Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 25 March 2018

Good acquisitions, an unfit brand, and Abu Dhabi's rising international reputation

A number of key business events from the past week are worthy of further comment 

NMC's acquisitions in Saudi and the UAE are notable for several reasons. Ravindranath K / The National
NMC's acquisitions in Saudi and the UAE are notable for several reasons. Ravindranath K / The National

While this column has traditionally focused on one key business event or topic that has caught my eye from the past week, there are often several events of note that are worth commenting on at greater length.

The past week is a case in point, with key lessons to be learnt about what makes a good acquisition, how calculations about what’s best for the bottom line can have disastrous consequences for your brand, and the rising attraction of Abu Dhabi and Abu Dhabi-based entities for international investors.

On Monday, the UAE’s NMC Health deployed $207 million to acquire majority stakes in two healthcare firms, UAE-based cosmetic surgery company CosmeSurge, and Saudi-based Al Salam Medical Group. The acquisitions were eye-catching for four main reasons.

Firstly, the acquisitions came as confirmation that challenges faced by businesses in times of economic uncertainty can be overcome to a large degree if the companies in question are well-run. In particular, this is the difference between companies that are declaring profit increases that are weak, i.e. based on non-recurring or unsustainable factors such as cost cutting, versus well-run companies such as NMC, which is building a sustainable business that is generating healthy profits.

The second reason is that these are operating, rather than financial acquisitions. So many acquisitions announced these days are first and foremost financial in nature, where all that really happens is an exchange of money for shares. But in NMC’s case, the acquisition of stakes in two businesses active in the same sector creates synergies and complimentary business lines.

The third element of note is that these deals are acquisitions and not mergers. Legally speaking everything is an acquisition; but from a strategic point of view, an acquisition is driven by a larger and stronger company, investing into companies that are typically smaller or weaker. Such deals allow for far cheaper and easier integration than a strategic merger of equals, which can hold back the actual business for several years as the integration takes place.

Fourth and finally, the NMC acquisitions are significant because they were announced as actions that had been completed, as opposed to the intent to act. In my opinion there are far too many, quite often repeated, announcements about what is to come. In this case, I thoroughly applaud NMC for acting first and announcing second.


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Health-club owner and operator Fitness First was also in the news this week, but not for positive reasons. It was reported on Tuesday that the company was charging its clients VAT for the 2018 portion of gym membership contracts signed and paid for in 2017, before the introduction of the levy, something that understandably didn’t go down too well with its members.

It remains to be seen what the authorities will decide on this issue; Ahmad Al Zaabi , the Acting Director of Consumer Protection, at Dubai Economy on Thursday urged customers to review the terms of their agreement to see whether the company explicitly specified the right to charge VAT in 2018.

In the meantime, I do have something to say to Fitness First. If you’re charging monthly, then I might agree that there could be merit to your argument; but surely if you took all the money upfront then ethically you are now liable for any VAT if the authorities deem it should be paid.

And another question. When you calculated the profit and loss implications of such a decision, did you factor in the effect on your brand such a stance would have?

Finally for this week, it was reported in The National on Tuesday that The Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation, a wealth fund for the US state of Alaska that manages over $65 billion, has decided to be an anchor investor in McKinley Management Middle East, a new joint venture-investment platform with Abu Dhabi’s Al Maskari family office. The new venture will be based in Abu Dhabi Global Market, the capital’s financial free zone.

The announcement sends two important messages. Firstly, funds on the other side of the world clearly feel comfortable investing alongside UAE-based family vehicles. Secondly, it is a feather in the cap for ADGM, which is clearly considered by such a large and important international investor as having high regulatory standards.

Sabah al-Binali is an active investor and entrepreneurial leader with a track record of growing companies in the Mena region You can read more of his thoughts at al-binali.com