Leadership Lessons: Dubai's property COO

Every month Hashi Syedain talks to a business leader about their personal leadership issues.

by World Business
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Mohamed Binbrek, COO, Dubai Properties

Mohamed Binbrek originally dreamed of being a diplomat. But when he returned to his native UAE after graduating in social sciences at the City of London Polytechnic, a chance interview at ABN Bank led to 20 years in banking. Four years ago, he switched careers to join start-up The Investment Office, now known as Dubai Investment Group, before becoming COO at sister company Dubai Properties, one of the three principal developers of large-scale commercial and residential property projects in Dubai.

HS: Where did you learn about leadership?

MB: Not in the classroom, but by having good role models. My first boss was a Dutchman at ABN Bank. He gave me an opportunity to enter a field that I thought I wasn't qualified for - because I was no good at maths. But he took a personal interest in me and was a great mentor. I've also learned by reading about people. I've just finished Jack Welch's biography Jack: straight from the gut and was struck by a story he told from his childhood of throwing his hockey stick across the field in anger after losing a match. His mother came storming into the locker room afterwards, shouting: "If you don't know how to lose, you won't know how to win." I like the simplicity of that.

How do you approach difficult situations?

One of the toughest things I've faced was the global stock market crash in 2001. I was head of Citibank's retail bank in UAE, which I had set up. We had started selling investment products just a few years earlier and it was going very well. When the crash hit us, people started screaming blue murder. I had to coach my team in how to deal with customers.

Did you speak to any customers yourself?

Yes. My ice-breaker was to tell them my investment of £250,000 was now worth only $40,000, so we could cry together. Then I talked them through their investment strategy. I'd say, "Remember how we talked about a seven-year time frame. We've been in only one-and-a-half years. What's changed in your circumstances?" Most people calmed down. With one man, I made the decision to give the money back. There was an issue of mis-selling. The customer was a construction worker earning $150 a month; he'd managed to scrape together $10,000 and put it into one of our funds. He slipped through the net because the product was for people with a much higher disposable income. It was basic commonsense to return his money.

Do you face many ethical dilemmas?

I try to pre-empt them by making it a group discussion and saying to people that we will always act above board and must be seen to be doing so. I'll tell them that we are being watched. This was something I learnt from the banking environment. As senior managers at Citibank, we had to sign an undertaking every three months that we were not aware of any unethical behaviour. It happened to me only once that someone indicated that they might offer an incentive for doing business with them. I told the bank to cut off its relationship with that person.

What are the issues in managing a fast-growing business?

Since 2002 our staff has grown from five to 500. We broke the mould by creating developments for the average white-collar worker. Our Jumeirah Beach Residency was the largest single-phase development anywhere in the world - 36 towers, with 3,000 housing units. Dubai Properties has assets of $2.7 billion and its turnover in 2006 will be $1.6 billion. The personal challenge for me is in letting go and building a team of peers and a second and third tier. I'd like to be remembered as someone who developed and groomed people. I believe that you are never too busy to be courteous to others. I'll take the time to greet even junior people. Two-thirds of my office is glass, so people can see in and there is usually a box of chocolates on my desk that anyone can help themselves to. I'm known for that.

Are the superlatives that go with real estate developments in Dubai important - to be the biggest, the highest?

You have to remember where we've come from. Until the late 1970s, we had a flat, barren landscape. I'm 49 and grew up in a house with four rooms. We had our first air-conditioning unit in 1974 and from then on everyone wanted to be in that room. Some people associate the Middle East with the romanticism of the old, but I look back on the old days and I wouldn't want to give up what I have now. We're creating an urban landscape in which we're learning from the mistakes of the developed countries. We're intertwining the living, working and entertainment areas. We've taken the best of the planning laws from around the world and simplified them. I was speaking at a conference with a member of the Hirandani family, one of the top Indian property families, which was in the process of building an 89-storey tower in Dubai. He was asked: "Why don't you build this in Mumbai instead?" He said: "In Dubai, it takes me 23 days to get planning permission. In Mumbai, if I'm lucky, it will take me 23 months." That's why we have so many superlatives here.

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