Middle East Consultant catches up with Doherty to discuss his new role, the UAE construction sector and diversifying into horizontal sectors
Faithful+Gould (F+G) has been active in the Middle East for more than 20 years, and is involved in the hospitality, industry, property, retail and transport sectors. The firm offers a vast array of services including commercial and cost management, development advisory, project management, sustainability and carbon management, and much more.
The company’s business in the UAE is now the responsibility of Paul Doherty, who recently took over as UAE country director. Doherty is a F+G veteran who has been with the firm for more than 18 years, having moved over from parent company Atkins.
“I’m a quantity surveyor. That’s my background, and I joined Atkins at the point where they were in the process of acquiring F+G. So at that point, because I was a cost manager, albeit working as a project manager, I got moved over from Atkins into F+G, and that was nearly 19 years ago,” he explains.
Since then, Doherty has held multiple positions within F+G. He has handled project delivery and programme management, and headed the company’s business in the Midlands region of the UK, before moving to the UAE. As head of the Midlands, he led a 280-strong team spread across three offices. Moving over from the UK, Doherty notes that while F+G feels and runs as it did in the UK, the market is completely different.
“We are a global business, so the feel of the business in the UAE is very similar to the UK. We have the same type of people, the culture and feel of the business is the same, and the family mentality that we have as a business is common across the globe. What’s different here are the clients, the projects and the market. The projects here are much bigger than they are in the UK – though some of the projects in the UK are no less challenging – but the scale of the projects are off the scale. Another thing is, in the UAE we probably have less clients than we have in the UK.”
Asked about what he’s observed in the construction segment in recent times, Doherty points out that the last 12 months have been challenging. “There’s been a shortage of liquidity, which has meant that a lot of the projects that were planned for the last year have been moved forward. What I’ve noticed, having been over here for three months now, is that there seems to be a hesitancy in the market. A number of our clients are undertaking reviews of their business priorities, and this translates into less appointments and less projects getting the greenlight. However, we are beginning to see things move, and I think that’s because we’re beginning to see a freeing up of global liquidity.”
He elaborates: “The market is improving slowly – more contracts have been awarded this year compared to the same time last year – but of course last year was a very low benchmark. If you look at some of the major developments that are planned, you’ve got Expo 2020 and Marsa Al Arab, which was unveiled a few weeks ago. You’ve also got Dubai Creek Harbour, the redevelopment of Saadiyat and Yas, as well as work on the Al Maktoum Airport. I think you’ll begin to see the market speed up over the next 12 months. So from my point of view, the outlook is very positive.”
Planning for Success
Since his appointment as UAE country director, Doherty has immersed himself in getting “under the skin” of F+G’s business. “I’ve been looking at our people, clients and projects over these last few months. I’ve now started a process of restructuring our business internally, and that’s no more than bringing additional clarity to our reporting lines and our internal business structure. That won’t affect anything client-facing, it’s just about maximising the efficiency of our reporting structure.”
“We’ve got 265 people, and many of them have been with us for a long time. We have a low staff churn rate, which is something to be proud of, particularly in a market like this. So I’ll continue to invest in training, and in the performance development reviews for our staff.”
Today, F+G has a strong footing in the UAE. The firm has completed work on several prestigious projects in recent times, and continues to work with project owners on iconic developments. Recently, the firm delivered programme management services on Dubai’s City Walk and provided multiple management services and contract administration on the Four Seasons Abu Dhabi.
Both of those projects are now complete and open for business, but the company is still engaged on other developments in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yas Bay, King’s College, Royal Atlantis, Bvlgari Resort and Residences, Deira Waterfront and Al Maryah Central are all ongoing, with the firm providing a raft of different services on each. However, Doherty is keen to grow F+G’s business beyond the vertical market, to further strengthen its position.
“90% of Faithful+Gould’s business in the UAE is in the vertical market, and I think that’s great. But what I’ve always bought to businesses that I’ve managed and run is diversity of sectors. I think there are some great opportunities to diversify in the UAE, by expanding into the horizontal sector in terms of infrastructure. I think that’s more of a medium-term target, and we will continue the good work that we’re doing around client management. We refer to it as client-centricity, and that’s all about being our clients’ trusted advisors, not just a commoditised service. That’s the basis of our success here, and I need to build on that.”
Despite challenging market conditions, Doherty reckons the UAE shows a lot of promise, thanks to its ongoing focus on infrastructure and smart city development.
“Mega developments such as the Dubai Creek Harbour and Marsa Al Arab are basically infrastructure projects with buildings on them. So to me there’s a huge market here for infrastructure, whether it’s around road, rail and other forms of transport. A lot of that falls into the infrastructure space. There’s also a link into power projects, and smart cities is just scratching the surface of it. You simply don’t undertake development like Dubai and Abu Dhabi have, without having sufficient infrastructure in place. That’s where the opportunity lies for me.”
Doherty points out that it is difficult to predict what will happen in the UAE (or any other market) in the next six to twelve months, but he remains committed to building a sustainable, high-margin business that is flexible and adaptable to market demand. “It’s about not having all of our eggs in one basket. If we’ve got wide sector expertise across our business, then that helps us cope with the pips and troughs in the market.”
In line with this, the UK native also reckons there is scope for diversification through project management office (PMO)-related activities. “We badge our teams project management and cost management, however it’s wider than that. We have a portfolio management offering and are able to undertake studies that clients want us to do around option appraisal, and around their business case approval. We’re already involved with that and PMO-type work. We’ve also got project management, cost management, and health and safety. So all of that, combined with a wide number of sectors, gives us a really sustainable business.”
Opportunities through Adversity
Although the last 12 months have been some of the most challenging for organisations involved in the construction and property sectors, Doherty notes that this has enabled F+G to get involved with projects much earlier in their lifecycles.
“More often than not, we’re brought in on projects very early on and work with clients on their business planning, development appraisals and on their options appraisal, to come up with the best value solution. We’re currently working with a client in Abu Dhabi who embarked on what was originally destined to be a hotel project. Halfway through the project, the client became concerned about their ROI, so we helped re-engineer that project into individual residences. As a result, that’s now going to be a really successful development. This is where our approach in terms of client-centricity comes in, because we offer the best value to clients when we are involved as early as we can be in the process. We’re now operating at that level with a number of our biggest clients.”
Recent market realities have also made F+G look internally, and adopt a digital approach to the delivery of its services. “We’ve invested in several systems internally; we’ve got a cost management system which captures all of the cost data from every project across the globe, and that’s called iNTEGRA. We can now sit with clients and start to do early modelling around different types of projects, even down to the orientation and location of where it sits in the UAE. The other thing we’re developing is called Dynamic Insight – that’s a project management reporting tool. It allows us to present live project data to clients in a variety of ways. All of this is making us more efficient.”
F+G parent company Atkins recently accepted a takeover bid from Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin. Doherty is confident it will only mean good things for his business.
“Changes, if any, will be determined during an integration period. F+G UAE sees it as a positive step, however; I talked about diversifying into horizontal sectors earlier, and an acquisition by SNC opens the market to us. Our business is complementary to SNC’s, there’s very little overlap, which means tremendous opportunities are on the horizon.”