Only when his mother considered him ready did Abdulla al Gurg take the top office at one of the country's leading family businesses. Abdulla has had two milestones in his life. The first happened last year when he took over the family business, marking a successful succession of a third generation member. The second came last week, when the father of three drove his seven-year-old son to the first day back at school. During the 20-minute ride he listened to Easa's excitement at entering second grade and the new school year.
"Fathers here don't spend enough time with their children," said Mr al Gurg, 30. "Fathers spend most of their time making money for the family and really miss out on understanding their children. Then there is a gap between the parents and their children as they grow older." As the general manager of Easa Saleh al Gurg Group, one of the UAE's top family businesses, with a history spanning more than 50 years, Mr al Gurg is trying to fill that gap. He has also been trying to instil his views on the importance of communication into the fabric of the workplace.
"I created a new department dedicated to investing in existing staff by giving them opportunities to expand and learn new skills and help us in the overall retention of loyal staff," he said. The group has 23 divisions in trading, manufacturing and franchises and represents several international conglomerates, such as British American Tobacco, Benetton Group and Siemens. Sitting behind a desk decorated with Italian artwork in his office on the 17th floor of al Gurg tower in Dubai, Mr al Gurg stressed that his climb to the top was not an easy one.
"People think because it is a family business that this position was just given to me," he said. "But the truth is, I had to prove to my grandfather and my mother that I had what it takes to be here." After earning a bachelor's degree in marketing and management from the American University of Sharjah, at just 20 Mr al Gurg's first job was at a call centre at Tejari.com, an e-commerce hub in Dubai. He ended up working in the sales department, calling up strangers from all walks of life.
"Throughout my career, I had to call many people 'sir', and had many phones slammed in my face," he said. In 2004, he travelled the Middle East as a representative for the Young Arab Leaders, a non-profit organisation founded the same year by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Ruler of Dubai, to promote leadership and entrepreneurship among Arab youth. "I learned how to deal and work with the different values and systems in the various Arab countries," Mr al Gurg said.
He opened offices for Young Arab Leaders in 11 countries, including Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Lebanon, and the experience made an impression on him. "There is not enough investment in the young, and that is one of the reasons that the new generation is having difficulty in starting their own businesses," he said. His other ventures included two years as project director for The Tiger Woods Dubai, a golf and resort project - the toy tiger sticking out of the top of his golf bag provides a reminder of that time - as well as becoming a board member of Dubailand Theme Park City in 2007.
"All throughout, whenever I faced difficulties, I came to my grandfather and asked him for a job at the group," said Mr al Gurg. "But he refused each time, telling me I am not ready." Last year his mother, Raja al Gurg, finally felt her son was ready to move to the top office. "I was initially of the thought that Abdulla would find it challenging, but I am glad and proud to see that he has taken the group to another level," said Mrs al Gurg, who sits on the group's executive board and has been helping her father, the founder, for 22 years. "Abdulla has really instilled discipline in the system and procedures since he joined."
After taking over in November, Mr al Gurg began sharing the top floor with his grandfather. Even at 85, Easa Saleh al Gurg shows up at work every morning. He made his own mark as a top adviser to Sheikh Rashid, the late Ruler of Dubai, and was also one of the few present at the Union House in Dubai when the UAE was formed on December 2, 1971. He also served as UAE ambassador to the UK and the Republic of Ireland for almost two decades, starting in 1991.
"It is quite intimidating sharing the floor with such an icon," Mr al Gurg said of his grandfather. "But it is also a constant reminder of the kind of responsibility I have been given in continuing this family tradition and keeping it a success." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org