Interview with Amer Khansaheb of Khansaheb Investments

To watch a business evolve over the years can be a most exciting experience. To watch a business evolve over generations is nothing short of inspirational. A wonderful source of such inspiration is the Khansaheb family business of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, a company that has built its legacy over four generations.

Founded in 1935, Khansaheb currently stands as the longest serving contractor in the UAE. As such, Khansaheb has had a significant role in growing the country’s world-renowned infrastructure throughout the years. It built the first causeway that connected Abu Dhabi to the mainland, prior to which the island could only be accessed at low tide. Take a look around modern-day Dubai and there is an excellent chance that one will spot an airport, roadway, or building that was constructed by the Khansaheb family.

Today, with the additional leadership of fourth generation family member Amer Khansaheb, Managing Director at Khansaheb Investments, the company has come a long way from its origins as strictly a construction company. The company now has several divisions including, investments, property management, and even a lifestyle division. This growth process was not sudden or easy but it has positioned Khansaheb as one of the strongest multi-generational family businesses in the region.

Tharawat Magazine recently sat down with Amer Khansaheb to discuss this journey and what the future has in store.

The Khansaheb family business is now in its fourth generation of leadership and covers many different sectors. I’m guessing this is markedly different from how the company started out. Can you tell us a little about its origin story?

We’ve been here for a very long time. The business started in 1935 as my grandfather’s uncle began a trading company, transporting food, garments and other goods between India and the UAE. We also provided food support and maintenance to oil companies working in the desert. And then maintenance turned into basic construction and that turned into a big contracting operation. It was my grandfather, Hussain Abdulrahman Khansaheb in the 1950s who grew the company under more of a specialisation in construction.

Khansaheb – The Inspiring Evolution of a 4th Generation Family Business
Image courtesy of Khansaheb

And then it was passed on to your father. What was the most important legacy from his generation of leadership?

When my father came in he focused mostly on diversifying and that’s when we started to bring in different divisions. I’d say the legacy he left is taking the construction business to where it is today with its reputation of a world-class business. If you look at the top construction businesses in the UAE, they are mostly foreign and Khansaheb stands out amongst them as a local company, which I think is significant. It means something to have a local company standing up there with those international businesses.

What were some of the more significant projects Khansaheb had a hand in during those years?

We built the first road from Sharjah to Ras Al Khaima, Creek Road, Sharjah airport, and we built the first road from Dubai to Al Khawaneej so there were a lot of infrastructure projects we were involved in that were critical to the UAE. We built a lot of landmarks in Dubai – we built the Mall of the Emirates, the Wafi Mall, the Bab El Shams Hotel, and we built the City Tower on Sheikh Zayed Road, which at the time was one of the tallest buildings.

When you were growing up, was it a foregone conclusion that you would eventually get involved with the family business?

When I was studying engineering at University I knew that I was going to work for the company, I’ve just always known it. So when I graduated university as a civil engineer in 2005, I worked at for Khansaheb Engineering as a site engineer for a year and three months.

What was it like working at a company in which you are a member of the family that owns it?

For me, it was a long wait before it started getting rewarding. I started in 2005 and I liked my work when I was a site engineer but working for the family business was a not easy at first. You’re starting a new career out of university and you’re expecting coaching, feedback, maybe even a performance appraisal but it’s difficult to get that when your father is the boss. There needs to be a management structure in place, there needs to be a direct manager involved, there needs to be division managers involved but all of this involvement was not there. That was not an ideal situation for me and that’s why I left. When I came back it, I had more experience and I came back a step up. I was at mid-level where I had initiatives I could implement myself, very limited at first, but it was something. It only really became rewarding in 2014 when I received the authority to start new projects and new initiatives. So it was a long wait from 2005 to 2014 but this is just a fact in a family business – you have to wait, be persistent, demand what you want and, at some point, hopefully you’ll get it.

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Khansaheb – The Inspiring Evolution of a 4th Generation Family Business
Image courtesy of Khansaheb

Tell us a bit about how you are expanding your family business’ operations under your leadership. What was your vision when you took over?

That’s an interesting question because we were just discussing the question of Khansaheb lifestyle with people last week. There is a vision that is actually at the core of all other divisions and it comes down to enhancing life. Our company is involved with businesses that really enhance people’s lifestyle and improves quality of life within the UAE be it economical, environmental, individual or business. So if you take a look at our business, Khansaheb Industries for example, we work on projects that are economical and environmentally friendly. Our commercial development initiatives have been designed around enhancing the life experience of the people here. If you study the market here, you’ll see there’s a huge demand for certain services that are nowhere to be found so we decided to provide them. We had a vision of the services we wanted to offer across the fitness service spectrum for instance – yoga, pilates, martial arts, cycling, circuit training, and more. As people are coming in we’re seeing the gaps that we need to fill and that’s what’s encouraged us to say ‘OK, this is what we need and if we can’t find somebody to rent we’re going to provide the service ourselves.

One of your most recent projects is the construction of a commercial and services centre called Mirdif 35. Why is this such an exciting project for Khansaheb?

Mirdif 35 is a property that has been developed to enhance the community’s lifestyle. It’s a shopping destination, a fitness centre, includes a specialised medical centre as well as food and beverage services. And everybody seems to be happy with it; all the time we hear people say ‘thank you for bringing an organic grocery here.’ People really seem to like it and we’re encouraged by that.

Khansaheb – The Inspiring Evolution of a 4th Generation Family Business
Image courtesy of Khansaheb

How did the project come about?

We originally bought the property as an office building and we were going to move our head office from here to there. This area was being taken up by the government so we had to move out. However, in 2008 the crash came and the project did not move forward so we didn’t have to move out. From 2008 to 2014 the plot was just lying there. In 2014, I had the idea of making something there. It couldn’t be an office building because office rent is too low to make it feasible. So we brought in three consultants and said give us a concept for the building. Then we went around and tried to see who might rent it. We wanted to try to get some anchor tenants on board. We got some positive response, they seemed to like the concept so that was encouraging. It is a place for community and well-being, entirely in line with our vision as a company.

What advice would you have for members of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generations of a family-owned business who, like yourself at one point, struggle to get the previous generations to accept their ideas?

It’s all about patience. There’s always going to be this worry from the older generation that the next generation is incapable of taking care of things so you need to show them that you’re capable. How do you show them? Let them see that you’re eager, that you want it, that you won’t give up at the first obstacle or the second or the third. So you need to be at it day in and day out. You need to deliver, you need to show that you know what you’re doing and when they realise that, they will hand it over. You have to understand that the older generation have lived a time that’s not our time so they have their own logic, they have their way of thinking, they have their views. You cannot change that on day one. For them to hand it over, they need to know that you at least understand their views. You need to uphold their vision until the responsibility comes to you and then you can change things. You can’t ask them to change just because you walked into their office yesterday. So this is where I see a lot of the new generation members get frustrated in a family business. They want to do something and the parents won’t let them do it. Well, they’ve been managing this business for 30 or 40 years so why are they going to try it your way? You need to try their way until you take responsibility for it and then you can slowly steer it towards a different direction.

Khansaheb – The Inspiring Evolution of a 4th Generation Family Business
Image courtesy of Khansaheb

What does the Khansaheb family business mean to you?

It’s part of the family. Everybody who works here is part of the family so it means a lot. There’s a certain association between the family and the business. There’s an association of our family with construction and there’s an association of our family with quality products, quality offerings, good business conduct, good business ethics so a lot of the way we conduct business is strongly connected with the family values. The business has grown to become part of the family.