Interviews

Incubating Innovation

Julian Pritchard takes over as general manager of BASF Construction Chemicals UAE this December. He sits down with Big Project ME to share his thoughts on his new role and the state of the GCC construction industry.

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For people between the ages of 19 and 23, there is an often unspoken understanding that those years are meant to be for discovery before they get down to the serious business of having a career, a family and all those other terribly important things.

Consequently, a number of them set off on life-defining adventures and travels that allow them to discover the paths they wish to take in life. Some realise that they like what they left behind, others find that the world can be a warm and welcoming place, if you’re prepared to work hard for it.

Back in the early 1990s, Julian Pritchard was one of those young people who decided to set off for pastures new and unexplored. In his own words, he landed in Dubai on a oneway ticket, fresh out of university, with “all his worldly possessions crammed into a rucksack”.

“I didn’t have a job, but I came out to look. Dubai was new then and no one really knew where it was at the time. I managed to get a job within the first couple of days and it was working on the Bani Yas Underpass, next to the Deira City Centre At that stage, my job was to install all the ceramic tiling on the underpass and to apply carbonation coating,” he recollects.

“In my interview, I said that I had tiled a few bathrooms before. Now I was doing 1,000sqm a day! But honestly, it was actually quite fun and a real eye-opener in terms of starting my career in the Middle East.”

Now more than two decades into that career, Pritchard has been announced as the general manager of BASF Construction Chemicals UAE LLC, taking over this December 2014.

This means he will be overseeing the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain and Yemen from the Dubai-based regional headquarters of the Construction Chemicals division.

Having joined BASF in 1994, Pritchard was, until recently, the construction systems manager – Gulf states. Embarking on this new challenge, he’s keen to get started and implement the lessons he’s learnt over the last twenty years.

“It’ll be a huge challenge. At the end of the day, the business has been running extremely efficiently and profitably thanks to our professional team. Obviously I have to grow the profit, while making sure that the business grows above market growth, because we’re a multi-national company and we have shareholders that need results. A lot of eyes are looking at Dubai because we’ve done so well over the years,” he asserts.

“We’ve got an extremely solid foundation and our people are the foundation of the business. There’s some great talent here and we need to empower people for the future and give them the opportunity to grow with the business. It’s a challenge that I’m looking forward to.”

With the region gearing up for a construction boom as mega-events like Expo 2020 and the 2022 FIFA World Cup drive construction investment, Pritchard will have his hands full as he sets out to guide BASF Construction Chemicals through an increasingly competitive market.

“It’s quite exciting really. I was talking to one of my construction colleagues about the old times in Dubai and how lucky we’ve been, that the ‘village’ that we lived in has now become an international, integrated city that is still developing.

“We’ve gone through the trough of the recession and I think all markets are starting to show signs of recovery, more so than ever before. What we see is two very strong global stakes in the sand. You’ve got Expo 2020 and FIFA 2022 and they have to be delivered upon.

Qatar has now started to move very nicely – they’ve let the majority of the metro packages out (for example). Oman will be investing in a rail network, Abu Dhabi will be investing in a metro. Kuwait has announced their interest in a metro development project. So it’s all very encouraging,” he says cheerfully.

“Just the fact that in Qatar and UAE, we’ve got something to work towards, is encouraging. I would say as well, that ‘quality is a function of time’. So if we leave it for too long, we’re going to have a big problem,” Pritchard adds, pointing out that it’s imperative that work starts now, rather than when there’s too little time to get things done for the mega-events.

“It’s a challenge, so getting the right people, in the right place, at the right time (is crucial). We need to make sure that we have the right talent to grow the business,” he asserts.

The idea of this collaboration of talent and resources resonates strongly throughout BASF Construction Chemicals. That’s why, almost a year ago, the division launched the Master Builders Solutions brand, which brings together all of BASF’s expertise to create chemical solutions for new construction, maintenance, repair and renovation.

By combining the know-how and experience of a ‘global community of BASF construction experts’, the hope is that the new brand will solve specific construction challenges, Pritchard says.

“We collaborate across areas of expertise and regions and draw on the experience gained from countless construction projects around the world.

“We leverage our global BASF technologies, as well as our in-depth knowledge of local building needs to develop and drive sustainable construction.”

By bringing together some 30 brands under one umbrella, the division will now be able to offer their customers a diverse range of products, including: concrete admixtures, cement additives, sealants, waterproofing, concrete repairs and protection and even performance flooring and tiling solutions, amongst others.”

As comprehensive as the list is, Pritchard is quick to point out that the real strength of the brand is in the expertise it offers.

“We’ve changed our identity over the years, but we’ve been consistent with the people that we’ve employed.

“I’ve been in the business for more than 20 years, people know me in the market and a lot of my colleagues have been with us for a long time. So it’s very much about the people and processes that we have and the way in which we approach them.”

He adds that there is a strong bond between all departments, including the technical specialists and describes the work done by the research and development teams as “laying the foundations for long-term successes.”

“Through constant work in new technologies and products, and as part of BASF’s global R&D network, they develop solutions for the regional challenges. These include the diverse climate and standards requirements,” the new general manager adds.

“Our strategy is clearly built on our people and our talent within the entity. Dubai is a melting pot of nationalities and we make sure that we have the right culturally-based entities. Not just in front-of-house sales, but also in back-of-house support. It has been a challenge, certainly in the latter years, but we’re seeing a bit more optimism now throughout the region. Most regions are now showing signs of growth and consistency.

“There was the fall-out of 2011/2012 – we had to reduce the operating costs and streamline the business – I think that now we’re very well positioned to take advantage of any foreseeable growth in the region,” he insists.

Steps to do so have already begun, with BASF setting up a production entity in Qatar, and Pritchard reveals that investment in new staff is also underway. Furthermore, he says that the Construction Chemicals division is looking to increase its facilities in Kuwait and Oman, two traditionally smaller construction markets in the GCC.

“Kuwait is a rising star within the Middle East. It’s been quiet over the years, but now we’re seeing that we’ve grown the business exponentially over the last few years. We do see Kuwait as a [potentially major market].

Over 50% of our business comes from the UAE now. It used to be 75%,” he adds.

“Look, I think the most important thing is to be positive about the market without being overconfident. You’ve got to be very cautious about what’s going to be physically constructed this year. For us, at the end of the day, if the piling rigs are piling and the concrete pumps are pumping, then there’s construction happening,” he points out, taking a rather pragmatic viewpoint to the scenario.

Another crucial factor for Pritchard is sustainability. With the introduction of green building codes in the UAE and a greater awareness of what it takes to build green, it’s now up to the industry to take the lead, and this is where BASF Construction Chemicals can and should play a strong role, as a founding member of the Emirates Green Building Council.

“We need to understand what sustainability is in terms of the construction industry. We see sustainability as a construction chemicals manufacturer – it’s in water and energy savings; it’s in less risk exposure; and it’s in decreasing resource consumption by expanding the lifecycles of structures and improving the health and safety of our employees and the people actually operating and using our technologies.”

“We believe that structures must be built to last. Our products help expand life cycles and reduce resource consumption. We meet green building standards like LEED and Estidama and our portfolio allows for faster construction, while supporting energy efficiency and mitigating carbon emissions,” Pritchard claims.

“Sustainability has no end, it’s a continuous process in the way we conduct our business today and for tomorrow,” he emphasises, highlighting the strength of his belief.

That sense of forward thinking is what Julian Pritchard is keen to bring to his new role as general manager, because, as he explains, his approach is to focus on the continuous evolution of both the industry and BASF Construction Chemicals – as evidenced by the Master Builders Solutions brand.

“We’ll never be leaders on cost because we have a product portfolio that needs servicing. And technically, yes, technically we have advanced products, but so do our competitors.

The USP that we have in our market is the way that we support our people and the way that we technically support our products.

“My sales mantra, if you like, is Sales x Frequency = Results. I want my people in front of the customer as much as possible. Which means that the technical services team has to come through and they will work with the sales entity to carry out mock-ups, technical training seminars – we do a number of ‘deminars’ around the region, which aren’t just about sitting around in a classroom, but actually touching and feeling the products and understanding how they work and what they require.”

“We’re very much involved in all the stages of the value chain. We’re a chemicals supplier, we have distributors around the region and we sell through our direct sales team to the clients, contractors and subcontractors.”

“The industry is extremely dynamic. In Dubai, you can be working on a Burj Khalifa or an Atlantis type of structure, but equally, you can be working in the outer regions, building smaller projects.

“(But), what I love about Dubai, and certainly about the UAE, is that we seem to be the incubator of innovation,” Pritchard sums up neatly.

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