Future focus

Shaukat Ali Mir, regional director and deputy COO of MEP contractor Voltas talks to Alison Luke about the firm's plans for the future to.


As regional director and deputy COO of one the largest MEP contractors in the Middle East, Shaukat Ali Mir has a sizeable task to carry out. Voltas is currently undertaking work on some of the biggest and most prestigious projects within Dubai and the region at large, including the Burj Dubai Tower, Raffles Hotel and Bahrain City Centre project. But as we sit in the firm's Bur Dubai office, he calmly deals with a series of urgent phone calls inbetween outlining the firm's plans for yet further growth over the coming years.

His calm confidence, it seems, comes from experience. Mir has worked for Voltas for around 25 years, over 20 of these in the Middle East. In his role as regional director he is responsible for the firm's Middle East and North Africa 1 (MENA1) region. This encompasses countries that are currently undergoing major growth including the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. He became deputy COO around five months ago and plans to remain with the firm for the long-term he assures: "One of the things that keeps me with this company are values," he states. "There's phenomenal trust and faith in individuals and corporate governance flows right through, so there's a lot of learning and a lot of growth possible."

We are actively looking at acquiring strategic companies that can add value to [Voltas].

Voltas is an Indian firm that is headquartered in Bombay. It belongs to the multi-national Tata Group, which had a group turnover in excess of US $60 billion (AED220 billion) last year. The firm's first venture in the Middle East was in 1976 when it undertook work on the Sultan's Palace in Muscat, Oman. It proceeded to enter the UAE in 1978. "We created joint ventures with local partners," Mir explains, "we started off by doing small air conditioning jobs and we were into the maintenance of air conditioning systems in a big way."

The firm's presence in the region grew considerably over the next decade and it moved to the UAE in 1989 as a direct parent company. "The joint ventures still continue, but they are complementary and are mainly doing maintenance and small projects," Mir explains.

Mir himself moved to the Middle East as a young engineer with Voltas. Having graduated from university with a mechanical engineering degree, he spent around 18 months working in India before moving to Saudi Arabia with the firm. Within two years he was promoted to project manager of a housing development project and stayed in the Kingdom until 1989, when he moved to Abu Dhabi to head a Voltas joint venture firm. In 1996 he became responsible for Voltas' business development within the UAE.

The firm's operations are now widespread across the MENA region and it has carried out projects as far afield as France from its UAE base. There are over 2,500 staff in the UAE alone, with a further 800 in Qatar and 750 in Bahrain. The international business group now represents 25-30% of the firm's annual turnover, with around 85% of this being attributable to the Middle East operations. The current strategic plan aims to extend this reach further; with some moves on the radar involving the neighbouring countries.

"We developed and evolved a strategic plan a year ago that is very pressing," explains Mir. "We are going to be present in Kuwait in early next year; we've already decided to re-enter Saudi Arabia and we're also re-entering Libya sometime next year. We've done work in all of these countries, but are now going to establish offices there," he adds.

The reason for the expansion is two-fold: opportunities are arising from market growth; plus a desire to spread risk. "Our strategic business plan talks about spreading the risk in these countries. Dubai is an important market for us, but we have significant presence in other areas. We are not after all projects in one country...we have an advantage of being present in many markets, so we can balance out the risks in each," he explains.

Voltas is aiming at the high-end of the market: "Here competition is limited and, more importantly, the clients are looking at reliability, resourcefulness, quality and high engineering," stresses Mir. A further strategy is to focus on repeat business. "This provides advantages to both the customer and us - we know their quality requirements and timelines and they know our organisation; the learnings get ploughed back into their projects, which is good for both organisations," he states.

In addition to expanding its geographical reach, Voltas is aiming at increasing its market focus, with moves into the district cooling, water and facilities management sectors. The firm has past experience in all of these fields. It undertook district cooling plants for Tabreed when the market was in its infancy in the region and plans to refocus on this sector. Staff within the firm will be relocated for this according to their experience and the firm will also hire suitably skilled employees.

It is already involved in the water sector in Asia and has recently completed a water reclamation plant at Thailand's Chiang Mai Airport. "We are seriously considering entering the water market in the Middle East," confirms Mir, "a lot of studies have been done and we're looking at acquisitions [in this sector]," he adds. Its moves in the facilities management sector will involve a joint venture with an as yet unnamed international firm.

The focus will remain on large-scale projects assures Mir, with a preference for the preferred bidder route. The desire is to create and maintain a strong supply chain throughout the firm's operations. "One of our strategic objectives is not just to partner with the employers and developers, but also with suppliers," states Mir. "We have partnerships in place with [suppliers worldwide], for the simple reason that you get priorities in terms of deliveries and prices and that is what is the need of the hour today. Everybody is under pressure in terms of managing volumes," he stresses.

The demanding project timescales in the region are contributing to further changes in the construction industry. One of the likely developments is an upsurge in the use of design and build contracts states Mir: "This something that I think the region is directing itself towards because consultants are highly in demand. They don't have the resources and they are [sometimes] not able to complete the designs in the required time, which can result in change management, delays, a lack of co-ordination and time extensions. This in turn could mean claims, which is something we would like to avoid," stresses Mir.

Voltas receives considerable support from its head office in India and the firm plans to extend this co-operation by the transferring of staff, hence skills, between the regions. The firm is also investing heavily in training and has established a network of schools to ensure future qualified future personnel are available.

The aim for the international group is to achieve a 35% growth over the next three years reports Mir and this target is expected to be comfortably reached by applying the strategic plan. "The strategic plan we've made states that by the year 2010 we need to reach a certain turnover and we've done detailed studies of how we're going to achieve this. These include increasing the geographic spread and increasing the offerings; the third way is by acquisitions," explains Mir. "We're actively looking at acquiring strategic companies that can add value to us." The firm is seeking acquisitions within Europe and the Middle East and is currently undergoing due diligence with several companies.

Shaukat Ali Mir: up close and personal

Where are you from?

I've from Kashmir, in the extreme north of India.

Where do you live?

I live in Abu Dhabi. Generally I spend four days in Dubai, one day in Abu Dhabi and one in Bahrain and I visit India almost monthly. I travel quite a lot as we've got offices everywhere [in the region] and I oversee all these operations.

Who's in your family?

My biggest reason for success has been my wife, she's been very supportive. She is herself a master in astrophysics. One of our sons is at university in Waterloo, Canada studying environmental engineering. Our other son is 16 years old; he's done very well in his O and A levels and wants to study medicine in the UK.

Where do you like to holiday?

My wife is a great skier, so in winter we go to the north of Italy skiing for 7-10 days. In summer we go to Europe, I prefer to rent a car and drive across the mountains. - I drove 3000km in two weeks this time, we went down through southern France, through Switzerland and back to Venice.

What's been your favourite project?

The Queen Mary 2 [ocean liner] for a variety of reasons, one of which was the opportunity to work outside of Asia and the Middle East.

France is a difficult country [in which to operate] because the labour laws are very tough. Working in the marine industry is also tough in itself because they follow various standards that are completely unique. For example, there are Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) standards, it's very stringently followed and the logistics that the shipbuilding industry has are very different. There was a huge amount of learning made [on the project].

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