Middle East Consultant speaks to KEO’s chief executive on new horizons for the company and women in the industry
As one might expect, the CEO of a large multidisciplinary consultancy, with nine global offices, is unlikely to be sitting in the same room, day in day out. “I’m based in an airplane,” jokes Donna Sultan, the longtime chief executive officer of KEO International Consultants.
“We have so many offices in the Gulf that I’m constantly roaming around to all our operations. I’m always on the road, but technically I’m based in Kuwait.”
Born in France, Sultan was raised in Boston; yet – despite her North American twang – she primarily identifies herself with the Gulf region. “I find living here an adventure till this day, being out here for more than 37 years. It is a global experience with so many nationalities working in the region,” she says.
Sultan’s first introduction to KEO was as a management consultant for an assignment in 1982. “I was very impressed, even then, with the sophisticated level of organisational thinking from their management. I can only describe it as visionary,” she continues.
“I was then offered a position in their management team and over time I developed a total passion for everything KEO. I’ve been privileged to have been entrusted with the CEO position since 1991 and the opportunity to carry on the vision of KEO from its previous leadership. It’s been a lot of years of learning about the business and what makes a good consultant. I developed a passion and I found my place.”
Sultan may be one of the few female CEOs in the regional construction industry, but points out that the situation is similar throughout the rest of the world.
“If you look at our construction industry, especially the architectural, engineering, consulting world, it’s really male-dominated – probably one of the last hold ups.
“In the US, women make up less than 10% of those in the construction industry, so it’s not really surprising that regionally we would see a similar pattern, compounded by a lesser pool of qualified female professionals. Yet I’m pleased to say that women make up 16% of KEO population, and 25% of our executives.”
She adds that the situation is changing across the region. “There are more women entering architecture and engineering. And I’ve personally seen, over the last few years, far more women in our profession, especially on the client side taking on major roles in project delivery. Some of them are very good at what they do.”
The 2014 Social Progress Index, by Harvard Business School, ranked the UAE as number one globally for ‘women treated with respect’, with Kuwait fourth in the list. Sultan is not surprised by these findings.“I think there has been an explosive evolution in the last decade, with a greater respect and opportunities being given to women in the work environment. It’s now becoming quite the norm to see women in very powerful positions.”
When asked about the most enjoyable aspects of her job, she replies: “That’s really easy to answer and I’ll tell you the three most enjoyable parts. The first is when I get to participate in an actual project and be part of a creative process with a team – it’s just such a high to be amongst these amazing design, engineering and management talents.
“Another enjoyable part is mentoring the professional growth of individuals to fulfil their own potential. I feel that is now something I need to concentrate on, as the whole organisation benefits from being able to provide professional growth. Also, the sheer joy of winning new work after hard efforts against very tough competition.”
KEO is now celebrating its 50th year and Sultan looks back at the highlights along the way. “There have been some pretty outstanding milestones – mostly when we concluded some world-class jobs such as the Emirates Palace and we can say ‘well done’.
“A moment that stands out for me was, many years ago, when I first saw KEO being officially ranked among the top international firms in the world. For me that was a validation that there was absolutely no reason why a regionally-spawned consulting firm could not reach the ranks of the best of the best.”
Sultan admits that there have been some trying times, particularly during 2007-2008. “The most challenging part of my job was making decisions to keep the firm financially viable, while not compromising the level of service we must provide. It’s been a very tough time, not just for KEO but for all consultants and all businesses to survive the downturn. While many will say there is an upswing, there remains very strong competition for work and the marketplace is extremely price driven, not always for the benefit of projects.”
This upswing has helped to improve the situation in Dubai, with KEO’s operation going through a regrowth mode in the emirate in the last two years. “We went from a large to a small to a medium-sized office populated with architects and engineers. There’s been an increase in requests for proposals on a regular basis now and that’s great to see. Some of them are impressive and very large scale, so I’m bullish again about work there. It’s been a jolt in the arm to all of our folks because people enjoy doing projects in Dubai.”
While the UAE and Qatar are high on KEO’s priority list, the firm retains its emotional and physical attachment to Kuwait, the country
where it was founded and based. “Kuwait will always remain important to KEO – our roots are there,” says Sultan.
“Recently we’ve been awarded some hospital work in Kuwait and we look forward to participating and playing a role in the delivery. The market has been quiet but there are definitely opportunities here in Kuwait in the short term.”
While KEO offers many different disciplines – such as architecture and engineering – Sultan reveals that project management accounts for the majority of the revenue, with 60% of the staff devoted to it.
“Project management has grown steadily, certainly in the last eight years. A lot of our architects have moved into this field,” Sultan
Currently a key sector for the company, like many other regional consultancies, is rail. “We’ve had some worthy success in the delivery of rail projects in the region in the past five years and we’ve established important strategic relationships with global experts,” continues Sultan.
“We see this as a new frontier for expanding our services. Those programmes are clearly priorities in most GCC countries today. They are unfolding right now.”
Sultan reveals that KEO is on the cusp of launching an independent design boutique for planning and landscaping architecture. “We’re
excited about this. We took our time over the last five years to recruit some of the brightest and most exciting professionals in planning
and landscape architecture and we think we have now built a very exciting team.
“Our market research indicated there was a great demand for regionally-based, high-end planning and landscape architects that have the right knowledge of designing an exciting and sustainable experience. It involves understanding and applying best water management practices without risking creativity. We thought there was an untapped opportunity.”
She says that the new division is due to be launched by the end of June, with its headquarters in the UAE and a brand name that does not involve a KEO tag.
When it comes to new project launches, the firm celebrated last month’s opening of Hamad International Airport in Doha, for which it provided architecture, engineering and supervision services. It also completed the handover for Abu Dhabi’s Cleveland Clinic, while design work on Doha Zoo has been finished. Ongoing projects include the QP District in Doha and Damac Paramount Towers in Dubai.
Maintaining a high-powered job, with its remit of decision making, presiding over new ventures and constant international travel is
undoubtedly demanding. According to Sultan, a strict daily routine – involving an hour of exercise starting at 4.30am – helps to maintain
her energy. “I try to keep to a somewhat consistent routine in my life. I particularly like going outside in the morning, in my hotel, or
on our farm at weekends,” she says.
“Keeping your mind and body healthy is paramount. My daily exercise routine – of walking, biking, or swimming – is absolutely
key. Of course, you also need a solid sleep to maintain a high octane life.”