Week in the life: Agility Abu Dhabi chief has open-door policy

Mixing business with family life and fitness is important for the chief executive of one of the region's largest logistics providers

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - 16MAR2017 - Bassel El Dabbagh, CEO of Agility in Abu Dhabi. Ravindranath K / The National ID: 94880 (to go with  story Christian Nelson for Business) *** Local Caption ***  RK1603-BasselElDabbagh09.jpg
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Lebanese American Bassel El Dabbagh is chief executive of Agility Abu Dhabi, one of the region's largest logistics providers. His career began in telecoms before shifting to transport and then logistics. Married and a father-of-two, Mr El Dabbagh, 42, joined Agility's Kuwait corporate HQ in 2005 before moving to the US, then Agility Abu Dhabi in 2010, becoming chief executive in 2013. Here he tells The National about a typical week.


I reach the office by 8.15am every day. I greet employees, ask about the major tasks they have for today, get a feel of what’s going on. By 8.30 I’m at my desk. I’m very accessible; it’s good to have your door open and hear people out but also to have discipline to close your door to get a task done. Sunday is mostly a time of reflection. I look at reports for the previous week, department by department, the KPIs [key performance indicators], how are we tracking with the plan; the financial numbers, also operational numbers - see how much (our fleet) has been utilised. We have warehouses so I look at occupancy. I do some of that on my own, some with my financial department. Today we are about 850 employees, around 250 transport vehicles, from flatbed trailers to smaller vans for distribution. I do some reading, catch up on how the market is developing, what competitors are doing, latest trends affecting our industry and what we can do differently. Typically I’m home by 7pm to 8pm. Twice a week I do pilates - helps me with my posture - and twice a week swimming,


We’re building a state-of-the-art warehouse, so have a weekly meeting on progress. We’re looking at January [for completion]. My meeting with the sales team, seeing what they’ve done the past week; potential new customers, how we can progress and close deals, sales calls planned for the current week - I might join some of these.

Sales we split into smaller transactions and bigger proposals typically for multi-year contracts; I review these before they’re submitted because we’re talking multimillion-dirham projects. I join my sales team to meet prospective customers. It gives me a feeling of the market. It’s very competitive; there are a number of players and lately, given the challenging economic environment, our customers are looking to drive costs down. We have a cost base that is higher than competitors because we invest in technology to bring added value, but sometimes customers compromise.

Most days I have dinner with my family. Sometimes I’m late and my daughters, aged 9 and 11, have dinner before me, but I make sure I catch them before they go to sleep. At the end of Monday I go swimming.


Every day starts at 6am. The whole family wakes up. We get ready together. A quick breakfast and we set off. I live in Gate City, not far away from work but I drive for half an hour to reach my eldest daughter’s school. I then have a 40-minute drive to work. I use it to reflect, set my intention for the day, what I want out of each meeting. My job is primarily to apply and tailor Agility’s corporate and global vision to Abu Dhabi’s business and economy; our mission is to facilitate trade, by finding the most efficient and cost effective ways of moving cargo to ensure it gets delivered on time in the best condition.


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I meet operational departments; a couple on Tuesday, a couple on Wednesday. Very important is the health and safety department. They assist these meetings because we adhere to all the ISO [an international standard-setting body] standards. We have a lot of physical operations; loading and offloading cargo, sometimes over 1,000 tonnes, moving containers, pallets and boxes in the warehouse. I’m making sure people aren’t taking shortcuts in the process.


You have to have your hand on the pulse to understand what’s going on; I go to Agility sites – we have an office in the airport, in Mussafah, in Kizad and operations there. We also have sites where we’re executing a project for a customer. We do an observation tour, pick up on certain things and get firsthand information and feel of the operation. Are there safety, operational or customer concerns? Often you get a different view – you cannot base decisions only on reports and numbers.

Abu Dhabi, U.A.E., October 18, 2018.  Bassel El Dabbagh, CEO of Agility Abu Dhabi, logistics company.
Victor Besa / The National
Section:  BZ
Reporter:  David Dunn
Mr El Dabbagh makes sure he knows what is happening on the ground..Victor Besa / The National

In our industry there are a number of technologies impacting. We’re looking to make all our business digital and reduce manual process. You have to educate customers, give them confidence. Blockchain promises to speed up the information flow that accompanies the flow of goods. We joined forces with Maersk and IBM who launched a blockchain initiative to have one ledger for the movement of goods. We look at disrupting our business from within by bringing in new technology but also from without by investing in start-ups that have a totally different or promising way of doing things.


Typically my people day, I start with my head of HR; recruiting, onboarding [assimilating new employees], we have a big focus on learning and development. We see how we’re rolling out programmes to train people. Our CSR [corporate social responsibility] and community involvement is handled by HR; I try to approve budgets, see how we can make certain initiatives happen. We do a yearly blood donation and this year we are reaching out to special needs schools - employees dedicate time to teach. Every other Thursday I do a coffee hour, meet with different teams or departments informally – we get coffee, cookies, chat about anything; personal or ideas they want to pitch.

I schedule the week ahead, try to make sure every item gets the time I planned. Sometimes we have to shuffle. I look at stakeholders that need my time and that I need time with. I try to spend 30 per cent with employees, 30 with customers, existing or prospective, 10 per cent by myself for reflection/reading, 10 with the authorities – we deal a lot with the port, airports, customs, police on a regular basis, 10 per cent with suppliers and the last 10 per cent is for the board, reporting to and getting directions from them We focus on a few industries; oil and gas is a big vertical for Agility, particularly in Abu Dhabi given the nature of the economy.

A ritual on Thursday is movie night with my family.


I try to switch off. I do breakfast with my family. At weekends we catch up. They love pancakes; I’m not a good cook, but that I do with them. We all set-up on the dining table; they do homework, I’m catching up on urgent things - invariably a few I didn’t get to do during the week - while helping with their homework. Afternoon is by the beach, the pool. Friday evening is without kids.


Activities day; I spend time driving my daughters to different places. I catch up on reading while waiting for them; either a business book, history or spiritual/motivational. I don’t really do fiction. I’ve been meaning to read Einstein’s biography. I also do errands, go to the bank or supermarket.