Crescent's Badr Jafar has world at his feet

At age 30, when most men are early in the arc of their careers, Badr Jafar has found himself atop a family business empire that stretches from oil and gas to aviation.

Sharjah - September 30, 2009 - Crescent Petroleum's CEO Badr Jafar, 30, on the company's oil and gas platform in their Mubarek field off the coast of Sharjah, September 30, 2009. (Photo by Jeff Topping/ The National ) *** Local Caption ***  JT022-0930-CRESCENT PETROLEUM_MG_3455.jpg
Powered by automated translation

At age 30, when most men are early in the arc of their careers, Badr Jafar has found himself atop a family business empire that stretches from oil and gas to aviation, mining, shipping, health care and private equity. The multibillion-dirham businesses of the Crescent Group afford him great luxuries. He owns a 30-metre yacht and takes weekend trips with business friends to hunt wild boar in Germany. Lately, though, he has been finding himself driven to push the boundaries of his world even farther: he sees new frontiers and even humanitarian causes that could benefit from the Jafar style of business. "My father laid the foundation stones and created a lot of what we have," he says from his 20th-floor office at Crescent Tower in Sharjah. "My brother and I took it on from there and started to build more of the blocks on top of those. Over the next five years, I see us expanding into areas where we can do something that someone hasn't done before." In a single conversation, he talks about the possibility of peace achieved in the Middle East through economic co-operation, new materials in the fashion world, the burgeoning business of interactive television and the dynamics of the global trade in natural gas. "I thrive on dealing with different subjects every day," says Mr Jafar, who wears a simple, collared white shirt unbuttoned at the top, and khaki pants. "You learn more about what's going on in the world. Each field tells you something different." While Mr Jafar's technical role is to co-manage the family's businesses and investments with his brother, Majid, his speciality, he and others say, is seeking new opportunities. In the afternoons, the Jafars convene for lunch at the family home 15 minutes away from their office on the Buheirah Corniche in Sharjah. "It is a family company and we are all in it together," Mr Jafar says. The family patriarch, Hamid Jafar, founded Crescent Petroleum in the early 1970s after buying out the concessions of the US company Buttes Oil and Gas. Under his stewardship, Crescent grew to become the largest privately owned upstream petroleum company in the region. The family has picked up numerous stakes and subsidiaries in the decades since, including the ports company Gulftainer - the largest private port and logistics company in the Middle East - and the airline company Gama Aviation. The future of Crescent has long been at the forefront of Hamid Jafar's focus, according to advisers for the company. He handed the reins to Badr and Majid two years ago, but still advises on major decisions and maintains the relationships he has built over the years with investors across the region. "What you have to understand is the culture of the house," says Karim Souaid, a friend of the family and the managing partner of the Bahrain private equity company GrowthGate Capital, which counts the Jafars as investors. "There is a lot of competitiveness to them. They are a family of overachievers. It's a highly charged environment." Mr Souaid calls Badr Jafar the family's "creative maverick", who finds the pulse of the market and comes up with new angles and ideas to explore. "He is involved in the most edgy part of the business." Ambition is built into the Jafar family. Like their father before them, the sons went to the finest schools and gained a taste for business at a young age, often being encouraged to make their own investments and start their own companies. Mr Jafar was born in Sharjah - he is an Emirati - but went to Eton College at 15 and later attended Cambridge University. In both schools, he was captain of the shooting teams. He showed a tendency for straying from the expected from the moment he graduated in 1999. After earning a master's degree in fluid mechanics - a key discipline for petroleum engineers - and a business degree from the Judge Business School at Cambridge, he entered a field the furthest from his family's oil and gas empire: fashion. "I was particularly keen on exploring what else is happening around the world," Mr Jafar says. "That is part of the reason I chose fashion. It was so different. It was the other end of the spectrum from what I was used to." He spent time in London, New York and Italy learning the business in fashion label offices and at star-studded catwalks. It was not the traditional crucible for a budding oil titan. Mr Jafar admits he knew nothing about fashion at the time; nor is he a clotheshorse. But he says people were open to teaching him when they realised he had a genuine interest in the business. One person who helped him on his way was Tomio Taki, the Japanese textile magnate who transformed the fashion labels Anne Klein and Donna Karan into world-renowned brands. A year into his studies he started a company in Europe called Collo Fashion that designed, manufactured and distributed neckwear. "I felt there wasn't enough fashion around the neck," he says. "I saw a strategic niche." The business grew quickly, and within a year was selling clothing at 42 stores in 11 countries. The accessories were especially popular in the Far East and the firm was sold to Asian distributors three years after it was started. Mr Jafar himself only rarely wears a tie, at an important business event or on a formal occasion. He has never lost his interest in the business of fashion and has been working on a project with Mr Taki for the past seven years to pioneer new tanning methods to make the skin of sturgeon - the fish that produces premium black caviar - into a sought-after material for high-end accessories like purses and shoes. "Badr had seen some of those skins that were thrown away and thought it might be possible to make something else out of it," Mr Taki says from New York. "He is always trying to find something new that could be a very big thing." Despite his interest in fashion, Mr Jafar does not spend much time on acquiring a high-end wardrobe for himself. "I'm very anti bling-bling," he says. "I don't wear a huge, expensive watch. I like things that are appropriate for the right event. I like high-quality things." There is no doubt, however, that Mr Jafar enjoys the good life. The June 2009 issue of Vanity Fair magazine has a feature on some of the world's prominent young heirs and heiresses. Mr Jafar is among them, pictured in black and white, shooting pool. He says he likes to take friends on his Azimut yacht to Mussandam, Oman, or to go on hunting trips in Africa and Europe. He has an extensive contemporary art collection and supports upcoming Iraqi and Emirati artists. He has travelled across seven continents, including Antarctica. He has a pilot's licence. But mostly, he says, he likes to meet "like-minded people and entrepreneurs" to learn from them and devise new projects. During his years after university, Mr Jafar started other business ventures in addition to fashion, including high-end property development, aviation and private equity. Eventually, his sojourn in the world's fashion capitals came to an end. He moved back to Sharjah in 2002 to join Crescent's business development team. "When you are part of a family business, you never leave totally," he says. "Even while I was pursuing other ventures, I was always immersed in Crescent." Three years later, he was Crescent's head of business development, and in 2007 he was named the executive director of Crescent Petroleum. At Crescent, he gained a reputation for financial skill and deal making. "Badr always looks for the conclusion first as a means of solidifying the end results," says Mr Souaid of GrowthGate Capital. "From day one, he wanted to know how the deal would get closed and how the company would be on the day of the IPO. He was very sharp." Mr Jafar was involved with the creation in 2005 of Dana Gas, the largest publicly listed gas company in the region, and in 2007 he founded Gas Cities, a company that develops gas-based industrial clusters in the region. He pooled the family's stakes and companies into a central conglomerate, Crescent Investments, and added new investments to the group. At Crescent Petroleum, he oversees upstream business development and deal structuring. It was around the time of his return to Sharjah that Crescent started ploughing money into some of its boldest, and riskiest, ventures. After four years of negotiation, Crescent Petroleum signed a deal with the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) in 2001 to build a 270km pipeline from an offshore natural gasfield to Sharjah. The two sides have spent US$2 billion (Dh7.34bn) on facilities and the pipeline, which was supposed to start supplying gas in 2005. But they fell out over the price of the gas, which was negotiated when prices were a fraction of their current levels, and have taken their case to international arbitration. Standing on the bright yellow Al Mubarek oil platform a few kilometres off the coast of Sharjah, Mr Jafar leans close to a pair of large steel pipes that disappear into the water. "You see these," he says, knocking on them. "They should be full. Gas should have been flowing through these four years ago." Even with $1bn at stake, Mr Jafar says he is undaunted. "Our competitive advantage is to go where no one else has gone before," he says. "We tend to play a more high-risk game - if it were easy, everyone would be doing it." The second major Crescent venture that has been snared by politics is in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. While many large petroleum companies sat on the sidelines in the aftermath of the US invasion, Crescent started signing deals with the Kurdistan Regional Government in 2007. Today, the company is preparing to export gas through Turkey to Europe. Mr Jafar is the chairman of that venture, called Pearl Petroleum, a joint venture between Crescent Petroleum, Dana Gas, OMV of Austria and MOL of Hungary. That project is also complicated by a political dispute because the federal oil ministry in Baghdad has called the contracts entered into by the Kurdistan government illegal. Politics may be a common hurdle for the business ventures of the Jafar family, but it also runs in the blood. Badr's grandfather, Dhiya Jafar, held posts in the cabinet of Iraq's monarchy and played a pivotal role in the country's renegotiations with western oil companies to get a more equitable share of profits. Mr Jafar says he believes that business can build relationships across borders, where governments cannot. "In cases where so many diplomatic and political processes failed to improve the situation, I found that one business or project that has a long-time economic benefit for both sides brings them closer together," he says. "One year of doing business together achieves more than 50 years of politicking." In Iraq, he says, he saw Turkish businessmen working alongside Kurdish colleagues at a time when the two sides were in full-fledged combat on the border of Turkey and Iraq. "There is only one reason that Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq saw their relations dramatically improved," he says. "They realised that there is a huge economic imperative for those relations to improve." The ideal is to create businesses that make money, while having a positive impact on society and the environment, Mr Jafar says. "I believe in the principles of social entrepreneurship. We need to start thinking about our triple bottom lines in business, that is, people, planet and profit." As if seeking peace through commerce weren't enough, Mr Jafar has also been spending time with Quincy Jones, the American music producer and composer who was behind the We Are the World charity project. The two have known each other for 10 years. "We are in the process of structuring something together," Mr Jafar says. "The idea is quite simply to bridge cross cultural divides through appreciation of different tastes in music and entertainment on a wider scale." He is also involved with charities to support education in developing countries and undertakings like the Charter for Compassion, a project set up by the religion scholar Karen Armstrong. Mr Jafar has set up several of his own personal companies as well. Full Moon Investments - after his name, which means "full moon" in Arabic - is one of the owners of Milchan/Van Eyssen Productions. The company, which is based in Los Angeles, created in partnership with Paramount Pictures an internet mini-series in which viewers help decide the plot of the show. The show, called Circle of 8, is an "interactive thriller" that "invites audiences to participate in the fate of its characters", said a recent press release. He is also involved with production companies in coming up with ideas for films set in the Middle East. "When you look at the things that I've become involved with in the past and what I'm doing now, you'll find a common thread of creativity," Mr Jafar says. "That's what I get a kick out of. I do get people saying that 'surely, you can't really be deeply involved with any industry if you are doing so much', but I disagree with that. I'm passionate about everything I'm doing."