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Interview: Peter Tomlinson, AkzoNobel

by John Bambridge on Nov 30, 2012

AkzoNobel Middle East MD Peter Tomlinson
AkzoNobel Middle East MD Peter Tomlinson

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What are your prospects for growth?
We have been incredibly active over the last year or so, basically developing our protective coatings business, our powder coatings business and our decorative coatings business as well, so we have now got three or four different business strands now focusing on the construction market.

The Middle East is a region which has probably not been focused on as much as it should have been. I think the company has quite rightly focused on China, SE Asia, places like Brazil – we have had good opportunities in terms of growth in emerging economies.

[For this region] the reality is we that have not had as much focus as we would have liked, and at the moment our turnover is measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars, rather than multiples of that. However, within the last 18 months, the Middle East has really become a focus for our company, and our ambition is to grow significantly from where we are today.”

How have recent awards impacted your business in the Gulf?
The contract for the Muscat and Salalah Airport was a breakthrough for us actually – it is the first time we have supplied these fire protection products into the Omani market. In Abu Dhabi, the Cleveland Clinic was a good one.

We have got quite a lot of work going on now in Qatar, including the new National Museum, universities and hospitals. With the World Cup coming up, there is going to be a lot of investment going on, not just with the stadia, but also the infrastructure being put in place.

We have also picked up some nice new contracts in Saudi Arabia. We have taken up a very good position with Aramco in terms of supplying it with coatings.

Which challenges are you next looking to tackle in the region?
I think the biggest challenge we have is that we have lots of partners in the region, and the business has been built up as an export territory in the past - so lots of our divisions and business units developed relationships with partners, be they licensees, distributors or agents, because we have not had our own footprint and our own people in the region.

We are now looking to bringing in our own people, new factories, look at acquisitions on a small scale where appropriate, and to try and work with these partners that we have had for quite a long time, to try to deepen and develop those relationships and bring them into a new phase with our company.

We want to grow very quickly now, and it is trying to get everybody aligned to that growth, and not just here in the UAE, but in Saudi, Oman, Egypt, Iraq, a lot of the developing parts of the region as well - we see a lot of opportunity.

How are you addressing sustainability issues?
We are very proud to be first in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index this year, and that is work across lots of different areas, including social programmes, making sure you are environment-friendly, and also from a health and safety point of view in terms of training and looking after your employees.

It will be tough to maintain, but we are the biggest coatings company in the world, and we are putting hundreds of millions a year into R&D to develop more eco-friendly products, higher-tech products and getting better solutions for the customers.

The new protection products that are coming out of our laboratories now are cheaper and thinner, but they give, for example, the same fire protection in terms of safety for tall buildings.

Conditions, as we all know, are very hot, but there is not a huge difference in our products for this part of the world compared with, say, Australia, parts of South East Asia or even Florida in the US.

Are you targeting Saudi and Qatar?
A lot of our focus will be quite obviously in Saudi Arabia, and after that you would probably come to the UAE, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, and we must not forget markets like Pakistan, which does not have a high GDP, but there are 180 million people there that are all consumers that we can supply products to.

Our business has historically been based in Dammam, where we have a factory for certain divisions, but now we are opening an office in Riyadh and putting people into Jeddah as well, so that we can spread our footprint over the whole Kingdom.