Monday, July 28, 2008

Lights, camera, investment

Sulaiman al Fahim, the Chief
Executive of Hydra Properties, being
filmed for a TV programme at a villa
in Al Raha beach.
Sulaiman al Fahim sits upright in a high-backed black leather chair tucked into an expansive wooden desk piled with paperwork. To his right, the national flag hangs limply from a short pole. On the wall to his left, official portraits of the country’s leaders stare out from behind gilded frames.

It looks like a typical office, but it’s not. It is a television set for the forthcoming reality TV show, The Hydra Executives. In fact, very little about Dr Fahim, the chief executive of the Abu Dhabi-based international developer Hydra Properties, is typical.

The softly spoken 31-year-old with a cherub face framed by a closely-trimmed beard is smashing ingrained, staid notions of how Gulf companies should market themselves.

“I wish that people would appreciate the ideas I come up with,” he said, “but I always feel like I’m a kind of bulldozer, a fully insured bulldozer that if nobody likes it, it starts moving – even if there are cars in its way, it has to crush the cars and move. I can’t stop. If I have an idea, I have to do it.”

Unlike many property developers who concentrate their marketing budgets on promoting certain projects, Dr Fahim’s approach centres on marketing his company, and not its almost one dozen developments.

“You don’t have to market the project itself. Once people have trust in you, they will come to you and ask you what you have,” Dr Fahim said. “If you market the project, it seems to me that you have to market to a targeted segment. I can’t do that.”

Instead, the chief executive – who has a Bachelor’s degree in marketing, an MBA in finance, another MBA in real estate and a PhD in real estate investment – wants his company’s brand “to reach every family”.

“I’m targeting everybody,” he said.

Dr Fahim is hoping to do that by a variety of means, including sponsoring everything from business workshops in local secondary schools and national book fairs, to funding Hollywood blockbusters. His company is also the only corporate sponsor of the UAE’s Olympic team.

The smaller scale marketing initiatives are part of Hydra’s “teaser campaign” aimed at creating grassroots awareness of the brand.

“When the kids start to know Hydra...then the people in the house start talking about Hydra,” Dr Fahim said.

Under his stewardship the 18-month-old private company, owned by Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed, has earmarked two per cent of its undisclosed annual revenue for its marketing budget.

Dr Fahim said he would like to see that figure increased to four per cent.

“My auditors and my boardroom are always angry,” he said, laughing. “They have asked me to reduce this two per cent, but I will always keep it.” Hydra’s in-house marketing team accounts for more than 12 per cent of the company’s 60-strong workforce, a reflection of the importance that Dr Fahim places on the group’s work.

“The way I think and the way other CEOs think is different,” he said. “They’re not really giving attention to marketing. Most of the companies here in Abu Dhabi are giving attention only to the engineering department, to the architecture.”

Instead, Dr Fahim – who has written a soon to be published 200-page book about Hydra’s marketing campaigns, entitled Brand Builder – has made the innovative promotion of his company one of his main priorities.

Rather than restrict Hydra’s promotion to regular television commercials, Dr Fahim opted to fund a 14-episode business reality TV series, The Hydra Executives, to the tune of US$5 million (Dh18.3m). The series will be broadcast on Showtime Arabia in September.

“The Doc”, as he’s known on the set, has also signed on to sponsor the website of the upcoming Dubai. TV, a celebrity-based channel that is part of the blockbuster Hollywood. TV phenomenon, for an undisclosed sum. The channel is scheduled to be launched in December.

To Dr Fahim, celebrities in general, and Hollywood stars in particular, are an integral part of his company’s marketing strategy. He attends Hollywood bashes in full national dress and mixes with the likes of Demi Moore and her husband, Ashton Kutcher, the Hiltons and other paparazzi favourites.

He wants to bring several Hollywood stars – who he declined to name – to Abu Dhabi in the next few months to brand and endorse a handful of property projects.

More boldly, he also wants to shoot movies with Hollywood A-listers here in Abu Dhabi. Dr Fahim is scheduled to meet Jerry Weintraub, the producer of Oceans ­Eleven, in Los Angeles later this month to discuss creating a movie fund to finance “at least” eight movies a year.

“We want to get eight movies per year with A-grade stars, like the stars in Oceans Eleven,” Dr Fahim said. “Big movies that can be in the Oscars. The big movies make cash – there’s no profit in small movies and you can’t win Oscars with them.”

Dr Fahim, who declined to disclose the details of the fund until the deal was finalised, said that he had another, separate movie project in the works.

“Whether the movie fund with Weintraub goes ahead or not, one movie will be happening here,” he said. “I can tell you more in December.”

Dr Fahim’s entertainment initiatives are independent of the state-run Abu Dhabi Film Commission’s own plans to produce movies in the emirate. The commission administers a film fund, the value of which has not been disclosed, to help finance Hollywood blockbusters.

Dr Fahim, who said he “always works alone”, did not rule out collaborating with the Government-administered fund in the future.

The property developer’s forays into the film and television industry have quickly catapulted him into the limelight. But his rapid ascension has drawn scorn from some more traditional elements of the local business community, who deride his almost celebrity status and do not see any value in its brand-building potential.

But Dr Fahim just shrugs off the criticism.

“It’s just jealousy,” he said, “Because I think that if they had the power or the vision to do it, they would have done it.

“I know many property developers now have started talking even to my TV producer to do [their own] reality show. That’s what I call jealousy.

“I’m a CEO, a celebrity executive officer,” he joked. “There’s nothing wrong with being a celebrity and being a businessman, and being a CEO.”

The stocky entrepreneur has often been likened to another “celebrity executive officer”, the American property magnate, Donald Trump. Although Dr Fahim is the Trump figure in his Apprentice-style reality TV series, comparisons to “The Donald” don’t sit too well with “The Doc”.

“I don’t want to be him,” he said. But he does want to work with him.

The two property tycoons are in negotiations to jointly construct a tower on Abu Dhabi’s Reem Island. Dr Fahim said that a memorandum of understanding or a letter of intent could be signed within a week, if certain points of disagreement are ironed out.

“Trump always insists on having the Trump name alone, but I’m insisting on having Trump next to Hydra... because I feel that Hydra is not less than Trump,” he said.

“The problem with Donald Trump is that he wants whatever he wants, and you have to agree with him. He thinks that he’s a legend, and he is, but is he the biggest real estate developer in the world? No. Emaar is much bigger. He has done 70 towers in his life. Tamouh is building 200 towers in Abu Dhabi.

“He’s promoting himself alone, while I’d like to promote myself and my community.”

Dr Fahim’s desire to promote his city, Abu Dhabi, through initiatives such as The Hydra Executives, which was filmed here, or by sponsoring local schools, sporting groups and business clubs does not just stem from patriotism. It also makes good business sense.

“Since I’m in the real estate market and I have properties mainly now in Abu Dhabi, I have to market Abu Dhabi first,” he said. “If I manage to attract people to Abu Dhabi, it means that I have a higher possibility of people investing with me. That’s my main goal.”

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