has driven in several international motorsport races — first came up with the idea back in 2001 while watching a Land Rover Series race, which featured 23 identically built Land Rovers. “I thought what they were doing was great, but I also thought I could take this idea further and do it better,” he says.

In 2003, when the series was launched, A1GP was hailed as a viable alternative to Formula One. “A1 provides everything,” Rick Weidinger, the tycoon behind the US team, said at the time.

Sheikh Maktoum ploughed much of his own money into the project. His persistence paid off. The inaugural meeting at Brands Hatch in 2005 attracted some 72,000 fans — one of the biggest crowds for a car meeting in the circuit’s history — and rapidly became a $2bn industry. “I am very proud of it. I built a company up from scratch and it was a big success,” he says of the concept.

In 2006 — three years after he launched the series — the Sheikh sold a majority stake in the championship to the hedge fund, RAB Capital. The deal was part of a major financial restructuring of the sport, which was supposed to help the company prepare to float on the London Stock Exchange. Since Sheikh Maktoum’s departure, however, the series has come under increasing financial pressures.

The Sheikh of Speed — as Newsweek once dubbed him — took two years off before he took over his next venture, as president of Al Fajer Properties, a UAE-based real estate developer, which is currently developing its flagship project, a series of nine commercial towers, in Dubai’s Jumeirah Lake Towers Community. Unlike A1GP, success with Al Fajer Properties hasn’t come easily. When Sheikh Maktoum was appointed as president of Al Fajer Properties in 2008 there was hardly any construction and the company was in financial distress. “The company was in significant difficulties,” he says. “I decided to remove all liabilities and turn the company into a lean mean direction from something that was only sales and marketing focused to actual work focused because at that time there was no construction, no progress.”

He halted the firm’s expansion plans and instead decided to concentrate on the launched projects. At the time, when the UAE’s property market was booming and speculators were further pushing up prices, the move was a bold one. But it paid off and in the year since his appointment, he has streamlined the company; liquidating AED1bn of land bank, and strengthened the balance sheet by AED3.2bn, and most importantly built 200 floors in one year. The firm, he adds, is building an average of one floor every four days.

He does admit, however, that if the boom had continued, his success story might not have been so. “Had the market continued, my decision would have been wrong. When you choose a direction for the company it’s really about a gut feeling, you take all of the information available to you and you take an educated, best course focus.”But one gets the impression the decision was based on more than just a gut feeling. In a 2007 interview with CNBC, Sheikh Maktoum was one of only a few of the city’s leading businessmen to say that Dubai’s real estate sector was headed for a strong correction.

Not that he thinks this is necessarily a bad thing. “At the time I said I would be one of the first investors [in real estate]. I lived up to that word,” he says. “Opportunities are created not when markets are high but when markets are low,” he continues. “I do believe long term in Dubai. The infrastructure that has been created is not going anywhere.”

Having already tried his hand in a multitude of different sectors, Sheikh Maktoum is keen to branch out and work in other industries. He currently sees the biggest potential in the renewable energy sector. “I am leaning towards renewable energy and efficiency. The last century was one of transportation from cars, planes and boats. The next decade is all about energy production, energy storage and energy transportation.”

He adds that his business strategy is to go to the root of the source. “If I think in a recession [about] what is recession proof; groceries [because] people still need to eat, I don’t invest in groceries or supermarkets, I invest in phosphates — fertilisers… I try to be a step ahead of the investment cycle and not for the normal retail investor but for the venture capitalist investor.”

Despite being a member of Dubai’s ruling family, monetary rewards are just as important to him as any other businessman — they are measures of his success: “Of course [money is important]. It’s a form of reward and an instant gratification for your achievement,” he says earnestly, adding that his charity work provides him with as much pleasure.

“When I did A1 and I saw kids and fans coming to see the races that gave me a huge amount of satisfaction,” he continues. “When I can [turn] over a company that doesn’t have any buildings and I create five buildings from scratch that gives me satisfaction. When you do something well you get rewarded for it, it’s natural and it is important.”

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Nilesh Jain 10 years ago

Very inspiring article about an equally inspiring personality. We need more leaders like you "Mr. Fix It"

Mick 10 years ago

A great example of ambition and drive. Very industrious and will be be the blueprint for all Emirati young leaders.