Tips from the top: Hisham Al Gurg

High profile investor and entrepreneur Hisham Al Gurg discusses what it takes to succeed in the world of business
Tips from the top: Hisham Al Gurg
By Neil King
Wed 06 Aug 2014 09:02 AM

Hisham Al Gurg is a man of many talents.

With almost two decades of experience in setting up and running new businesses across MENA in a variety of sectors, he is also one of the UAE’s leading lights when it comes to investment.

So much so that he was recruited by the royal family of Dubai to be an investment advisor, working in the Private Office of HH Sheikh Saeed Bin Ahmed Al Maktoum, as well as being the CEO of Al Fajer Investments and Development – the investment division of Al Fajer Enterprises, a holding group of companies owned by HH Sheikh Hasher Al Maktoum.

Having worked at Emirates and Global Management Consultants following graduation from Southwest Texas State University, Al Gurg is also a graduate of the Sheikh Mohammed Leadership Programme, UAE sponsor for Chinese petroleum giant Sinopec Group, board member of private equity company Signature Group, and group CEO of SEED Group.

With SEED Group, he has helped start and manage eight growing companies in six different fields across MENA.

All in all, he has concluded and managed projects and investments worth more than $1bn.

Pretty good going for somebody who graduated in computer science.

“I had zero experience in business – nothing at all,” he says, looking back at how he got to where he is now.

“I was very lucky that I found a business model that worked. I had others that failed miserably, but that’s the kind of thing you learn from.”

The business model he talks about is the one which catapulted him in the region’s big league.

The company was Cityline International – the region’s first Audiotext organisation, launched in 2000, which expanded into eight countries in less than 18 months, and generated more than $300m for the Middle Eastern market.

Al Gurg nonchalantly explains: “After that I kept starting companies. Once you’ve got a model that works, you can easily and more confidently move forward.

“I started working with the royal family of Dubai, working with them on and off while doing my own businesses, and it translated into SEED Group, which launched in 2004.”

SEED Group covers a number of sectors including legal services, media production, real estate investment and management, general trading, business services, telecommunications, and interior and architectural design.

If anybody can speak with authority and clarity about investment and entrepreneurship, Al Gurg is that man.

I sit with him at his plush office in Burjuman Business Tower to get his take on the current start-up environment in the UAE, as well as find out what advice he would give to budding entrepreneurs.

Immediately he proves his worth.

“My advice would be to find something that’s working in another city or country and tailor it to the market you’re in,” he begins.

“Go lean, start on a small scale, and when you find a formula that works, put more and more resources into it.

“One of the biggest lessons you learn in business is where you’re strong, and where you’re weak. You have to compensate for your weaknesses by building resources. I compensated for my weaknesses by having people around me who complemented me.”

Al Gurg suggests bringing in partners to not only share their expertise, but also share in the investment, arguing that consultants and advisors don’t have enough skin in the game to make the best impact.

“If you bring in partners, then the advice they give is more calculated and studies,” he says.

He also warns against trying to cover every angle of a business by yourself.

“One of the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make is they try to do everything themselves. In areas they don’t know about they try to cut corners and costs.

“You need to have the right resources in place – you need to get the right employees. Go and find the people who can do the job properly. You can reach people all around the world if you need to – there’s no part of your business that you can’t outsource to somebody if you need to, no matter where they are in the world.

“Don’t try to do everything yourself.”

Having been there and done that, Al Gurg is well versed in what it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur, and when pressed to name one skill entrepreneurs need to make ground in the market, it doesn’t take him long to answer.

He says: “After being able to create a good business model, the number one area you need to master is sales. If you can’t sell then maybe you shouldn’t be in business. If you can’t sell to investors, customers, employees, people you need support from, or any number of other people, then you may succeed by luck but you won’t go very far.

“There are so many resources out there to be able to learn that skill, so there’s no excuse. It amazes me the number of people who come to pitch and have no ability to do it.

“The failure of a business comes through lack of cash-flow. And that comes through sales. This is one thing you can’t outsource – it has to be the entrepreneur himself. If he masters it, then he can hire and train other people to do it, but in the first instance, it’s down to him.”

At the suggestion that passion must play a leading role in being able to sell well, Al Gurg pensively agrees, but only to a certain degree.

“When you’re passionate about your product, that passion is contagious,” he says. “But if a product doesn’t make sense, then passion won’t help you. Before passion, you need other elements in place.

“Your product has to be right, customers have to be qualified and in a position to buy it, and you have to be able to sell it. Then your passion can really help.

“What’s really important is hunger, rather than passion. If you’re too comfortable – if it’s not you against the world – then it’s hard to sell and scale your business.

“This is what you don’t see in GCC countries some of the time – the hunger. People are too comfortable – they stay with their parents, their clothes get washed and ironed, and their education gets paid for.

“There will be other people out there who started their business and have fought for everything – you have to be able to compete with that. To compete you need the hunger.

“You can’t necessarily train people how to be passionate or hungry, but you can educate them about the importance of entrepreneurship. You can explain that if you don’t do something new, and just rely on a salary, then you can face problems if you get fired or can’t work anymore.

“Educating about entrepreneurship is very important, as is allowing people to develop the skills they need.”

No matter how much an entrepreneur develops his or her skills, their chances of success are still very much dependent on the support they receive from others.

According to Al Gurg, if you want to know how serious a government is about fostering entrepreneurship, you need to look at the budget and time that it puts behind it. And he’s impressed with the resources the UAE is dedicating to the cause.

He says: “With the projects I’m aware of, the governments of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah have put substantial budgets in place for fostering entrepreneurship. Which is an important first step.

“Is the government doing enough? Well, there’s always more to do. I’m not in their shoes to know what they’re planning, but it’s looking good.”

If he was in the government’s shoes, however, Al Gurg is quite clear about how he would do things – starting with youth unemployment.

“If we don’t find a solution to the unemployment issue then we will have a big problem in the future,” he says.

“I like the idea of mirroring, or mentoring. If I want to learn how to fly then I wouldn’t go to a professor, I’d go to a pilot. Likewise, if I was in the government I would find the city in the world that had achieved the results that I was looking for myself, and I would try to replicate that.

“I would also look at how many successful small businesses are out there that have started as a result of my programmes. I would look at whether they are sustainable, and profitable, and then see if I could turn them into a formula to replicate success.

“By doing that, you could take somebody who is jobless and turn him into an entrepreneur and equip him with the ability to pass what he’s learnt on to somebody else.

“He would then have a big impact – generating money, financially independent, and able to help others follow his path.”

Another aspect he would closely consider is the relationship between expats and UAE nationals.

He explains that government initiatives and programmes such as Khalifa Fund and Dubai SME have started to shift focus from dealing solely with UAE nationals and adopted a more universal approach – something he would like to see more of in the future.

“What makes Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah successful is the mix of nationals and expats,” he says.

“Look at the cities around the world. You don’t just see British people working in London, or New Yorkers in New York. Everybody brings in their own culture and differences, and everybody learns how to adjust and adapt.

“Similarly, if you say “I’m going to Brazil and only selling to Brazilians” then you won’t succeed – it doesn’t work like that. If you’re a UAE national and you say you’re only dealing with UAE nationals, then your business won’t work.

“The government is realising this and doing more to help expats, I think.

“If I didn’t have expat mentors, consultants, advisors, employees, and so on, then I wouldn’t have gone that far. I tried to go it alone without a mentor or advisor and I failed massively.

“When I brought somebody in, the improvements were enormous.”

It’s not just entrepreneurs and government entities that have an important role to play in the development of the UAE’s start-up and SME sector. Investors are also key to the evolution of the Emirates, and the region as a whole.

Our conversation comes round to the challenges of local investment – something Al Gurg knows more than the average person about through his work with the royal family, Seed Group, and Signature Group.

Touching on e-commerce investment, he says: “The market is not as mature as other places. You don’t have a lot of local companies that have gone international and are doing amazingly well and sold for a lot of money.

“Maybe investors here don’t understand it as well as outside investors. For example – the Yahoo! deal [US multinational Yahoo! bought Arabic language email provider Maktoob for an estimated $164m].

“Why did they come in and nobody from here? Because they knew the market better. They understood the business and its potential. They understood its true value.

“There’s definitely some catching up to do on that front – especially in e-commerce and tech.”

Quick to balance the equation, however, Al Gurg immediately points out that there are other sectors where investors are much more able to lead the rest of the world.

He says: “There are industries where local investors do know the true worth and they do a great job. Real estate, for example. In those instances, maybe it’s the reverse to technology – there aren’t enough outside investors coming in.

“Tourism is also going extremely well here. Retail, too, as long as you’re in the right mall. When the real estate market crashed, retail continued to be strong. But it’s a bit tricky and not as clear cut as real estate.

“In that sector, you buy at the right price, sell at the right price and you make money. Retail is a very different ball game. You need the right location and the right product to start with.”

Of those three industries, Al Gurg is particularly excited by tourism – an area in which he believes entrepreneurs will be well supported by the government.

“In tourism, Dubai is looking for more investment ideas. DTCM (Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing) is promoting entrepreneurship because they want tourist to have more unique and interesting options – things that will add to their experience.

“So there are definitely opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors there.”

As well as being able to talk in depth about investment, Al Gurg is something of an expert on networking.

Having rubbed shoulders with some of the region’s most powerful, influential and wealthy individuals, he is well versed in the art, and has some strongly held beliefs about how to make the most of business events, especially when time is of the essence.

“A lot of people are networking for the sake of networking and meeting people,” he says.

“I don’t think that’s smart. You have 24 hours in a day – it’s a limited amount – and if you’re running a company then that’s already a full-time job.

“We’re lucky to be in Dubai and the UAE – there are lots of events and opportunities for networking. But before you go to any of them, you have to find out who the right people to network with are – the people who can help you.

“Who can help you cut down costs or grow your business, and how could they do it? If you don’t do any research before you start networking, you can waste a lot of time.”

He adds that identifying the right people isn’t enough, explaining that you need to find out where you can meet them, which events they attend, and how you can be there too.

“Say I want to meet with Carrefour,” he continues. “I’ve got a product I want to take there, but it’s difficult to get it in. Who is the decision maker who will say yes or no to getting this product into Carrefour?

“Identify them, find out where they hang about, go to their LinkedIn profile, find out how to get in contact. Which events will they attend? You need to be there too.”

If you’re not targeting a specific person, Al Gurg advises a similarly thorough approach.

He says: “For every event, you have to look at its website, see who will be there, and make a point to have conversations with four or five people. Decide what kind of conversation you want to have, and make it interesting for the other person.

“You can’t just go up to somebody and say ‘I have something I want you to invest in’ – you have to engage with them.

“I believe you only get one shot. First impressions are really important. If you don’t work at making them want to meet you a second time, then you shouldn’t be there.

“If he doesn’t like what he hears, the chances of him giving you an appointment are very rare. He might give you his business card but he’ll never take your call – you’ve moved two steps back.”

Sound advice from a man whose words of wisdom you shouldn’t pass up lightly.

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