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Face-to-face: Kareem Shamma, CEO Festival City

Situated to the north of Doha is a construction site that bears all the signs of being one of the biggest mixed-use destinations in the Middle East

Kareem Shamma, CEO Festival City, believes Qatar is on the edge of a construction frenzy.
Kareem Shamma, CEO Festival City, believes Qatar is on the edge of a construction frenzy.

Doha is buzzing with construction, from ongoing road works that will ultimately relieve the infamous congestion, to the ever conscious looming presence of the World Cup stadia, as well as numerous signs of the slowly developing metro projects, to residential buildings - and malls...

Situated to the north of Doha is a construction site that bears all the signs of being one of the biggest mixed-use destinations in the Middle East, including one of the region’s largest malls. This observation is borne out by Kareem Shamma, CEO, Bawabat Al-Shamal Real Estate Company W.L.L (BASREC), the owner and developer of the Doha Festival City project.

“When completed, this mall will rival the likes of Dubai Mall for sheer size,” he effused.

For a man who wants to leave a tangible legacy behind, Shamma is well on track. Doha Festival City (DHFC) is a continuation of the roll-out of the successful Festival City brand and, he explained, “It is the third such development of joint-venture partner Al Futtaim’s Festival City-branded destinations in the Middle East, after Dubai and Cairo.” The latter was completed a year ago, with another planned for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and currently at signed MOU stage.

As a mixed-use destination, DHFC includes in its mall component, Doha’s first IKEA store, which opened for trade in March 2013 as a standalone unit, eventually linking into the mall, as an anchor at its northern end, once the mall is complete.

With an early interest in construction, Shamma gained a BSc in Civil Engineering, at Imperial college, University of London, and then an MSc in Concrete Structures also from Imperial College, London.

“From early days I had an interest in building and construction, but my career migrated to project management and then leaned more to real estate development,” he elaborated. With many years working in the region, Shamma has gained and shared decades of experience and he is dedicated to giving back to the community, “as a personal commitment to Qatar”.

Mentoring has played an important role in Shamma’s career, with him having enjoyed the input and guidance of numerous “great people” throughout his working life, each filling a different and diverse role as his career transformed and metamorphosed.

So, in turn, he believes that senior managers have an obligation to guide and mentor junior staff: “I enjoy mentoring as I enjoy seeing people develop,” he shared and continued, “they in turn enjoy the learning process and people thrive and become motivated when they see that they are gaining experience and knowledge. They also then, gain job satisfaction.”

To lead such a successful development as DHFC, takes passion and Shamma, while modest, is not short of passion and keeps his eye firmly on the goal, as he explained the magnitude of the development in his care.

“In addition to the mall, there is a significant indoor-outdoor entertainment component to the project, and when finished, it will be Doha’s biggest mall with a total gross leasable area (GLA) of some 250,000m², comprising around 550 retail outlets across all categories.

“It will also feature a 19-screen cinema and an integrated hotel and conference centre,” he added.

“A Festival City project is tailored to its location,” he explained and by example, cited Dubai’s Festival City: “Dubai’s development is on the Dubai creek, so its lent itself to a longer, more linear, development, with a golf club at one end, and there are residential and education components which follow the geographic environment,” he explained and added, “Location is one of the most important aspects of a project.”

Part of the Festival City model is to follow the geographic environment but also to tailor its offering to suit the market requirements of its location.

While in no measure are Festival City developments based on a template, Shamma explained that there are a number of standard features that comprise a Festival City: “IKEA seems to be a common component and so too, usually a hospitality facility, such as a five star hotel, serviced apartments or an entertainment component, that form the basic offering of the development,” he said.

Thereafter distinctive features set it apart from any other mall.

“One of the unique selling points for DHFC is the level of entertainment. In terms of the current landscape in Qatar, we are providing something that is really quite unique to the city. The sheer size is new to Doha and several new components have not been seen before in the country – for example snow,” he added with a grin.

He explained that the entertainment focus leans towards active entertainment, rather than just the standard rides and slot machines: “The entertainment area is designed in such a way as to encourage people to be more physical and to support this, there are some high-adrenaline rides. So too, there will be a mountain bike trail around the project, with proprietary obstacles, wadis etc, with the accent on physical activity. Nowhere else will you find this,” he asserted.

The project has been and will be rolled out in three phases: phase 1, IKEA, was completed on time and to budget in March 2013; phase 2, the mall, is due for completion in 2016 and phase 3, the hotel and conference centre will follow thereafter.

An advocate of an open-door, collaborative management style, Shamma is also “very hands-on. I like to get involved, to the extent that if I can offer some of my experience I will; but definitely not micro-management,” he stressed and added, “I like to know what’s going on.” He encourages “easy-going dialogue, with few formalities required; where people are relaxed, responsive and communicative”.

This type of collaboration is working, as the project is running to schedule. Due for completion Q3 2016, the project is well on target according to Shamma.

He attributes this partially to having a dedicated contractor on board for the mall, formed by a joint venture between GCC (a long established and highly respected Qatari construction company) and UAE-based Alec, and to a project team that enjoys “good synergy and who have bought fully into the project. And,” he added, “priced to succeed as opposed to priced to fail”.

With a number of retail anchor leasing agreements in place, with IKEA as the first tenant, he described a number of other retailers on the books, including leases also finalised with Monoprix hypermarket, VOX cinemas, and more to come.

Working in such a dynamic atmosphere as Qatar, where no-one can ignore the construction that engulfs the city, and the region, Shamma considers that the present building environment is healthy and believes that this is not even the start of the wave that will hit the country: “I believe there is still great potential in the market, we haven’t seen the volume of work that is being talked about; I think it’ll really hit from 2015 onwards.”

While the work coming down the line will obviously focus around the 2022 World Cup, he noted that the 2030 National vision is the main beacon on the horizon for the construction sector: “I think that the country has the wherewithal, the acumen and the planning abilities and the funding to make it happen,” he said with confidence.

And DHFC is part of that vision as, in his words, “it has and will further encourage not only local but foreign direct investment, as the market will see that they can develop in Qatar, they can secure private sector financing, and do very well in Doha,” he enthused.

With a project of this size, “the normal challenges exist, including anticipating the time required for various essential approval process, as well as the logistics challenge of ensuring the welfare of up to 10,000 workers on a daily basis,” Shamma added.

Health and safety of the labour force is top-of-mind, with project managers MACE giving prime importance to this aspect of the project. “We are lucky we have a proactive project manager, Mace. They’ve initiated a number of effective HSE initiatives and schemes.”

Shamma made it clear that as the client, Basrec is also hands-on with regards to Health & Safety, “Although the contractors are primarily responsible for the workers’ welfare, we as a client, take a very active role in the wellbeing of the workforce, making sure that their welfare is front-of-mind.

Our project managers go and visit the labour camps, carry out inspections, and the contractor reports regularly on the welfare of the labour force. We go to extreme lengths to make sure that they are looked after, because a happy workforce is a productive workforce,” Shamma commented.

That the project has run so smoothly is attributable to good development and project management, and undeniably, management from the top.

“Project mangers’ skills are best utilised in areas in which they have most experience. The worst mistake is to bring someone with no experience in that field and then put them in charge of it. These people know what’s coming and they’ve seen the problems before; it’s essentially lessons learnt.”

“Effective project management is about advance planning and getting in the right people who can anticipate the roadblocks before they happen,” he elaborated.

“Good project managers dip into their pool of experience from lessons learned and anticipate what is going to be the problem and deal with it from an early stage. Then the project will not run into delays or extra costs as these can be mitigated in good time.”

While not directly involved in staff recruitment, he does get involved in interviewing for the wider projects, for key consultants or other key positions. “Dedication to the job at hand is priority and continuing good performance are key characteristics,” he stressed.

The construction industry is not for the faint-hearted and Shamma is emphatic that anything less is not tolerated.

“People must fulfil their role to the project’s satisfaction because the project cannot afford to carry anyone. As a result, people get to know very quickly what is expected of them. Qualities that I look for in employees have a certain intangible, elusive quality, a spark; that shows they are bright and they are dedicated.” This, combined with “enthusiasm and passion” he added.

It seems that this policy works as there have been minimal, if any, holdups to date related to materials supply: “So far in this project we have been very fortunate and we haven’t had those challenges — and if we have, we have anticipated them and procured in advance.” An indication that this a successful policy is that IKEA opened within one to two months of the stated delivery date.

“I think that’s a testament to the quality of the team, working harmoniously, whether it be the development manager, the PM, planners, architects or engineers. There is a great understanding and dialogue between them and all being located in the same offices on site creates good communication between them, which has contributed to the overall success of the project.”

The greatest differentiator of DHFC is its size and diversity, he said and added: “What follows on from that is that it’s an holistic project and destination. Pretty much anything that you want to do in your daily routine, you could do at DHFC, from entertainment to shopping, banking, post office facilities, supermarket, movies, exercising, dining all under one roof.”

With a development of such magnitude happening in the area, Shamma commented that the neighbourhood “is delighted that the project is in the area and they are keen for us to open and looking forward to us trading’” he said.

“We are making a conscious effort to bring an improved retail and leisure offering to Doha, compared to the current offerings. Diversity and size aside, we are talking about quality in design, finishes, management and maintenance of the facilities beyond construction.

“As an example, we have dedicated ingress and egress road systems that take the traffic off the main highway via a dedicated ramp, straight into the car parks, preventing bottlenecks on smaller roads and intersections.

“There is a separate in-flow system and simultaneously, there is a completely separate exit network of roads that takes people out and directs them via a dedicated ramp and back onto the highway, with no need to encounter conflicting traffic.”

A project of this size, running with this amount of efficacy is something that doesn’t happen often in the construction frenzy, but Doha Festival City is indeed a legacy of which the owners — and Shamma — can be proud.

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