A Conversation with Abdulla Al Gurg, Group General Manager
The U.A.E. has been significantly shaped by the ambition and success of its merchant families. Provided with unique opportunities for growth by a visionary government, many family businesses have matured into widely diversified conglomerates that reach far beyond the confines of their home country. The Al Gurg family is undoubtedly one of the most successful examples. Over half a century ago, H.E. Easa Saleh Al Gurg established his family business in 1960. Today, Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group LLC (ESAG) includes 24 companies spanning various sectors, and is the regional partner of over 370 international brands, such as world renowned Siemens, British American Tobacco, Dunlop, 3M, and Unilever.
With all its business success, ESAG has always been discreet about its growth and internationalisation. In Dubai, the Group is best known for its dedication to community. From complimentary yoga classes for their employees, to organising an annual beach cleanup, the Al Gurg family focuses on meaningfully engaging the community so to create opportunities for individuals and organisations to prosper. All three generations of the family champion various charitable and CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) activities.
Tharawat spoke to third generation family member and Group General Manager of Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group, Abdulla Al Gurg, about joining the company, why community matters, and why efforts must be directed towards preserving values.
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The Third Generation Joins
The eldest grandson of founder, H.E. Easa Saleh Al Gurg, Abdulla Al Gurg has been aware of the responsibilities that come with his status from an early age. “My mother and grandfather were very encouraging of me, and I must say that I am grateful for their ambition,” he laughs. Abdulla has an infectious, self-deprecating sense of humour, and speaks rather lightly of the many important milestones he has already achieved, which makes the conversation with the accomplished young man in his mid-thirties all the more enjoyable.
His career did not begin in the family business. For over a decade, he was involved in significant projects with Dubai Government’s development holdings. “I started as a salesman, convincing clients over the phone, and worked my way up to running a multi-billion dollar construction project – all within the span of a few years. I was in my twenties and had many responsibilities,” he explains. “Working different positions in Dubai Holding and various governmental projects helped build my character. I joined the family business in 2009, not as an entitled child, but as the CEO of a contributing company.”
In fact, the then thirty-year-old Abdulla had no intention of becoming part of the family business at that moment in time. His grandfather asked him to join the business as next in line to his mother, Raja Easa Al Gurg the group’s Managing Director and his aunts Maryam Easa Al Gurg and Muna Easa Al Gurg also active at the Director level of the family business. “It was good that I joined the family company after gaining a lot of work experience because I knew what I was capable of. I learnt my lessons. I knew it was important to listen, and that being surrounded by people that knew more than me was actually a good thing,” he explains.
Abdulla’s first task was consolidation. Under his management, the head office team grew from a handful of employees to over one hundred. The family firm was also one of the first regional companies to introduce the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, SAP HANA. That was not all Abdulla did to improve efficiency. “When I joined we had over 270 bank accounts. Today we have one treasury system that works like a virtual banking system for our 24 companies. There are no overdrafts, and we undertake daily cash pooling,” says Abdulla, clearly touching upon a subject of considerable pride. “We have systems in place that allow us to access overviews of our sales and inventory from wherever we are. We have over 370 agencies, and are responsible for huge brands such as Unilever, Siemens, and British American Tobacco. Thanks to our efficiency and transparency, we are now penetrating markets in Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.”
Joining the family business was not always smooth sailing. “It was hard. Very hard! Personalities come across strong. You have to be able to communicate successfully. I came from a very different professional background and had to adjust my mindset to a family business dynamic,” he frankly admits “After about four years in the business, I found my balance and took charge of the group of companies, the family office, and our charitable foundation.”
Why Community Matters
The Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group is known for its commitment to community. “We are adamant about CSR and organise regular activities around health and the environment. We also dedicate a great amount of effort to various initiatives that support education.” For many years the family has run a charitable foundation that supports housing projects, orphanages, elderly homes, day care centres, academic institutions, scientific research, and public libraries, in addition to providing study and research grants to students.
Despite all these efforts, Abdulla Al Gurg still believes more can be done: “We are losing a sense of community. Unfortunately, we have become a society that only cares about big things, big projects. Our country has changed dramatically over the past few decades, and we need to preserve the good things about our way of life. We need more initiatives that allow us to come together, like we use to in the past. We need to support a society in which our children play outside. We should not allow technology to take up all their time. We must remember what is really important.” The father of four is emphatic about this last point. He is worried about the society his children will grow up in, and wonders whether they will be able to carry on the family values in such a rapidly changing environment.
Abdulla Al Gurg sees a great need to orient future efforts towards the family dynamic: “We must provide parental education. We have to be more open to talking about parenting and what can be improved. This complex issue will affect generations to come, even more so when there is a business to hand down.” He calls for parents to be more tolerant of their children, even if they are not like them, and to be accepting of the changes the next generation will bring. “Maybe my children don’t want to contribute to the business, or aren’t able to fulfil a managerial role. I must be able to accept that when the time comes.”
Responsible Family Business
When Tharawat asks Abdulla Al Gurg about the specific role of his family business towards the community, his answer is straightforward: “We like to create indirect opportunities for the community around us. We give out lots of credit to individuals and businesses. We believe that money must continue to flow through the community so that everyone has a chance to prosper.
What about the responsibilities of other family-owned businesses? “I think family businesses have their hearts in the right place,” says Abdulla with a smile. “But in the future, we must focus on providing entrepreneurs and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with the support they need to build their businesses and thrive. It is our responsibility to provide opportunities and promote job creation and innovation.”
Tharawat Magazine, Issue 26, 2015