SME profile: Dubai shop display firm Alpha Nero finds the right fit

A strong company culture at Alpha Nero has enabled the shopfitting company to expand its staff quickly. Expo 2020 means exciting times ahead.

Simon Hacker, Khalid Ali and Mimoun Assraaoui at the office of Alpha Nero, a  Dubai-based business manufacturing retail displays. The Alpha Nero office is based in the International Media Production Zone in Dubai.  Anna Nielsen for The National
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A manufacturer of shop displays for perfume brands and luxury goods is attempting to build a company culture at the same time as rapidly growing its team

Simon Hacker, the general manager of the retail design and production company Alpha Nero, cites the atmosphere among the company’s employees as one of the key differences between it and many of its competitors.

The Dubai-based shopfitting firm has grown from eight to 50 staff since opening just over 18 months ago, but Mr Hacker and his business partners Mimoun Assraoui and Khalid Ali have been attempting to foster a culture of mutual respect along the way.

For instance, despite being an early stage business, Mr Assraoui said that Alpha Nero is paying better wages than many of its competitors.

“We are all part of the same family,” says Mr Assraoui. “We celebrate our differences, our culture and our successes. This is what has made us strong.”

This spirit of togetherness works both ways, though, and all of its staff are expected to maintain the same professional standards.

“The key to success for companies like us is to never consider ourselves as the manager or the CEO – we are all employees,” says Mr Hacker.

“We have had a couple of issues with employees, and the first thing I would say to them is don’t give to yourself something that we wouldn’t accept. If some of them don’t show up in the morning for some reason, I wouldn’t allow that for myself. We all have to be hard workers to establish our name.”

Mr Hacker, a French national who had spent most of his career in business development roles, first came to Dubai three years ago to set up a similar joinery business with a former friend. He says that he was initially offered a partnership, “but for some reason this never happened”.

Frustrated by this experience, he decided to set up on his own.

“I knew everything that was required. I knew what investment was required, how much manpower and I knew what should happen.”

Alongside a firm business plan and even a number of potential clients whose orders would reduce start-up costs, he still needed about Dh800,000 in capital for premises, equipment and staff. A mutual friend garnered an introduction to Mr Assraoui, who had recently left his career in banking to set up his own business advising high net-worth clients.

Mr Assraoui not only agreed to help with funding, he also took on a lead finance role with the company and handled its relationship with banks. His wife, Alexia, also joined in a sales and marketing capacity and Mr Hacker’s former colleague, Rajesh Maramveettil, joined as head of production.

“There was a lot of work involved in the beginning in terms of setting up, managing the warehouse and managing the finances , because the first year is always the most crucial in terms of the cash flow and liquidity,” says Mr Assraoui.

Indeed, after investing in staff, machinery and a lease for its property at International Media Production Zone, the company found that after nine months it had to call on another Dh200,000 in capital, but a number of important client wins led to bigger projects and increased revenue. L’Oréal was its first major account win, which has since been followed by work for the likes of Estée Lauder and Givenchy.

Mr Hacker said the company has kept investing the proceeds – “it’s like a poker game” – but its strategy is paying dividends.

A few months ago, the company took a lease on a neighbouring unit. Mr Ali, who joined as business development manager in March this year from competitor Decolab, believes employee numbers could soon double.

“Maybe we are 50 persons and others are 150 but we are more organised,” he says. “We know how to finish projects on time and give the right service.”

The company makes customised displays such as back wall units, gondola islands and entire shop-in-shop displays for luxury brands. Examples of projects include concessions for the cosmetics brands Clarins and Kiehl’s within Harvey Nichols’ Mall of The Emirates store and a couple of travel retail concepts for Bulgari at Abu Dhabi International Airport and Dubai International Airport.

Work starts with a site survey, followed by detailed designs and assembly at its workshop. The company then handles all of the logistics for shipping, and within GCC countries it sends its own team of installers to ensure units are properly fitted.

Moving ahead, Mr Assraoui said that it has grand ambitions, but these are well thought-out.

“It’s important that we plan. We don’t want to grow too fast. Our clients always come first.”

Mr Hacker sys that he expects an “intense” market in the GCC in the run-up to Expo 2020 as more mall space is built and airports expanded.

It is also looking at other markets, including South Africa and Iran, and is considering potential joint ventures.

“We believe that we can do in four years what took 10 years for others,” says Mr Hacker.

“It’s going to be extremely good for us, but we need to be ready for it.”

A Ventures Middle East report published in August stated that the GCC’s retail market is the fastest-growing in the world. Retail sales are set to grow at 7.3 per cent per year to US$285 billion by 2018, supported by $28bn of mall projects currently under development. These include Dubai Holding’s $6.8bn Mall of the World, the $1.65bn Doha Festival City project in Qatar and the $1.6bn Al Diriyah Festival City project planned for Riyadh.

“In addition to the construction of new shopping centres, most major existing malls in the GCC have also commenced construction, or announced expansion plans, for adding new retail space, or a hotel, or both,” it added.

Following on from the recent expansion of Mall of the Emirates, Majid Al Futtaim Properties is spending $500m on the extension of City Centre Mirdif and $136m on City Centre Ajman malls, while the Kuwaiti developer Mabanee is adding a fourth phase to The Avenues mall in Kuwait at a cost of $914m.

In the frame

Alpha Nero creates retail displays for brands in malls and in airport concessions. The company carries out initial site surveys and prepares detailed drawings before building units at its factory in Dubai’s International Media Production Zone and transporting them to customers across the GCC, in Lebanon and in Africa.

Three of a kind

The Frenchman Simon Hacker is a co-founder and general manager of Alpha Nero. He studied business and management in Lyon before embarking on a career in business development which has involved spells working for ship breakers in India and a food and beverage business before arriving in Dubai three years ago. He set up Alpha Nero in March 2014.

Mimoun Assraoui studied finance at Paris’s Sorbonne and then had a career in banking with Société Générale, ABN Amro and National Bank of Abu Dhabi. He left two years ago for a portfolio career that includes managing director roles at the financial intermediary RIF Trust and at the venture capital fund Hatcher. He sits on the board of Alpha Nero and oversees its finances.

Khalid Ali is a partner and business development manager at Alpha Nero. Of Palestinian-Lebanese descent, he graduated from Beirut University College and has been in Dubai for more than 10 years. He has spent most of this time working in the shopfitting industry, most recently as sales and production manager for Decolab.

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