Leading the Way: Interview with KEO’s Donna Sultan

KEO’s CEO on her career, managing the firm and creating better diversity in the industry

“What I enjoy too is how diverse the experience is to be living here. You are in a great melting pot of people from all around the globe that are part of your everyday business environment. But what really connected me to the region was being able to be part, in some way, of some of the largest and most important built infrastructure and development projects that have contributed to the growth of cities and nations during all these years of rapid growth.”

Kuwait-based KEO International Consultants has over 50 years of experience and a vast portfolio of projects under its belt. The consultancy offers a wide range of services and has delivered projects in multiple sectors across the GCC and even as far away as Malaysia.

Since 1991, the firm has been led by Frenchwoman Donna Sultan. In 2016, Sultan was also named president of the consultancy, and today she is one of the best known and best regarded leaders in the GCC construction industry. Talking to Middle East Consultant about her time and career in the region, Sultan reveals that her original plan was for a short stay.

“I came to the Middle East in 1976 for what was meant to be a very short period. Instead, a series of unplanned and very interesting opportunities came up that diverted me onto a path of a professional career in the region that has continued for over 40 years.”

Raised in Boston, Sultan is firmly entrenched in the region and thoroughly enjoys her life. “There are so many positives about living and doing business in the region. It’s a region with unparalleled hospitality that is so genuine and never fails to touch you by its generosity. Here, you are able to form lasting and loyal friendships; this also extends itself to a great culture of doing business that is all about respectful relationships.”

“What I enjoy too is how diverse the experience is to be living here. You are in a great melting pot of people from all around the globe that are part of your everyday business environment. But what really connected me to the region was being able to be part, in some way, of some of the largest and most important built infrastructure and development projects that have contributed to the growth of cities and nations during all these years of rapid growth.”

Sultan has now been at KEO for a little over 35 years, and CEO for 27. These are impressive stats which not only make her one of the longest serving chief executives in the regional construction industry, but also a trailblazer for women in what is still a largely male-dominated industry.

Asked how she remains motivated and inspired, she says, “What inspires me is to somehow influence excellence in what we do in the delivery of projects, doing so through the talented people in the firm. I relish seeing people succeed and achieve. I work pretty hard to have the company be as well organised and well managed as possible.”

“My biggest inspiration, and what gives me the greatest sense of accomplishment, is when people tell me that working in our company is a positive and rewarding experience. It is so important to me to get that kind of validation about the culture within KEO. Such feedback from past and present employees motivates me to rest assured that our mission continues, not just to be a company that reliably provides great professional services but one that has a soul and does not put its economic interests above all other priorities.”

Considering her lengthy and impressive career at KEO, Sultan has seen the firm evolve. Asked what her proudest achievement is, she says, “It’s a hard question to answer as I look back over the many decades of my time with KEO. I guess for me the absolutely highest achievement is to have witnessed and been part of KEO becoming recognised on industry-respected lists, ranking us among the top firms in the core services we provide. When we first appeared in some of these international ranking lists, over 20 years ago, it was such a great feeling knowing our hard work and achievements were finally paying off. Now it has become a norm to always be listed as one of the top-ranked design and project management firms consistently. It’s special for me to have seen KEO go from strength to strength as we have. It is a very tough industry, and it takes grit and very hard work to succeed in it.”

“Great achievements that continue to make me proud are: seeing our fascinating projects coming to life; continuously gaining the trust and confidence of the clients we serve; expanding our services and revenue streams with sub-brands such as InSite, C-Quest, F&M+; and last but certainly not least, witnessing the increased market positioning of KEO as a globally recognised and award-winning multidisciplinary practice.”

“In terms of further steps that the business plans to take to support diversity, we constantly review our gender-neutral policies and people practices to ensure that we continue to allow and support the inclusion and contribution of both women and men to the success of KEO”

With well over 2,000 employees, 13 offices and multiple ongoing projects, Sultan’s responsibilities as president and CEO are immense, but she’s keen to point out that she’s still able to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

“Fortunately for me, I am a very early riser, as in 4am. Part of my morning routine includes ‘me time’, which always consists of at least an hour of some form of passive or active exercise. Early mornings in GCC countries are quite pleasant, so whether I’m at home or on the road, heavy travel schedules being a constant in my job, I always manage to get out for early morning walks and jogs each day, before the start of what are typically very long days. I am also an avid gardener and I find tremendous pleasure in making and watching things grow – that connection to nature is so important to me and is a great stress reliever.”

Asked what a typical day looks like at KEO, Sultan responds, “There is no typical day in our business, as anyone in our business would relate to. The unexpected happens daily. Perhaps that is one of the things I do like about our business and my job – each day brings many complex challenges.”

With regard to what she enjoys and dislikes the most about her role, she explains, “What I enjoy the most is the focus on relationship building, whether with our clients or internally with my amazing management team and our exceptionally talented professionals. I enjoy the interactions with people, the regular interface of following up with staff on the progress of strategies we have adopted or projects we are delivering. I also really like getting involved when I can in the creative process, and being part of and participating in some of our large-scale planning projects. I find the whole planning process fascinating, highly intellectual and challenging on so many different levels. I enjoy, when I can have the time, to contribute and be part of a team effort.”

“The least favourite part of my job is probably related to the extraordinary time and effort one has to give to commercial matters of a large firm like ours. It is demanding, especially in these challenging times. Or perhaps the amount of travel the job requires, it is non-stop and requires that you pace yourself well.”

With regard to how she splits her time at KEO’s different offices, she responds, “I try my best to give all of our offices the attention and time needed. We try to leverage technology and advancements in communications to facilitate engagement across locations and offices. I am privileged to also have a supportive and highly skilled strategic leadership team that I can depend on and delegate to as needed.”

Discussing how KEO faired in 2017 in the UAE, Sultan says the year was challenging for every player in the regional construction industry. The impact of low oil prices and the dynamic political landscape had a dramatic effect on the market, but she says signs of recovery were seen in the last quarter.

“Our expectations were for a tough first half of 2017, but with the view that there would be a release of, especially public, funding for projects in around Q3. That was not realized, however, with further delays to projects having a ripple effect on procurement into Q4. The green shoots of recovery were starting to be seen, particularly towards the end of the fourth quarter.”

“We are hoping that the UAE economy will gain increased momentum in 2018. We are cautiously optimistic that 2018 will improve in terms of opportunities and revenue over 2017. Oil prices seem to be settling at a higher rate; the impact of VAT is yet to play out, particularly where resources are located outside the UAE. GDP levels of spending suggest a more positive 2018 and into 2019.”

Highlighting the biggest challenges KEO has to contend with in the current landscape, Sultan explains, “In brief, our biggest challenges are sourcing and maintaining our great talent pools to meet increasing client expectations in an extremely competitive market. There is global competition for great talent and many growing markets are diverting talent away from the region. This has been exacerbated by the decreasing number of project opportunities that have been awarded or let out for tender.”

With regard to challenges specific to her role, she says, “My challenge is to take the right decisions to keep the firm financially viable, while not compromising the quality of service we must provide to our clients. It has been a very tough time for all businesses navigating economic downturns. While many will say there is an upswing in our markets, the reality is that there remains strong competition for work and a marketplace that is very price-driven – too price-driven. That worries me as a trend. Clients risk a deterioration in quality of what is built in the future or face greater risks in project delivery if the squeeze on fees continues, particularly with consultants.”

While the market is competitive and fraught with challenges, Sultan also sees opportunities for her firm and plans to focus on making sure KEO stands out in the crowd. People are at the centre of her strategy.

“Our go-forward strategy for seeking and increasing opportunities is focused on our people and talent. The challenge, as I saw it, was making sure that KEO stands out and would be selected in this competitive market filled with good firms, each with very compelling portfolios. What value-add could we further expand upon that would translate to KEO upping its game? Instead of retraction as a reaction to challenging economic times, we decided instead to infuse a radical strengthening of our talent leadership.

“Over the past months, KEO has brought on board exceptionally talented leaders from our industry, each with a great reputation, to take on leadership of some of our key strategic technical divisions – people regarded highly for their talent and experience. While price is a key factor in selections, clients also chose a firm because of the talent it has. One of our key strengths in KEO is the ability to adapt and respond to the changing needs of the client and the increasingly demanding conditions of the construction market. Our bold move of focusing on bringing in such high-level experienced leadership talent is both exciting and one of our best investments while we seek to continue growing in all our markets.”

As part of its drive to attract the right talent, KEO continues to focus on the empowerment and development of female talent. The firm is committed to creating an environment that supports gender balance, inclusion and diversity.

“In terms of further steps that the business plans to take to support diversity, we constantly review our gender-neutral policies and people practices to ensure that we continue to allow and support the inclusion and contribution of both women and men to the success of KEO. We demonstrate our commitment to our people by providing opportunities for our talent to develop through ongoing continued professional development, appraisal programmes, internal and external training courses, online development opportunities, sharing thought leadership at conferences and exhibitions, contributing to industry journals and in many other ways,” says Sultan.

“Our internal ‘Women in KEO workgroup’ has a very strong focus on supporting women in our industry to maximise their potential and their valuable contribution in the workplace. We are also conscious that flexibility in working hours is required from time to time, and our philosophy moving forward is to support that wherever possible.”

The firm’s commitment to diversity extends beyond the office walls. “We have recently initiated a collaborative project with local schools in Abu Dhabi, to encourage girls and young women to explore the endless possibilities for women in the A&E sector. Our aim is to encourage the young generation of future professionals to challenge themselves by stepping into any arena they believe they would like to try, and to have the courage and confidence to navigate the various successful careers available in the industry.”

As Dubai gears up for Expo 2020, it’s reasonable to expect that a number of projects – particularly those directly relating to or in support of the exhibition – will finally move forward. Beyond Expo, Sultan says it’s difficult to foresee how Dubai’s construction market will progress but reckons there will still be opportunities for her firm.

“Much depends on what external factors will be in play that will impact investments and further developments or the types of consumer or market demands faced. That said, it is a unique market that keeps moving with new projects and new investments. I think there is room to believe that the Dubai construction market will remain active, albeit not at a level that it has seen in the past. There seems to be also a number of opportunities that might come through to increase its infrastructure capacity, as it seeks to meet the growing population of residents, those who daily come to Dubai to their workplace and tourists.”

Looking beyond Dubai but within the framework of the GCC, Sultan says Saudi Arabia is also an attractive market. “KSA holds promise with its plans for a mega city, NEOM, and a mega resort, the Red Sea project. The sectors that I expect to contribute the most to our future opportunities include national housing schemes, residential developments, mixed-use developments, hospitality, retail, transportation and municipal infrastructure schemes.”

KEO is also keen on markets outside the Middle East, with several potential target markets already identified. “We are actively looking at opportunities outside the region, we’ve identified target markets in Africa and some European countries. There is significant GCC investment dollars going into those regions and we hope to follow those opportunities.”

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