Six degrees in construction
Construction Week meets with Besix's Philippe Dessoy
The six degrees rule normally applies to people, but in the peculiar case of Philippe Dessoy, it seems to apply between him and his job too. well over six feet tall and heading up Six Construct in Dubai, he helped build the tallest tower in the world. It’s destiny.
Before the towering Belgian stepped off the plane and onto the tarmac at Dubai International Airport sixteen years ago in 1992, he’d never heard of the emirate.
He joined Besix in 1989 and had worked at the head office in Belgium for three and half years when he was asked by the company if he fancied moving to Dubai.
Confused and unfamiliar with a name that was destined to become one of the most well known cities in the world, Dessoy feebly asked “Where?”
“The company asked me to go, so I went,” says Dessoy. “I had never heard of Dubai before that, but I had of Saudi Arabia of course.
Some friends from university had gone to work in Saudi and they weren’t very happy, so I wasn’t too keen to come to the Middle East or anywhere in the Gulf for that matter,” he adds.
For Dessoy, the Middle East consisted of Saudi Arabia and little other versions of it. Names like Dubai and Sharjah were of no particular relevance and idea of the Gulf in his head painted classic story book tales of shifting dunes, camels and oases.
“My company then convinced me to go to Dubai for two weeks to see if I liked it. I came, I saw and thought why not. I went back to Belgium and said ‘okay’ but also that I would stay for only two years.” It’s been sixteen years since then.
“When I got here I was surprised to see that it was quite well developed and open. I was not expecting that. I was expecting Saudi Arabia.
At that time, the company had a compound there where all the staff was staying and I thought living in a compound was not the type of life I wanted. So I went to the city and the company put me in an apartment where it was okay,” he reminisces.
“Dubai on the other hand was quite well developed at that time, I mean Sheikh Zayed Road was being developed into four lanes; some parts were already four lanes to Jebel Ali. Since then I don’t think Dubai ever looked back.
Development went well until, I’d say 2003 or 2004, when it began to go too fast and it became a nightmare.
In 2006 to 2008, there was just maddening traffic with everybody rushing everywhere, so in a way I think the crisis has actually been good for the region. Things are back to normal and you can have a decent life again.
So what brought on such an epic turnaround for Dessoy who started out in the back offices of Besix as an estimator?
He is now one of the most wanted men in the construction fraternity not only in the Middle East but globally.
His little office in Al Quoz is responsible for more than half of the turnover for the company worldwide. Dessoy’s legendary rise to his current position as general manager of one of the biggest contractors in the Middle East is a success story that is second to none.
“I suppose the reason I chose to stay on here, from a work point of view, is because business here is interesting. I mean the projects we are currently working on here are quite nice. We cannot do these types of projects in Europe anymore.
There isn’t that type of demand in Europe and the money is also not there sometimes. Plus I’ve also grown in the company which plays a big role in my staying on,” says Dessoy.
“On a personal note, the quality of life here is good too; it’s a central place so you can fly off to almost anywhere; places that are often only a dream are at your doorstep here; it’s liberal too, of course not as free as Europe but its not too bad.
I’ve been on holiday a few times to Oman, Iran, North Pakistan, India, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia. There’s great food here too. The variety is amazing.”
While living in Jumeirah one and often seen at his favourite after-work haunt, Madinat Jumeirah, Dessoy says Dubai has several beautiful places and is a great city to live in, but would still prefer to buy and own property in Europe.
“There are a few very nice places; what they’ve done with the Burj Dubai downtown area, when it is finished more than what it is today, it should be a very nice place.
But I don’t think I’ll buy property here. I prefer to keep properties in Europe. I mean today I don’t need it.
If I come back here, I won’t be back for that long – maybe a few weeks in winter and for just that much time, dealing with the many issues surrounding the buying of property here – it’s not worth it. The cost is high, the maintenance charges are high. One would rather stay in a hotel; no headache.”
They say Dubai makes you stronger and if you’ve survived here, you can make it anywhere in the world. But many of these survivors have had their moments and Dessoy has had his share too.
“At one stage I remember, I said to myself I have had enough and I wanted to leave; this was in 2007 and then I got promoted to this position and the business life changed. I mean it was a nightmare when you had to go somewhere, because you needed half a day to get to a meeting in town; it was awful but that’s changed now.”
But like every action has an opposite and, mostly, equal reaction, the “good for the region” downturn also sent many companies running for cover. Dessoy reveals why he had it better than most.
“I think it was more difficult for other companies than for us, because from the beginning we’ve always tried to be diversified, so we have different clients; we’ve been working in different parts of the Gulf including here in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajman, Qatar and Bahrain.
Work in Dubai is down but Abu Dhabi is doing okay, Qatar is still very good; Of course we have suffered a little because a lot of projects in Dubai have been stopped but it’s still okay; we’re still working and we’re still busy.”
But unlike many companies in the same bracket Besix has not made a knee-jerk decision to enter the Saudi market. But it does feature in the company’s future plans.
Egypt, on the other hand is a market that the company is already working in and one that Dessoy has a soft corner for.
“My first ever job was in Cairo. I’ve got very good memories of it. It was in 1983 to 1988. With endless trips to the Dead Sea, going to the mountains, diving; those were good days.
Besix is working on two projects there. We’re just finishing the Fairmont and we’re doing a job for Qatari Diar. But Egypt is a difficult market as the quality on many projects there is not of standards that any international contractors would work to.
“In terms of Saudi, I’ve been there a few times and we’ve decided to enter the kingdom, so we’re going to put somebody there full time, but of course, it will take time before we start on a job and sign the contract; it may take a few more months.
We don’t regret not entering Saudi earlier. I mean we were in Qatar before a lot of companies went there so we’ve got a good name there. Similarly, we were in Bahrain before and Oman as well, so we’re in a pretty comfortable place at the moment.”
Comfortable for some, means not-so-comfortable for others, at least, until the economy begins to look up again. But when?
“I think, the recovery, will still take some time. From what I hear, some people say 2010, 2011, 2012. Some even say 2010 is going to be even worse, so I think we need to be prepared as it will take some time.”
An interesting outcome of the downturn has been the offer of property in lieu of payments by several developers to contractors. And despite not being a fan of the idea, Dessoy says he’s open to hearing what’s on offer.
“As a company we’ve already bought 20 properties about four or five years ago, in order to house our staff. We have been offered property in lieu of payments before, in fact just a few months ago one of the biggest developers here did that – the problem here is how do you evaluate the property they give you? According to the market rate? It’s inflated, it’s too high.”
“The downturn has left us with a backlog of payments. In Dubai we have not put in a tender for the past nine months. Its not that we haven’t been invited to bid, but that we’ve declined. If you’re not paid, what’s the point in taking up a job? We are owed about AED500 million (US $136 million) currently. I mean we are all working here to earn money. We’re not a bank.”
A risky road in a region where contractors often tender to stay on the right side of developers. Dessoy thinks not. “If you’re based here, I suppose you’d tender to survive, but not companies like us.”