Big interview: Habtoor Leighton Specon

Construction stalwart and CEO and managing director of Habtoor Leighton Specon, Thrasos Thrasyvoulou, speaks about the latest phase of development for the MEP contractor.


CEO and managing director of Habtoor Leighton Specon (HLS), Thrasos Thrasyvoulou, needs no introduction in construction circles having spent 37 years working in the Middle East. The company is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and Thrasyvoulou has his sights set firmly on further growing and diversifying the business.

Last financial year the company pulled in revenues of AED400m ($108.9m). Come the end of this year, Thrasyvoulou expects to double this figure based on current work in hand of AED1.4bn ($381m). Work in hand including joint ventures, meanwhile, stands at AED2.7bn ($735m) and he expects a slew of new contracts awards worth AED1bn ($272m) by the end of the year, some of which have already materialised and will be announced soon, he points out.
HLS has four major ongoing MEP projects in the UAE which are keeping it more than busy, Thrasyvoulou says. Louvre Abu Dhabi and Mafraq Hospital in Abu Dhabi, and Jewel of the Creek and Al Habtoor City in Dubai.

At Mafraq Hospital, the project is back on track after redesigns and a change of ownership from SEHA (Abu Dhabi Health Services Co) to Musanada (Abu Dhabi General Services Company).

“We are now at our peak with approximately 2,000 people there,” Thrasyvoulou says. “We are right on schedule with a new programme and should be ready to start demobilisation middle of next year.”

At the Louvre Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island, HLS is teamed up with Drake & Scull Engineering (DSE) and has around 1,600 staff and labour on the project. The scheme includes micro-climate HVAC (under floor, water wall, provision for geo-thermal systems), seawater cooling systems, high pressure dome cleaning system, electrical and mechanical system resilience, seismic engineering, and precise close control of environment conditions, particularly in the exhibition areas. Despite the works being prolonged to March/April next year due to a number of changes, Thrasyvoulou says MEP should be substantially completed by the end of December 2015.

Meanwhile, at Al Habtoor City on Sheikh Zayed Road, HLS is working under the Habtoor Leighton Group (HLG) on what will become one of the largest integrated hotel complexes in the Middle East. The scheme comprises the construction of three signature hotels: Fashion Hotel - W (27 levels), Luxury Hotel - St. Regis (6 levels) and the main hotel - Westin (37 levels), and around 2,500 people from the joint venture (HLS/DSE) are there.

“The project is very challenging because we had to embark on the job at a certain late time,” Thrasyvoulou says. “If you see the hotels, the St Regis is completed – the air conditioning is running and the operator Starwood is in. And now we are on the W and the Westin, with the challenge to have the project substantially complete by the end of the year.”

Last year HLS was awarded package eight of the Jewel of the Creek development, working under HLG. The project is a mixed-used scheme bounded by Al Maktoum Bridge, Baniyas Road, the Floating Bridge and Dubai Creek. Package eight consists of five hospitality buildings ranging between 15 and 19 floors, and Thrasyvoulou says the project is on track to complete in 2017.

“For me the UAE is my second home. I’ve been here for longer than my home country of Cyprus,” he adds. “For a company like HLS, committed to the UAE and the wider region and having so many people depending on it, we have to look forward to the future and move hand in hand with the region’s development.”

HLS is also in Saudia Arabia working on a major hospital project in Riyadh (KFMC) and in Doha completing three hotels in the city centre and is in final negotiations for a sizeable project that involves MEP infrastructure works. In addition, it is currently assisting its major shareholder HLG with projects in Oman.

Some of the future opportunities he refers to also include moving into new geographies outside of the GCC such as North Africa and the Levant region for solar projects.

“We have some relations with contractors there. It’s on the agenda for 2016,” Thrasyvoulou says. “What might take place quicker however is a move in Pakistan. We have some collaborators there on specialised jobs related to energy. We signed an agreement already but the project is under negotiation.”

Thrasyvoulou has done business all over the Middle East but he says some countries are currently too unstable politically to consider entering in at this point in time.

“I’m not a political person, I’m just evaluating the situations on the perspective of the humanity of doing business,” he says.

Meanwhile, he is keen to explore other sectors like oil and gas given that HLS already has a license for such work in Abu Dhabi.

“We are going to explore it with the relevant authorities,” Thrasyvoulou says. “In the field of works our license and qualification allows us to execute, competition is limited and margins are better.”

In the near future there is every possibility of HLS diversifying its business into facilities management. It is currently in the early talks with a known player in the UAE, although Thrasyvoulou remains tipped-lipped on
its identity. They approached us,” he says. “The tricky thing in FM is to tackle the engineering aspect. To re-engineer and renovate the systems to save on energy consumption. An MEP contractor is an ideal partner,” he adds. “We don’t do it most of the times because we’re very busy with construction but you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket. We’re looking to kick that venture off by the end of the year.”

Thrasyvoulou, in fact, has plenty of experience in FM through one of his Greek companies which has carried out numerous energy audits and maintenance of MEP building facilities.

“We carried out a lot of projects where the capital investment of our clients was paid off in no time out of the monthly savings on their energy bill,” he says.

He is an avid believer in the “model of an integrated approach” on mega projects, whereby the main contractor and the MEP contractor work together as partners from the tender stage through to handing over.

“The integration helps the group to be more competitive. When we embark on a job, we need QAQC, we need HSE officers, we need administration and backup facilities. When you integrate these functions and site facilities you avoid duplication with the main contractor,” he says ‘’and hence you are more efficient and competitive. I think this is the way forward for sizeable and complex jobs.”

Elsewhere, HLS is making moves into the rail and metro sector and high voltage substation works. It has prequalified along with Spanish firm Cobra on the Riyadh Metro and it is also bidding for the Doha Metro projects with Al Jaber Engineering (of Qatar). In addition, HLS, together with Cobra again, is pre-qualified for 132kv substation works for Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) and is in final negotiations with the same body for a substation contract.
“This year we will approach AED1bn ($272m) in turnover. Yes, there are less sizeable projects around but we are about to get some awards where we will at least repeat the 2015 turnover in 2016, so I’m not worried about next year,” Thrasyvoulou says. “We are planning for the next three years and in that time there will be more projects coming from Qatar and Dubai for the World Cup in 2022 and the Expo in 2020 respectively.”

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