UAE giant ALEC's Kez Taylor discusses the future of construction
ALEC's boss talks to CW about the company's $2.7bn UAE pipeline, which includes Expo 2020 Dubai, adding value for clients, and the importance of simplifying work plans
In construction and other industries alike, the ideal chief executive officer is one that personifies their company’s products and services.
Apple’s avant-garde product designs were emblematic of the bold business approach preferred by Steve Jobs. Mark Zuckerberg’s unwavering drive for connectivity helped Facebook become the communications giant it is today. In that respect, it’s easy to see how Kez Taylor, a seasoned personality in the regional construction sector, has led ALEC’s evolution into one of the UAE’s top contractors since he took the helm almost two decades ago.
ALEC’s portfolio includes some of the region’s most high-profile projects, such as Yas Waterworld Abu Dhabi and Concourses A and D of Dubai International Airport in the UAE, and the Jabal Al Akhdar Anantara Hotel Resort and Spa in Oman. In August 2017, it was announced that Select Group had awarded ALEC a $163.3m (AED600m) contract to develop the Jumeirah Living Marina Gate project in Dubai.
While the company's portfolio already comprises some of the region's most iconic developments, Taylor has his sights set firmly on the future of both construction in the UAE, as well as ALEC, which is currently busy with the Expo 2020 Dubai and the Dubai Hills Mall schemes.
“We’re working [for] Expo 2020 Dubai on two projects,” Taylor tells Construction Week.
“This includes the Mobility Pavilion, which is a technically challenging project, and the Conference and Exhibition Centre (CoEx) Campus, which is going to be the conference facility [of] Expo 2020. We’re also working on a project along the Deira Creek.”
CoEx will be the centre for Expo 2020 Dubai’s events, with Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC) acting as the project’s client. Meanwhile, Emaar Properties is developing the Mobility Pavilion. ALEC announced its contract win for the pavilion on 30 April, 2018.
Mobility is only one of ALEC’s contracts with Emaar, for which it is also developing the Dubai Hills Mall. Structural work on the mall is 60% complete, and the 650-shop retail destination is on schedule, Taylor tells Construction Week. Spanning 185,806m², the mall is located within Dubai Hills Estate, a mega-development joint venture between Emaar Development and Meraas. This February, ALEC Energy – a subsidiary of ALEC – announced it had been picked to provide a 6.5 megawatt-peak (MWp) solar power plant for the retail project.
Dubai Hills Mall's solar power facility will feature 24,000 solar panels on the mall's roof, and is expected to generate 10.5m kwh/units of electrical energy within a year of operational commencement. As a result, the project will record an offset of 4.62 million kg of carbon dioxide (CO2) each year – the equivalent of offsetting the annual CO2 emissions of 1,673 passenger vehicles the same time period. ALEC Energy will provide system design, local approval, and construction services for the plant, which will be built and commissioned in line with Dubai Hills Mall's programme.
A contractor has tremendous value that it can bring to the client. All that you need is to work very closely together."
Taylor says ALEC’s work on the Dubai Hills Mall scheme exemplifies how contractors can add value to both a project and its developer. He explains that collaboration across the supply chain, from clients down to sub-contractors, is essential, and a contractor’s early involvement can ensure that efficiency gains are accumulated across the construction life-cycle.
He continues: “[We’re quite fortunate that] due to the various businesses that we're involved with, we can [explore how] we can add value to our clients.
“[For instance], there’s a lot of MEP [mechanical, electrical, and plumbing] services that are on the top of shopping centres in general, and when you have a look from height, they […] don’t look that good,” Taylor explains, adding that this led Emaar to conceptualise the idea of covering the roof.
He continues: “We suggested that [Emaar] incorporate solar [panels] into the roof covering, thereby generating power for the facility, [and] we managed to [propose the system] at a lower price than what conventional roofing would have cost. So it was a real value-add for everyone.
“A contractor has tremendous value that it can bring to the client. All that you need is […] to work very closely together, because we’re very much in tune with the latest products and innovations, and if we’re involved early enough, we can deliver that value to the client. The key is that this added-value is to be had upfront; often, it's too late to implement something because we haven’t been involved at an early-enough stage. So we believe that by having a contractor involved early in a project, there's tremendous value that can be had for all persons.
“In order to deliver value, there has to be trust that you're acting in the best interest of the project and […] the client, plus all the stakeholders. We're very fortunate on Dubai Hills Mall to have a project team that is pulling in the same direction. Everyone's objective on that project is to deliver it on time and budget, and deliver value. When you get that right, it is very powerful.”
Collaborate to innovate
This collaboration is visible not only on the project’s progress, but the efficiency of its construction team as well. In a statement earlier this month, Emaar revealed that structural work on Dubai Hills Mall is 60% complete, and that steel work is under way for its 18-screen cinema and a glass skylight. Work has also started on mock-ups for the mall’s façades, skylights, shopfronts, washrooms, and finishes. Equally interestingly, much of this work is proceeding in a ‘paperless’ model – Taylor reveals that team-wide collaboration has helped ALEC drive an initiative implemented to exclude its use of paper documentation for the scheme.
Innovation is not about reinventing something; it's about [answering] ‘how do we do things better?’
“An initiative was put in place [through which] we wanted to eliminate paper [usage],” he tells Construction Week.
“We thought it was going to be pretty difficult because [the industry is] used to sawing a forest in order to exchange documentation, but it was relatively simple. Everyone brought into it, and we adopted it at an early stage – from Day 1. It's been very successful.”
Taylor says a platform was created to facilitate documentation work, but more important than the right software to support such transformations, he explains, is to have “everyone’s buy-in” to change how tasks are typically performed.
“If we're looking at innovation, it is really about how you improve things,” Taylor says.
“It's not about reinventing something; it's about [answering] ‘how do we do things better?’. We've had a very strong innovation drive going on throughout our business, and we try to encourage a culture […] that allows people how to figure out better ways of doing things; even simple little operations. We're innovating everywhere and all the time, and it's very pleasing to see the results of that. Everyone is trying to figure out how [they can do] things better, and we do get some real breakthrough results out of it.”
The ‘paperless’ initiative, Taylor explains, may well be applied across ALEC’s other schemes, as must all ideas that can help to improve efficiencies: “If you come up with a great idea in one part of the business, the next thing that you’ve got to try and do is roll it out on other projects. If it works on one project, then we'll try to do it [again].
“You need the consultants and the client to buy into it as well; the whole project team has to innovate. Sometimes we can't innovate on our own; we need everyone else to buy in.”
Man with a plan
Speaking to Taylor, it is clear that stakeholder cooperation is at the crux of ALEC’s work. Be it to drive new ways of working, or to contend with some of the traditional challenges associated with contracting, collaboration is at the centre of ALEC’s construction programmes for each of its high-profile developments.
This degree of meticulous planning perhaps explains the enviable portfolio of a contractor working on not only greenfield megaprojects such as Expo 2020 Dubai, but also Ithra Dubai’s Deira Waterfront Office and Hotel (Plot 4), part of the project's first phase. And, while most long-time Dubai residents – industry professionals or otherwise – will agree that building near the Gold Souk in Deira comes with its share of logistical challenges, Taylor says his team has cracked the code.
“It’s all about planning,” ALEC’s leader says. “What we’ve figured out about planning is that, often, we may put together a very detailed programme, [but] it may not be clearly understood by all stakeholders. Because it’s complicated, someone may not refer to it, or really understand what’s important.
“So, the first thing you’ve got to do is put together what we call a project execution strategy, or a very clear plan on how you're going to execute and how you're going to handle logistics. Let's say you bring too many materials to the project site; [in that case,] you’re going to be constrained in terms of the way that you're going to execute [site works].
A well-thought out plan [that has been] simplified and well-communicated to all stakeholders, is very powerful, and we're trying to do this on all of our projects.
“It's all around a simple plan: logistics are very important in that, and getting the sequence on the project right, and getting everybody to understand that sequence – from the client to the designers, the main contractor, and all the sub-contractors. We figured out that a complicated programme […] doesn't necessarily give you the result that you need in order to succeed on a project, but a well-thought out plan [that has been] simplified and well-communicated to all stakeholders, is very powerful, and we're trying to do this on all of our projects.”
Taylor’s team has many opportunities to hone its innovation and planning skills – the contracting giant’s UAE portfolio alone exceeds $2.7bn (AED10bn), and its MEP business is also focused on the Omani market. Taylor lists hospitality and retail developments as ALEC’s core strengths – the company has delivered more than 250ha (2.5 million m2) of retail projects to date. Oman is of interest to ALEC due to the volume of both hotel and retail projects under way in the country, but its priority remains the UAE market.
“We are currently very busy in the UAE, and are focusing on executing efficiently in this region,” Taylor says.
Expo 2020 Dubai is also a key focal point for the UAE contracting giant, whose work on the scheme has a value of $462.9m (AED1.7bn). Taylor is confident about the benefits that the expo will bring to both the UAE and the contractors working on the project, but says he is also optimistic about post-Expo 2020 growth in the country.
“The expo is going to be a great thing for Dubai, and we’re going to be able to showcase all the innovations and great initiatives from around the globe. We're looking forward to delivering the Expo 2020 projects.
“The UAE is growing – the population is growing at approximately 100,000 people a year, and with that comes demand for everything. Al Maktoum International Airport is still going to be developed [further], and Dubai Creek Harbour (DCH) is a massive development that is kicking into gear – there’s a huge amount of work that's going to take place [at DCH].
“[Even] after Expo 2020, we do have fairly large projects that are going to be on the go, and I think that'll sustain market activity.”
For Taylor, who is leading some of the most high-profile schemes in the UAE, the future holds opportunities to not only expand the profile of his team and the local construction sector, but also grow the industry’s efficiencies and value-adding capabilities.
“There's a massive opportunity in our industry to improve our processes, and how we deliver [work], and I think [getting] all parties together [to] figure out how we're doing to do that effectively [is] where the greatest opportunity lies,” Taylor says.
“It's about how you get a project team to work together effectively.”
Where does the buck stop?
Cash flows and payment delays are, some would argue, a common fixture of construction industries around the globe. The Middle East’s market is no exception to this trend, but Taylor believes the regional industry has the opportunity to work together and mitigate the risks associated with delayed payments.
Responding to Construction Week’s query on which stakeholder should drive such efforts, Taylor says: “Money flows down, so [it’s important] that contractors get paid fairly for the work that they've executed. If clients are paying contractors fairly, and contractors are paying their supply chain fairly, then generally, you’ll have a successful team working together.”
If you allow issues to gather momentum and build up, then at the end of the day, it [will be] very difficult to unravel everything.
Taylor says extensions of time are a particularly frustrating job aspect for contractors, because builders “never get fairly compensated for them, and variations are generally very difficult to get paid for”.
He explains: “The perfect [situation] for us would be that we can complete a project on time with minimum variations, and the project team works together to avoid an extension of time.
“Variations and changes are very much part of construction, because it's a very creative function, and you’re never going to crack it in the first round. When you physically see something, you might look at it and [realise it] doesn’t really work or function. We don’t have a problem with change – I think a contractor needs to be flexible enough [and] understand that it's important that we deliver a great end-product, because we're part of doing that with the team.
“Change will always be there. What's important is that the variation or the change gets fairly compensated for. And that's where the problem comes in.”
So how can the situation be improved, and how might the incidence of construction disputes be reduced in the regional sector? Taylor has some recommendations: “The best way to avoid disputes is to have very good dialogue with your clients, and resolve things as you go down the path of a project. If you allow issues to gather momentum and build up, then at the end of the day, it [will be] very difficult to unravel everything [because] you haven't dealt with issues as you've progressed.”
When Construction Week suggests the creation of an entity to manage – and reduce – construction disputes, Taylor adds: “I think it is a good idea for the industry to get together, but I think what is more important is that clients, contractors, and consultants get together on projects and figure out how they [will deliver] a scheme successfully on time.”