fmME Interview: Saeed Ahmed, Interserve MENA

Interserve MENA’s FM director, Saeed Ahmed, is confident about the company’s long-term prospects amid changing regional market trends

Man with a plan: Ahmed says Interserve’s future plans include a wider presence in the MENA region.
Man with a plan: Ahmed says Interserve’s future plans include a wider presence in the MENA region.

FM should be invisible if it’s done well, Saeed Ahmed, Interserve’s FM director for the MENA region declares. “You hear about FM when things go wrong – maybe the chiller’s gone down and in it’s too hot in the office, or there’s a big stain on the carpet. That’s what we don’t want. We want to deliver an exceptional level of customer service where there are no complaints and we’re invisible,” he says.

Ahmed and his team appear to have steadfastly worked along those principles in the nine years since Interserve first established its roots in the GCC’s FM sector. The company established an FM business with the UAE’s Khansaheb Group in 2008, which was followed by the creation of a Qatari FM service portfolio in 2010 through the MEP division of How United Services, a joint venture set up in 2000 by Al Darwish United and Interserve plc.

“The UAE and Qatar businesses were [well] established when I joined in 2014 – relatively small but successful, boasted some nice contracts, and were returning a reasonable profit,” Ahmed tells fmME in a conversation at the firm’s Dubai offices.

“I was brought in by the Interserve team because they really wanted to attack the Middle East FM markets, and their ambitions were much wider than just Qatar and the UAE. They wanted to look at a GCC- or MENA-wide FM offering, but on a self-delivery basis. That was the intention.

“So the first thing we did was set up an FM business in Saudi Arabia, which happened after going through a lengthy process of finding the right partner. We chose a company called Rezayat Group as our partner. They’re an extremely well-established and well-known family in Saudi Arabia.

“They had a little bit of what they would probably classify as O&M work – not full FM services just yet – but were keen to get into the FM market and were looking for an international partner. We felt they were a good fit for us from a values point of view, and we knew they would be a very good partner for us. We set up that business towards the end of 2014. We also launched Interserve Oman in 2016.”

The establishment of the Saudi and Oman businesses – the latter with Omani conglomerate OHI, with which Interserve plc established Douglas OHI in 1981 – lends context to the company’s year-on-year (YoY) regional growth of 76% in 2015, with its projection for the same between 2015 and 2017 estimated at 276%.

Indeed, 2017 already looks like a busy year for Interserve MENA, which is delivering its services to properties such as SAP’s new headquarters and Aldar’s Alghadeer community in the UAE and the Ooredoo Estate in Qatar, among others.

For starters, the company’s Qatar business is set to be established as a separate entity – branded as Darwish Interserve – reporting directly to Ahmed, in order “to better attack and grow [the company’s] market share” in the country, where How United Services is already recognised for its MEP services.

Close to 90% of Interserve MENA’s 2017 revenue pipeline has already been secured – a development that Ahmed says will result in stiffer targets for his team in the months to come – and this year’s monetary growth could also be higher than 2016’s.

Ahmed says it is likely that a majority of this expected growth will be fuelled by Interserve’s business in the kingdom, which could also overtake the UAE as the company’s largest market this year.

“Saudi is an extremely interesting market with a huge growth profile and lots of opportunities and potential, but it is also a very difficult place to do business in,” he continues.

“Challenges revolve around cash collection, requirements for Saudisation, and changes of law. In the three years we’ve been there, we’ve seen hikes in visa costs and changes in requirements for Saudisation. Income tax might be implemented for expats, it was previously reported. So there are some challenges of doing business in Saudi Arabia but once you’re in, I believe its opportunities will dwarf the rest of the Middle East.”

Ahmed’s confidence in Saudi’s potential as an FM hotspot is multi-faceted: the limited reach of FM in the kingdom, combined with the ambitions of its already-sizeable property market means that for Interserve FM’s MENA head, now is the right time to be a globally experienced service provider in the country.

He adds: “Our business in Saudi Arabia could be larger than it is in the UAE, because the latter is clearly far more saturated than the kingdom.

“There’s a lot more competition for work in the UAE and FM is much more established here, but we’re finding growth quicker in Saudi than in the Emirates and I expect that to continue.

“If you look at the volume of projects in Saudi in comparison to the UAE, I believe the kingdom could become a larger market across the regional sector. The UAE has understood the value of FM for a lot longer than Saudi, but look at the quality of what Saudi’s building – for example, the Kingdom City in Jeddah and King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh.

“Developers in the kingdom have realised that to protect their investment, they need to maintain their facility properly and now, they’re really [acknowledging] the value of good FM. They see that [instead of] spending a fortune on building the development and then another on updating and refurbishing it, FM can contribute to prolonging the facility’s life cycle.”

Ahmed credits the efforts of the Middle East Facility Management Association (MEFMA) and the inaugural FM Expo Saudi 2017 – hosted last month – with raising the profile of FM services in the country. This is in addition to the early adopters that have already latched on to the burgeoning market’s earliest opportunities.

“If you look at the companies that have entered Saudi FM then you’ll find many international names, and that’s because they [see] market potential.

“We’re seeing huge projects in Saudi and their scale, combined with the lack of expert FM competition and capabilities means that – while it won’t be easy – there are certainly increased opportunities for us to grow quicker there.

“Once you’re in the market and settled in, and understand its challenges, [operations] are very fruitful. It’s a nascent market, but it’s going to explode at some point and I think it’s ripe to do that very soon.”

An added impetus to Interserve’s expansion plan for Saudi Arabia – and indeed, the wider Middle East market – is the level of FM maturity in the UAE.

As Ahmed explains, the high level of FM services delivered in the country make differentiation a tricky job in the local sector: “Tender with large developers in the UAE and you have 20 outfits, all of a reasonable standard, bidding for it. It’s much harder to differentiate yourself in the UAE market than it potentially is in the Saudi Arabian sector.”

A quick scroll through the websites of FM outfits in the country sufficiently express Ahmed’s point; most renowned FM companies in the UAE advertise – and indeed, deliver – a similar range of services across the hard and soft sectors.

An amused Ahmed agrees that differentiation in the busy UAE market is about more than website copy, adding: “We need to try to get to the root of this. A lot of these companies here are joint ventures of international companies with local partners, even while some of the larger providers are actually local companies. The other thing to bear in mind is that we’re all actually recruiting our staff from the same places globally. [In that regard], companies are really doing the same thing.

“For me, our service differentiation is based on four key pillars. Firstly, it’s about innovation from the perspective of bringing something to the market that hasn’t been done before, or wasn’t delivered properly before and driving it in a better way.

“Secondly, getting feedback from end-users – not the necessarily the client paying for your service but the residents and tenants that use your FM service on a day-to-day basis – is also important.

“Thirdly, it’s about having the best-in-class resources – well-trained people that know their job and are empowered to do things on behalf of their customers. That has been quite a difficult concept in the Middle East, because a lot of our operative employees come from [work cultures] where that isn’t followed. I want them to understand a situation and do what’s best for the customer; it’s about wowing your customers and for that, the staff must be well-trained, understand customer needs, and know how to deliver those requirements.

“The final factor for me is operational excellence – it’s about doing well what we do on a day-to-day basis, without any hiccups, and capturing that. One of the things we don’t do well as an industry is capture all the good things that happen every day, and we have some fantastic people out there delivering their services and you know, just giving them that ‘thank you’ and saying ‘well done’ for doing a good job can make a difference. I think if we get those four factors right, then we’ll be able to differentiate ourselves in the market.”

With his sights firmly set on the future, Ahmed concludes: “The Middle East has a long way to go in the customer service industry, and I want us to be at the forefront of that and revolutionise the sector.”

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