ENG chief executive knows business is good when the signs go up

Creating an outdoor ad campaign that gets Dubai talking is the barometer of success for the chief executive of Emirates Neon Group.

Rehan Merchant worked hard training to inherit Emirates Neon Group from his father, who still sits on its board. Sarah Dea / The National
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Rehan Merchant, 38, is the chief executive of the family business Emirates Neon Group, which creates, installs and maintains outdoor signage and offers brand consultancy and web design. His father, the ENG chairman Hanif Merchant, built up the business after moving to Dubai from Pakistan in 1969.


I wake up and have a high-protein breakfast of eggs, yoghurt and fruit. I take a shower and rush to work. We’ve closed our offices on Sheikh Zayed Road for refurbishment, so now I head to our office on Al Wahda Road in Sharjah, which is a 40-minute drive from my villa in Emirates Hills. I’m driven to work, so the distance doesn’t matter because my BlackBerry kicks in five minutes after I’ve left home. It’s usually a quiet journey. The traffic is much worse on the other side of the road, so I wave to all those cars stuck in traffic.


I arrive at work. My father still comes to work before me and leaves whenever he wishes to. The business is still very much a family concern. Even when I was 13, I’d come to the office to be involved in what my father was doing. When I was at university in the UK, I came back every summer and trained. People think “you run your father’s company, so you had your place created for you”, but that wasn’t the case. My father said “you need to be a trainee in all areas first – in sales, admin and the manufacturing processes”. On my second day back from university, I was told to climb a 60-foot scaffold. Because of that training, I know how long different tasks take.


I set priorities for the day. I’ll walk around saying “we need to achieve X, Y and Z”, whether it’s admin or sales. It’s a reminder to get edged on.


I meet with the operations team, who have flown in from Bahrain. We have 1,200 employees in 13 countries, including China, Kuwait and Oman, and we’re growing within those countries.


A big ad agency chief calls and says: “Rehan, we need to meet. We have an urgent brief. Let’s have coffee”. So we brainstorm. Creativity is limited because there are lots of restrictions in terms of new advertising mediums. Say you want to have digital boards on Sheikh Zayed Road. You need a lot of regulatory approvals, partly because people might look at the sign instead of concentrating on the road. So brands are trying instead to link mediums together. They might have radio and social media talk about a certain sign. Then they do an Instagram campaign, with a trigger that makes people go to a Facebook page. Most meetings aren’t about how much money a client is going to give us, they’re about how we can deliver something differently. Sometimes we’re wrong, but we’re coming out of experiences that have shaped our understanding. So we might say “this worked for this car manufacturer”, and we’re not afraid to say: “We think this won’t work”. People say summer and Ramadan are traditionally weak times of the year, but I disagree. The economy has grown to a level where it’s continually busy. I often leave client meetings thinking: “Is Dubai going to be talking about this?” That’s the barometer to the success of an outdoor campaign.


Lunch is a light sandwich or ordered-in grilled chicken or fish. I have half an hour with the door closed and no one allowed to enter. I look at social media and surf the net to see what’s going on in Dubai. If I’m out with clients, we’ll go to a restaurant in one of Dubai’s three hotspots – DIFC, Souk Al Bahar or Media City.


The only thing that never changes in my daily routine is that I pray five times a day. We have a mosque in our office, and if I’m driving around and it’s time for prayer I’ll park up and pray.


I go to a media buying agency. I talk to different clients and set up objectives and perimeters for their ad campaign.


As my driver takes me home, I pass some of our billboards. Our big signs at the moment include ads for Aigner luxury watches, OSN, Etisalat and du. Once home I hit the gym to meet my personal trainer. Lots of battles are done keeping myself fit.


I eat out 90 per cent of the time. I like Zuma for Japanese, Hakkasan for Chinese and La Petite Maison for French. I also like to go to a nice Lebanese to drink Moroccan tea, relax with friends and play backgammon. I go to bed at about 2am.


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