Brocas Burrows was just another expatriate executive seeking a sun-splashed fortune in Dubai in September 2008.
The art of switching on lights
Brocas Burrows was just another expatriate executive seeking a sun-splashed fortune in Dubai in September 2008. Mr Burrows's company, Platinum Vision, builds high-end home automation systems, the sort of thing that opens blinds, sets the air-conditioning, lowers the lights to a setting marked "romantic", all at the touch of a mobile phone.
It was a perfect business for Dubai, where more luxury homes were being built than anywhere else in the world. And Platinum had an ace most start-up executives would drool over: Donald Trump had hired them to design 400 systems for apartments in the Trump Tower and Hotel development on the trunk of the famed Palm Jumeirah. Two months later, "everything went haywire", Mr Burrows recalls. The global credit crisis rolled into the country. Mr Trump cancelled the contract and Dubai's anything-goes property market began to sober up.
"I told my partner, Mark [Dallas]: 'Whoa, we've got to figure this one out pretty sharpish now 'cause we sell high-end luxury goods, which aren't on the top of everyone's list right now'." As 2008 came to a close, Mr Burrows, 35, found the odds stacked against him. "Ah, right," he told himself. "I'm setting up a business in the middle of a recession." It was a different story earlier in the year. The Trump project was everything you would expect a collaboration between Dubai and the New York tycoon should be.
Back in June 2008, the economy was roaring. Mr Burrows was on the second of two trips to New York to co-ordinate with Mr Trump's outside marketing team and interior designers on the project. In a light-filled loft in Soho, Mr Burrows and the designers discussed how to incorporate Platinum's wiring amid those for light fixtures and climate systems, and how to build cabinets to house the system's speakers discreetly.
Over three days, the group designed 52 different systems for the Trump project. "It was so exciting. I mean, to work with the Trump people was amazing," he told friends and family at the time. That evening, at the New York launch party for the Dubai project, Heidi Klum and Demi Moore mingled among the developers and bankers in an igloo-shaped tent at Mr Trump's Plaza Hotel. In a corner, a miniature Lego version of the hotel and towers was on display, complete with a remote-controlled helicopter flying around it. A movie projected images of the Dubai skyline on to the walls, and of the Trump project on to the ceiling.
Mr Burrows had attended parties like these before but this time, there was "more of an emotional attachment to it", he says. "There was a 'wow' factor because you are involved." The summer passed in a frenzy of meetings, phone calls and e-mails with Mr Trump and Nakheel. Mr Dallas, already in Dubai, focused on hiring workers. Mr Burrows became a regular on the overnight Silverjet flight from London to Dubai, planning on a three-day visit, but staying for 10.
Convinced Dubai was the place to be, Mr Burrows persuaded his wife, Fiona - who was about 10 weeks pregnant - to leave friends and family behind in England and move to the Emirates. He needed to be onsite to help his partner find 15,000 square feet of industrial space in a tight property market and hire 100 workers. "England was falling apart so I told my wife: 'Let's go'," Mr Burrows says. In September, he and his wife moved into a villa on the Palm. "I let her choose where we lived and she wanted to be by the water. It was the least I could do, dragging her away from friends and family and she's pregnant."
But just as the family settled in, so did the economic crisis. "You worry, of course you do. You have your family to worry about," Mr Burrows says. "But you've just got to go on with it." At the start of last year, the men reassessed their strategy. No longer would the Trump project anchor their business. They negotiated with Nakheel for a settlement. Better to "take the discount and get paid than not get paid at all", Mr Burrows says.
Platinum wasn't the only firm having these conversations with Nakheel, which found itself short of cash as credit dried up. As the downturn further gripped the economy, the developer cut 500 employees and stalled a number of projects. In February, the UAE Central Bank bought US$10 billion (Dh36.73bn) of a $20bn bond offering by Dubai designed to give Dubai Inc crucial capital. In April, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, sought to reassure residents and investors about the economy, saying "the worst is over and behind us".
Officials at the highest level were taking steps to lessen the downturn's impact on the economy, and Mr Burrows was doing the same with his business, albeit at a much smaller level. "How do we make money? Because at this moment we're spending money," he said. "Let's get some business. We've got to run this business." The men turned their attention to individual clients to keep cash coming in. These owners of villas in Emirates Hills or Arabian Ranches were still willing, downturn or no, to spend tens of thousands of dirham to outfit their homes with expensive technology.
Unlike many executives, Mr Burrows had the luxury of patient investors. He declines to say how much he, his British partner or his Emirati partners put into the business, but says they have a 50-50 partnership with the local owners. Despite the setback of the Trump cancellation and a weak economy, Platinum's local partners weren't seeking to quickly recoup their investment. "My business partners didn't look at us as a one-hit wonder with the Trump Tower," he says.
By July, Nakheel, which was cutting another 400 employees off the payroll, still hadn't paid Platinum. "You can't just carry their debt indefinitely," Mr Burrows says. "You keep chasing. Hopefully, there's a cheque with your name on it, one day." But in August, a line was drawn in the sand. The message from the company's investors was clear, he says: "Right boys, that's enough money being spent. Now you've got to make some money. You've got to cover your costs."
Mr Burrows knows the realities of business from the ground up. As a young man, rather than going to university, he started working at his father's company I, S and G, shifting steel on to trucks. But he did not enjoy labouring, so he turned indoors, working at various bars in London for five years. In 1999, Mr Burrows and a friend set up absolutematch.com, an online dating service for people between the ages of 18 and 40. On the site, he served as a virtual bouncer, but: "Unfortunately, we started it right as the tech bubble popped."
By 2004, he was managing bars at the Groucho Club, a media hangout in Soho, London. "I like dealing with people," he says. "I don't sit behind a desk. I'm not a bookkeeper or clerk. I definitely need to be on the front lines on a day-to-day basis, building customer relationships, talking to business partners." About that time, he reconnected with Fiona Shackerley, a family friend with whom he had shared an apartment a few years earlier. After years of being friends, "I realised she was the one", he says.
Among the attendees at their 2004 wedding in the British countryside was the godmother of the bride, Queen Beatrix of Holland. Settling down, Mr Burrows sought a job in which his workday didn't end at 4am. He met Mr Dallas, who had an interest in Sound Creations, a London electronics company, and joined him. Selling high-end home automation systems, he says, was "very cool". "It's fun stuff. We're not selling tarmac or scaffolding. We're selling big boys' toys."
In August, almost a year after Mr Burrows moved to Dubai to launch Platinum, he and Mr Dallas held a meeting with their local partners. The group evaluated the firm's condition during a presentation at Platinum's offices in Dubai Investment Park. With their work in private homes and yachts, Platinum had been able to make its expenses. But where would the growth come from? "They said, 'Look, that's what you're spending each month. Do you need those certain people?" Mr Burrows recalls. A few positions were eliminated to free up some cash, and they developed a marketing strategy for a post-boom economy.
"What are the two biggest concerns in people's minds? Finance and the climate," Mr Burrows says. "So what we try to do is provide something which is predominantly geeky - recycling - and make it sexy and glamorous." In other words, save on your energy bills and save the environment by investing in a Platinum system, which will conserve electricity. "Otherwise I'm not going to do it," he says. "I don't have time. By the time I've got my suit on, shaved and am running out the door - Oh, I've left the lights on in the bedroom. Sod it."
Mr Burrows touts Platinum's offerings to cash-strapped developers as a service that will make their luxury properties stand out. "They all have pools, a coffee shop, gyms," he says. "What are you doing different from the guy down the road?" Mr Burrows concedes it has been a "hairy" year. It's the closest he gets to worrying. Instead, he subscribes to the salesman's special brand of optimism, where obstacles are merely challenges. "I'm, like, yeah, carry on, carry on," he says. "You just keep phoning."
The reasons that made Dubai a good place to start a business still exist, he says. "I have every confidence that the GCC countries and the Middle East are gonna fly back a lot faster than Europe and America. "I love England but it doesn't have the capacity for working on the master development level. "Look at what is going on here: they're building new cities, new towns, new worlds. "You wake up in the morning and it's blue sky and it's living by the ocean. You don't get that in London. You wake up at 6.00 in the morning. It's dark, it's raining, it's cold. I couldn't do it."
In November, Mr Burrows stood, relaxed, smiling and barefoot on the deck of a yacht called Platinum, which was docked trackside at the Yas Island marina. Roaring Formula One engines punctuated the party chatter. The summer heat was finally giving way to temperate evenings and the mood among the 50 or so guests was jovial. Platinum had just secured a major contract with an Abu Dhabi developer to install home automation systems in hundreds of apartments and homes. After a tough year, prospects seemed brighter.
"It's going to be tough," he says. "It's still more exciting than anywhere else I know." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org