Khalaf Al Habtoor: Discipline and resilience keys to success

Al Habtoor Group chairman Khalaf Al Habtoor on entrepreneurship, philanthropy and his "oxygen" - his 25 grandchildren.

The small engineering company Khalaf Al Habtoor developed in 1970 has now morphed into a modern-day global empire. Satish Kumar / The National
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The self-made billionaire Khalaf Al Habtoor is the chairman of one of the most successful conglomerates in the Arabian Gulf – the Al Habtoor Group. His early ambitions were modest – to move his family out of their palm frond hut into a real house, and some day to own a shop. The small engineering company he developed in 1970 has now morphed into a modern-day global empire, encompassing hotels, property, construction, motors, publishing and education. His latest mega-project, the US$3 billion Al Habtoor City complex is set for completion in 2016. Tomorrow, Mr Al Habtoor, 64, will be discussing Dubai’s development at the Emirates Literature Festival. Here, he talks about his life as an entrepreneur and his future ambitions.

You built your business from scratch. What’s your advice for budding entrepreneurs?

Have no regrets. You must learn from your failures as much as your successes. It is very important to do feasibility studies and apply due diligence before you embark on something. Make sure you know the sector you are investing in, and hire the right people with the credentials to do the job. Another equally important quality is discipline. I am a creature of habit, and never veer from my path. You learn from your own pocket; only do the business you know and don’t get involved in businesses you don’t know.

In your autobiography you said “I have achieved a lot, but this is only a fraction of what I plan to achieve”. What are those plans?

I have many ideas in my head that just need executing, and in business, the sky is the limit. But my main focus is on philanthropic work, on finding new ways to expand more in the UAE and beyond, mainly in the fields of research and education. The Al Habtoor Group is growing from strength to strength. Last year we completed and opened the Waldorf Astoria Dubai Palm Jumeirah - Hilton's luxury brand. We also launched Al Habtoor City, soon to be a major landmark in Dubai. It will encompass three top-rated hotels with three luxury residential towers, a marina on the Dubai Water Canal, a European-style Boulevard and a permanent Franco Dragone theatre production. This is very unique to Dubai - and the entire region. Our motors division expanded significantly, taking on two top Chinese brands and introducing three new tyre makers to the market. These are just a few examples of what we are capable of doing in 12 months. I don't want to give away my plans for the future, but they are on a similar scale to what we are doing now. I am not one to be complacent. Don't forget Dubai has now won the Expo 2020. This has created endless opportunities for the entire UAE and the Al Habtoor Group. On top of this, I am always eyeing up opportunities abroad.

How important is philanthropy in your life?

Very important. I am fortunate enough that through a lot of hard work I am in the position I am in and can more than provide for my family. I do whatever I can to help others. I strongly believe in peace, bridging communities, promoting sports and education and research. Without the support of the government, or businessmen and women, how can a country develop? Look at Dubai Healthcare City – the government has developed a state-of-the-art centre with research facilities that are first class. But we still need to ensure sustainability and that requires investment. Look at our neighbours, what is going on in Syria or Palestine? We can’t turn our back on these people. We all must do whatever we can within our power to help those in need.

How do you decide which charities to support?

I set up the Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor Foundation to bring all my philanthropic endeavours under one roof in a coordinated way. I believe I am the first if not the only businessman in the Arab World to give a 20 per cent stake of my businesses to a charitable foundation. The [foundation] is a 20 per cent shareholder in the Al Habtoor Group. All the philanthropic work I have done is focused on interfaith and inter-civilisation communication, research and education without any discrimination based on race, colour or religion. These fields are my top priority; along with improving the standard of living for UAE citizens.

How do you unwind after work?

I have 25 grandchildren. They are my oxygen – they encourage me to keep going. Plus, I play tennis every day, and have even played some of the world’s top players.

What is your favourite luxury purchase?

My iPhone. I don’t know if you can count it as a luxury but it keeps me connected to work, family and friends. My iPhone is my portable office.

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