By James Bennett
James Bennett talks exclusively to 'The Great White Shark', and discovers how 45 seconds of ideas gives his employees 45 hours of work.
"We would like to welcome back our favourite golfing son, or, as we call him ‘the Darling of Dubai'," announces David Spencer, CEO of Jumeirah Golf Estates, to a large media gathering. "Greg's not due back for another week but I'm sure we'll see him very soon," he jokes. Then again, this might just turn out to be true. Next to his Florida base the Middle East, and Dubai in particular, is Greg Norman's second home. The ‘Great White Shark', former world number one and now head of a multi-million dollar global business empire, tells me in his constantly enthusiastic tone that he has visited the emirate "countless times" since he announced he was adding his name and unique design skills to a trio of golf courses.
"Trust me mate," he exclaims in his subtle Aussie twang, and letting go of his girlfriend and former US tennis starlet Chris Evert for a second. "Building a golf course in the sand is hard work."
The Fire, Water, Earth and Wind courses, part of Jumeirah Golf Estates' ambitious plan to have four varying, world-class golf venues, is one of Norman's most significant and personally challenging business operations, but unlike many of his peers and other sportsmen, he spotted the emirate's potential extremely early on in its young history and development.
Visiting Dubai in 1994 for one of the Desert Classic's early years as an international championship venue, the Shark hit some great balls and made some great scores, all under par, but while he completed his final round he also spotted something others didn't - "this place was about to explode," he tells me. Now he is seen as one of Dubai's expatriate pioneers, helping it rise from the desert into the region's most colossal business centre. But was this just a stroke of luck, or a large slice of visionary business genius?
"It was a culmination of both - a culmination of being fortunate in my position where the time I was invited to come and play," he says. "When I came here I saw and heard what the ruler wanted to do, and believed in what he was doing because he could see things moving very quickly.
"All I did then was to identify the position I could help and that was in golf course design. To be successful in business and in golf you need a little bit of luck on your side." Of course it's not that simple, but Norman, as any top sports and businessman does, makes it all look very easy.
"That's the trick but you have to constantly work at it," he adds realistically. The Shark has a multitude of self-branded companies that, through his use of "concentric circles", as he labels them (where other businesses spin out of existing companies), continue to grow and expand year after year.
From everything golf-related sold through Great White Shark Enterprises to his 20 year-old and 60-completed course design business; a turf company; his own extensive range of Shark emblazoned clothing; Greg Norman Grille (a luxurious harbourside restaurant in Sydney); Australian Prime, a Wagyu and premium beef producer; his own production company; and SkyShades, a shading business that produces roof and sun protection covering and that promotes skin cancer prevention, he has done the lot, and more.
The concentric circles, however, have once again worked their magic with Norman recently launching his own luxury interior design business in Dubai entitled Rosewood by Greg Norman alongside Italian designers B&B Italia and local partner Mohi-din bin Hendi. However, he refuses to be drawn on whether he would ever set up a permanent business or even home in the emirate. In many ways, he adds, he has already been a permanent resident.
"I've been here since 1994 and you could almost say I've been here permanently since. I usually come here three times a year, minimum. I see my business, what I call concentric circles; the business where you start out playing golf, then you get into design, then you get into development or housing design with Rosewood," he says.
"These are all concentric circles that all touch themselves coming through and that's the aim and the heart of expanding a business - where you keep a common thread all the way through."
The 52 year-old Australian is honest enough to admit, however that he, like so many others, isn't doing anything new. "All the things I'm doing here in Dubai are done in other parts of the world."
But what he does do is continue to intelligently spread his interests and expand his connected business network of companies across the globe in an organic but driven manner - and he is constantly examining ways of achieving that result.
"We have to finish off the golf courses here [in Dubai] but also look at other opportunities here. We never stop exploring. Our relationship has allowed us to consummate other deals here. There is the opportunity to go on a step further in the concentric circle and build up more business from that. "Anytime you get into a business the common objective is to produce the best return on investment that you can and we have kept doing that on a consistent basis. I'm sure they'll be more going forward especially in the GCC. Things have just started here."
During our meeting, however, it remains clear that his number one love in business is still the game of golf. "I was out on site this morning in high winds and 40-degree heat and the courses are coming along really nicely," he says passionately, ignoring the harsh elements that envelop the Gulf as the summer months rapidly draw nearer. "They're due to be completed by the end of this year but building a top-class golf course in the sand has been a very challenging experience. The change of elements will challenge the best golfers in the world.
"Building a course in the sand is the hardest place you can build," Norman explains. "This terrain is tough because there's just so much to do and so much of it. You have to stay ahead of it and get a lot of water out there to move the sand and dirt around."
"But once you get it right it's like starting off with a sand bucket on the beach, and you can't form the sand unless you get some moisture in there. Once you do it though, you can tip it upside down and the sand sticks together and shapes the castle. But we've managed to stay ahead of it and completion is going to be exactly how I imagined it."
Norman hasn't just seen his courses take shape during his time in Dubai, he has seen something much larger grow around him and his expanding empire.
"What we have witnessed, and what we should take stock of is the fact that you've not just seen a city, but a country being born. You and I will be fortunate enough to tell our children and our children's children about how we've been a part of the growth and establishment of a country. That's why I'm so proud to be here because I have been involved in that through the game of golf."
Today, Dubai and Greg Norman have great equity in their combined names but, however simple he may make it look on the surface, Norman admits that the road to success has never been easy. He has competed all his life, not only in sport but also in the commercial world, and knows how fortunate he has been to have experienced both sides.
"It took me about seven, eight, almost ten years," he says, pausing. "To get it going in the right place and now I have it in the right place and my team and I love it. They love where my company is going, they love what's happening and they love the growth of it.
"The game has been fortunate to bring me here all those years ago. I'm a realist and at the time I knew that my body was not always going to allow me to play to peak performance," he admits.
"The misery, pain and effort and the truth sets you free in many ways. The truth was that I couldn't compete to the level of these young 25-year olds and all I did was ask myself where I wanted to go from there."
Norman sees himself as not just an Australian, but describes himself as "global" spotting opportunities and new horizons from afar, whenever they present themselves - another key quality he possesses and uses to maximum effect.
"I love business and the growth of business. I'm a global person, I've seen a lot of things happen in the game of golf and it's opened up a lot of opportunities for me. Not everybody makes the choice to do it, I just made that commitment that when I'm 75 years old I can say I had two phases to my life," he says.
"The beautiful thing that I've done is build a diversified setup. If I put all my eggs in one basket, into golf course design in the US, right now I wouldn't be doing much work. Because I've been a global player I identify where the markets are going to open, like Brazil, like the Eastern Mediterranean. I know because we get asked to build golf courses. If you get asked to build golf courses at a US$500m development you know something exciting's going to happen."
One of Norman's biggest challenges and one that he shares with the Middle Eastern business world, however, is not molten hot grains of sand, but something far simpler - human resources.
"Getting the best people around you, to see your vision and wisdom and future, is very difficult. Those people have to go with you because a rising tide floats all boats. They've got to trust where I want to take the company and also see where I want to take it.
"I've got a great saying in my office," he says politely pointing to Bart Collins, company president, "I give him 45 seconds of ideas, it gives him 45 hours of work," he laughs. "The guys just all like my thought process. You fail sometimes because it's not easy. Being part of business is great to have those failures to learn for your successes going forward.
"I've three-putted in tournaments and made errors but that's what I love about it - you can never stop learning and you only learn with the people you have around. Like here in Dubai, that's what I love about this place.
"You watch what happens, you don't just jump in boots and all, because you will automatically make mistakes. I've been here since the beginning. I've always told my guys that patient money is good money. Fast money you get can hurt with. Be patient, stay your course, believe in your credentials, believe in your brand, which is what I am," he adds. He is the living brand suggesting that he constantly has to walk on a "tightrope" to judge what could be a good or a bad decision, benchmarking his image and making sure "that benchmark doesn't get violated or perforated".
"You have to maintain your credibility and that's one of the things I'm hugely proud of the fact that I've done," he says.
Just before his glamorous girlfriend Evert whisks the Norman away for another top-flight business meeting he tells me that there's no reason for his "concentric circles" to stop. The perpetual motion of Greg Norman's business empire expansion is never-ending. "It will never stop," the sun-tanned Great White Shark agrees smiling from ear to ear.