Powering through

CW meets Jonathan Emery, the man who delivered Mirdif City Centre

Majid Al Futtaim's Jonathan Emery took on the role of managing the delivery Mirdif City Centre when construction had already started and the building
Majid Al Futtaim's Jonathan Emery took on the role of managing the delivery Mirdif City Centre when construction had already started and the building

Majid Al Futtaim’s Jonathan Emery took on the role of managing the delivery Mirdif City Centre when construction had already started and the building boom was well and truly over. He tells CW about the challenges he faced from his first day at work up to the successful on-time completion of the project.

It was October 2008 when Jonathan Emery joined the Majid Al Futtaim Properties team to re-establish an internal project management department, which was set up in response to an increased work load for the company in the UAE and MENA region.

The financial crisis had also started to take its toll on the construction industry at that time and it was Emery’s job, as senior vice president for project management, to pull developments, such as Mirdif City Centre, through to delivery.

“It is always challenging when taking over a project that has already commenced. Mirdif was the same, just bigger,” he explains. “This task was made more difficult by the fact the same exercise was being done on five other live projects at the same time. It was, and remains an exciting and testing role.”

Just like many construction companies, Majid Al Futtaim had neither anticipated that there would be construction boom in the region, nor expected the pitfalls that came with it.

Some packages acquired for Mirdif City Centre, for example, were subject to price escalation and, due to the high demand of construction supplies; subcontractors were able to negotiate prices for their own benefit. But the pressures of a new job and a case of bad timing were overruled by ambition, both from Emery and his team.

“My philosophy when approaching this situation is to take full ownership and responsibility as early as possible. This required a huge amount of work understanding the history of decision making, getting to know the product and its agreed criteria for success,” insists Emery.

“Completion in March was something we wanted to achieve so we didn’t have the luxury of slowing everything down.”

And it wasn’t slowed down. Mirdif City Centre, a shopping mall spread over 196,000 m2, was unveiled on March 16, after 31 months of development.

Three hundred and fifty shops out of 430 were opened – more shops than any mall has ever opened on launch day. This equates to 167,225 m2 of retail space, which has been unveiled to the public.

The US $816.8 million AED 3 billion development also consists of a 10-screen cinema, a car park complete with 7000 spaces and a 12,000 m2 entertainment zone for children and adults, which includes an indoor skydiving centre and a ten pin bowling facility.

So how was a project of such scale opened on time during this difficult climate? “Through a lot of hard work, is the standard answer,” Emery recalls.

“Having built malls before we sort of knew some of the risks associated with a project this size anywhere in the world, but also some of the particular local issues. Essentially, we worked hard at mitigating those risks so we identified them at a very early stage and put in place the mitigation measures.”

Such mitigations centred on talking to consultants and ensuring that resources and the quality of those resources reflected the size of the development.

There was also a lot of planning involved and communicating with such internal partners as Alec, which was awarded the main construction contract.

“We worked very hard with the retailers and our leasing team, as well as our construction team to explain to them our ambition to open on March 16 and we put in extra resources so that we can turn around their designs and supporting technical documentation early,” says Emery.

Towards the middle and the end of the project, the market dropped and Majid Al Futtaim had to give comfort to suppliers that cash flows would come through. But, according to Emery, the slowdown gave the client a unique opportunity.

“We were able to renegotiate prices, so the pressure balanced between the market going up, along with the price inflation we were subjected to, and the market moving down.”

Cost control measures were also put in place during the development of the project, but construction software programmes were seen as more of a hindrance than a help to Emery.

“I personally don’t believe in heavy-weight project management software systems. I believe in the quality of individuals and their experience to make key decisions,” he explains.

“Some of them, in my view, take decision making away from individuals. So, rather than expecting the systems to do all the work I like to reinforce individual decisions that determine outcomes.”

During the construction of Mirdif City Centre, if a cost variation request was made by the contractor or architect, which could potentially save money, those requests go to a central party and are assigned a specific number in a sequential system.

The number would then go to the client who determined whether he wants to progress with the request any further. If he did, it was valued and then ratified by the builder before it was signed off.

“It is an automated system, but it’s simple,” insists Emery.

In terms of revenue, Emery is also pleased with his company’s achievements. “There is a construction cost and there is an income side of the equation and we had a plan for a certain amount of income and through all those fantastic, exciting days of boom and the more cautious days we have managed to maintain the income targets that we set out.”

But, apart from being a profitable development for the client, what is it about this mall that makes it special? Majid Al Futtaim was, after all, the brains behind the Mall of the Emirates and its famous indoor ski resort. How does Mirdif City Centre compare?

“I think it is quite fresh. It is certainly different to other malls in the region and globally. It is of a large scale and it is accessible, it is light, it is very simple to navigate your way around,” says Emery.

“It ticks all the boxes it needs to tick to be a good mall. The scale is big but it is not daunting and it feels like you are passing through smaller spaces rather than being in one big warehouse, I think that’s comforting.”

Mirdif City Centre fast facts

  • Project manager: Mace
  • Cost consultant: EC Harris
  • Architect: RTKL
  • Architect of Record: Hyder Holfords
  • Structural engineer: Mott MacDonald
  • MEP consultant: WSP
  • Main contractor: Alec

Jonathan Emery fact file

  • Educated in the UK with academic and professional qualifications from Trent University and the University of South London.
  • After commencing his working career with national builder John Mowlem in London, he joined the Footsie 100 propety development and investment company Hammerson PLC as a project manager.
  • During his 19 years at Hammerson, Emery managed and directed all of the company’s major office and retail developments throughout the UK.
  • Appointed as managing director of Hammerson’s UK business in 2008.
  • Joined Maijid Al Futtaim Properties as senior vice president for project management in 2008 and has been responsible for the construction of nine major projects since he was hired.
  • Chairs MAF Properties’ corporate social responsibility committee and is a member of the Senior Executive Group.

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