Face to Face:Sultan Batterjee Lifestyle Developers

Sultan Batterjee, founder of Lifestyle Developers and CEO of IHCC, tells why his real estate company has become a hotspot for inspired homeowners and aspiring careerists in Saudi Arabia

INTERVIEWS, Projects

Though he receives them regularly, Sultan Batterjee is not a seeker of accolades. Last year, he came first place in the field of real estate and construction at ‘Leaders Inspiring a Kingdom: Saudi Arabia’s Entrepreneurial Elite 2014 by Forbes Middle East’.

Batterjee has certainly achieved a great deal since he took charge of IHCC less than a decade ago, but the Saudi Arabian national has found his stride and purpose through his most recent venture, Lifestyle Developers.

“I am a developer with a cause to help build a sustainable future for my generation and future ones to come, through the businesses that I run in the Kingdom and the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region,” Batterjee explains as we sit down at his head office in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

What strikes me most during my conversation with Batterjee is that he knows about his projects, chapter and verse. He is creator, innovator, designer, architect, engineer, contractor, and developer, all in one.

But for all the advantages offered by the multiple personalities he exhibits, Batterjee’s motivation was born out of wealth; not his personal riches, but those which he claims are at everybody’s disposal.

“My background is in design, construction, and investment banking,” he says. “What’s better than to design, build, and invest in our human capital – the richest resource we have?”

Up to 70% of Saudi Arabians and 50% of MENA residents fall within the 18-30 age bracket. Batterjee describes his target group as a “mega resource” of highly-educated, middle-income professionals without a home they can relate to. Residences, he explains, are either too expensive, too large, or too bland.

“Look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” Batterjee continues. “Topping the list are food and shelter. Shelter means having a roof over one’s head, but also a sense of belonging. Providing that is my calling.”

Seeing the big picture is one thing, but then comes the task of strategising around it. Batterjee knew from the outset that developments capable of making a strong statement were lacking in the market, and thus, Lifestyle Developers was born. Narrowing down his client base, he immediately discarded the idea of building low-income housing. “Everything looks the same and it’s a game of cost reduction, which is not for me”, he explains.

“There’s probably something to be done [within the low-income segment], but I cannot compete with the government or match its pricing – I will be exhausted,” Batterjee continues. “I am a person who likes to pursue something that makes me want to get up in the morning,” he adds, noting that his projects must inspire and instil passion.

From this point, Batterjee considered catering to high net-worth individuals, and realised there were plenty of companies building for those categories.

“[I decided] to focus on middle-income, aspiring professionals looking to grow and move upward,” Batterjee recalls. He found that this group comprised a mixture of younger and older generations, 65% of whom didn’t own a home, renting on average for five to 10 years. These people, he explains, were the professionals who perhaps contributed most to the economy: bankers, engineers, doctors, pilots – all of whom wanted to eat and dress well, travel, and drive good cars.

Batterjee says that if these professionals work in respectable environments, they need to live in inspiring places. “Or else, they might go to other countries where good living standards are afforded to them, which is sadly what happens,” he continues. “These are people that governments and families have spent money on, and we need to retain them.”

But Saudi nationals weren’t Batterjee’s only target: his vision was for the MENA region, where millions are calling for living standards that match their level of education and professionalism.

“We believe in grasping opportunities,” he says. “We are selective on where we work and deciding on the type of projects we do, but different locations can offer different opportunities. We are catering to the Saudi market, but we can and will do it elsewhere, like in Egypt where out of a population of 100 million, 50% are between the ages of 18 and 30. [They] need that kind of inspiring lifestyle.”

Lifestyle Developers, therefore, sells its projects to anyone looking for this growth cycle. “We sold to Lebanese, South Sudanese, and Saudi nationals,” Batterjee explains.

“We believe that passports don’t mean anything when professionals are living in and giving to the community. [These people] deserve to benefit, and be a part of it.”

Before commencing its first project, Lifestyle Developers implemented four core values within its business setup: inspiring designs; quality, especially at the detail level; affordability, or value for money; and a sense of community where facilities management and amenities can positively impact the street or neighbourhood in question.

“We launched with a test project to gauge reactions, and sure enough, many criticised me when I first did this. They said I was crazy. They said no way no-one was going to buy it from me,” recounts Batterjee, who adds that Lifestyle Developers’ detractors said the firm was paying too much attention to detail. Their argument was that people who prefer to buy cheap would continue to buy cheap, and those who prefer to buy pricey would continue to buy pricey. As it turned out, the detractors were wrong.

The upscale, affordable units of 568 Al-Zahra Residences sold within three weeks after Lifestyle Developers launched the project in April 2014. This development is a nine-unit, six-storey structure in Jeddah, spanning a total built-up area of 3,125 sqm. The project offers three-bedroom apartments between 212 sqm and 230 sqm, and one five-bedroom, 460-sqm penthouse with an expansive rooftop terrace.

“We redefined privacy with wooden, movable louvres covering the entire building, which respected Saudi Arabian culture, but in a modern manner,” Batterjee explains. “When we raise the standards of living, we mean for the buyer but also for the developer who is forced to raise his to compete.”

Whilst traditional developers are building classical places with large areas, Lifestyle Developers decided to provide several space options with amenities and facilities. Units come with fitted Italian kitchens, white appliances, and semi-central air-conditioning systems.

“The buyer cannot feel he is part of a 100-unit housing project ruled by chaos, noisy neighbours, and with little privacy,” Batterjee continues. “We don’t want the middle-income individual to [have to] become a designer or head of merchandising. I want to save him time; to allow him to concentrate on strengthening his role in the community.”

“We are the Zara of real estate development,” Batterjee proclaims, referencing the high-end and globally-renowned Spanish fashion brand.

Al-Nahda Residences, which succeeded 568 Al Zahra, is a 50-unit residential development spanning two towers, connected by a grand lobby. The development’s total built up is 16,150 sqm. The six-storey building comprises two- and three-bedroom units, ranging from 88 sqm to 328 sqm.

Meanwhile, Lifestyle Developers’ third project is its most ambitious. Diyar Al Salam, set in Jeddah’s Al Salam District, is designed as an urban oasis, with a total built-up area of over 34,600 sqm. The development will be fitted with lavish amenities, such as health clubs and fitness centres, a multi-purpose events room, a library, a nursery, and a 1,866-sqm elevated sky garden. The project also offers eight double-floor penthouses, the last such license issued by Jeddah Municipality.

“People kept describing the outdoor scenery as ugly, so we created an internal park for the 140 apartments, dedicating a space in the building’s core so that every apartment was able to see green,” Batterjee says. “We wanted to create homes of peace. We chose the dove as a prevailing element and plenty of greenery in all eight buildings.”

Diyar Al Salam offers 99 fully private residential apartments with three- to five-bedroom units ranging from 165 sqm to 511 sqm. Each storey boasts key-controlled access, floor-to-ceiling windows, central AC, imported stone counters, marble flooring, and designer fixtures.

Overall, prices of Lifestyle Developers’ apartments range from $146,656 (SAR550,000) to $799,946 (SAR3m). “The latter is our maximum price, and not many units like those exist; maybe four or five,” Batterjee points out. “They are for those ready to make the leap as their career progresses.”

A staggering 65% of Lifestyle Developers’ potential buyers don’t yet own property.

“If you ask them why not, some will say they don’t have the money. [Others] say they have not yet found their proper home and will continue renting until they build their dream house,” Batterjee continues. His advice to these people is not to wait, but to buy a transitional home and live in it for the same amount of money that they would pay in rent.

“When you’re ready, sell or rent it and create an income. The alternative is to rent, but then you go out not having owned anything, and you have to buy and remodel from scratch,” he adds.

According to Batterjee, the perception that villas are somehow superior to apartments is a spurious one. “We are a villa culture,” he explains. “People ask: ‘You bought an apartment?’ and my response is: ‘Come and look at my apartment’.”

Lifestyle Developers, meanwhile, has taken a leap of faith of its own, with its first foray into Saudi Arabia’s commercial development market. The company values its project pipeline for the next two years within the range of $133.3m (SAR500m) and $160m (SAR600m). But can Batterjee’s firm deliver luxury at competitive prices – only 5% above the market average?

“Affordability is our secret sauce,” Batterjee responds. “Some developers are overpricing, whilst others go for ‘hit and runs’. I am here for the long term, and we are going to raise the standards for the buyers and push developers to build in the right way.

Concluding with a smile, the Lifestyle Developers chief quips: “Even if someone copy-pastes our projects, at the end of the day, we all benefit. The community will have a better product that was inspired by us.”

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