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Maintaining credibility is key

Ahmad Etman, managing partner, Al Sahel Contracting Company, talks to Christopher Sell about the importance of reputation.

Etman says reputation is more important than aggressive expansion in the current market.
Etman says reputation is more important than aggressive expansion in the current market.

Ahmad Etman, managing partner, Al Sahel Contracting Company, talks to Christopher Sell about the importance of reputation.

Which projects have you been working on recently?

In the last few months we have handed over two big projects worth US $163 million (AED600 million) in International City - called Package Four and 10. There are 29 buildings in the first and 34 in the second. The client was Nakheel, and we are also working with Dubai Properties in Knowledge Village.

Is it important to build relationships in this industry?

I believe that due to the scarcity of contractors, all the main developers are doing this. They are trying to incorporate two or three main contractors, ensure they are happy with them, and keep them - almost like a big team.

Is this a growing trend in Dubai?

Yes, it is happening on an elemental scale with developers like Nakheel, Dubai Properties and Emaar. But it is also happening in the private sector, because the scale is so large - you have about 100 companies chasing around $1 billion worth of projects.

So how do you decide which jobs to select?

We are known as a medium-sized, reliable company. So people know our business. We stayed with Nakheel for two and a half years, so we would do the same for other people, because we are selective. We have the chance to select developers now, which is very rare.

Is this different from the 'normal' procurement situation?

What is happening in Dubai is completely different. It just isn't normal. It is the first time in my life where people are offering us work and I have to say 'no'. This has never happened before. When we got Package 10 on International City, Nakheel said: 'Why not take Package 14 as well'? I declined. They said: 'How come? We are offering you work'? This has never happened in my life and I have been in this business almost 39 years.

Do you think it is a more difficult place to work because of the capacity issues?

No. In fact there are a lot of openings, but the problem is the scarcity of labourers; of good, competent staff as well as plant - because companies want to expand.

So how is Al Sahel coping?

We are refining our work to a certain level; we are not expanding any more. We are trying to finish one job at a time. In our strategy we do not have three or four jobs running at the same time. We could do more, but this would create pressure on our resources, and may have an adverse impact on our relationship with clients and resources.

How much work do you therefore look to secure on a regular basis?

We are trying to maintain between $123 million - $136 million of turnover, which means we have to have about $191 million - $218 million worth of work in hand to achieve this figure.

Per year, your work in hand should be almost double your turnover figure. I am trying to curb it but I am experiencing resistance from my colleagues. Everyone pats you on the shoulder when things are going well but the moment you get stuck, you know what happens.

Is your policy of zero expansion debilitating for business?

It is not a disadvantage. If you know your calibre, and your potential, you safeguard it, and can create a good image and positive impact, which I am maintaining. My role is to make sure we do not deviate from the reputation we have achieved.

How have you tailored your approach over the last few years as Dubai has grown?

The role of the consultant is much diminished. Previously the consultant was the key player between the client and contractor. Now the consultant's role is to prepare the drawings, obtain approval from the authorities, and to provide the work. All over Dubai, we are getting invitations directly from the client. They will simply get a letter from the client saying 'this is the contractor we have chosen, do the paperwork with him'.

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