Donna's plan for how you'll live

Drivers coming into Abu Dhabi from the west to reach the city's main island cannot miss the cranes and half-constructed buildings alongside the road.

ABU DHABI. 18th May. 2009 Donna Sultan, CEO of KEO at her office in Abu Dhabi. Stephen Lock  /  The National. FOR BUSINESS. *** Local Caption ***  SL-sultan-001.jpg
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Drivers coming into Abu Dhabi from the west to reach the city's main island cannot miss the cranes and half-constructed buildings alongside the road. Lorry-sized billboards tout the latest in lifestyle communities on tap. What those drivers probably do not know is that Donna Sultan, the chief executive of KEO International Consultants, is shaping exactly how future residents will live in many of these new enclaves. "There are not so many cities in the world where you can start from scratch and be part of it," Ms Sultan says. "In Abu Dhabi, you can try to make it good from the start, create the tight green spaces, the right sidewalk designs. It is just amazing to think that what you create as a plan could be there for hundreds of years. It is very exciting." KEO was founded 45 years ago in Kuwait and still has its head office there, but as its list of projects here has grown, it has made Abu Dhabi its main base of operations. When it first opened an office here nearly 25 years ago, KEO helped design the emirate's infrastructure in the western region, near the Saudi border. That relationship with the Abu Dhabi Government grew tighter over the years to the point where the firm is helping shape the island's cityscape. "We had such a long depth of experience of working with the Government, that it was a natural fit to be part of the game," Ms Sultan says. Since joining KEO as a management consultant in 1984, both Ms Sultan and the firm have risen in prominence. The company then had fewer than 400 employees and revenues of about US$8 million (Dh29.3m). Today, KEO's practice has grown internationally, with 10 offices in the Middle East and a staff of 1,900. Its estimated annual revenue last year was more than $190m. Ms Sultan was born in the Pas de Calais in northern France, but raised in Boston after her family decided to move to the US in 1959. In 1976, she moved to ­Kuwait. Her background includes strategic planning and management consulting. Until she joined KEO, she held management positions including planning director for a large regional company. She was also an independent management consultant for a while. "KEO used me as a management consultant first. In the 1980s I had more operational roles and responsibilities," she says. She took the helm 16 years ago when the firm had shrunk to 26 employees as business investment in the region dried up in the wake of the First Gulf War. "It was a rough time," she remembers. "We had to rebuild the firm nearly from scratch. I drew on the loyalty and devotion of ex-KEO staff that was put together right after the war. I continued to repatriate as many of our staff and as quickly as we could. "In the beginning, until everyone could be paid their full pre-war salary, everything we were able to earn we divided equally among all staff. It didn't matter who was senior and who was junior." Ms Sultan says the firm took on any project it could and staff worked long hours. "It took about two years before we could normalise the business and then we just didn't look back." Her management style is rather hands on. "She is definitely the one in charge," said Uwe Nienstedt, the managing directorof KEO. "She listens and lets her top management run the day-to-day business, but she reserves the right to go anywhere at any time. She has more energy than any person I have met in my life. What characterises her also is a high level of empathy. She has an understanding that behind everybody there are human beings." Although she is one of the few women leading a Gulf company, Ms Sultan insists her gender has not been a handicap. "One has to be colourblind and one has to be gender blind," she says. "I never saw being a woman as an issue. Clients and staff will perceive whether you have something to offer or you don't, whether you are in a position to lead or you are not. "You really have to focus on the work that you do. You must pay attention to the people and to the clients." Ms Sultan acknowledges, though, that there is more curiosity about women leaders in the Middle East. "My industry, no question, is largely a male-run industry. It is a question I get asked a lot. But if you are serious and are able to deliver and exceed expectations, you have absolutely no problem being accepted. It requires a great deal of personal sacrifices. But in all honesty, I cannot ever remember a meeting or a situation where being a woman was ever an issue." Today, KEO is involved in a number of billion-dollar development projects that will reshape Abu Dhabi's cityscape: the South Shamkha area, the Mohammed bin Zayed City project, Emerald Gateway's 88 towers between the city and the airport, and expanding and redeveloping Khalifa City A. Next comes the Capital District, planned to house all the governmental entities and embassies. "We did the masterplanning for all of the Emirati housing units and the infrastructure master plan for the entire area," Ms Sultan says. "The Government is, for instance, implementing South Shamkha as we planned it. That is amazing! This is where it really becomes exciting. To do a master­plan is one thing. Being there in the front to implement it is another huge creative challenge." KEO has had to make adjustments as the economic boom in much of the world went south. Previously, the firm, like others in the region, competed fiercely for talent. In recent months KEO has reduced its staff by 4 per cent and consolidated its smaller Dubai operation into the Abu Dhabi office. "Dubai was very badly hit. Many projects that we had there have been put on hold," Ms Sultan says. "Because of our diversity, especially with governmental clients, we have been able to maintain our population. But we don't take anything for granted. The summer and Ramadan are coming up." Despite talk of signs of economic recovery, she thinks this year will remain challenging. "I am hopeful that in 2010 we might reach a certain plateau of understanding of what the para­meters and dynamics are. But it is still unclear. It is all based on banks' financing." Ms Sultan uses lessons learnt in the aftermath of the First Gulf War to navigate today's rocky economic terrain. The firm has made up for the lost work by signing on to more recession-proof projects, such as infrastructure planning and programme management. "I learned the importance of not being reliant on any one market or type of service," she says. "Today we are not just architects, planners, engineers, or project managers."