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Sun 1 Apr 2007 01:16 PM

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One step ahead

Contax CEO Paul Eccleston tells Edward Poultney why he thinks the changes in the region’s company boardrooms herald great things to come.

Speaking to Paul Eccleston, the affable CEO of Contax, one of the longest-established market advisory companies in the UAE with over 20 years of history under its belt, is a little like consulting a crystal ball for a glance into the Middle East's economic future.

His experience of working in 20 countries, from Australia to China, mostly for Arthur Andersen, coupled with Contax' extensive case study database, gives a unique insight into where the market is likely to turn in the coming years and how regional businesses are reacting to the changes.

"It's a very interesting time. The management you deal with here are engaging and hungry," he says.

"When I first started in China in the mid-1990s there was no sense of hunger. By early 2000 there was an unbelievable business hunger, and now you're starting to get that here."

The former Andersen partner who began his career as an electrical apprentice, moving up the ranks to work on restructuring the energy industry in his native Australia, which eventually led to his move into consulting, is open about the fallout from the collapse of the group.

"I was working on projects in China when it all happened," he explains, "they started a lawsuit including the partners in 2002 and it's still going."

This, however, has not stopped him from taking it in his stride and forging ahead with life, being headhunted two years ago from his previous firm for the role of Contax's COO.

Contax began life in 1985 as a family-owned company focused on business development and brokering deals, predominantly in the energy sector for international clients, and has now grown to become a partnership that has diversified into four main research and consulting divisions.

Calling on the company's long history of the regional market each wing; the business advisory practice, the market insights group, the growth consulting practice and the business investments section leverage the lessons that have been gleaned from experience to help companies coming into the market, as well as local businesses looking to expand.

The formula has certainly been paying dividends and Eccleston is sure that the reason behind the company's success lies squarely on its ability to predict, and pre-empt, market changes.

"We had to make sure we developed strategic orientation ahead of the marketplace," he explains.

"Two years ago we assessed our gaps and competencies and developed service offerings that are ‘ahead of the curve.' We could see what was happening in the market and see that it was going to explode in terms of capital projects and that the need for infrastructure would result in a need for energy and utility developments and new businesses coming into the region who would need insight. So we also had to undergo a transformation."

Analysing future market trends in a region not known for its transparency is not an easy task, some of the surveys and analysis reports started six years ago are only just coming to fruition, but Eccleston is certain that he feels the winds of change blowing through companies' boardrooms.

"We went to a country [which he refuses to name, customer discretion being a key watchword] and spoke to guys who are third generation leaders. "They admit they are very closed and recognise that they need to be more open, but they realise they are in conflict with some of the older generation," he adds.

"They are very receptive and see the need for new ways of operating, new transparency, to grow the business outside the country and it's not going to be done the way it has been traditionally."

The opening up of business transactions throughout the region, with more regulation by national governments is just one of the developments that Eccleston foresees in the coming decade.

"2010 is an interesting milestone; a lot of the capital projects in infrastructure and energy will be completed by then and, based on what we know today, that's when there's likely to be a slowdown."

He also predicts that global economic impacts will have regional repercussions.

"The world has been going through phenomenal growth for quite some time. The Middle East at the moment is a net importer but will soon become a net exporter and while that's happening India, China or the US that are net importers now might not be around that time. So you have to keep an eye out because there is potential for the market to slow down."

Eccleston insists, however, that the future for the GCC is looking bright, as, having positioned itself tactically as an energy capital, it is now just a matter of waiting to see what kind of businesses and opportunities grow on the back of the current surge in infrastructure developments.

Despite this rosy outlook Contax has had to deal with the same issues confronting all companies based in the region, especially staff retention.

"We put so much time into training our staff to make sure that they know their field inside out that they become ripe for poaching by other companies," Eccleston confides, "that's one of my biggest worries."

To counter this he makes sure that employees feel ‘involved' in the company by nurturing personal development and ensuring that they can see a future within the business.

"We have training sessions every month and specialised ‘training communities' to disseminate knowledge," he says, "you need to show succession planning, people need to see how they will grow within and with the company."

The same goes for Eccleston in his role as CEO and it is a challenge that he relishes.

"In five years I see us in India, in Africa, in Eastern Europe. I want to be breaking new ground in new territories where businesses can get a lot of value from us."

But careful planning will accompany any move, a lesson he has learnt through his own experience and the group's many studies, and that he says should be taken on by all business leaders.

"The hardest part of any task is understanding people's capacity to deal with changes. You have aspirations and they may be much higher than other people's," he says.

"What I've seen throughout my career is that if your strategy calls for changes and your work culture is not aligned, you either have to rethink your strategy or rethink the amount of investment required in terms of energy, time and money and deal with the human empathy side. Aim high but you have to be realistic," he adds.

For now the Middle East offers ample scope for his company's planned expansion and Eccleston sees only great things ahead.

"There aren't many markets in the world that provide opportunities for growth and experimentation like here and it's exciting to be part of that," he says.

And, with this much knowledge to call on, it seems wise to agree that the boom is only just beginning.

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