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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 17 August 2018

Not your conventional boss

With his cartoon character ties and fondness for music and animals, it's fair to say the founder of the Dubai publisher CPI is a larger-than-life businessman.
Illustration by Chris Burke for The National.
Illustration by Chris Burke for The National.
Only Dominic De Sousa could have come up with Goodbye, a magazine devoted to dead celebrities.

Mr De Sousa, 52, who founded the Dubai publisher CPI in the early 1990s, devised the idea for Hello! magazine's morbid sibling a few years before the recession hit. Few others in the industry are capable of conceptualising, yet alone publicly announcing such a project, which he insists is still in the pipeline.

But then, few others in the industry wear ties depicting characters from The Simpsons, or have skipped school with world snooker stars.

Mr De Sousa is installed on a red leather sofa in his flamboyant office, which is cocooned in an otherwise uninspiring Dubai office tower.

The glass walls are tinged in fluorescent green, and there is a faux zebra-skin rug on the floor. Perhaps wary of accusations of minimalism, Mr De Sousa also has plans to instal a giant fish tank.

Comparisons don't come easy, given the executive's rather unique style.

"The culture of the company is not to create an environment that is stuffy," he says, with uncharacteristic understatement.

Mr De Sousa has been called a lot of things in his time, but "stuffy" is not one of them.

Despite the outlandish idea for Goodbye, CPI's current output is altogether more sober. The company name stands for Corporate Publishing International, and its first magazine was Computer News Middle East.

CPI now has more than 25 titles, including OK! Middle East and BBC Good Food. It also has home-grown trade titles in sectors such as broadcast and construction.

Yet the man at the helm is renowned as one of the regional publishing industry's "larger than life" characters, described variously as "a great salesman", "charismatic" and "eccentric".

One regional media executive, who has known Mr De Sousa since the 1990s, says that "Dominic is an incredibly polarising person" to work with.

"Because he's a larger-than-life character, people tend to have strong opinions about him one way or another," said the executive, who did not wish to be named.

"He's the only person I know in the Middle East who wears ties with Bugs Bunny and other cartoon characters - he has a closet full of them. And it's all in a non-ironic way. These are not the marks of a conventional businessperson."

Mr De Sousa was born in Kenya; his father was from Brazil, his mother from Goa in India. He moved to England at the age of 11, with his parents choosing to settle in the London suburb of Wimbledon.

He describes the move as "traumatic".

"One evening you were looking at a giraffe and zebra walking past your house, and the next day you're in suburbia in London during winter. I took about four months to learn how to get back to my own house, because all the houses looked the same."

If the young Mr De Sousa had trouble finding his house, he also experienced some difficulty locating his school. That was because he regularly played truant with schoolmates Jimmy White and Tony Meo, who went on to become famous snooker players.

"I was a naughty boy at school, I was a character. I just used to climb out of a window, and go off and learn how to play guitar with a friend," Mr De Sousa says.

Playing truant did not lead to good grades: Mr De Sousa says he went on to scrape a BSc degree in biochemistry, although he is vague on exactly which university he attended.

Yet skipping school with future snooker stars did not go entirely to waste. Learning guitar instead of algebra led to Mr De Sousa's first big vocation: playing in a band.

The act, called Black Velvet, played "anything from Santana to pop to rock", and performed in nightclubs and on cruise liners.

It is a passion that remains with Mr De Sousa today. Among one of his many eccentricities, the executive regularly sings at office parties and other social events.

Will Rankin, a journalist based in Dubai and former employee of CPI, recalls hearing Mr De Sousa perform at a staff party. He describes the sound as something similar to "a Goan-Wimbledon version of Lionel Richie".

While music is still a passion for Mr De Sousa, it was once his career. He claims Black Velvet earned a substantial amount of money from touring, and were on the verge of setting up their own record label.

This taught Mr De Sousa his first lesson in business.

"The guy who managed the band ran away with all the money and bought a house. It was about half a million pounds," he says.

"It taught me one big lesson: whenever you get into any business, make sure everything is in writing."

With the once-mighty Black Velvet now more akin to crushed velvet, Mr De Sousa considered his options. Although he pursued biochemistry, he felt he did not want to work "in a white coat in a windowless laboratory for the rest of my life".

Instead, he got a job at a branch of the now-defunct electronics shop Tandy. On his first day, kitted out in a suit, he was asked to clean a toilet. But he soon gained a promotion, and eventually left with the intention of setting up his own shop.

But Mr De Sousa's career in retail was cut short when a friend approached him about a job at Reed Business Publishing. Still based in the UK, he started selling advertising for a magazine called Middle East Computing, which marked his first connection to the region.

Then came what Mr De Sousa describes as "the call that changed my life", some time in the late 1980s (he is rather vague about the exact dates).

The call came from Robert Serafin, the head of a rival publisher ITP, which is now based in Dubai and publishes titles such as Arabian Business and Time Out Dubai.

One regional executive described Mr Serafin, who rarely gives interviews and keeps a low profile, as the "diametric opposite" of Mr De Sousa.

Despite being very different, the ITP boss recognised the natural salesman in Mr De Sousa and gave him a job at Hitchin in the UK, selling advertising for a magazine called Arabian Computer News.

It did not end well. A few years later, Mr De Sousa left the company to set up CPI with his friend Eileen Michael - prompting a bitter legal dispute with ITP.

"They tried to stop me starting up my company," Mr De Sousa says. ITP did not respond to a request for comment when approached by The National.

Although CPI is built on sober business-to-business titles, some of its future plans appear, to put it mildly, curious.

Along with music, another of Mr De Sousa's passions is animals. "I'm trying to get involved in a pet and wildlife publication, which is an area of my life that I enjoy," he says.

Mr De Sousa says he has "access" to some exotic animals, although it is a subjects he is cagey about (no pun intended).

Mr Rankin recalls the garden of one of Mr De Sousa's villas was full of animals, including monkeys and "a giant rat".

As a "polarising" character, working for Mr De Sousa garners a mixed response.

Richard Judd, the managing director of CPI's business, broadcast and technology divisions, says his boss is "charismatic".

"He is what you see - you don't get any of the rubbish you get with some bosses. Dom's office is always open, whether it's to the cleaner or the commercial director," Mr Judd says.

Yet Mr Rankin says he parted ways with CPI "quite acrimoniously", having launched Banker Middle East magazine when employed at the company.

"On a good day, [Dominic was] brilliant - great fun, would leave you to your own devices. On a bad day, it was absolute hell. If he decided that you'd done something wrong, then he could make your life very difficult."

Former business partner Ms Michael, who founded the Oil Barons' Charity Ball in Dubai and is still working with Mr De Sousa on some projects, says "Dominic has stood the test of time".

"He's as mad as a box of frogs; he's larger than life; he's an entrepreneur; he's a guy who's got a lot of guts," she says. "His approach is a little bit different from most publishing companies here."

One explanation for Mr De Sousa's approach to business - and, indeed, life itself - is the huge heart attack he suffered about five years ago.

"I should have died. I was saved by my girlfriend pouring cold water on me," he says.

Stretched out on a hospital slab before the emergency operation, Mr De Sousa says he heard the voice of his late father.

"Everybody thought that I had an 80 per cent chance of dying on the table. Just before the operation, I heard my father's voice . literally telling me that I would survive, saying 'don't worry son, you will be OK'."

Mr De Sousa says the heart attack reinforced the way he does business with his senior editors and sales staff: he grants some employees 40 per cent stakes in the magazines they work on.

Given that he has no children, Mr De Sousa appears to have put a lot of thought into what he leaves behind.

"My legacy is going to be CPI, definitely. Because I've structured the company even more vigorously now, to be little business units that are powered by business partners. So even if I'm not around, the company will survive.

"My ultimate dream before I die - if I do - is to come to work and share my office with a team of millionaires."

Indeed, his near-death experience has taught Mr De Sousa to treat "the next day as his last", according to one colleague.

Perhaps this is the real driving force behind those crazy ties, and the interest in animals and music, as well as the sharing of his business with employees.

And given Mr De Sousa's understandable concern for his own legacy, Goodbye magazine does not seem that outlandish after all.

 

bflanagan@thenational.ae

 

The bio

Title: Founder, CPI.

Age: 52.

Lives: Dubai

Family: Partner, no childreni

Education: Studied for a BSc in biochemistry in London

Grew up: Kenya and London

Career: Manager at Tandy electronics shop; advertising manager at Reed Business Publishing in the UK, selling advertising for Middle East Computing magazine; advertising manager at ITP in UK; set up CPI in early 1990s.

Favourite car: Has a Cadillac Escalade and a bright yellow Corvette.

Favourite film: Braveheart.

Preferred music: : "I listen to everything. I just got back from a Paul McCartney concert."

Favourite restaurant: Bamboo Lagoon at the Marriott in Deira.

Philosophy: "From zero to 50, we're all saying 'I'm a doctor, I'm a lawyer, I'm a journalist, I'm a president, I'm a sheikh, I'm whatever'. From 50 to 100 it's about a legacy that you leave behind."

Favourite restaurant: Bamboo Lagoon at the Marriott in Deira.

Gadgets: "I'm not IT-savvy at all".

Secret pleasure: "I'm still hooked by music. I've recorded 80 songs, which are going on an online site soon."

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