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Khansaheb: Selecting the “right” projects “drives our future”

Khansaheb's Stephen Flint speaks to CW about his decade-long tenure at the UAE-based construction firm

Khansaheb group general manager Stephen Flint (pictured)
Khansaheb group general manager Stephen Flint (pictured)

Its 2020, and UAE-based construction firm, Khansaheb is busy winning new contracts for some of the major projects in the emirates. The company’s interior fitout, joinery, and mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) divisions recently secured contracts for a Youth Concept at Mall of the Emirates, Al Zahia Cinema, the Conference and Exhibition (CoEx) Centre at Expo 2020 Dubai.

Turn time around, and ten years back, Stephen Flint joined Khansaheb as the group general manager in 2010.

“When I came in, we had the global financial crisis, which also caught up with Dubai and the UAE making things difficult for everybody in the industry. And all of a sudden the tap was turned off and there was a lack of construction work in the market,” Flint tells Construction Week, as he looks out of his window for a view of flights taking off and landing at the Dubai International Airport (DXB).

Flint explains that since the global crisis, “Khansaheb has grown to a particular size,” due to the scale and volume of work it picks. “The Khansaheb business has been fairly reserved in terms of who it works for. When things were booming, we didn’t boom with them, we took on what we could take on. We didn’t double the size of our business and we have been modest about it, because our core value is about looking after our customers properly, and making sure that we deliver our projects well.”

Flint’s words are firm and the proof is the framed pictures of some of Khansaheb’s most “iconic” and “high-end” projects, hanging on the walls of his spacious office. Raffles Dubai, Mall of the Emirates, Engineer’s office/ Meraas headquarters, Arjan road and infrastructur project, Qasr Al Sarab, and Bab Al Shams, to name a few.

A sustainable road ahead

Khansaheb is effectively putting into practice its drive towards a sustainable future, and in doing so the company is looking at bringing down its operational and commercial costs.

Flint notes that the group started looking “inwardly at costs and the costliness to run the business”.

“For the past ten years, we’ve been working hard at driving down costs and we did that as part of our sustainability drive. We not only followed sustainability as an agenda, but focused on key elements,” he explains.

Under its sustainability programme, the company reduced the consumption of fuel, diesel, water, and energy, thus helping bring down carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the environment.

The group’s fuel consumption reduced from around 13 million litres in 2013 to 6 million  litres in 2019, bringing the fuel costs down from $12.3m (AED45m) to less than $4.1m (AED15m). Total water consumed by the company has dropped from 384 million litres in 2015 to 285 million litres in 2019. Meanwhile, the company also reduced the usage of electricity to bring it down from 20 million kilowatt hours (kWh) to 11m kWh in 2019.

 Simultaneously, Khansaheb kept an eye on waste produced across its businesses, curtailing it from 52,000 tonnes (t) in 2017 to 14,000 t in 2019.

Flint explains: “We started measuring our sustainability elements since 2013 to reduce consumptions. All of this has not just benefitted Khansaheb, but our customers because we’ve been able to bring our prices down. So, ultimately, it is not just about sustainability, it is also about managing your costs effectively.”

Working in a challenging market

Having established in 1935, over the years Khansaheb has withstood some of the biggest market challenges. On being asked about the recent challenges borne by the company, Flint says: “The biggest challenge is the fact that we are living in a price-driven competitive market, where customers, clients, and people who are planning to buy a building are looking at bringing the prices down.”

Its not just the prices. Flint notes that new competition has also played its part over the years. “There are new companies and new entrants, who are now appearing on tender lists that we did not know of, which is creating a very competitive market,” he adds.

“The main challenge is how you win your work in such an environment. In order to do that it is important to select the right customers and project; and laying out the right strategy to win the job.”

“We are prudent in our accounting and commercial management, so we will not take profits that haven’t been earned,” Flint affirms.

Another industry challenge contractors are trying to overcome is payment delays. Flint says: “There is some difficulty in the marketplace around liquidity, and even very good customers are not being able to pay, because maybe they are incurring difficulties in the retail and hospitality industries, and they haven’t got the revenues they were expecting. But, our number one priority is to make sure we pay our subcontractors and suppliers on-time,” he adds.

Adopting technology for efficiency

Khansaheb has been using building information modelling (BIM) for the past three years. “We’ve been implementing BIM quite efficiently and training our people in the use of BIM.”

“We develop our BIM models in-house, and don’t rely on an outside consultant to do it for us,” Flint explains. This leaves Khansaheb with the ownership of the BIM data.

“The most important thing, when delivering a project is for it to be collaborative, where the stakeholders, including the client, consultants, contractors, subcontractors, and the suppliers work together, with the contractor being the catalyst. BIM improves collaboration,” Flint affirms.

Three years back, Khansaheb appointed three BIM “specialists” — as Flint refers to them — who are now training other people across the business. The company has a team of draftsmen, and 90 CAD operators, who are being provided upskill training to be able to work on BIM.

However, Flint says: “As an industry we are not as good as we could have been, in terms of technology.”

He continues: “At Khansaheb, we’ve put a comprehensive enterprise resource planning (ERP) system in our business. We are working with COINS, which provides a cloud-based platform for financial and commercial management to bring costs together for contracts and  divisions. The use of technology makes the availability of information easy, and connects finance and commercial departments.”

“Upskilling and improving”

“For any business, be it construction, fitout, or MEP, training is always a key component,” Flint explains.

“The Khansaheb Training Initiative is quite structured and we invest in training our people. In 2013, we opened a crafts training centre for our workers and operatives in Jebel Ali, where they are put on a ten-day training course. On completion of the training, they get a certificate and get new overalls with a badge that reads, ‘Trained by Khansaheb’.

“The ten-day training is aimed at upskilling and improving their existing skills, ensuring their know-how about using various tools. These workers are scored when they start the training and when they complete it, we measure their improvement as they go through the training session,” Flint adds.

The trainings are conducted by Asian and European skilled construction training personnel, with the training being based on the UK CITB training programme.

“The programme includes training the operatives to stay safe at a construction site, to keep the site safe and tidy, as well as delivering good quality work.  This way they become more productive, and you can see the change in ten days.”

Major project wins

Talking about some of the major projects that Khansaheb secured in 2019, Flint says: “University of Birmingham in Dubai, which broke ground in November 2019, is one of the projects that contributed most in 2019. We are building it for TECOM.”

Another project is the Wafi extension, which includes the 54-storey Wafi Hotel. Khansaheb is working with the MKM Group, who is the developer of the project.

 “The contract for this project was first awarded to Al Fara’a Group, but the contract failed, and the contractor was taken off from the project. Later Khansaheb was approached to take it from where it was left and finish the project,” Flints explains.

Other projects include, the Aquaventure extension, where Khansaheb has been tasked with extending the water park from The Royal Atlantis hotel. “It is quite a complex job and involves a lot of specialised work, which includes an active water way, slides, and rides.”

“We worked on Wild Wadi, where we built the original water park and later extended it. We have experience in implementing such projects,” Flint explains.

Khansaheb is also working on Viva City’s Sport Society, which is touted to be the world’s largest sports mall. Upon completion, Sport Society will feature a gym, cricket simulators, climbing walls, a full-size National Hockey League (NHL), ice rink, and gymnastics and soft play area, in addition to a multi-purpose arena with stadium seating.

At Expo 2020 Dubai, Khansaheb is working alongside other contractors on various projects, including the Pakistan Pavilion, Morocco Pavilion, as well as the Sustainability Pavilion, where it is mostly carrying out metal work.

 “We do a lot of architectural — fancy — metal work,” Flint notes.

Flint says: “We secured a total of $326.7m (AED1.2bn) worth of work in 2019 as new orders.”

Doing it with due diligence

Retaining and selecting people is one of the most important elements of Flint’s role as the group general manager at Khansaheb.

“Selection of right customers and right projects are also a part of the decisions I make that drive our future,” he explains.

Flint stresses: “Khansaheb is a UAE-based company. This is the market we know and the Khansaheb family is a UAE-based family. We have no aspiration to work outside the UAE.”

2020 marks another milestone for Khansaheb, as it celebrates 85 years of being in the business.

 Flint concludes: “The Khansaheb family has contributed to the development of the UAE, supporting the rulers, and making sure that we do our bit for Dubai.”

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