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Fri 24 Aug 2007 12:00 AM

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The "Pimp my Ride" man

A meeting with the man behind the 'pimped-up' supercars that have taken the rest of the world by storm.

A sparkle of light from a building ahead of me catches my eye; as I approach the hum of electric doors whirring into action intensifies; the sparkle suddenly turns into bright sunlight reflected off a car door; a brilliant sea of red flows towards me; the Ferrari F340's engine booms across the street, making ordinary cars around it shudder with fear - I've made it to the home of Octane, future home to West Coast Customs, the men behind MTV's hit show ‘Pimp my Ride', and the man who is bringing the customised fashion to vehicles in the Middle East, Mohammed Al Ghussein.

"It's not mine," he says taking a few minutes to look the Italian supercar up and down. "But I wish it was," he adds saying his car is parked in the sand "out the back".

A ‘pimped up’ vehicle can cost two to three times more than the actual car itself, with the customisation process fetching between US$20,000 and US$300,000.

Al Ghussein, CEO of the family investment company and his own baby Atlas Financial Services, is a man with a talent - a talent in spotting niches as well as underperforming or unexploited companies and sectors and bringing them back into the limelight, into the forefront of the business world.

A year after graduating in 2000 from a US university, he decided to take the 25 year-old family business in a different direction. Originally set up by his father in 1985 as a property investment business, he knew he was in the middle of something big. The rise of the Gulf, its talent and sprouting companies was there to be exploited, taken over, moulded and put back into shape, developed even further and then sold at the peak of their prowess.

But despite Al Ghussein's enthusiasm and newfound passion for everything and anything automotive, business hasn't all been as glamorous as the recent US$5m, 10-year master franchise for the Middle East for West Coast Customs. Although at the moment, that's the only thing on the young business leader's mind.

"Ryan, West Coast's CEO, and Big Dane, big in name and nature, will be down in Dubai for the West Coast concert on November 22. We can't wait to have them here. It will really shake things up in the market."

Al Ghussein has just sold off one of his most short-term but equally most profitable businesses - a former Egyptian cutlery manufacturing plant, the first of its kind in the Middle East, which he took from its poor performing market to Dubai where it flourished.

"We acquire companies either locally or from abroad, take over the management and run them, restructure the management and then sell them back within three to four years. We have two strategies, short and long-term depending on the opportunity. "We shipped [the cutlery company] here to Dubai four years ago and a few weeks ago we finalised the deal to sell it off. We bought it for US$3.2m and are selling it for US$9.5m. The difference was that the plant in Egypt wasn't manufacturing well because of its location. We brought it over here to Jebel Ali, opened up a lot of opportunities in the GCC and bang, there you go, a successful business."

Al Ghussein is a master at eyeing a gap in the market. Not many people would pour a family's wealth into a factory that makes knives and forks; however, the boom in the hotel industry had reached such a high with five-star hotels and restaurants crying out for essential materials, that he tripled the company's revenues in four years. "It was a great opportunity for a bigger investment firm to invest in an industry that was also related to hotels. And I went for it. I'm glad I did," he says in his usual understated fashion.

But if you thought eating implements weren't exciting, think again. Another of Al Ghussein's success spots was in wet wipes. "Baby wipes, if you want to get technical," he says pretending to be an expert in the field of toddler hygiene. "I'm not an expert," he laughs, "but we try and acquire the right people to run these companies. We don't manage them hands on. I don't know much about wet wipes or cutlery. When we acquire these companies we try to get the right people to run them. They report to us on a weekly basis to make sure everything is running along the lines of the strategy we have in mind."

But once again, a niche investment has paid off. Although he still has the wet wipes business on his books, and his competitors' factory on the opposite side of Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai, the company still returns a tidy sum. "We do private labelling for several third party manufacturers like Spinneys and Union Co-Op that don't have their own brand and that have their own cheaper brands. Sometimes you can't afford to pay for the high-end brands. The components are the same, it's all about lotion and we use the same that others use anyway."

Al Ghussein, his father and the family business, have now gained a solid reputation for "great investments", according to Mohammed. But they are "carefully considered and never rushed into," he adds.

Certain investments, however, take a different turn and produce much slower returns, or none at all. When this happens, Al Ghussein employs the ‘get out quick' method. "We've acquired a few smaller companies in trading and pharmaceutical companies and then sold out within two years. The margins weren't that great so we sold out early because we had a lot of competition here in the region.

"We look into a lot of projects every year, about 20, and we get a lot of proposals from parties that are interested in either selling or finding investors, but we might only take one or two because we see greater potential in those."

Two of those businesses are Octane and West Coast Customs - both are at the top of his priority list, and according to Al Ghussein, causing great waves within the automotive world.

"We now have a property division that my father looks after, a retail division that is investing in franchises such as London toy store Hamleys which is coming to Dubai in 2009, a financial services arm and now an automotive section.

"The business is blossoming at just the right pace. But West Coast's reputation as a brand and its potential as a company is the most exciting thing we've ever done."

Simply put West Coast, a group of now famous, and physically beefed up mechanics, customise cars. Or, in street slang, ‘pimp up' people's rides.

"They can practically do anything to your car," one of Octane's chief mechanics tells me as we stand chatting next to a pre-pimped orange US ‘muscle car', with its bonnet lifted, mega engine showing and chrome gleaming.

Despite West Coast's warehouse still being worked on a street away from Octane and officially being launched at the end of September, Al Ghussein and his team have already completed their first customised car, a Range Rover sport.

"We were ready to ship it a few weeks ago but the customer told us to tweak the fenders," he says, unable to reveal who the mystery Sheikh is who is willing to have his car flown over to London in time for his summer holiday break. The car itself is expensive but add to that DVD players, plasma screens and diamond encrusted extras and you have as seriously pricey moving piece of art.

"It looks incredible," he beams. Land Rover [Ford] have seen it and has now asked us whether we can supply them with custom kits for their other models."

Once operational West Coast Customs, its two US$3000 a week earning expert mechanics, and a small team of trainees will customise three to four cars a month. This may seem minor but a ‘pimped up' vehicle can cost two to three times more than the actual car itself, with the customisation process fetching between US$20,000 and US$300,000.

West Coast Customs is a car remodelling company owned by Ryan Friedlinghaus. It was originally located in Los Angeles but moved to Corona, California. New shops will soon be opening in Dubai, Russia, Malaysia and Germany. The company gained celebrity status as being the former site for MTV's show ‘Pimp My Ride', hosted by rap star Xzibit. It also appears in numerous locations in the video game, LA Rush. To celebrate its arrival in Dubai there will be WCC concert in Media City on November 22 featuring live music, live customising and a graffiti zone.

No wonder Al Ghussein is already considering taking the business across the region and potentially driving it even further afield. "It is in the US, Russia and now the Middle East, but it could go much further. The brand is well-known across the world, its awareness is incredible, and we are continually being approached from people to set up nearby.

"The production centre will be in Dubai, while other ‘franchised' showrooms, if you like, will exist in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar for instance. There is huge demand from Saudi Arabia," he adds.

Ryan, West Coast’s CEO, and Big Dane, big in name and nature, will be down in Dubai for the West Coast concert at the end of November. We can’t wait to have them here. It will really shake things up in the market.

Octane, meanwhile, continues to tick along nicely. Celebrating its one-year anniversary this month, the founder and CEO says it has achieved a great deal in a very short space of time.

"We're not just a car service centre with a body shop and spare parts division, it's based around community and membership and we have events for our 1300 members. "We send them an internal news letter, treat them like a community of key clients, send them free dinner tickets and seats to Cirque du Soleil when it came to Dubai earlier this year."

One of Al Ghussein's passions, however, is finance, stocks and keeping an eye on global market trends.

Through this he created Atlas Financial Services, a brokerage firm, approved by the UAE's Dubai Financial Market and Abu Dhabi Securities Market. He has also recently created a fund advisory division and opened up Atlas and its investors to Forex, or foreign exchange trading that can be updated 24/7.

Al Ghussein, his family and his businesses continue to prosper in carefully selected niches - and, despite the young businessman refusing to reveal exactly how much his family's fortune is worth, there are plenty more blank cheques waiting to be signed in the future. "We get a lot of support from the banks, but we invest mainly private family funds which has been and is being raised from other businesses," he says. "The banks would fund us for any required amount without hesitation."

Similarly to West Coast Customs' souped-up vehicles, there is a great deal more to Al Ghussein than meets the eye.

WCC’s top 10 ‘pimped’ carsNile's Cadillac Sedan de Ville (1978)

Nile bought the car for US$700 because it was "big and strong", and she wanted to show that big cars are "not just for guys, the girls can roll too".

Painted in candy pink pearl and fitted with 20-inch wheels, the car had a see-through DVD changer in the dash and a plexiglas-encapsulated "river" (playing off the River Nile theme). When the trunk opened, a shoe rack full of new footwear automatically extended, replacing the pile of old shoes Nile had stashed in her trunk.

Logan's Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme (1986)

The floor of the trunk was made to resemble the hardwood floor of a professional basketball court. West Coast Customs (WCC) painted the car with a custom bright green in the front that faded into a dark green from the midpoint towards the rear of the car.

Antwon's Mitsubishi Mirage (1989)

Painted blue in order to match the neon they put on the bottom. WCC put a 10-inch monitor inside the car. It also installed a small aquarium in between the rear seats, while the original 13-inch wheels were fitted with 18-inch wheels.

Mary's Ford Mustang (1967)

The fronts seats were made to recline flat so that the custom LCD monitor in the headliner could be easily viewed. The car was originally fitted with special exhaust pipes that shot out flames when the engine was started, however, WCC owner Ryan was concerned that such a device could be illegal so they were quickly removed.

Jared's Ford Ranger (1985)

The Ranger was given a pearl orange paint job and lowered three inches.

Under the truck bed cover was a ping-pong table which slid out to reveal a couch and a TV with a Nintendo Gamecube.

Danelle's Pontiac Trans Am (1981)

When the Trans Am was being pimped, some of the WCC crew made references to Smokey and the Bandit. This pimped-out vehicle had a coffee maker installed in a centre console and a chandelier in place of the dome light.

Ezra's Nissan Maxima Station Wagon (1984)

The Nissan was referred to as the "identity crisis" because of the Datsun and Nissan badges. WCC turned the wagon into a mobile DJ booth complete with turntables and speakers.

Brian's Honda CRX (1987)

This was the first car to visually get a brand new engine, as the old engine died before WCC could pull it into the shop.

Kerry's Ford Escort (1988/89)

This was two halves of two Ford Escorts welded and ‘gummed' together, however the car was considered too dangerous for him to continue to own. To replace this car, WCC procured a 2004 Scion XB and ‘pimped' that instead.

Jessica's AMC Pacer (1976)

The owner of the vehicle was studying to become a nutritionist. The car was fitted with a huge cloth sunroof, a rear wing with a solar panel to power the electronics, and a juicer in the trunk. The entire interior of the car was retrofitted with yellow shag carpeting. The car was originally infested with rat droppings; in fact the mechanics found a live rat inside the car. WCC's gift to the car owner was a cat, which Jessica named ‘Pacer'.

The show ends by saying: "no rats were harmed in the ‘pimpin' of this ride".

Dante's Ford Econoline Ice Cream Truck (1976)

This was the first business vehicle to be pimped. The truck was painted sapphire blue with icicles on the side. Ice cream-related features included a touch screen order system, a robotic arm which can dispense ice cream.

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