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The investor: Nabil Al Zahlawi on NFT's big plans

by John Bambridge on May 10, 2017

Nabil Al Zahlawi is the CEO and managing partner of the Abu Dhabi-based NFT Specialized in Tower Cranes, which has been in business for 35 years.
Nabil Al Zahlawi is the CEO and managing partner of the Abu Dhabi-based NFT Specialized in Tower Cranes, which has been in business for 35 years.

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Nabil Al Zahlawi is a looming figure in the Gulf tower crane industry who, through his company, NFT Specialized in Tower Cranes, has weathered 35 years of upticks and slowdowns in business, and in his own words, seen off repeated recessions.

The company also possesses what is indisputably one of the largest fleets of tower cranes in the Middle East, if not the world. Indeed, it has been reckoned by International Cranes that in terms of sheer lifting capacity measured in tonne-metres, NFT’s fleet is indeed the largest. NFT Cranes has also played a significant role in furthering the interests of its manufacturing principal Potain — the only brand of cranes that the company deals in — and can rightly claim a good deal of credit for the fact that today, Potain cranes are some of the most widely used in the Gulf.

For many years, however, Al Zahlawi has also been casting his net far wider than the Middle East in his search for business, and his entrepreneurial exploration of the globe has led NFT to develop into an operation that today far more resembles a global enterprise.

Al Zahlawi states: “The company owns around 2,000 cranes. Today we have about 400 cranes in Asia and about 100 in Europe; and the rest are here in this region. We don’t have a large percentage of the cranes rented out at present, because we are being selective.”

While this last statement might sound odd, it happens to be the case that, of late, some of NFT’s best business has been outside the Gulf, and while the bulk of its operations remain in the region, bidding for projects in the GCC is no longer the no-brainer it once seemed to be.

In Saudi Arabia, for example, NFT still has a large volume of crane stock erected and stuck on otherwise stalled projects. Al Zahlawi explains: “In Saudi Arabia we have lost a lot of money because we were dealing with big contractors, and we participated in some mega projects where we had 150 or 200 cranes on jobsites, and in the end we did not get paid.”

NFT previously supplied 100 cranes, for example, to the embattled Saudi Binladin Group for use on the King Abdullah Financial District Riyadh, including mast sections for heights of up to 300m, and has to date still received not payment for the project.

Al Zahlawi explains: “The job has stopped; our money is still on the jobsite and we are not getting paid for it. The job has now been stalled for three years, and the contractor has no income. We have the equipment inside and we cannot take it back, because the cranes are up. We might now have to raise a court case to see that we get paid, because we are talking about millions and millions of dollars here, but it’s a long procedure and these machines will be depreciated. And we have had this issue not only on one site, but on several sites.

“If you are an investor, you have to get a return for your investment. Every crane has a different calculation for depreciation, but on average we say here that in five years we have to recover the value of the machine.”

Having cranes stuck on a stalled, unpaid project is therefore the worst case scenario, explains Al Zahlawi, since “you lose the income, you lose via depreciation and you lose the availability — because if another customer needs them I will have to buy new ones”.

The problems of collecting money from contractors on major government projects rings true in both Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

By way of contrast, NFT has experienced no significant problems in the UAE market, where it has also worked closely on projects like the Barakah Nuclear Power Plant, which employed 45 Potain cranes supplied by NFT.