x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Chief executive Chris O'Donnell parts ways with Nakheel

Chris O'Donnell is out as chief executive of Nakheel after a turbulent five years.

Chris O'Donnell, the chief executive of Nakheel, was known for his friendliness. Will Ragozzino / Getty Images
Chris O'Donnell, the chief executive of Nakheel, was known for his friendliness. Will Ragozzino / Getty Images

Chris O'Donnell, the chief executive who led the developer Nakheel through a period of unprecedented growth and struggles, has left the company.

Mr O'Donnell had completed the terms of his contract after five years, the company said. Sanjay Manchanda, the company's chief financial officer, has been named acting chief executive "until further notice".

Mr O'Donnell, an Australian, leaves as the company enters the final stages of restructuring US$10.5 billion (Dh38.56bn) of debt. More than 90 per cent of the company's creditors have agreed to a plan calling for repayment with a 40 per cent cash payoff and the rest in shares in a sukuk.

"His legacy is to save a developer in a difficult global market," said Ian Albert, the regional director of Colliers International. "Nakheel has survived."

Mr O'Donnell could not be reached for comment.

Many of Nakheel's major projects were already in the company's development pipeline when Mr O'Donnell arrived in 2006, including Palm Jumeirah and The World.

Mr O'Donnell was previously managing director of the Investa Property Group, one of Australia's largest listed commercial property companies. His CV also includes executive positions with Westpac Investment Property, Lend Lease Property Investment Services and Capital Property Group.

"My personal opinion is that when Dubai had a need to get things started and get things done at a very rapid pace, he was there to structure the company and set the course," said Robert Lee, Nakheel's former managing director of investment projects.

Mr O'Donnell brought in several executives from Australia, including two employees who were later accused of fraud.

At the height of the market Nakheel had more than 20 separate projects in developments and more than 3,500 employees. But when the global market collapsed Mr O'Donnell had to oversee the restructuring of the company, cancellation of projects and large-scale layoffs.

"He was certainly in a tough position," said Lashley Pulsipher, the company's former public relations manager. "But he was always very approachable, very inspiring."

Mr O'Donnell was known as an outgoing, friendly presence in the office, employees say.

"He was always very positive," said Dina al Hassan, the company's former brand manager. "He was always smiling, always very reassuring."

Mr O'Donnell's role in the company had diminished in recent months and it was widely believed he was on his way out. Once a frequent subject of interviews, he rarely spoke in public in the past year.

In March, Mr O'Donnell was not reappointed to the board as part of a wider management shake-up.

At the same time, Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, the long-serving chairman, was replaced by Ali Rashid Ahmed Lootah. Mr bin Sulayem is still the chairman of Dubai World, the parent company of Nakheel.

Even after the economic downturn started to shake property markets around the world, Nakheel continued to make announcements about new projects, including the Universe, another islands project, which was soon put on a back-burner.

In October 2008, the company announced plans to build Nakheel Tower in Dubai, which would be the tallest tower in the world at more than 1km, as part of the $38bn Nakheel Harbour and Tower Development.

Less than a year later, Nakheel acknowledged the tower project was on hold.

After halting development on most of its projects while debt was restructured, last year the company said it would restart work on several of them.

kbrass@thenational.ae