Pushing boundaries: Exclusive interview with business magnate Dr Raja Easa Al Gurg

The managing director of one of the UAE’s oldest conglomerates reveals the secrets of running a family business and what women need to succeed



I arrive at the spacious and orderly offices of Dr Raja Easa Al Gurg before our appointed meeting time. It is not even 9:00 am and her secretary is already buzzing with phone calls and a steady stream of files.

Al Gurg herself is preoccupied with some work when I walk into her expansive office, which has a stunning view of the Dubai Creek. She greets me with a charming smile and ushers me to a comfortable chair.

“I start from my house at 8.00am in the morning and when the office opens at 8.30am, I’m here before everybody else,” she tells me. “I find it very useful because when I come to work early in the morning and I don’t have anyone disturbing me, I complete a lot of things and that keeps me relaxed throughout the day,” she explains.

That she is busy is an understatement. Apart from serving as the managing director of the Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group – the massive conglomerate started by her father and the company’s chairman – Al Gurg also serves in various other leadership roles.

She is the president of Dubai Business Women Council, the deputy chairperson of Dubai Healthcare City Authority, a board member of Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the first Emirati woman on the board of HSBC Bank Middle East.

In addition, she is on the advisory board of Coutts Bank, the head of the auditing committee at the Federal Customs Authority, a board member of the Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University and the chairperson of the Al Jalila Foundation.

Finding time for a rare and exclusive interview with Gulf Business, Al Gurg reveals details about her personal journey to the top, what women need to succeed in business and what she does when she is not wearing any of her official hats.

The Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group, started 55 years ago, is a diversified business with 26 companies. How was 2015 for the group, has the oil price drop or the global economic slowdown affected your business?

“It’s been a bit of a dry year for the whole market and we can’t be any different from the others. But we have done our best and we are a diversified business, so if one company goes low another picks up and that has helped the group a lot.

“Specifically regarding the oil price drop, our companies operate within the non-oil segment in sectors such as lifestyle, building and construction, real estate and retail. Of course, the oil price drop does affect our customers but since we don’t face a direct impact, it’s a bit easier for us to handle the issue.”

Looking ahead, what are the plans for the organisation – will you be moving to new verticals or geographies?

“We will focus on our core expertise and look at expansion within our existing verticals. We will also look to grow our joint ventures with companies such as Unilever and continue our relationship with Dunlop, Siemens, and British American Tobacco.

“Geographically, we are already in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman and we will remain focussed on the Gulf Cooperation Council region. In terms of expansion, when we put our strategy in place, we look at what we can do in that specific market. For instance, in Qatar we found that we can’t be agents for BAT because they already have agents there. But we found space within the manufacturing and furniture sectors. So we ensure that we don’t step on anybody’s toes and we don’t like anyone to step on our toes.

“Internationally, we do invest a lot in shares and in real estate in England because we think it is a good market. We primarily focus on commercial buildings. We buy the buildings and then rent them out on long-term leases. Our strategy has always been that we invest for the long term. Since the time the company started, we have never sold a single share or any of our real estate assets. We buy but we don’t sell. We invest on our land and we feel it will be good for the future.”

With this focus on expansion, is there a possibility that the group will go for an initial public offering?

“No, we are not even thinking about an IPO. A lot of people think that once the business becomes big you go for an IPO. If I’m happy with the income of my companies, why should I make the whole world share it with me? I’ve got good cash, good companies and I know I’m dealing with my companies in the right way. So why should I go for an IPO? I am not in favour of it. If a family business is doing really well, it should continue in a proper way to keep it going.”

Some of the sectors you are focussing on, such as retail and construction, are seeing increased competition in the market. How do you stand out from your rivals?

“Competition is always healthy because we give the customer the right to choose. Also for us as a company, it keeps us on our toes. We can see that there are others in the market that are also working really hard to come up with good products. It also gives us good scope to learn about the market, to learn what people think and what the business community is up to.”

With 26 companies under the group’s ambit, how do you track the progress of the business and ensure that things are moving as planned?

“We constantly monitor and regularly gauge key performance indicators with all the companies, and we also have monthly meetings with all the general managers. Our doors are always open in the head office so that any one of them facing any problem can discuss the issue with us. We don’t have a policy where a GM has to wait for two or three weeks to speak to the group general manager or me. They call my office and if I’m free, they pop in and meet me.

“We constantly interact with the GMs – maybe not on a daily basis because then we will be micromanaging – but we are involved with every single company. That is the culture that the chairman has built – never close your door to the staff because they are the people who are working to bring money to the business. If your doors are closed they will feel that you are not interested in them. But allow them to talk to you, break all the barriers between them and you – that will make them happy and that will maintain the relationship.

“Even when I travel with my staff, I don’t travel as an owner. So if they are in business class I fly with them, I don’t go and sit in first class. I have breakfast with them, attend the exhibition with them – all as part of the same delegation.”

Looking more broadly at family businesses, the group – started by your father H.E. Easa Saleh Al Gurg – is now also led by you and your son. However, experts say several regional family-owned companies struggle with succession planning. Why is that the case?

“Handling a family business is a very sensitive matter. We have all read that family businesses typically go through three stages under different generations – creator, caretaker and cremator. It is very challenging to adjust to your children who have studied and worked outside the organisation and who then come to you proposing radical changes. This is where the conflict starts. And I think a bit of understanding makes it easier.

“In this company, we have three generations now working harmoniously because of the open-minded thinking and understanding among us. I have told my sons that respect is the main thing that has to be there, even if you don’t like my ideas or I don’t like your ideas. Of course, I had differences with my young sons – one of them who worked at Dubai Holding started talking about [investments in] billions when he came here. And then I told him: ‘this is a family business, you have to bring the billions for me, not take them away.’

“But he brought good changes, new ideas, methods and skills that he learned there and I’m really thankful for that. We didn’t implement everything immediately but we set priorities for the changes we wanted. Because of that, today, we are running our internal bank ourselves. We don’t depend on an external bank for financing any of our resources. Our companies are able to borrow to and lend from each other.”

You mentioned having differences of opinion with your children at work, does that ever affect your personal lives? Do you ever quarrel at home?

“We never talk about business when we meet at home, never. The only exception is that I take the liberty of discussing business with the chairman so that I can design my strategy in the proper way.

“With my sons – even if they want to start [talking about business] – I tell them: ‘Please, I’m here to relax, I’m not here to talk about business. If you want to discuss something please come to the office and talk about it.’ This is how I maintain myself. I’m a business lady and I wear so many hats. But besides that I’m a mother, I’m a grandmother, I’m a wife – so I have to maintain all these relationships that are very important in my life. I think work is for work. I draw my line.”

Moving to another organisation that you lead, Dubai Healthcare City Authority, how has 2015 been for the entity – have you seen an increase in the number of medical tourists or has the drop in visitors to Dubai affected this segment?

“Dubai Healthcare City recorded an increase in clinical facilities from a total of 124 in 2014 to 132 by mid-2015 while it has 190 non-clinical facilities. This growth is a response to demand from both local and international patients. DHCC has grown because of regulation and capacity planning. In the first half of this year, DHCC Authority licensed 526 healthcare professionals to bring the total to 5,060, compared to the same period last year during which 315 professionals were licensed.

“The entire development is also growing, we have educational institutions, new hospitals and wellness centres coming up. We have a lot of big investments in the pipeline. We hope to complete most of it by 2020. Looking specifically at medical tourists, we know not all of them will be very wealthy so we are providing a range of hotels – but with good standards – within the development.”

With regards to Dubai’s ambition to become a medical tourism hub, how can it compete with cheaper and more established locations like India and Thailand?

“The success of any medical tourism destination depends on factors like infrastructure, innovation, safety and regulatory environment, and geographical proximity. Dubai has already branded itself as an international destination. We offer high standards, a nice environment and good hotels so I think people already dream of coming to Dubai.”

You wear numerous hats and so jumping to another one of your organisations, the Dubai Business Women Council, can you give us an update about its latest activities?

“The Dubai Business Women Council was established in 2002 under the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry and it’s the first step I took in the business world – besides my own company. Over the years, we managed to build a strong reputation for the council. We mainly undertook the initiative of changing misconceptions of Arab women across the world and we have succeeded in doing so. In terms of initiatives, we work with MasterCard on Ro’ya, a competition which offers funds, mentoring and coaching to female entrepreneurs in the UAE. The council is also co-hosting the ‘leadership’ seminar series in collaboration with the University of Wollongong in Dubai. We also regularly host monthly Majlis sessions for our members where we have renowned speakers.”

Despite ongoing efforts to empower women in the workplace, we don’t find too many women occupying leadership roles in this part of the world. Why is that the case?

“I don’t see why women should not be at the top of businesses because there is nothing – at least in the UAE and Dubai – stopping them from growing. It all depends on you and how you want to move. Although [Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group] is my family business, I started from our warehouse in Ras Al Khor. I was literally counting and recording whatever was unloaded from our containers. I started from there and today I place orders in millions.

“Women have to push themselves, nobody can spoon-feed you that. You have to find your way. Everything is available in the UAE – our leaders have not put any barriers for women. And there are also many women who have really reached the top – we shouldn’t forget that. All these years that I have been working – more than 35 years – I have been able to achieve my goals. It’s completely up to me how I push myself.”

Do you recommend that organisations in the region have a quota system to structure their boards in order to boost the number of women in leadership positions?

“Why should we have quotas? I think if I am capable enough, I will be recognised. Quotas always oblige you – you fill up roles without checking whether someone is capable or not. And sometimes you will end up having the wrong people around you – what’s the point? I think that’s not healthy. It doesn’t add value – that’s my opinion.”

What are the main challenges that working women in this region face?

“The most important challenge is timing for women. When we started working in the 1970s and 1980s, I think it was a bit easier. For instance, when I worked in the Ministry of Education, I used to be at home by 2:00pm in the afternoon. So I was able to look after my children. Now it is a bit difficult for women. However, most of our big entities such as Dubai Ports and Dubai Water and Electricity Authority have their own nurseries so that women can check on their babies despite long working hours.”

You have been a businesswoman for several years now. How did you manage to achieve the ever-elusive work-life balance – were you ever tempted to leave the business and focus only on your family?

“I find it hard to maintain my work-life balance. It’s still challenging because when you give so much into working, you forget yourself. There are so many things to compromise on. For instance, in my case I feel why shouldn’t I have my morning coffee or afternoon tea with my friends? I’m invited to these events but I can’t attend.

“If you are willing to sacrifice these things, you can move along. This is how I moved along. Everybody has to do it – it all depends on how you want to run your life. I work because I love to work, it’s not because I’m obliged to do so. Sometimes I even feel bored during the weekends.

“But in terms of my family, I always find time for them. I don’t neglect them. And if I ever have to choose between my family and my work, I will always choose my family. That’s one thing I’m very clear about.”

You have several responsibilities and manage various organisations. Can you take us through your typical day?

“I start from my house at 8:00am in the morning and I end almost by 7:00pm in the evening. So it’s a full day whether here at Easa Al Gurg Group or any of the other organisations. Starting early is a habit I learned from my days at the Ministry of Education because I had to be at the school before the day started. Everyday goes through a different pattern. I think in business there is always something new. That’s what makes it interesting for me.”

And what are your favourite leisure activities that you pursue when you have time for yourself ?

“I sit and read all the notes that I have written through all the years because I collect them. I don’t throw them out. I enjoy looking through the books and seeing what I managed to achieve. I also read different kinds of books – I love leadership books but I’m happy to read anything that comes into my hands.”

Lastly, what do you believe is your biggest achievement?

“It is the blessings I have from God for all these hats I wear and for such a lovely family.”