By Ramia Farrage
If you think you have to wait until your 60s to retire, think again. Thanks to a thriving business in automobiles, a private crossfit gym for royals and a pending IPO on the New York Stock Exchange, it won't be long before 29-year-old Oweis Zahran never has to work another day in his life
At just 29 years old, auto industry entrepreneur Oweis Zahran is nearly ready to retire, so he has plenty of time to practice his Olympic weightlifting.
“My favourite lift is the clean,” says the managing partner of Rafid Automotive Solutions, now looking the part of a businessman, having finished his morning training at his own crossfit box in Sharjah.
“I can clean 345 pounds,” he beams.
Zahran built his thriving automobile business from the ground up and applies his business-savvy to everything, hobbies included. So rather than paying for an annual gym membership, with a modest investment he opened his own No Games Crossfit box (or gym in crossfit terminology) with one of his 17 siblings.
“So we did the math and we figured that if we put half a million dirhams in a nice box, we could breakeven in a year,” he says. “We worked out at all the boxes in the UAE and then took the best of what we saw and created our own.”
No Games Crossfit sits in a dusty, remote, desert location at the back of one of Zahran’s warehouses. Despite its humble surroundings, his facility attracts Emirati and Saudi royals and celebrities - none of whom can be named for privacy reasons.
“I think they feel very relaxed,” Zahran says. “One of the Crown Princes was in our gym working out with us and he said he’s training with us cause he likes the competitive energy, the vibe, the fact that he’s not going to be filmed without his knowledge or criticised...”
The heavy lifting extends far beyond Zahran’s crossfit box. His various revenue centres include OWS Spare Parts Sales, OWS Fleet Maintenance services, OWS Automotive Consultancy as well as JV companies with local governments including Rafid, AJI and Etimad Auto.
In total, this unassuming young crossfitter employs 855 people, 30 percent of whom hold senior management positions.
“The concept of remanufacturing is famous in the West, however in the Middle East it still doesn’t exist”
But what’s currently getting Zahran excited is the impending launch of his auto parts remanufacturing plant in January 2020, which will be the largest of its kind in the Middle East and North Africa.
“I have been working on this idea for the past five years. The concept of remanufacturing is famous in the West, however in the Middle East it still doesn’t exist,” he says.
The model is novel in a region where most consumers prefer to buy new products rather than repair what’s broken. But Zahran says auto parts often require minor, inexpensive repairs, and rarely need to be fully replaced.
“The idea of a local facility in the region would eliminate the longer process and create a 12 hour turnaround with even greater savings,” he marvels. “This changes the automotive industry here. The plant will be designed to have a total output flow of 1,000 units a day.”
OWS was the first to introduce regularly available remanufactured spare parts for corporate clients in the UAE in 2012. It stocks over 100,000 parts in its local Dubai warehousing but this was primarily for its fleet for customers like Dubai Taxi, Pepsi and Emirates Transport.
Through a concept of remanufacture and return, OWS would send the parts back to its facilities in the US to have them repaired and sent back to the UAE. The entire process generally took about two weeks and saved up to 60 percent of the value of buying the same part new.
But the upcoming Dubai facility offers remanufactured parts to the average car owner. Since it will expedite the process, Zahran is certain this will be his most lucrative venture yet.
He explains that remanufacture and return is also attractive to fans of older or even classic cars, as parts for these are typically too old for dealers to keep on their shelves and manufacturers would have discontinued production.
“We can remanufacture your parts on your 20-year- old vehicle, allowing you to keep it as long as you please while of course enjoying the many benefits of remanufacturing from cost savings to better quality,” Zahran says.
The biggest benefit for him is the profit, as revenue grew by 50 percent on average for a total of 166 percent growth from 2016 to 2018.
“Taking into consideration the undeniable market state, we are very proud of this growth,” he boasts. “It looks like 2019 will be another historic year. Since January we’ve signed contracts with OWS alone worth over $80m in new business with existing clients, excluding existing contracts. This number instigates a total growth of 88 percent since last year.”
But success wasn’t a constant for Zahran. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York City, he dropped out of school at the age of 14, largely on the back of discouragement from his father, who ironically goes by the name Dr M Zahran.
“My dad isn’t a big fan of classroom education,” he admits. “My dad said this [education] isn’t getting you anywhere so I dropped out and worked with him until I was 20 and then I did a GED which is what most people who drop out of school and can’t find a job do, and then I went to University of Maryland online.”
Dr M Zahran launched his business in the UAE under MZ Holdings three decades ago. Today it has 16 subsidiaries across three continents with businesses in manufacturing, automotive research and development, oil and gas, construction, and equipment supply.
Zahran regards his father as his mentor and says he appreciates his leadership qualities, however unorthodox.
“People are dying because they don’t have water. People are drinking mud water and a cup of clean water is a luxury”
“When I worked for him it was from the ground up,” he reflects. “I was security at one point, I was an assistant, I was an assistant sales manager, so I didn’t get a favour from him but what I did get was first hand experience of seeing a true leader and not because he’s my dad. He’s more of a chairman than a dad to me anyway. But just watching him, he’s one of the most admired business figures I can ever think of personally and to so many others. He’s a very powerful man in a business sense and in a political sense.”
Following in his father’s enterprising footsteps, Zahran is preparing to list OWS on the New York Stock Exchange in the first quarter of 2020. The auto part company will offer 40 percent in its IPO and maintain the majority.
Zahran says the IPO is neither a move for prestige, nor to raise funds, rather it’s to make his business inclusive.
“It’s not to raise capital, it’s that I want to give people a real shot at being a part of this,” he says. “I feel like if you’re a fan of Amazon or Apple and you want to be associated you’re not going to dig up Steve Jobs, you’re going to buy shares in Apple. Not to compare OWS to Apple but it’s from the same school of thought. I want to give people the chance to be associated with it. I want to go more global, which is what some of the cash would do for the company.”
The expansion plans to which Zahran is alluding largely focus on Asian markets.
“We’ve budgeted just over $150m to launch the Asian markets with internal rate of return at a whopping 20 percent,” he says.
He believes there’s plenty of opportunity in Asia as there’s a lack of serious competition.
“We reflect deeply on what we have learnt in the Middle East markets and feel there is a good bit of synergy especially in the aspects of competition, which is surprisingly scarce in both regions versus the over-saturated West.”
In a few short years, once the auto part remanufacturing plant opens, the IPO launches, and the presence in Asian markets is secure, Zahran plans to retire.
He anticipates by age 35 he will turn his focus away from his businesses and towards philanthropy.
“People are drinking mud water and a cup of clean water is a luxury. I want to dedicate a lot of my retired life to philanthropy. I envy people like Angelina Jolie, where you get to see how she doesn’t do it for the press and PR. If you truly want to support the poor you don’t have to put it on social media because that feeds the ego,” he says.
Currently, Zahran operates a small charity with six water rigs that provide clean drinking water for small communities in Africa. He believes that relative to his income, he could help further, and plans to expand his charity operation in retirement.
“I’m not very proud of it because I know how much I do on the business side, and then I look at this humble operation we have with eight people working and we’re paying them peanuts so I feel like there’s so much more I can do.”
But philanthropy isn’t the only reason Zahran wants to retire at 35. Having spent the majority of his youth building his businesses, he wants to make up for lost time.
“I suffered with relationships because no girl would last more than a date,” he chuckles. “They would ask why I was talking about joint ventures… and they didn’t know what it meant. So I definitely had an older spirit and I suffered.”
If everything goes according to plan, Zahran certainly won’t be short on dates in five years’ time.For all the latest Transport news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.