The brand master

ACI has a turnover of US$1bn but with a little help from Michael Schumacher the best is yet to come.
The brand master
By Anil Bhoyrul
Thu 06 Dec 2007 10:06 AM

Robin Lohmann is a man in a hurry. No sooner have we finished lunch then he turns to racing legend Niki Lauda for a quiet word. "I have another idea. We can discuss it after pudding is served," says Lohmann.

The chances are it is another cracking idea - right now, Lohmann is on a roll. The boss of German-owned ACI has added spice to the UAE's property market, by putting branded buildings onto the market. And not just any brand - in the past month, Lohmann has persuaded sporting legends Michael Schumacher, Nikki Lauda and Boris Becker to lend their names to his projects. Early next year, the Michael Schumacher Business Avenue will be launched in Dubai - hot on the heels on Niki Lauda Twin Towers and Boris Becker Tower.

"I nearly got burnt when I first started out and Niki nearly got burnt when he drove Formula One cars, so we have a lot in common," jokes Lohmann, adding: "It is something different, something new and something that I think will make our investors a lot of money."

Everyone in life has to find the right time to do the right thing. I think I have found mine.

His track record suggests he is more than right. In less than two years of trading in Dubai, ACI has revenues topping the billion dollar mark. So far the company has launched Victory Bay and Sami Tower in Dubai's Business Bay, Dubai Star in Jumeirah Lake Towers and Wings of Arabia in Dubailand. With his sports-branded developments now off the mark, car-branded buildings are on the drawing board, again in new projects based mostly in Dubai.

"It is simple. We develop and we flip. We make people money. There is a lot of talk about the property market not being sustainable but those people talking that way - well, they don't know what they are talking about. There are still millions of people forecast to move to Dubai in the coming years. They all need somewhere to live and work. Prices will keep rising and I actually think we can double our turnover next year," says a confident Lohmann, adding: "As for the idea of branded buildings, well, again it is a simple equation. What would an investor pay more for - No.1 Business Avenue or No.1 Michael Schumacher Business Avenue?"

The real coup for German-born Lohmann has been in persuading Lauda and friends to join his property empire. Lauda's son Lukas is a friend of Lohmann, through whom the plan for Niki Lauda Twin Towers was first pitched.

Lauda liked what he saw and very quickly signed up. "I've never seen anything like Dubai - the pace of development here is just amazing, and everything is so much bigger every time I come here," says former F1 champion Lauda.

"Robin approached me with this idea and I was very impressed. The property market here is booming so it is nice to be a part of it in some way. I don't think you can find this kind of pace and energy anywhere else in the world," he adds.

In focus: Michael Schumacher

Michael Schumacher (born January 3, 1969) in Hürth Hermülheim, Germany is a former Formula One driver, and seven-time world champion.

According to the official Formula One website, he is "statistically the greatest driver the sport has ever seen". He is the first German to win the Formula One World championship and is credited with popularising Formula One in Germany. In a 2006 FIA survey, Michael Schumacher was voted the world's most popular driver among Formula One fans.

After winning two championships with Benetton, Schumacher moved to Ferrari in 1996 and won five consecutive drivers' titles with them from 2000-2004. Schumacher holds many records in Formula One, including most drivers' championships, race victories, fastest laps, pole positions, points scored and most races won in a single season. Schumacher is the first and only Formula One driver to have an entire season of podium finishes (2002).

His driving sometimes created controversy: he was twice involved in collisions that determined the outcome of the world championship, most notably his disqualification from the 1997 championship for causing a collision with Jacques Villeneuve. On September 10, 2006, Schumacher announced his retirement as a driver. Schumacher is currently assisting Scuderia Ferrari CEO Jean Todt for the 2007 Formula One season.

Off the track, Schumacher is an ambassador for UNESCO and a spokesman for driver safety. He has been involved in numerous humanitarian efforts throughout his life. He is the elder brother of former Toyota driver Ralf Schumacher.

Schumacher will be in Dubai on January 27 next year to officially launch the Michael Schumacher Business Avenue. Lohmann, clearly excited about Schumacher's arrival, says: "It is going to be a very special occasion for us. The deal was done in a very short space of time, and Michael is very choosy about what he gets involved in, so we are very proud to have him on board. What he has achieved in Formula One is second to nobody. We couldn't ask for a bigger guy to be involved."

The Lauda project is equally impressive, encompassing 29 and 26 floors of retail and office space on twin skyscrapers, and Lohmann is sure that the building will be a hit with investors. "This is about adding value, and adding Niki's name adds value - nobody can argue with that. We have a strong client base of people who have got in and out at different prices and they have all made money, so it is not as if we need to suddenly find a whole new group of investors - we already have them.

"But I think that these kind of projects bring something different to the market. We are not talking about any casual endorsement by people who are a little famous, we are talking about three of the greatest sporting legends of all time becoming brand ambassadors for ACI. When I first kicked around this idea I said to my team that I wanted the very best - Schumacher, Lauda and Becker - well, that is the very best," he says.

This is about adding value, and adding Niki’s name adds value — nobody can argue with that.

He can say that again - few projects anywhere in the world can boast an endorsement from the world's greatest ever F1 driver Michael Schumacher. Despite now being retired, the German legend is extremely choosy when putting his name to any project, turning down several offers a day. But again, Lohmann used his connections to entice the star to the project, a 29-storey office development with three levels of basement parking.

"Michael gets a lot of offers as you can imagine, and he is a very wealthy man. He doesn't exactly need more money. He is more concerned about protecting his image and his brand. I know he has turned down a lot of other projects, but he saw the value in this one and the deal was done very quickly. There are not going to be F1 museums and that kind of stuff - it is just a high quality building branded with his name," says Lohmann.

Schumacher himself will come to Dubai next month to personally launch the project, which judging by early reaction, is likely to be an immediate sell-out.

"Even without the name we are talking about a premium office space opposite the Burj Dubai. You add the Schumacher name and you get a lot of added value," says Lohmann.

Schumacher will likely be joined by tennis legend Boris Becker on his Dubai visit.

"I think the market for this kind of thing is going to grow hugely. If you look at the Porsche Design Tower it is going for US$680 per square foot - that's 25% more expensive than our most expensive tower, so there is still a huge gap there. I don't see any sign of the market burning out. Look at the US right now - rental incomes there are around 5% a year. Over here it is between 9-12%. If the property market comes down, then let it come down and you will still end up making money," he says.

In focus: Niki Lauda

Andreas Nikolaus "Niki" Lauda (born February 22, 1949 in Vienna) is an Austrian aviator, entrepreneur, former Formula One (F1) racing driver and three-time F1 World Champion.

He won his first F1 title in 1974 for Ferrari, and was well on the way to repeating the success in 1976 - before nearly being killed in a crash in Germany. Despite being scarred from the accident, he was back in a racing car just three weeks later and ended up losing the world title by just one point. A year later, he was world champion again, before announcing his retirement in 1978.

Four years later he returned to F1 to drive for McLaren, where in 1984 he won his third and final world title.

He returned to running his airline, Lauda Air, after his second Formula One retirement in 1985. Ousted by boardroom politics after a sale to majority partner Austrian Airlines in 1999, he managed the Jaguar Formula One racing team from 2001 to 2002.

In late 2003, he started a new airline, Niki. Lauda holds a commercial pilot's licence and from time to time acts as a captain on the flights of his airline.

He was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1993. Today his comments on Formula One are widely quoted in the motorsport press, and he provides commentary for Austrian and German television coverage.

As a driver, Lauda was renowned for his clear-headed approach to driving, minimising risk while maximising results, and ruthless self-interest. Lauda is considered one of the most accomplished test drivers in the sport, often working long hours refining his car's performance.

Niki Lauda has written four books; The Art and Science of Grand Prix Driving (1975), My Years With Ferrari (1978), The New Formula One: A Turbo Age (1984), and Meine Story (1986).

Lauda says: "I had a great time in F1 but I don't really miss the sport.

"I have been lucky because I have been able to do so many things outside of F1, and the Dubai project is another one of those. It is something I'm very excited about."

What Lohmann has going for him in a big way is that most of his projects are over 90% sold out before launch. His healthy spread of investors have done well for themselves and are keen for more action.

"We have delivered them profits so a lot of them are looking for repeat business. There is a lot of choice out there in the market but we have found properties where the premiums are good. You go in at one price and you come out at a higher price. That is good business. Whatever other factors are out there are not really an issue," he says.

If the property market comes down, then let it come down and you will still end up making money.

But what about the end user? "Well he still ends up with a very high quality building at a good price with rental returns far better than any other market. You can make all kinds of arguments about the dollar sliding and what would happen if US interest rates changed.

"The list goes on. But the facts remain the same, which is that property in Dubai is an extremely good investment. Otherwise we wouldn't be doing this, and otherwise, we wouldn't as a company be growing as fast as we are."

ACI was founded by Lohmann's father Uwe, and Robin Lohmann first came to Dubai in 2004. At the time he was living in New York working in finance, and visited the emirate as part of a project that involved researching the potential growth of the DIFC.

"I saw then the potential for property in the UAE and decided to start ACI in Dubai. We didn't really get going until 2006 but now things have really taken off. It's a great place to live in and do business in. I don't plan on being anywhere else for some time," he says.

Lohmann adds: "The great thing about working in this business is that it is always exciting. Every day you have new challenges. The most important thing you need is a good team, and to treat them well. In my company, I make sure the coffee boy is as happy as the sales director."

With ACI having already grown to 40 staff, the future looks very bright for Lohmann. As he explains: "Everyone in life has to find the right time to do the right thing. I think I have found mine."

In focus: Boris Becker

Boris Becker burst onto the scene in 1985 when, as an unknown 17-year-old, he rewrote the record books by winning the Wimbledon title.

Not only was he the youngest player ever to win, he was also the first unseeded player to become champion and the first German player to win the event.

His style of play was based around a huge serve that earned him the nickname ‘Boom Boom' - and on the grass at Wimbledon he threw himself around for diving volleys that made him a hero for youth all around the world.

His heavy forehand and near-perfect returns of serve were also factors in his rise to the top.

In Germany, his impact in the late-1980s cannot be over-estimated.

Girls would camp all night outside hotel rooms where they thought he was staying and his devotion to the nation's Davis Cup team earned an incredible record of 38 wins and just three losses.

And if anyone thought his win in 1985 was a fluke, he came back the next year and did exactly the same thing again.

From 1985 until 1993 he was never out of the top 10.

And in 1991 he became the world's number one player after winning the Australian Open, a title he also picked up in 1996.

His Wimbledon victories came against Kevin Curren, Ivan Lendl and his greatest rival Stefan Edberg, although the Swede did beat him for his two titles in 1988 and 1990.

He also won the US Open in 1989 and recorded 49 tournament victories in his career, which ended where it began, on Centre Court at Wimbledon.

Becker is expected in Dubai early next year to launch the Boris Becker Tower, which ACI expects will be heavily sold out before Becker even shows up. "We've been very successful in terms of selling to investors most of our projects before they even go officially on the market.

"And when you add a name like Boris Becker to the building, than I think it is likely to do even better.

"I mean, they don't get much bigger than Boris," says Lohmann.

For all the latest business 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.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.