If there’s anything Mahmoud Awad has learnt over the course of a business career spanning more than 40 years in the UAE, it is the importance of knowing your numbers.
“Many companies close because the manager is not really involved in the accounts,” he says. “I advise any man who wants to run a company to have courses in accounts. Because if an accountant wants to play dirty, he can destroy you.”
Mr Awad, 68, is the managing director of Concorde Corodex – a group of companies making fire protection, water purification and specialist gas products that now has a turnover of about Dh400 million per year. He also has a string of other, seemingly unrelated investments, ranging from an industrial gas manufacturer, a metal fabrication firm, a manufacturer of emergency vehicles, a VAT refunds business and a chain of fish restaurants.
As a result, interviewing Mr Awad about his career as a serial entrepreneur leads off into many different tangents, but to him, it is simple.
“Life is full of opportunities. If you are in the right place at the right time, grab it,” he says. “Not everything I did succeeded. Some things failed and we lost money. But if you don’t grab opportunity, you go nowhere. This is life – you take the chance.”
Mr Awad, who is from Palestine, was exposed to business at a very young age. As soon as he was able to ride a bicycle he made deliveries from his grandfather’s shop. His arrival in the UAE came in 1968 after he completed a bachelor’s degree in business and accounting from Beirut University.
Here, he spent six years as manager of a gas plant owned by Qatar’s Almana group before spotting a gap in the market for firefighting equipment.
“People kept bringing their fire extinguishers to be refilled [with carbon dioxide]. Sometimes they were not suitable – they were either too old, rusty or damaged. So I started bringing in new extinguishers.”
But his decision to set up Concorde Corodex caused some distress for his former employer, who implored him to carry on running the gas plant in return for an investment in his new venture. Mr Awad agreed, and with a third shareholder, Englishman Leslie Nassey, they each put in Dh50,000 of start-up capital. Mr Nassey sold his stake in 1987 and passed away three years ago, but Almana remains a joint partner in several businesses.
Initially, the company imported fire extinguishers from the UK firm Chubb and later imported fire clothing, cabinets and doors from Bristol Equipment. It moved to its main site at Al Quoz in Dubai in 1986 and began manufacturing in 1991, when it had just 30 staff.
Its current staff numbers of about 1,000 are now split between its 220,000 square feet Al Quoz site in Dubai and a 350,000sq ft facility at Icad in Abu Dhabi, where it manufactures water and desalination equipment, water treatment products and vehicles for the emergency services.
He credits both the UAE’s regulatory regime and his employees as contributors towards his success, stating that a successful leader needs a competent army to succeed, and vice versa.
“You should be fair with your employees. I have some people working with me since 1979. If I’m not fair with them, they won’t stay so long. You have to take care of them – even their personal problems.”
His other businesses include Dubai Industrial Gases, steel fabricator Al Mana Metal Construction and Fexco Middle East – a company that reclaims the VAT levied on hotels and other business expenses incurred by Middle East firms in the UK and Europe. It carries out all of the paperwork and returns 75 per cent of the proceeds to clients, keeping the other 25 per cent as commission.
Surprisingly, the businesses that have given him the greatest pleasure have been his six fish restaurants – two in Dubai, three in Sharjah and one in Ajman. This isn’t because of any culinary passion, but their ability to generate cash.
At Concorde Corodex, he explains, there are 10 accountants and four credit control staff. The restaurants have about 120 staff, but none are required to chase payments.
“It’s all cash – there is no credit. And there’s no inventory. We buy daily – it’s all fresh food. We don’t keep stock.”
The fire safety business, in particular, still offers plenty of potential, though. According to Frost & Sullivan, the Gulf’s fire safety market is set to grow at 15 per cent a year in the run-up to 2020 to $3.15 billion, driven by demand from Saudi Arabia (which currently has a 46 per cent local market share) and the UAE (34 per cent). The UAE market is worth $476m per year.
Although much of Concorde Corodex’s day-to-day activities are now handled by Mr Awad’s two sons, there are certain activities he likes to keep a close eye.
“I don’t go out and sell any more, but when there is a big amount [owed] from some companies, I go to collect money,” he says. “Because after all, I feel my responsibility is to pay salaries, so I cannot let my money lie sleeping with other people.”
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