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Mon 11 Feb 2019 04:35 PM

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Where does Ali Sajwani want to take Damac?

The 27-year old scion is general manager at Damac. But his youth is no obstacle to what he wants the company his father founded to become

Where does Ali Sajwani want to take Damac?
Ali Sajwani

A few weeks before Ali Sajwani took part in the World Economic Forum in Davos – and clicked his now viral selfie with the one and only Bill Gates – he stepped into Arabian Business’ offices in Dubai Media City, wearing shoes with toes.

“I’m not a fan of formals, you can tell by my shoes. Honestly I wear these everywhere,” says Sajwani, of what seem like the five finger shoes by Vibram. There’s a rationale behind the quirk. “I was told about them from a doctor because there was an issue with my lower back. And after I started wearing these, it’s gone,” he says.

That hint of a quirk is one of the few remaining vestiges of Ali Sajwani the boy, contrasting with the 27-year-old as he charts his ascendance as general manager at Damac, the company that his father and one of the Arab world’s richest men, Hussain Sajwani, founded.

Having previously attended Choueifat, Sajwani spent a year at American University of Sharjah before graduating from Northeastern University in Boston in 2014. Since before he was a teen, Sajwani and his younger siblings Amira and Abbas have been a part of the furniture where the founder of the dynasty made them pore over his paperwork, prodding them with questions about the matter within. “I’ve been able to read a balance sheet since I was 15,” he says.

As long as there is a potential for growth and the risk is reasonable in proportion, we’ll consider it

He also learned the ins and outs of product launches that Damac held nearly every Thursday during Dubai’s real estate boom in the early 2000s, when the elder Sajwani would only let him off to hang out with his friends after he had taken note of and learned everything that went on at an event.

Thinking long-term

Now general manager at a company that counts among the most prominent developers in the region, Sajwani has his hands in every facet of the business, from sales to client management, even tweaking the décor just before a property begins the process of being handed over.

Reserved and composed, Sajwani carries the same sensibilities that echo the manner of his similarly soft-spoken father, and after years of training also shares with him a bird’s eye view of the real estate market.

“It’s struggling,” he acknowledges, speaking calculatedly. “You have a lot of supply coming in and demand isn’t keeping up with it.”

Developers have resorted to payment plans ranging up to eight years post-handover, something Damac offers as well albeit spanning at most two years.

“We are competing where we can, but the model for payment plans like these isn’t very sustainable in the long-term. That’s what banks are for,” he says.

However, contrary to popular belief, “there is still a market, and we’re still selling,” says Sajwani. “It’s not a dead market. The property market all over the world is cyclical. You need to think long-term and you can’t panic.”

Sajwani expects the market to improve after the year rolls out. “I believe Expo 2020 will help. It will help the hotel industry in a big way more but it will help real estate as well… If developers are able to control the oversupply.”

I believe Expo 2020 will help. It will help the hotel industry in a big way more but it will help real estate as well

You’d expect similar insights from any billionaire real estate developer’s son. What sets Sajwani apart from the crowd is that he manages it without any of the exuberances typical to fast risers his age.

“I don’t like partying,” he says. “Any place with loud music makes me want to go home.”

His favourite activities are diving in the Maldives where he can “feel at home at the calm of the seas,” he says. “It requires a lot of skill too,” says the certified diver. “You have to learn to control any excess movement as well as your breathing.”

Driven to succeed

Sajwani’s other hobby brings him closer to what someone would expect from his age. At least once a month he heads out to the track at Yas Island to race his bevy of supercars – he’s part of the McLaren, Porsche and Ferrari collectors clubs – against the clock.

But a love of fast cars is too ordinary for Sajwani; he’s after something else. “You get to compete with yourself,” he says. “I’m constantly looking to improve.”

A thirst for improvement is also what he’s bringing to Damac. The state of the market at the moment “is a time to think about efficiency and overheads,” he says, “and Damac has been pouring more energy into digitising its processes including sales and marketing.”

The initiatives have led to a lot of learning. “It took us six months to roll out Salesforce and it required a complete change in culture. When we first implemented it there was a strong pushback from the staff. Because it streamlined different chains and processes, a lot of people were left feeling that they were less important,” he says.

The property market all over the world is cyclical. You need to think long-term and you can’t panic

But that’s expected with the “do or die” proposition that is technology, according to Sajwani. It’s too early for artificial intelligence to make an impact in the real estate sector, for instance, but when it does come to the fore. “It will lead to a lot of changes, even redundancies,” he says.

The most important thing to remember is that the leadership sets the direction and needs to make a success of it, according to Sajwani. “If you can convince the leadership and senior management then they will get everyone else onboard. There will be an initial shock but once everyone gets used to it, the benefits become apparent you never look back.”

Once again, Sajwani gives his father the credit for teaching him how to bring change and adapt. “We’re very lucky that he adapts so phenomenally well to both the market and technology. You would think he’s from another generation, but he can tell you more about cost per click, artwork that works on digital campaigns etc. And whenever I’m confused I know who to speak with,” says Sajwani.

Sajwani’s search for growth is also apparent in what he does with his portion of the family’s wealth. While the family holds interests in a number of global market funds, Sajwani likes to pore over the health of public equity companies in seeing how good his investments can be.

“I love looking at companies, it’s my passion. I listen in on investor calls, look at forecasts, compare a company to its peers in the industry. If you ask me what line of work I would have been in if it weren’t Damac, that’s what I would have been in,” he says.

And he has a knack for it. Two years ago, he drew on a childhood obsession with World of Warcraft game developer Blizzard that has since merged with Activision.

“These are the same guys that now develop viral games like Candy Crush. When I studied them I was amazed and I soon put some money into it.” That stock has since grown by nearly 300 percent, according to Sajwani.

What I’d like to be part of is to drive our growth in London, New York, Shanghai, Hong Kong. That’s what I want to be a part of

Sajwani is kind with his words about the US President Donald Trump, a family the Sajwani’s bear a close relationship with, mentioning that the economic fundamentals and sentiment within the USare all strong. “Equities didn’t end 2018 very well, but that’s mostly because of the talk of the trade war with China that has yet to be sorted out,” he says.

As far as the Sajwani enterprise itself is concerned, a slowing of growth in the region has led it to look further afield for opportunities.

“When you mention Damac to anyone within the Gulf region, they know who we are. Surprisingly, I haven’t seen that in the US or even London,” he says.

It’s a reality that Sajwani would like to rectify and even make a goal for his life. The company has a major project under development in London as well as a resort in the Maldives. “And there are some very good opportunities in Europe,” he says.

“As long as there is a potential for growth and the risk is reasonable in proportion, we’ll consider it. But what I’d like to be part of is to drive our growth in London, New York, Shanghai, Hong Kong. That’s what I want to be a part of.”

The story of Damac’s founder and how he weathered many storms on the way to becoming one of Dubai’s pre-eminent developers is now part of the city’s lore. “It’s because of thinking about the long-term,” says Sajwani. “And fortunately, our family is very tight-knit, we’re always around him (his father) and learning from him.”

In the long-run, does the scion of the Sajwani family have any concerns of his own? “Not unless people no longer need homes,” he says matter-of-factly.

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