By Kelly Ann Crane
Emirati businessman Ayman Al Awadhi is twice qualified to offer advice and expertise to budding entrepreneurs. Not only is he the managing director of Corporate Business Services (CBS), a company that helps business start-ups in the UAE, he also has a lifetime of experience growing up learning the ropes in the family business.
“I was blessed to be born into an environment where trading and doing business was part of everyday life,” says the Dubai-born Emirati. “My family has been doing business in the UAE since 1967, [through] the Dubai-based Al Awadhi Group, chaired by my father.”
Like most people born into trading families, Al Awadhi would spend his summer holidays earning his pocket money by doing various odd jobs. “It enabled me to learn about the business environment from an organic level,” he said.
As Al Awadhi grew up, he was given more responsibility until he was dealing with clients, suppliers, accounts and eventually the set-up of new operations.
“I was lucky enough to witness multiple business setups over the years I have worked and been involved in my family company. It truly gave me an edge I could only have wished for,” he said.
“Setting up a company in Dubai isn’t something you can learn about in a book. It’s about understanding compliance and regulations; knowing how the system works and most importantly, having a great network of people in the relevant sectors. The experience I gained over the years has been a building block for a natural progression – to start a company to help other international and regional businesses know where to turn.”
ALL IN THE FAMILY
The Al Awadhis like to keep things in the family and CBS is run by four major shareholders as family members founded by the two brothers: Ayman and Adel.
Ayman has a degree in management information systems, Adel specializes in international business and marketing and other shareholders are expert in finance and accounting domains.
CBS offers services as local sponsors, providing newcomers with regional knowledge. Foreigners are required by law to have an Emirati partner or local service agent when setting up a business outside a free zone.
“My advice to entrepreneurs is to lose the skepticism when it comes to companies like CBS,” he laughed. “It’s tough when you think you are paying for something you could do yourself. You can set up a business alone in the UAE, but I guarantee it won’t be easy.”
As for other business owners Al Awadhi believes it is his social responsibility to share the advice he has gathered over the years. “Any business that will be a success must be driven by passion. It has to have your commitment 100%. It’s so competitive. To be unique it has to be special, and you have to find the gap. It takes dedication [and] commitment.”
SETTING UP COMPANIES
After completing high school in Dubai, Al Awadhi left for Denver, Colorado in the United States, to study Information Systems before returning to the UAE to take a job at the Dubai e-Government. After three years, he returned to his family business and enrolled to complete his Masters in Project Management.
Customer service is key in maintaining growth and sustainability, according to Al Awadhi. Having opened doors in 2008, CBS faced tough times, just a year in, thanks to the economic downturn in 2009/10. “We started at the peak and then it all crashed,” he said.
Lucky for Al Awadhi, a large proportion of his business was focused in the oil and gas industry, a sector still operational in the region. “Customer service gets you through at times like that,” he advised.
“If you have proven your worth and delivered to the key players, they will stick by you. They are the people you and your business rely on. It’s about being humble and remembering that no matter how good things seem, everyone is worth your time and effort, no matter how big or small.”
CBS sets up companies of all sizes from brand new SMEs to giant international corporations and conglomerates. Its current client portfolio boasts around 60 companies and in total, more than 200 businesses have been given life in the UAE thanks to CBS.
“We have set up small local business like the Camel Soap Company – an operation that started in a home garage. Now they have a warehouse in Al Quoz and are distributing products all over the Middle East. International brands include Rentokil – the world’s largest pest control company, and Network Rail, a subsidiary of giant Samsung Group.”
In 2008, CBS employed just five people working from a small office in Dubai’s Bank Street. The annual turnover managed a healthy AED 2 million (USD 544,521) in the first 18 months of operation.
Today, the office is staffed by a dedicated team of more than 20 specialist relationship mangers, pushing a turnover of more than AED 10 million (USD 2./ million) annually.
“We’ve made mistakes,” admitted Al Awadhi reluctantly. “This is a typical nature of an entrepreneur who is always a risk-taking party. Information disclosure is a fundamental issue. As we learn, we get better. We develop better networks and make progress. We are all learning, always improving, it’s important not to see that as a failure.”
So what’s next for CBS?
“By the end of this year (2015), we have plans to set up an office in the UK,” said a proud Al Awadhi. The UK market currently holds a 40% share of the entire client portfolio. “It’s an important region for us,” he added. “We would be closer to the British business community to let them know there are options in the UAE.”
He also believes “referral” is one of the most important business tools for any entrepreneur. “Impress one and you can impress them all,” said the father-of-two.
“Business – no matter what the industry – is a matter of networking. The better the network, the better the business. More than 80% of businesses here in the UAE are considered SMEs – the largest segment of our client portfolio. They might be small, but they are the driving force of this country’s success. They are the key.”