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Face-to-face: William Haddad

Chairman of 45 year-old Mechanical & Civil Engineering Contractors Co

Haddad's advice to fellow contractors: "Know what you are good at, where your strengths lie and do not bite off more than you can chew."
Haddad's advice to fellow contractors: "Know what you are good at, where your strengths lie and do not bite off more than you can chew."

William Haddad is chairman of the Mechanical & Civil Engineering Contractors Co, which he started 45 years ago. Here he talks to Gary Wright about oil pipes across 500km of desert, underground construction, his own simple business philosophy, money ... and why you must look after your staff.

After the Colonel Gaddafi led the overthrow of the monarchy in 1969 he soon set about getting rid of the US and British influence on his country’s oil industry.

As he went between oil contractors' sites in the desert ordering people to leave he came upon the the engineering compound for William Haddad’s fledgling company.

“He saw that around the perimeter we had planted trees and he decided that if this company was prepared to plant trees then it must be there for the long haul and not simply to take from the economy,” said Haddad, recalling a story that he learned many years later.

Consequently, the business that Haddad had started just 18 months before was left to get on with its contracts, building long distance pipelines for the Libyan oil industry.

Haddad was born in Jerusalem in 1936 and by 1948 he and his family, headed by his father who had worked for the British Civil Service and the United Nations, moved away.

Haddad graduated as an engineer from the American University of Beirut in 1960 and joined CCC, part of the Wimpey group laying various pipelines for the growing oil industry, working first in Aden then moving to Libya in 1964.

Over the next four years the young Haddad earned himself a good reputation among oil explorers like Esso, Oasis and BP. “If you want to get a job done, give it to Bill Haddad,” was what they used to say and that gave the young man the confidence to consider setting up on his own.

Few call him Bill anymore – just a few friends who have known him more than 40 years - but his new business was a success and oil explorers seeking reliable pipelines ensured he had plenty of work.

Forty five years on Haddad, now 77, remains diplomatic about his bosses at the time: “I was responsible for our desert operations and the owner of that company may have been a person who saw the results but failed to hear the voice of the person responsible.

“In 1968 I quit working for them and set up on my own with fewer than a dozen people and we began supplying the same services.”

He recalls the contract that was the turning point. “It was a job I got from Esso laying an oxygen pipeline from the refinery to the incinerator,” said Haddad. “It took me a month to lay the pipeline and I received for that month what I would have expected to earn in a year – that was the money I invested to get my business off the ground.”

He describes Libyan oil as being “like honey”, a sweet and light oil without the impurities or sulphur content you find in oil from much of much of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. In the 1960s Libyan producers just wanted pipelines laid quickly that took the sweet oil from the wells in the desert to separation plants.

“They wanted reliable, safe pipelines and were not afraid to pay for it,” said Haddad, smiling at the memory. “Life was full of zest, I had camps in several places that were very remote but that is the nature of the oil business.”

Among those pioneers in the desert Haddad explained how a second income stream would present itself for his new company the Mechanical and Civil Engineering Contractors Company Ltd (MACE Contracting Co).

He said: “During those years American companies would come and check on the conditions for our labourers and one day during a visit, the vice president of Esso said to me: ‘You take good care of your people, would you consider doing the same for us?’ I told him that if there was a contract, that I would.”

And so the rapidly growing MACE embarked on a catering and housing sector of its business.
Haddad explained: “Initially we housed 120 bachelors, we fed and laundered them at our facility and as other companies saw what we were doing - our business grew.”

Libya would continue to be a successful part of MACE, under the guidance of Haddad’s brother-in-law, until 1983.

In 1974 Haddad decided MACE needed a presence in Abu Dhabi as the city, and the whole UAE, was obviously on the verge a boom. In fact it was about to embark on a period of almost unprecedented growth and wealth creation for the nation almost unmatched in the world.

Haddad decided he would go while his brother in law would remain overseeing the Libya operation but his reason was surprisingly simple.

“I’d married in 1970 and already had two young daughters but my brother-in-law’s children were slightly older and they were already in school. So, I decided that I would come to the emirates so as to minimise disruption for his family,” said Haddad.

It is clear that Haddad was content in those days to live with the men who worked for him in the same conditions and it was hard work and he had to manage money carefully.

Haddad recalls how in the early days on arriving in Abu Dhabi, money saving was vital. “We used to switch off the air conditioning at midnight to save diesel for the generators,” he said.

“The first job I secured her was a 45,000 dirhams contract for the Abu Dhabi water and electricity department. It was about connecting tanks and involved welding and heavy lifting.

“But before I could start the work I had to buy two cranes at a cost of 400,000 dirhams,” he sits back and smiles, reflecting on an anecdote, which demonstrates the philosophy of his company throughout the next four decades.

He said: “You have to invest to earn in the future. And I invest in my company in the same way I invest in a child. I invest in my employees and now in the children of my employees.”

Within 18 months of his arrival he had secured a range of work from bridges and pipelines to a transit shed in Mina Zayed, “that was very big,” he adds and nods gently. From there the company has grown and now employs around 1,200 staff - 800 labourers, 400 engineers - most of whom Haddad not only knows by name, but also knows their family circumstance.

“Any company can buy good equipment but it cannot always buy good staff, so I believe you should treat them well and help them with their future,” said Haddad.

“We have annual pay reviews, we have a bonus scheme and we seek to invest in their training and development. From my top engineers to my labourers, I like to think they learn something new every day.”

He knows his business and his staff and at 77 he remains a familiar face in the boardroom and occasionally on site. “I have lived alongside my labourers for many years and I know that they are the ones who are doing the work,” he says.

Anecdotally there are stories of his staff calling him ‘arbab’ (the Persian for boss or master) and he will reply using the same term and equally if call him ‘muhandis’ (engineer), he too will reply the same.

MACE today owes no money to the bank and Haddad is clearly proud that it continues to buy its equipment.

He is a big supporter of what has been achieved in the emirates and especially His Highness Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. “When you invest in the emirate it grows and its success has been the source of so many people’s welfare.”

That early underground work in Abu Dhabi led to increasingly larger sewerage network installations, which earned MACE a solid reputation with the ADSSC. In 2002 it won the operation and maintenance for the sewerage assets on Abu Dhabi Island and last year it secured a similar contract for Al Ain and the surrounding region.

The chances are if you live or work in Abu Dhabi, MACE infrastructure is having an influence on your life.

His view of the 2008 crash is surprisingly positive saying “it was good” for his company. “We had the work in place and the cost of our raw materials actually fell.”

After so long in a business that has seen so many takeovers and companies fall by the wayside, the elder statesman of construction has straightforward advice for those seeking success in the construction business.

“Know what you’re good at, where your strengths lie and do not bite off more than you can chew. If for example you are good at underground infrastructure, think carefully before taking on say a flyover at 10 or 20 times the contract value,” he sits back removes the glasses he has worn throughout the interview and looks straight into the eye of his interviewer.

“There is an English saying, ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’. I disagree with that. I am happy to put all my eggs in one basket with the skills that MACE has…But I keep a careful eye on the basket,” he grins.

In Libya everything that was MACE, was nationalised by the government in 1983 and Haddad’s brother in law moved to Saudi Arabia, where MACE had been operating since 1979. That business was sold in 1990 but Haddad confides that MACE is looking to work again in Saudi, “though we are still waiting for a licence after more than nine months,” he confides.

There is a MACE Qatar, with contracts already but is fully prepared for the flood of work that is expected to be tendered in the next 18 months and his company has also looked at Oman. But it is clear that Haddad will not take any unnecessary risks with his carefully cultivated business.

He said: “On reflection I think you can look back and say the business goes in seven or 10 year cycles. You finish one contract but have you got something to move on to?”

He concludes: “We have had some very good years and we are specialists. Put simply, we put pipes in the ground: waste, water, oil, gas and irrigation.”

This year he estimates the turnover will be AED 250m-300m “and our margins of profit are better,” he adds.

“What has changed over the years is the size of the jobs. Ten years ago a AED20m job would have been divided among contractors. Now there’s no job under AED100m.”

Of the competition, for whom he was happy to pass on advice, he admits he welcomes newcomers but suspects many do not recognise the difficulties they will face.

He said: “Not one of the companies that were around when I started survives today. We have new companies coming to this country looking to join the bandwagon. They come into the market, they may have the specialist equipment, but they have no track record here and they will not have the accumulated knowledge that we do of conditions.”

Haddad points to his company’s maxim “service to humanity”, which is actually the motto of AUB and that he says he has always sought to follow. He explains it’s about the company’s contribution to society and how it has given MACE its direction and focus.

“We are not a profit-orientated company as our foremost ambition and we reinvest in our staff. We look for jobs that will improve the lives of people and I believe we look after our employees.”

For the future MACE will remain with its core skills, in Abu Dhabi it will continue its work as it has done for nine years maintaining and operating the sewage systems there and has just landed the tender , to provide services to Al Ain and remote areas of the emirate through a joint venture with Spanish company Aqualia.

So after 45 years at the helm, how does he see the future?

“I also have a home in London, which my wife spends far more time at than I, and my three daughters are all in the UK.”

He admits his wife Aida asks him often when he will retire and he admits that he fully expects to “die on the job” and his company will be handed over to the right people within his company… though it won’t be too soon, he says he is in “pretty good shape”.

He grins when asked whether he had bought expensive cars or mansions with his earnings over the years and confides: “My personal pleasures remain simple as they always have done. I enjoy reading literature and poetry, I write too… oh yes, and I still enjoy a good cigar.”

Some current MACE contracts
- O&M of Al Ain. AED355,834,199 ($96.8m)
- O&M Abu Al Abyadh Dewatering Pumps. AED18,936,200 ($5.16m)
- Civil works, other client. AED398,203,859 ($108m)
- Construct, rehabilitate & replace sewer lines Abu Dhabi Island. AED208,097,819($56.7m)

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