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Hill Intl's Imad Ghantous targets growth through Saudi gigaprojects

Consulting giant's senior vice president outlines why a ‘strategy for survival’ is more important than ever

Imad Ghantous joined Hill International in March 2018.
© ITP Media Group / Lester Apuntar
Imad Ghantous joined Hill International in March 2018.

After the turbulence of a corporate restructuring and the appointment of a new chief executive officer, Hill International’s senior vice president, Imad Ghantous, tells Construction Week the business is optimistic about the prospect of once again achieving profitable growth.

The US-based project management consultancy has a profit-improvement plan in place, following what Ghantous calls a “tough period” for the New York Stock Exchange-listed firm. This plan is in action because the company continues to face various challenges in the international market. A wind-down of GCC projects, for example, has contributed to the consultancy’s overall operating loss of $7.7m during the third quarter of 2018.

In the Middle East, the main centre of critical mass is Saudi Arabia, by virtue of all of the megaprojects that are coming up.

Such results underpin the renewed focus of Hill International’s CEO, Raouf Ghali, on growth and creating new jobs to improve the company’s fortunes. In the Middle East, beefing up manpower and expanding in Saudi Arabia are important pillars supporting this global push to increase Hill International’s profitability.

“Our CEO wants to grow the firm – this is a strategy for survival and we must do that,” Ghantous says. “We are planning to increase the size of the firm significantly. I am not in a position to say by how much, but we are pursuing very aggressive growth and that is really to benefit our shareholders.”

Hill is supervising Riyadh Metro for Arriyadh Development Authority [© CW Archives].

As a listed business, Hill International’s investors “expect a good return on their investment”, and Ghantous says that in order to increase shareholder value, “you grow, you increase your revenue, you diversify to make sure the business is stable, and you hire the right people”.

Ghantous joined Hill International in March 2018, having previously worked at Bechtel and Aecom. He is responsible for all of the company’s international business development activity, except for in the Americas. He says growth is critical if Hill International is going to add to its portfolio of complex and challenging projects in the Gulf, which includes Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah, King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh, and Muscat International Airport.

The pipeline of work we have in the Middle East is diversified, which is a good thing.

“If you do not grow, you go backwards, because everyone else is going forwards,” he says. “Growth is very important to us as it comes in different aspects: it comes in terms of offering services that we have not offered before, and in terms of accessing sectors or geographies that we were not in before.”

Ghantous explains that Hill plans to expand its range of services both upstream and downstream. It will also integrate its offering to ensure it brings “value to the table” and is “not like anybody else”. He adds, however, that it is not the right time to say exactly what services and sectors Hill International might explore in the future.

“By virtue of being an international practice, we have skillsets – not necessarily here, but elsewhere in the world – and we will bring these to bear whenever there is an opportunity,” he says.

Hill’s portfolio includes King Abdullah Financial District [© ITP Media Group / Rajesh Raghav].

In terms of geographic expansion, Hill International aims to get a foothold in Africa. Within the GCC, meanwhile, Saudi Arabia will be the main focus for the business.

“In the Middle East, the main centre of critical mass is Saudi Arabia, by virtue of all of the megaprojects that are coming up,” he says, adding that the kingdom’s gigaprojects such as Neom and the Red Sea project will require a project management office (PMO).

“There are many ministries in Saudi Arabia and there are therefore many PMOs coming up, so it aligns very favourably with what we do, and this is why we are targeting Saudi Arabia very strongly at this point.”

He adds: “The mandate of the the National Project Management Office is to assist the various ministries with the Entity Project Management Office, together with a whole set of processes to enable ministries to start delivering projects for their pipeline”.

If you do not grow, you go backwards, because everyone else is going forwards.

Hill International has been active in the Middle East for more than 30 years and has worked on a number of noteworthy regional projects. Its ongoing schemes in Saudi Arabia include Riyadh Metro, where it is delivering a scope that includes project management, construction management, and construction supervision. As part of its expansion in the Middle East, Ghantous says Hill International plans to continue to explore railway opportunities in the near future.

 “We are currently working on the Riyadh Metro [and] we have a strong background in rail. We like aviation projects because we have a good track record in aviation, so that is interesting for us. We are also interested in real estate projects. Those big megaprojects like Neom or Red Sea Project are interesting, and are really what everybody is targeting going forwards.”

There are projects in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman that Hill is hoping to explore as well, however the scale of these schemes “is no match” for the planned gigaprojects in Saudi Arabia, Ghantous says.

“The pipeline of work we have in the Middle East is diversified, which is a good thing. Obviously, it is weighted quite a bit towards Saudi Arabia, by virtue of all the projects there, but we are not turning our back on other countries that were good to us when Saudi Arabia was not where it is today,” notes Ghantous.

Elsewhere in the region, opportunities are coming up in the UAE and Hill International plans to continue to serve its major clients in the capital, such as Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. Aviation projects in the emirate are also of interest to Ghantous, but he is less optimistic about the state of play in neighbouring Dubai.

Hill provided engineering consultancy services for Oman’s $4.4bn Muscat International airport.

“We would like to do more [in Dubai], but the trend with developers is a little bit funny,” he says, going on to explain that there is a “cyclical approach” that results in clients “flitting backwards and forwards” about whether or not it is better to outsource project management.

“The belief is that you bring people with project-management experience in and all of a sudden you have a project-management delivery capability, when in actuality project management has to do with processes and procedures, having the right tools, and the right experience to manage these projects,” he says.

There are many ministries in Saudi Arabia and there are many PMOs coming up, so it aligns very favourably with what we do.

A successful project manager is someone who has the ability to see risks and address them before they unfold, Ghantous explains. This saves clients “unnecessary heartache and problems”, thus preventing projects from concluding in an unsatisfactory fashion.

“The biggest loser in a failed project is the client,” he says. “Consultants have their fee to lose; contractors have some liquidated damages; but the main losing entity in this team is the client. So what you can do to alleviate such instances is to be proactive in foreseeing problems and risks, and mitigating them.”

Ghantous tells Construction Week that the modern-day role of a project manager is changing. Hill’s clients want construction partners that “have skin in the game”, so all stakeholders have something to lose if the project goes wrong. To be successful in this climate “you need to do something different”, he concludes.

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