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Sun 27 May 2007 12:00 AM

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The darling of Dubai

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."

I’ve been here since 1994 and you could almost say I’ve been here permanently since... Trust me mate, I’m very hands on!

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 will be able to tell our children about how we’ve been a part of the growth.

"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."

A rising tide floats all boats. My people have to trust where I want to take the company.

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.

Dubai pioneers: how a Shark fell in love with the UAE

February 1994

Greg Norman plays in his first ever Dubai Desert Classic at the Emirates Golf Club. Despite playing well he fails to win the event, however he automatically had other more profitable and less nerve racking ideas.

"I scored four rounds in the 60s back in 1994 and still came second to a young South African called Ernie Els who would go on to win his first US Open that year. The most important thing I gained from that trip, however, was an insight into the extraordinary development that was going on in Dubai."

He had spotted a huge opportunity to do business in the emirate and has never looked back since.

September 2004

Ten years later Istithmar Leisure joins forces with Norman and golfing superstar Vijay Singh to create Dubai's premier residential golfing community - CEO David Spencer's Jumeirah Golf Estates.

Jumeirah Golf Estates aims to be one of the finest residential golfing destinations in the world, boasting four superstar-designed golf courses surrounded by the finest residential opportunities in Dubai. The environmentally themed courses will mirror the elements of nature - Earth, Fire, Water, and Wind - with distinct gated communities, featuring a variety of housing opportunities, world-class amenities and premier services.

January 15 2007

Dubai represents a new way forward for international golf says Norman. In the lead up to his participation in the 2007 Dubai Desert Classic, Norman reveals the reasons why he rates Dubai as the most exciting and fast moving golf destination in the world.

"Over the next few years after 1994, as the business grew and I spent less time on the professional tour, I became more aware of the opportunities available in Dubai and how these could fit with the brands we had developed in the Great White Shark Enterprises," Norman explains.

January 29 2007

Norman unveiled as co-designer of Wind golf course in collaboration with Sergio Garcia, aka ‘El Nino', and the godfather of modern golf course design, Pete Dye.

Wind at Jumeirah Golf Estates will be Dubai's first true links-style course, with all the characteristics of these most challenging of courses. It features undulating fairways leading to tight, difficult greens, protected by heavy rough and pot bunkers, all surrounded by changes in wind patterns.

"I was keen to get involved in the Wind course because I believe it will offer something that is unique in Dubai. Links golf means a golfer needs a whole new set of weapons in his or her arsenal. The best links courses really are the best golf courses in the world," explained Norman at the time.

Scheduled for completion in 2009, Wind joins Fire and Earth - each designed by Greg Norman - and Water, designed by Vijay Singh, in creating one of the world's leading golf developments.

The four courses will be surrounded by a collection of individually designed homes. Enclosed within a secure gated environment, Jumeirah Golf Estates' communities aim to blend the best in modern living with the wonders of nature.

January 31 2007

Wind's ‘dream team' get to work. The ‘dream team' of designers for the Wind course at Jumeirah Golf Estates, visit the course site to start planning work on the development.

Garcia, Norman and Dye have a full tour of the site, as well as seeing the work already in progress for the three other courses at Jumeirah Golf Estates.

Work on Fire and Earth, both Greg Norman designs, is already well under way while work on Water, by Vijay Singh, is set to start shortly. At the time Garcia said: "Pete [Dye] has said all along that the best raw material for a golf course is plenty of sand... and we certainly saw plenty of that on our site tour. It was great fun to be able to spend a significant amount of time on the site, getting a feel for just what's possible for the development." David Spencer, chief executive of Jumeirah Golf Estates, said at the time that the chemistry between the three men was "fantastic" and that it was clear they were "not just going to develop a great golf course - they were going to have a lot of fun doing it". Greg is a great friend and fantastic ambassador for the Emirates and for Jumeirah Golf Estates.

"The courses are well on track and will challenge the best golfers. We hope one day to have a championship here rivalling the best in the world."

The “Shark” facts

Greg Norman took up golf aged 15.

Throughout the eighties and the nineties, Norman spent 331 weeks as the world's number one-ranked golfer, and went on to become one of the all-time legends of the game.

Norman lives in Florida, with his girlfriend, former tennis star Chris Evert.

Norman has developed a staggering business empire. As chairman and CEO of Great White Shark Enterprises Inc, Norman presides over all facets of his businesses that span everything from golf course design to fashion to winemaking to turf grass.

Greg Norman Estates, a joint venture with Foster's Wine Estates, sells 250,000 cases of Australian and Californian wines every year. Greg Norman Estates 1999 Reserve Shiraz was rated the eighth best wine in the world - out of 12,500 sampled - by Wine Spectator.

Greg Norman Golf Course Design was established in 1987 in Sydney, Australia. Now headquartered in Jupiter, Florida, it has grown into one of the leading golf course design companies in the world with more than 50 courses open for play across five continents.

Norman has recently turned his hand to importing Australian-grown Wagyu beef through a partnership with the Australian Agricultural Company, the country's largest beef producer.

He has also announced a deal with Rosewood and B&B Italia to design the interiors of 66 luxury villas.

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