Interview with Abdullah Al Zubair, The Zubair Corporation, Oman

The Zubair Corporation is one of Oman’s largest privately-owned conglomerates. Founded by H.E. Mohammad Al Zubair over 40 years ago, the family business’ activities span across a multitude of sectors which range from energy, logistics, engineering, construction, information and communication technology to real estate, hospitality, financial services and manufacturing. The Zubair family has additionally been an adamant advocate for furthering the interests of the Omani people via various CSR activities which include the Zubair Small Enterprise Centre, a membership platform enabling Omani entrepreneurs access to educational resources and exchange, and the Bait Al Zubair Foundation, a culture and arts initiative aimed at supporting emerging talent in the country.

With both the second and the third generation actively involved in the management of the group, the Zubair conglomerate is a perfect example of the multigenerational family business. Tharawat magazine met with Abdullah Al Zubair, 27-year old third generation family business member and entrepreneur in his own right, to discussed the benefits of creative thinking, the importance of establishing a corporate culture, and giving back to the community.

Crafting a balance

“I wanted to be an architect!” exclaims Abdullah Al Zubair when asked of his career ambitions early on. “I studied architecture for two years but felt keenly that I wanted to do something more hands-on. I then explored business and computer engineering.” Neither of these directions however, satisfied both Abdullah’s creative nature and his entrepreneurial drive. He finally settled on a discipline that surprised everyone. “I studied the Arts in England and Italy,” he declares. “At first my family wasn’t sure about my choice. But I told them to let me do what I wanted in order to get better results. I always knew I wanted to study something creative and so the Arts were perfect. I loved it because when studying art you are allowed to explore. There is no right or wrong in art. It is what you make of it,” Abdullah explains enthusiastically.

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But how did this prepare him for joining the family business? “It taught me how to reach out to people in a creative way, not just through advertising but through good branding. When I worked in business, people used to ask me why I studied art. I always tell them what our professor told us when we graduated: ‘What did you learn? Theories and methods? No, you learnt how to be creative,” explains Abdullah. Al Zubair was able to convert the experience into one which would prepare him for what lay ahead. He explains: “I was able to assimilate into different industries. I worked in banks and now I work in the real estate division of the family business in addition to a number of other departments. I have learnt how to think outside the box.”

Working towards the family’s goal

Abdullah and his brother together make up the Al Zubair third generation. His father and uncles represent the thriving second generation, all of whom keep a watchful eye on the enterprise’s successors. “My brother is in the financial services sector of the company in external investment,” explains Abdullah. “I work in the real estate and hospitality side. I love it and I have a great team. I had to go through all of the stages that were required of other employees as well. When they saw that I could add value they allowed me to stay. I have my status but I get told off like everyone else when I make a mistake.”

“When I was a child and I used to hear my uncles speak about the business, the family and firm seemed to be one unit. But when I joined I understood that the two had to be considered separate. Personal and business should be different,” emphasises Abdullah. “At first it was hard to make this separation. But over time I understood and if one of my uncles would scold me, I would understand that is was based on something at work and not personal. I also went to a number of family business conferences which helped me develop an understanding.”

As a result, Abdullah feels the responsibility that comes with his family name: “I am usually the last to leave. I am an owner so my responsibility and my sense of obligation towards the company is great,” he explains.

While now happily established at the family firm, Abdullah still recalls previous work experience that did not fulfill him as much. “When I worked in a bank before joining the family business, they were scared of my family name. They would never tell me off and started treating me with special care. I knew I would never be happy unless I worked somewhere where they took me seriously and did not cater to my every whim. I would have happily copied documents and made coffee for everyone in order to gain some real experience. But as soon as people found out who I was things changed. This was one of the main reasons why I joined the family business; it was a great way get away from that mentality.”

But in the family business, initially a similar lot awaited Abdullah. “Most of the employees would pander to me and would not allow me to work because I am their boss in an indirect way,” he offers. Once joining his current division in the real estate department of the family business however, Abdullah found a great team. “I love it here.”

Entrepreneurial adulthood

Abdullah Al Zubair also possesses an impressive entrepreneurial trajectory based on his own ventures finding nationwide success. “I opened my first restaurant, ABALA, in 2007 when I was 20 years old. It was themed around a typically modern brasserie found in Europe. In 2011 I launched my second restaurant, The Steak Company. It was the first specialised steak house in Oman and in 2012 we received the prestigious ‘Best Restaurant in Oman’ Award,” declares Abdullah proudly. In 2013 he unveiled Moorish, his largest restaurant, followed by all day breakfast club Bail Al Dalaleel in Muscat. “Through this experience I learnt the importance of having good discipline. I think you need the same skills as an entrepreneur as when you are working in the family business. Once you make a decision you have to take with it certain responsibility. If you fail, extract the lessons inherent within this failure and then move on,” he says sagely.

Affecting Influence

Growing up Abdullah thought his family business was the perfect place but joining it has given him a far more realistic purview. “I think one of the impacts I want to have is that I want to contribute to a great corporate culture. We are lacking this in the region, as forming these structures is not a priority. I am trying to create exercises and programs to strengthen our corporate culture. I work closely with the HR and Communications departments on this. Here I use my power as a shareholder to get things done,” explains Abdullah. The Zubair family is supportive of Abdullah’s attempts to improve things. “I experienced a range of different working culture when I was working in other places and I want my own company to have the best. This is the impact I would like to have on the family business,” he declares.

Abdullah’s unorthodox education has led to him not only being involved in the business side of the family conglomerate but to becoming a driving force behind the firm’s social and cultural endeavours.“We have the Bait Al Zubair Foundation and the Zubair SEC and these are our ways of giving back to the community and they are very big to us right now. I am very active in the Bait Al Zubair Foundation,” he says.

Set up by the Al Zubair family in 2005, the foundation is dedicated to projects related to culture, heritage, arts, community, archaeology, history and publishing. One of the foundation’s chief aims is to promote and encourage Omani artists. “The arts scene is still underdeveloped,” explains Abdullah. “We have so much potential but they lack the skills. I run this program to support the possibilities of these artists which will only form with a bit of support.”

Understanding Y

“You will always have people who are hard working and those who aren’t,” pronounces Abdullah when asked to specify his views on Generation Y members in the workplace. “I think this generation is very much in the know. And if they don’t know something they are going to check on it. It is not only the technology, but also the speed with which we adopt new technology. When used properly these traits are an enabler for growth.”

In Abdullah’s opinion families do not have to do much differently to accommodate Generation Y members. “You can’t change to accommodate everyone all the time. But what they can do to become more attractive employers to this generation is work on creating an engaging environment. The younger generation wants to be heard and express their ideas. They should be encouraged to do so to keep them motivated in order to contribute and keep the family business dynamic. You have to move with the times.”

Tharawat Magazine, Issue 23, 2014