Mr. fix it

Deyaar CEO Markus Giebel tells Damian Reilly about the company's survival plan, which includes reducing the cost of properties already bought.
Mr. fix it
By Damian Reilly
Thu 05 Mar 2009 04:00 AM

Deyaar CEO Markus Giebel tells Damian Reilly about the company's survival plan, which includes reducing the cost of properties already bought.

Markus Giebel's office is a wood panelled eyrie, high over central Dubai, complete with a powerful telescope positioned by the panoramic window. Perhaps in quiet moments he uses it to gaze out over the emirate, taking first hand readings of what is happening to the real estate sector.

After all, he more than anyone needs to know what is going on. This year Deyaar, the company of which he is CEO, will deliver onto the market seven buildings, or 1200 units, or five percent of all units that will come on to the market in 2009, with 23 more to follow.

If you'd asked him some months back, he'd have told you he was going to deliver more. But unless you have been on the moon recently, you will know things today aren't what they were.

"These are extraordinary times and the challenges are extraordinary. We are trying to sail this ship properly. It is very difficult. But we have a strategy that we believe can meet the challenges ahead. It is not a simple strategy. It took many long months to formulate - three months of planning day and night."

Before Giebel talks of his strategy, and he is keen to, CEO asks him if the current crisis in the property market is unprecedented? He shakes his head.

"How bad is the real estate sector... well let us look at history. Some people think this crash is unique, but if we look at what happened in Singapore in 1997, we see that it is not. Have you seen the Singapore curve? Up, up, up, and then prices went down 70 percent. Then it shot up again, the market over-corrected, and then it shot down again.

Then it took ten years to halfway recover. Now, there are a couple of important points to bear in mind: the downturn was one year, and I believe the same thing will happen in Dubai. To find the bottom will take one year. 2009 is that year. I don't know what that will be, but if you look at Singapore, you know what can happen.

Then the market will over-correct and then go down again, and then slowly but surely it will build. Now can we do something to reduce the fall of the real estate? Yes we can, and the government is trying to do that. Singapore didn't do that."

Giebel, whose CEO's chair was last occupied by a man, Zack Shahin, who now languishes in prison, awaiting trial on accusations of financial irregularities, believes that rather than letting distressed customers default, the solution is to proactively remodel the company in order that the obligations for existing customers become easier to manage.

This way, he hopes, they can keep paying, and Deyaar can see out the changed economic conditions. His talk is littered with many references to "medicines," and ships that can change direction.

"It doesn't matter right now how many properties you can sell, because most of our properties have sold already. The question is can you retain your customers and guarantee that your customers keep on paying?

We believe that we are one of the best positioned companies to guarantee that people will continue to pay up. In 2009, if you safeguard your customer, and make sure they stay with you and keep paying, then you can do international expansions.

The real estate companies have to invent some medicine to protect our clients from this crisis. Can we save everyone? No. If you can't pay then you can't pay. Outstanding payments are getting larger, no question. But we have many people who have no problem paying up."

So how exactly does Giebel think he can help his customers - surely it is an impossible challenge given that many believe, in this age of globalisation where everything is linked, that this financial crisis will be worse b than the Great Depression that followed the Wall Street Crash in 1929?

Well, for starters, Deyaar is well placed to be able to help, Giebel says.

"Deyaar is in a unique position. We are literally debt free. And we have a pile of cash we are sitting on, from previous operations. We are in a very, very solid position right now. If we can keep our customers, and keep them paying up, the health of Deyaar is stunning."

How big is that pile of cash? "We cannot disclose that."

Are we talking about millions of dirhams, or billions? He grins. "It is very big. Our pile of cash is big enough for us to sit pretty. We don't need bank financing. We finance our own projects."

Alright, then how is Giebel going to make life easier for his 4300 customers? He lights up, this is what he wants to talk about. His pride in the innovation of his emergency strategies is palpable. Concentrate.

"We have three strategies we can disclose, one other that we will shortly... The first is the Development Strategy, where we divide our projects into quarters.

"25 percent of the projects we will not do, the ones that have not started yet. Right now we believe it is unethical to put more projects into the market. Value? They are pretty large. Many, many billions of dirhams. Many, many billions.

"The second 25 percent will be part of the Consolidation Program, let me explain that. Unfortunately we have one or two projects where we don't believe the infrastructure around the project will be delivered in time. Now even if we develop the projects and our customers pay up, we will not be able to deliver to them these units in the next two or three years because the electricity and water supplies will not be ready.

This is out of our hands. So we consolidate: we take these units, which are 100 percent sold, and we give the customer a choice. Let's say you bought two apartments. I come to you and I tell you about the infrastructure problem. We are not cancelling the project, but we think it is unfair for you to have to wait.

So we would like to offer you the option of taking the twenty percent you have paid up on the two flats, and to consolidate that into one flat, so you have effectively paid up 40 percent. So your obligation to pay becomes smaller, and you are eligible to mortgage.Then we would like to allow you, now that you are stabilised, to have exactly the same square footage in a wonderful property we are building, for example, in Business Bay, where the values are higher.

Nobody is forcing anyone to do anything - it is up to the buyer. We believe that 80 to 90 percent of people will want to take advantage of this. For the 10 to 20 percent of people that want to stay, we will build them something, but then I only have to build one building rather than five. We believe that this is a fair proposal. We will honour peoples' rights. So our customers who accept the offer have 50 percent less to pay, and a property they will enjoy more."

This sounds like some plan. We will come back to how the market is receiving it.

"The third 25 percent of projects, we have to slow them down. The reason for this, and we are talking about projects that are already halfway finished, is because of infrastructure problems. And we slow them down on purpose because our customers right now are not able to pay. So we are making it easier for the customers.

"And the last 25 percent of projects go ahead as scheduled."

So how have Deyaar's customers reacted to the news that the two properties they thought they were buying in one location will now be delivered to them as one property in another location?

"The majority is very happy, but you can't make 4000 customers all happy. Because 3500 right now are financially distressed, so the more you help them, the better."

Ok - so the Development Strategy was the first part of the three pronged master plan. What's the second? Giebel shifts forwards in his seat.

"The second part is the Financial Strategy. It comes in two parts. Here, we are handing out a different type of medicine. We are reducing prices on selected properties, because that is fair to the customer, and also because the construction costs will be declining. We are talking about reducing the prices of properties that have already been bought. We will give customers the credit back. Deyaar tries to be a fair company. You don't get your money back, but the percentage you have paid up increases. And then these customers are eligible for mortgage again. This all costs us a lot of money by the way. We aren't doing it because we like doing this, we are doing it to stabilise our customer."

Reader, you read that correctly. Deyaar are reducing prices on properties they have already sold.

"The second financial measure we have is the Deyaar Easy Payment Plan. Say, for example, a customer comes and he has to pay a ten percent instalment right now, but he doesn't have ten percent, we allow him to break it up into four 2.5 percent payments. Spread out over a defined period. We are trying to work with people. If they can give us nothing, there is not much I can do. But if customers are not toxic, merely distressed, then we believe we can work with them."

The third part of the master plan is regular communication with Deyaar's customers - keeping them up to date with what the company plans to do - effectively softening the impact of bad news, and making people feel valued.

I tell Giebel I am surprised by his strategy for survival - this hasn't been what I was expecting to hear. He grins. "Well, the difference comes down to not doing anything, or having a very dedicated strategy. Now we have a four pronged strategy to make sure that these people will pay up. Total customer base of Deyaar is 4300 people. Our size is manageable, which is a strength. Size matters: our plan is easier to implement than it would be for a company ten times our size. We are a speed boat not a tanker."

So, then, what does Giebel forecast in terms of growth for Deyaar in 2009? Famously, Deyaar's growth was astronomic during the good times. Giebel won't be drawn:

"Look, last year, revenues were up 200 percent. Profits up 100 percent. But growth is kind of funny. Dubai has allowed us to enjoy very good times over the last couple of years. Our profits were enormous. Our growth rates stunning. We enjoyed the growth, but now the time is to consolidate and to grow more realistically. We enjoyed the ride, but we will now build a foundation for more controlled growth. Our growth rate will depend on how well our strategy works.

"Deyaar is nothing without Dubai. But you tell me one city in the Middle East which has the infrastructure of Dubai? There is none. Then tell me one city in the Middle East that has the freedom? There is none. Dubai is an oasis in the Middle East. The recovery of Dubai, it is imminent. Dubai is too strong in its fundamentals. I don't know when it will happen, but it will happen. Dubai is solid."

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