x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

A Khalifa Fund success story

The Life: Abdulla Al Shammari, the founder and chairman of engineering firm Cirta, talks about the satisfaction of starting a successful business and being named Emirati-owned small company of 2012.

Abdulla Al Shammari's business grew thanks to his idea of taking the boxes that control street lights and putting them underground. Silvia Razgova / The National
Abdulla Al Shammari's business grew thanks to his idea of taking the boxes that control street lights and putting them underground. Silvia Razgova / The National
Abdulla Al Shammari has the distinction of being the first person to apply to the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise for a loan to help his small businesses. The founder and chairman of Cirta, an engineering firm, attributes his company's success in no small part to the support offered by the fund.
"Actually, at the Khalifa Fund, I am a model for them," he says during an interview at his office in Abu Dhabi. "Whenever they make a presentation or have something to show they present my case."
But our story has jumped ahead of itself. It starts in 2006 when Mr Shammari, a health and occupational safety engineer, was an employee of the Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations.
He started Cirta on the side to manufacture ducts for air-conditioning systems. Six months after the company's establishment, the Khalifa Fund was set up. Mr Shammari approached the organisation with a business plan and was accepted on a one-month course for entrepreneurs. At its conclusion, his plan was approved.
But frustrated that his company had to rely on work subcontracted by larger companies, he decided - in consultation with the Khalifa Fund - to refocus on a rather more novel idea: manufacturing underground street-lighting boxes.
Instead of boxes containing street-light electrics cluttering the pavement at 200-metre intervals, under Mr Shammari's system the boxes are housed in manholes under the pavement. When engineers need to reach them, the cover opens and the box rises up. Maintenance complete, it descends once again. As well as being less obtrusive, this system is safer and the boxes cannot attract graffiti.
"We studied the market and we saw very good demand and [we would be] the only company doing this underground technology," he says. "We approach the government directly. There are no subcontracts."
As a safety engineer, Mr Shammari had been troubled by the accidents involving traditional street-lighting boxes. He met a manufacturer in Germany and engineers from the two companies worked out how to adapt it for the UAE market. Cirta remains the only maker of underground lighting boxes in the Middle East.
The company now has 84 employees and, as well as the main office in Abu Dhabi, branches in Al Ain and Fujairah. An office in Qatar was opened in 2010, and last month Mr Shammari met Saudi officials about doing work in the kingdom. He already has work lined up for all of this year and next.
Three years after starting Cirta, Mr Shammari left Adco. "I saw my company is growing, I saw that turnover is very high and I decided to quit my job."
He admits to being surprised at how fast the company has grown: he had forecast turnover would be Dh40million (US$10.8m) by 2014. But the company attained that level in 2012. Mr Shammari acknowledges that his was perhaps a less-well trodden path for Emiratis - leaving a well-paid government job for his own business - but says that having the support and encouragement of the Khalifa Fund was crucial. He cites an example: Cirta won a Dh5m contract but cash flow was a problem. The fund loaned the company Dh500,000 and Cirta was able to accept the contract.
"Always we [Emiratis] are afraid of becoming bankrupt, of taking out bank loans," he says. "The market is very huge; there are big company and competitors. But when the Khalifa Fund started, they gave us assurance that they will support us financially and help us [tackle] all the problems we are going to face."
Mr Shammari won two awards in 2012. The SMEinfo Awards named Cirta the Emirati-owned business of the year. He also received the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Award for Young Business Leaders. That, he says, has been a huge boost and motivator.
Looking forward, Mr Shammari says he would like the Government to provide extra support to SMEs by giving at least 10 per cent of contracts to small businesses.
 
lgutcher@thenational.ae