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Face to face: Bishoy Edward, Dhabi Contracting

Bishoy Edward, COO of Dhabi Contracting, talks about his shift to the world of construction after earning a degree in pharmacy, and reveals how he’s made sure that he can hold his own in the industry, despite not being an engineer

INTERVIEWS, Projects, Bishoy Edward, COO of Dhabi Contracting

Bishoy Edward doesn’t have the kind of background that one typically finds among executives filling the top ranks in construction companies. As Dhabi Contracting’s chief operating officer (COO) has no qualms admitting, he – unlike most of his peers in the industry – does not hold a bachelor’s degree in an engineering-related discipline.

“My background is in pharmacy; I’m a pharmacist,” says Edward, telling Construction Week that he didn’t really get a chance to practice his first chosen profession, having spent only “a couple of months” in the pharmaceutical sector before making the switch to construction.

“My main aim at the time was to establish a chain of pharmacies under my name,” he recalls. “That was my target, but then I made a major change in my career. I joined Dhabi Contracting as an operating officer and was promoted to the COO position after a couple of years.”

The change in career, he explains, was partly brought about by a sense of obligation he felt towards the business and the industry. His father, Samy Edward, is the chief executive officer of Dhabi Contracting, and has been with the 35-year-old firm for 25 years.

While he might have felt “obliged” at first to make the shift, Edward notes that the move eventually proved to be a win-win for both him and the company, going by the success that he has achieved with Dhabi and the growth that it has seen, with him as its COO.

Founded in 1983, Dhabi Contracting started with only about 100 employees, which grew to about 2,000-3,000 in 2008. “Today, we have approximately 8,000 employees,” he says.

Edward notes that the rise in the number of employees reflects more than the growth in the contractor’s market size. The company currently has $1.6bn-worth (AED6bn) of active projects in the UAE and counts the emergency response centre of the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) and the Umm Al Emarat Park in Abu Dhabi among its completed projects. The larger workforce also reflects the increase in the number of Dhabi subsidiaries, from “just two or three” when Edward first joined, to more than 25.

Dhabi’s under-construction projects include an $820m (AED3bn), 663-villa development in Ruwais, which the contractor is building for Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), and the $540m (AED2bn) Al Khail Avenue Mall, a retail and entertainment property that Nakheel is developing in Dubai.

Meanwhile, the contractor’s subsidiary companies include Al Dhabi Al Motaqadima Safety Consultants, a fire safety engineering and management firm licensed by the UAE Ministry of Interior, and Al Dhabi Security Services. In addition to growing its number of subsidiaries, the company has expanded into property development.

“We have this vision for 2020, similar to Abu Dhabi’s Vision 2020, and as part of that we have decided to develop our own projects,” he says. “We have purchased plots of land in Al Raha and Saadiyat for commercial and residential projects.

“We are also trying to implement a seven-star hotel in Ruwais. We have the land, and the design, which is by Aecom, has been approved. The project is now being reviewed by the [Abu Dhabi] Urban Planning Council.”

Outside the UAE, Dhabi owns a 32-storey hotel in the capital of Georgia. According to Edward, Biltmore Hotel Tbilisi is the tallest building in the city and hosts an office of the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MoFAIC).

“[Biltmore Hotel Tbilisi] is an accomplishment that Dhabi Contracting is pleased to have, [and one] that makes us stand out from the other players in the market,” he says.

Anyone thinking that Edward’s success in the industry might have come easily to him would have to think again. Every achievement to his name, he has earned – and not without effort, he emphasises, adding that while he might not have the requisite engineering degree, he has spent years furthering his studies.

As well as having an Executive Masters in Business Administration (EMBA), he has a Diploma in Project Management and a Master of Science in Engineering Management, both from Middlesex University London.

And he’s not done yet. “I’m now doing my PhD (Doctor of Philosophy), also in engineering,” he reveals, noting that juggling work and school is hard, and not only because he has to regularly travel to the UK to meet with his professor. But he says that he’s used to having a lot on his plate, and that he even avoids taking off days from work, preferring to spend weekends at his office.

“I use Saturdays to be in the office, because governmental entities and most consultants don’t have work then,” he explains. “Everyone’s off on Saturdays, so I use that time to finish my paperwork and sign whatever it is that needs to be signed. The other days, I can be found on my project sites.”

He continues: “And I rarely wear suits; 99% of the time, I’m in jeans, a T-shirt, and my Timberland safety shoes. I’m always on site because the money’s on site. Where are the projects? In the office? No. Where are the labourers? They’re on site.”

Likening himself to a bumblebee because of how he moves from one site to another, he adds: “I have around 10 to 12 different project sites all over the UAE, and I never keep the same schedule for my visits, so nobody knows what time I’ll be coming.”

This is a strategy he says he follows to ensure that he gets a clear handle on how projects are progressing and see if best practices are being applied by the workers and staff on site.

“This is how I handle my projects. I like to be involved in everything, and I [stick] my nose in everywhere,” he says, revealing that he even plays a role in the company’s hiring activities. “I’m basically the HR [human resources] manager. Excluding the labourers, nobody gets formally appointed without my approval – not the chargehands, foremen, site engineers, construction managers, project managers, or HSE [health, safety, and environment] staff. Nobody.”

Edward says that those interested in working for Dhabi will need to pass several stages in the hiring process set up by the different departments, including completing an IQ test and proving that they have the experience and technical know-how required for the position they are applying for.

“And if they pass all those stages, they’ll be sent to me. Now, I don’t care about all of that, because I did not have the proper qualifications when I first started. But I did have the willingness to learn, as well as other capabilities that set me apart from other COOs, and I know I can sit down with any COO from any other construction company, and I would be able to handle anything that person can handle.”

Wary of how his last statement may sound to some people, he clarifies that he is not being inordinately “fond of himself” or proud of his achievements: “I just know who I am and how much I’ve worked. It has been a [hard several years], but because of everything that I’ve been through, I am where I am now. Our clients know me by name. They know to bring me in when they need a project finished on time.”

The trust that clients have in him and the company has helped Dhabi continue to move forward despite some instability in the construction market, says Edward, concluding: “The contracts are keeping us very busy in this tough situation, so we are not only surviving but also getting stronger. And we are trying to use any opportunities that are in the market. For example, there is the expo coming up in 2020, so using this as an opportunity, we are looking to shift more of our [resources] to Dubai and then, maybe, we’ll go back to Abu Dhabi after.

“We are very flexible, moving back and forth, depending on the market, and if the market is tough over here, we go abroad. We never say no to any project, in or outside of the UAE.”

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Construction Week - Issue 729
Feb 14, 2019