Dream a dream; make your wish; and with a wave of his magic wand the entrepreneur will make your “previously-thought-to-be-impossible idea” a reality.
Exclusive Acrylic Middle East Industries Limited designs and manufactures acrylics from a busy enterprise HQ in the heart of Dubai’s Al Quoz industrial maze.
Products include skylights, roof lights and domes, canopies, arches and barrel vaults, interior/architectural details, staircases and balustrades, furniture and accessories, aquariums, feature fountains, shower screens and bath enclosures, sculptural/themed structures, specialist signage, as well as illuminated features like dance floors for entertainment and shows. The list is endless and we could go on.
But perhaps the most unique element of Exclusive Acrylic – owned and run by American-born Australian Brandes – is that success has come not through a chain of mass-produced pieces, but by staying true to artistic value.
Brandes believes his biggest mistake has also been the reason for his success.
“We do custom work and that is a difficult business because things are one-offs. People aren’t coming in and ordering ‘20 of those’ from a shelf,” he said.
“Custom work comes with its own set of challenges. The fact we have the expertise and artistic drive to produce custom pieces means almost every client walks through the door and wants something unique. They all want to push the boundaries and have something different. Something not everyone else has.”
Ironically, Brandes said it is this willingness to do something to satisfy a thirst for the best – and quite often the near impossible – that has been both the downfall, but ultimately, the success of the company over the years.
“We are often stretching the boundaries of design [and] engineering to create something unique. Not in every case, but often,” he said. “I think I would go as far as to say it’s the biggest challenge of running this business. It’s certainly one of the challenges that keeps coming back to bite us.”
An eight-ton diamond for the royal family in Brunei; skylights depicting Egyptian sketches made up of more than 200 panels; a 10 meter x 5 meter chandelier – Brandes and his 100-strong team rarely say it can’t be done.
However, he also believes accepting this kind of work has been vital for Exclusive Acrylic.
“Taking these jobs is vital in the Middle East,” he says. “In this cultural environment it’s become the norm to want something not everyone else has got or has access to.”
However, pushing the boundaries means mistakes or “hiccups” as Brandes prefers to call them. “When you stretch just a little bit too far there can be problems. You try to do something with less support structures because the client wants it to look like it’s floating, but the physics don’t allow. You strive for bigger panels because they [the client] don’t want to see joints, but then you realize you can’t get it into the building.”
In 1996 Brandes found a warehouse and began the company as a sole-designer. Now, he employees more than 100 staff and has increased the square footage by more than three times. In 1996 he estimates the turnover to be approximately AED 2 million (USD 545,524) per annum, but today, he said annual turnover is near 10 times that at close to AED 20 million (USD 5.43 million).
A CV that reads like an online job directory, challenge is something Brandes has reveled all his life.
A background in art and design – a specialty in ceramics, carpentry and construction, although no degree – he studied in San Francisco and then, in his own words, “travelled a lot”.
“I lived in different countries doing different things,” he said before attempting to further explain the perplexed look on his face. “I have a ridiculous CV. I’ve done maybe 30-40 different things. From working in India for a German master carpenter making handmade furniture using ebony, teak and rosewood; to landscape gardening for Hewlett Packard back in the 70s. I’ve been a policeman and fireman, an operator for Caterpillar heavy equipment. You get the picture.”
It wasn’t until the 80s when Brandes found his calling as he started work at an acrylic company in Perth, Western Australia.
“When I came across acrylic for the first time, it was a bit like magic,” he said. “It was sort of like a cross between ceramic and wood. The two things I knew and loved. It’s an unusual material and I just fell in love.”
Before long, Brandes landed a job working for a company in Australia making furniture out of acrylic. And in 1986 when the partners went their separate ways, Brandes snapped up the company and Exclusive Acrylic was born.
“The company was a perfect fit for me,” he said. “I still get to be creative, but the business provides an element of problem solving and making things – useful things, hopefully.”
FORAY INTO THE MIDDLE EAST
A decade later, in 1996, Brandes visited the Middle East to attend the INDEX show at the Dubai World Trade Centre.
Seven Australian companies arrived – with Exclusive Acrylic the smallest and “least interesting” of the lot, according to Brandes, but it is the only one left standing to this day.
The company now serves the GCC, Asia, Europe and the Far East with Brandes at the helm as executive director.
“Understanding the culture and how it works; the ‘ins and outs’ of doing business in Dubai, is the hardest thing about starting up in the Middle East,” according to him. “All the mixed cultures mean you have to have a pretty open mind about who you might be working with.”
That said, Brandes admits he wouldn’t do business anywhere else in the world and believes Dubai is growing from strength-to-strength.
“The majority of our work is referral business,” he said. “Word of mouth with a bit of marketing. Another challenge in Dubai is the transient nature of expats. You can meet someone from a prominent design company and show design brochures and samples then go back a year later and they can be different people.”
Brandes believes the real key to setting up a business in the region is understanding the options before you begin.
“It is essential to really get to grips with business quickly,” he said. “I’ve got a very good support team – my admin manager has been with me for almost 30 years. A good PRO is necessary to make sure you have all the right government procedures and policies in place.
“Understanding the right business structure can also be critical. Many people think an LLC has too many restrictions – but it doesn’t – for me it’s always been a limited liability company. Some people go to the free zone unnecessarily. We’re doing business here in Al Quoz, in Dubai – not in Europe.”
Exclusive Acrylic’s projects include the pyramids at Wafi City, seasonal theme projects at Mall of the Emirates, a giant skylight at Abu Dhabi’s Beach Rotana Hotel, The Royal Guards skylights, as well as iconic projects at Abu Dhabi Armed Forces Officers Club, the giant green flower logos dotted around Dubai Healthcare City and many private villa design and build jobs.
“Our very first project was a series of lobby lights at the Al Bustan Rotana in Dubai,” said Brandes. “They look like marble but they are not and I’m pretty sure they are still there today.”
The company is fast-becoming internationally recognized, thanks to a series of custom-made acrylic structures.
“The most remarkable as a company has to be a giant diamond for the Sultan of Brunei’s birthday,” said Brandes. “I had a telephone call to ask if we could make a diamond from acrylic and I of course just said yes. Then I heard the measurements. It was 3.5 meters across and was made from 8.5 tons of acrylic.”
More than 60 people worked around the clock to have the diamond – which was air-freighted on a charter plane – ready on time for the big day. It is the rock in a spectacular ‘ring’ centerpiece on a roundabout in front of one of the palaces.
“The real key to success is to love what you do. That helps everything else fall into place. It gets you through the bad times and makes the good times all worth it.”