The Big Interview: MD of Al-Futtaim Engineering

Murali Serpakkam, managing director of Al-Futtaim Engineering, reveals how his company’s values are what sets it apart from others

INTERVIEWS, MEP

Murali Serpakkam, managing director of Al-Futtaim Engineering, is quite proud of his company and its achievements so far. Being in the MEP sector for such a long time – more than two decades – will afford an individual confidence and pride, Serpakkam implies.

He elaborates: “Al-Futtaim Group’s values are respect, integrity, collaboration, and excellence. These are in the DNA of the company. These values act as a compass that drives us. The operative word for us is selectivity. We want to work with good customers on quality projects. The key thing in this business is repeat business. Our belief is that we should add value to our customer, and if the customer is successful, then we are successful.”

Serpakkam goes on to say that there are two differentiators that set Al-Futtaim Engineering apart from its competitors. He says: “The two key things are our engineering excellence and delivery capabilities. When we bid for a job, we see if it can be done any better. Are there any optimal solutions that haven’t been discovered? Is there value engineering possible? A developer builds an asset for the next 25-30 years, so what can we do to improve the asset longevity? What can we do to reduce the operating cost?

Typically, if we look at electrical loads, distribution, water supply, drainage network, air-conditioning solutions, capacities, distribution, etc., we check if there is any way in which we can re-use some of the by-products that come out as wastes.”

“The other key differentiator,” Serpakkam states, “is our delivery capabilities. When you go and engage with an employer, the engagement is long term, and as I said earlier, in the client’s success, lies our success. So if you don’t deliver, or if you haven’t carried out your contractual obligation, then you haven’t done your bit. We’ve got a very strong focus on delivery.”

Training day

In order to stay abreast and continue to have the delivery capability and engineering excellence, training people, sharpening their capabilities, and acquiring new talent are important., insists Serpakkam.

He says: “We have a dedicated learning and development (L&D) manager. We perform an L&D needs analysis. We check who we need to train, and what is it that we need to do. It starts with leadership skills at the top, and operatives training at the ground level.

We have got a competency grid matrix where the operatives are rated; you could be an electrician or a helper. We set aspirations and tell people that in order to reach the next level, these are the skills that you need to develop. There are opportunities for them to learn that skill on the job itself, under a supervisor-engineer training activity.

On the successful completion of that activity, they are then independently tested. And once they have learned, there is an ongoing continuous financial reward, which motivates them to learn. We as an organisation have to provide that opportunity, and in doing so, it helps in retention; it helps in better delivery to the customer.”

Project list

When it comes to projects, Al-Futtaim Engineering has been catering to the following sectors: retail, hospitality, residential, rail, district cooling plants, etc. “This year we have a project for Meraas – Marza Al Seef development and a project for Holiday Inn in DFC, both of these are hospitality projects. We are doing offices for Bee'ah head quarters in Sharjah, and fitout works for two office towers for Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank in Abu Dhabi. We are working on Serenia Residences on the Palm for Palma. There is another residential project that we are executing in the Palm,” says Serpakkam.

Serpakkam gives a region-wide breakdown of projects: “In Qatar, it’s the Vendome Mall, which is a large mall development in Lusail. We’re also working on the completion of the Mandarin Hotel for Msheireb. We are also about to start two more projects in hospitality. One is Intercon and other one is Bin Omran, which is a furnished apartment projects.

“In Saudi, we are continuing with the Jabal Omar Phase 4, which is a hotel as well as a retail facility. So seven hotel towers in a podium with retail facility and a car park. There are about 2,000 hotel rooms. That project is slated for completion early next year.”

Serpakkam proudly says that the pipeline is quite healthy. “All our resources are well engaged and gainfully deployed,” he remarks.

Looking back at 2016, Murali says that it was a good year for Al-Futtaim Engineering. “One of our successful projects from last year, in the UAE, was the City Walk Mall, which opened its doors sometime in February-March last year. We completed the Dubai Festival City Mall expansion and that mall is getting great attention. We also completed the Doha Festival City Mall; the soft opening was this year on April 5, 2017. That was quite a challenging project. Another project that we completed was a 17,500 tonne district cooling plant there. In Riyadh, we finished the Ascot Furnished Apartment in Riyadh. All these projects, were well executed which led to satisfactory outcome for everyone involved,” says Serpakkam.

The underserved MEP sector

Talking about the challenges in the MEP sector, Serpakkam remarks almost with a zen-like attitude: “There will be challenges and there will be problems. And some of it will go, some of it will remain.

“However, I still feel in the markets that we operate – UAE, Qatar, and KSA – I think it is underserved; when someone is looking for a quality, or for a reliable MEP contractor, I think the market is underserved. There is still headroom for growth for companies like us and for discerning customers to whom delivery and quality are important. I think there is still a need there that’s not fully met.”

He continues: “So in the large projects, one of the problems we face is alignment. It starts with the employer, his own team, engineers, consultants, managers, main contractor, etc. There is a lack of alignment among them. The larger goal is clearly there. But getting that alignment is a challenge. Not because of the people involved, but because the sheer number of players involved makes it complex.

In addition, there could be ongoing engineering issues where something is not meeting the local authority requirements. That’s another challenge that we face.”

Serpakkam says that the challenges are not specific to any region in the GCC: “To me, it doesn’t matter what region we are in. Each region has got its own dynamics and its own ways of working. The problems are there. But it is how you manage them.

“Before we take on work, we see whether we have the capability to deliver, and whether we can actually deliver the job within the time, quality, and price that they want; looking at the funding lines, looking at the design. Those are the key points.”

Serpakkam concludes on a positive note: “Financially, Al-Futtaim Engineering is a strong company. We have our projects, where we have faced hiccups and challenges. But our solidity helps us to overcome them and get our dues.”

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