Gracechurch & Refraction Cellar Club: doing business in the UAE - a view from the top

Sep 25, 2011

Gracechurch and Refraction Cellar Club, Thursday 22nd September:  John Bullough talks about his experiences as CEO of the largest property company in Abu Dhabi.

John Bullough, former CEO of Aldar Properties, gave a fascinating and candid talk about his time as CEO of a company which was literally ‘building a nation’. With John at the helm, Aldar was responsible for a substantial portion of the huge national development programme for Abu Dhabi.

John also happened to become CEO at the point where the world economy was in meltdown and so had to manage, not only an incredibly ambitious development programme (“things that would have taken four or five years in the West, we had to build and complete in 18 months”) but also the impact on Aldar of the bursting of the speculative property bubble in the UAE.

Aldar's most prominent project was the the Yas Island development, which included the Abu Dhabi Formula 1 race-track. This became the iconic centrepiece of Abu Dhabi's development, slated to be a showpiece to the world: failure to deliver on time was not an option.

Against this backdrop John reflected on his 'unconventional' appointment and the subsequent challenge of managing a company and delivering an incredibly ambitious development programme at the same time.  At his disposal was a culturally and nationally diverse, largely expat workforce all with different notions of how to behave in commerce.  At the same time John needed to manage the expectations of the Emirati ruling elite. On top of all that Aldar needed some serious upgrading in terms of basic business processes and systems – it had, after all only been in existence for four years.

John recounted a number of humorous and frankly scary anecdotes about situations he had dealt with in the development phase, culminating in the exhilaration and relief of delivering the F1 Track on time. He told the audience that his keys to success were hands-on management, intense focus on and sensitivity to the cultural differences in his teams and establishing good business practices, processes and commercial behaviours.

While John was refreshingly honest about the frustrations and difficulties encountered he also emphasised the phenomenal spirit, hard work and sheer enterprise that his team, contractors and the workforce showed in making sure that key projects were delivered on time – a true 24-7 culture. John’s optimistic view also hinted at the potential for Abu Dhabi, especially that of a thoughtful, talented outward-looking Emirati leadership group that has a clear line of sight on building a nation that will be about much more than oil wealth.

There followed a lively bunch of questions ranging from the impact of the Arab uprisings to to the sometimes novel approach to planning control in the UAE.

Everyone agreed John was a breath of fresh air as CEO’s go and we’d had a realistic and rare insight into the opportunities and pitfalls of doing business in the UAE.