By Thomas Shambler
CEO of Select Group, Rahail Aslam, comes from humble beginnings, working four jobs to make ends meet. Fast forward thirty years and he's built ten skyscrapers in Dubai Marina, with four more on the way. His secret? Employing the best and getting plenty of exercise…
How did you get started in business?
I left school when I was 15, and had four jobs for about 12-months after that. I worked in various supermarkets and stores. I also had a full-time apprenticeship to become an electronics engineer, and by the time I was 17 I was quite good at repairing PCs. Back then, desktop computers were very different to now. The home PC revolution was just kicking off, which led me to assembling computers. In those days, there were a lot of unbranded PCs. You would go to the market and buy a case, a floppy drive, a motherboard, and then you would have to assemble them. So I used to sit there and build computers and sell them locally in Manchester. Over a couple of years, that became massive. I did that for 15 years, and became one of the biggest distributors of components and Microsoft software in the UK. It turned in to a one billion pound business.
The IT boom of the late 90s must have been kind to you…
I did very well, but it became very competitive around that time. You saw the bubble burst in 2000. Luckily, around the same time I started to diversify a lot of our investments in to real estate in the UK. I had two businesses, property and the IT company. So I started to fade out of technology and focus on real estate.
What brought you to Dubai?
I used to travel quite a bit to Taiwan and Hong Kong for my IT business, and I always passed through Dubai. I always thought it was a very impressive place. Great infrastructure, a great airline and good tourism. There was something that attracted me to it. There was safety and a tax free environment. I knew that in a little time this place would take off. So we started making investments here, just a few to establish ourselves in the market. We had done well previously in the UK, but the return on investment here was more attractive.
More risk, more reward.
Exactly. So we moved here in early 2000. We just packed our bags, sold our assets and set up shop in Dubai. Select Group was born in 2002. We started with passive investments at first, and then in 2005 we started developing. We acquired our first piece of land for a 90-story tower. It was quite ambitious, to go from nothing to a 650-apartment tower in Dubai Marina. We launched it, sold it very quickly, started construction and after four years delivered it to our investors. Today, we have completed ten projects in Dubai Marina, with four more under construction.
Back when you were working four jobs, did you ever think you would one day be able to say something like that?
No, not at all. I was focussed on responsibility to my family. I was working four jobs to help my parents. I worked to pay the bills.
Many highly successful entrepreneurs seem to have a similar story. Why do you think that is?
Is there a common factor between successful people from a working class background? If there is, I think the percentage is very small. Rather, I believe it's down to hard work. There is a certain DNA to succeed in some people, and hard work is linked to it. Education is really important, also.
What do you mean by education? Higher education or do you mean getting your hands dirty in business early on?
Both are important. But I think established markets need to push apprenticeships more. There used to be youth training schemes that would develop skills in young people, but governments are not pushing that anymore. Everyone is pushing academic education, but now it’s so competitive that there isn't employment in most markets. I think it's a big issue globally.
You pivoted out of technology and in to property. Surely there was some anxiety there? Pushing all your investment in to an industry you had no experience in?
There are a lot of best business practices that translate from one industry to another. What I learned from my IT business was to choose your management and supply chain very carefully. Employ the best in class. That was lesson number one, and so when we went in to real estate we used the same tactics. We got a great management team with plenty of experience. When you work with a supply chain as a developer, you rely on third parties like architects and construction companies. Making sure you hire the best in their field reduces the risk of failure. We used those ingredients to be successful in the UK, and had the same mind-set when we arrived here.
Some CEO's lead by example, they set the pace for the company. Others encourage their staff to do their own thing. What type are you?
I like to empower my managers. I like to have clear deliverables agreed with them, and then I trust my team to go to other departments and say, "Now look, this is what we've got to do". Everyone is on the same team. I think empowering management is so important. They have to be decisive, they have to be confident, they have to be from the industry and have experience. Experience is important. At the end of the day, if they don't know what they are doing then they can't make decisions. This will delay a project. It's a very simple idea at the end of the day.
You say that, but there are people who have trouble relinquishing responsibility. They feel they need to control the process from start to finish.
When you are executing large scale projects, you need to empower your staff. Otherwise you hinder progress across every department. One person can't be everywhere at once, which is why having good staff is key.
Who do you look up to in the world of business?
I look up to a lot of people, and it varies on the situation. I will give you a few examples. Richard Branson, I think he's incredible. He's failed in a lot of businesses, he's been bankrupt, but he's made a success of it. He's also promotes his brand with his kids, and pushes them to travel the world. Another example is at this newly setup business, a gym called Fight. The guy that runs it is an extreme athlete in Crossfit, and must be one of the top one hundred fittest guys in the UK. I admire the work ethic there, I have never seen anything like it. The atmosphere they create in their environment, it's all about working hard. They go the extra mile in every sense, with blogs and podcasts. They even send you photographs of you while training.
They email and say "We're looking forward to seeing you next time." Regular businesses don't do that sort of stuff. But my biggest admiration is for my father. He went to the UK in the late 50s, and worked in a cotton mill, then became a bus driver. He instilled so much discipline in me and my brothers. To be honest and hardworking, and not get carried away with the glitz and glamour of success. He keeps me very grounded. Even now, when he calls me he expects me to drop everything to answer his call.
What does a regular day look like for you?
My iPhone alarm goes off at 5:30, and I'll down a double espresso. Once it's kicked in, a trainer knocks on my door. I have a member of my management team join me and we do Crossfit three times a week for an hour. Then it's off to work. I have back to back meetings and calls most of the day, mainly for decision making or sorting any issues that may be hampering the team's progress. I make a point to have lunch every day. I never skip it, as I am really focussed on my fitness training. Then I finish work at around 6pm. I don't believe you have to work very long hours to be successful. I am accessible for longer hours, say if someone in London needs to call me my phone is always on. But I believe that when you empower your team, you can spread the workload so you're not hampering lifestyle as well.
Many successful people make health a priority. Why is that?
I can only speak from my perspective, but as I get older I want to ensure I stay healthy. I have teenage kids, and I want to be able to play sport with them. Secondly, when I train my productivity is probably twenty to thirty per cent more than when I don't. My thought process is quicker, decision making is clearer. I train in the morning so by the time I get to the office I am sharp and ready for the day ahead.
So what do you get up to on the weekend? Or is it all work and no play?
I like to box. I play a lot of racket sports. But mainly, I like to lounge on the beach and just spend time with my family. I eat good food and I relax. I enjoy this place, Dubai is quite incredible.