Creative Direction: Amy Sessions
Photographer: Mark Mathew
Words: Sarah Joseph
Cover Star: Ali Sajwani
We discuss learning from the best, building in business and working with family with Ali Sajwani, Managing Director of Operations and Technology, DAMAC Properties
What do the first 30 minutes of your day look like, your morning routine?
Well, it depends. I wake up at 4:30am during the summer months and if it’s winter, I’m up at 6:30 and then go to the gym. If I’m working out, I first pray then begin my fitness routine and that’s mostly how I start the day. I love Ice baths, so I first jump into a two-degree bath for around 10 minutes and that usually helps to wakes me up.
Consistency is so important to compounding success, in which ways are you consistent daily?
My morning routine is always consistent no matter which part of the world I am in. So, if I’m in Dubai, it always starts with my morning gym sessions and if I’m travelling, I usually choose the hotels around the gyms they have, so that’s quite consistent for me. As Ice baths are very important for me, no matter which part of the world I am in, I make sure that hotels fill up the bathtubs with ice for me in the morning. In the evenings, I also make sure to take a couple of hours every day to spend time with my family, wife and son and for me this is very important. Even if I have important meetings, I always manage to make time for them in between as my son’s currently two years old and spending at least 30 to 40 minutes with him is crucial.
You were mentored by your father, what knowledge did he impart in the early years which has allowed you to grow both professionally and personally?
Professionally, he always taught me about to-detail in whatever we do. We do it very differently and in a lot of organizations, in a lot of senior corporate roles, we’ve seen managers delegate. We also ensure they delegate; however, we really pay attention to what the team is doing to understand the nitty gritty details. So, for example if I’m being put in charge of CRM or handovers or sales, we start by being on the floor with the most junior staff. So, we’d be ona screen attending
the calls, but of course the customer doesn’t know we’re attending the calls. But it usually allows us to experience what our employees go through. So, when we’re taking decisions, we understand how it really affects our team which I this is very important. We do it even today for those in senior roles, we don’t just mean for the managers below us, but we tend to have our meetings with the managers of the three levels below us to really hear from them. So, that’s why attention-to-detail is important on a professional level. As for us on a personal level, our father always jokes with us as he says he has taught us two things, he calls them the two D’s, which is Damac and Dja ( – meaning religion), and this is the same with all the siblings, so he said, if I teach you to be good business people and if I teach you to be religious and be God fearing, I’ve set you up for life. We used to joke about it, but I think it makes a lot of sense looking back at it.
How do you approach challenges?
They excite me. So, I have two problems, as I’m an adrenaline junkie, so I need to always have that thrill. When I take up something new, I drive it harder than anyone else, however, when I’m done, I need something new to challenge me. So, the way my father deals with me is, when we have a problem, he throws me in there and then I focus on fixing it. However, when the problem is over, he takes me out as I can then I get bored.
What has been the biggest challenge to date and how did you overcome it?
One of the biggest challenges for me was in 2018/2019. Those were very tough years in the business and for me personally, they were harder than COVID. When COVID happened, the entire world shut down, so we were one amongst the many who were in a big mess because the whole world was in a mess. However, earlier in 2018 and 2019, the Dubai property market had slowed down in a big way and that time, I was in charge of sales, so the entire dynamic of the market had shifted. Our biggest competitors were offering payment plans which were 5, 6 and 7 years post-handover and we decided as a business and as a family that we’re not going to follow suit. Simply because it’s extremely high risk, the developers were acting as banks and we’re not banks, we’re a developer, so of course because we weren’t matching what the competition was doing, we took a big hit on our sales and I think managing during that time when the market was tough, sales were down and having to really control overheads was a tough time. That was the first time that I had to deal with something like that, because when I started working for the family in 2014, it was boom time and 2014 to 2017, Dubai was booming and that slowed down in 2019, make it a very tough year. So, you always read in the books what to do when times are tough, but it’s actually very different when you’re in the heart of the storm and things are tough and you have to roll up your sleeves and have tough conversations with people and really focus 10 times more to get half the productivity which you get in a booming market. So overall, that was one of the biggest challenges that I faced in managing during that downtime.
“You need to have attention-to-detail, you need to be aggressive, when you see an opportunity jump on it and take it, don’t procrastinate and you have to be willing to take bigger risks. Don’t be scared of failing, as it’s part of the process.
Which has been the key milestone for you to date and why?
It was probably in 2020. So prior to 2020, I used to mainly be in the sales team, post 2020, I was moved mainly to all the operations. My sister took over sales and I had all the technology team, handover team, CRM and transformation office. For me that was a big milestone, it moved me away to have a different perspective and gave a large sense of responsibility and accountability which I didn’t have previously. I grew up from being Hussain Sajwani’s son to becoming a senior and being accountable for having that position. So, that was a milestone for me. The technology team for us was very important, it’s sort of the backbone of the company and I don’t have a technology background, so for myself, it kind of let me prove myself what I’m capable of, where you go into a field where it’s not your background, you’re not technically qualified. But then from the way I’ve been taught to manage things by my father, it proved to me that I can do something as long as I set my mind to do it, so that has been one of the biggest milestones for me and that’s something I’m quite proud of.
How has being based in the UAE supported your success and vision?
It has been essential to it; the UAE is a unique country and so is Dubai. Under the leadership of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed, it has become the best in the world. I go on holidays to cities like London, Paris, New York and California, but Dubai has surpassed them in every way. Dubai never gets tired of growing and nothing is never good enough. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed is famous for saying, it’s just number one that counts. We have the similar philosophy in DAMAC, no one remembers who came second and who came third. I think Dubai having that culture inbred in it, it flows down into the corporations and government entities and everybody continuously strives for greatness and no one is happy with what they have and wants to keep doing more. So, I think being in Dubai has been essential to that and seeing how Dubai has grown over the last 30 years. I mean even Jumeirah Road back in the day was just desert and today you have the best hotels, the best beaches, and the best infrastructure.
Do you ever switch off and if so, what helps you balance a fast-paced schedule?
I do and actually, today evening I’m flying to a place called the Solomon Islands, which is three hours from Australia and in the middle of nowhere, as phones don’t even work. I like taking holidays far away from civilisation in a way where we can do a reset. I like doing trips like this two to three times a year. When I’m in Dubai, the best way to reset for me is to visit the beach. I try to go once every few days in the evening for an hour. During my weekends, I like going to the beach as the sea really relaxes me and allows me to switch off. That’s my routine to relax
You work alongside family – how does this dynamic support driving the business forward?
There’s both positives and negatives the pros are that at the end of the day you’re family. So, even if you don’t get along due to an argument or a conflict at the end of the day with your siblings, your parents, son and father, you have to work it all out. According to me, as long as you’re working hard and working together, it’s always better to stay together and figuring it out. The major issues happen when the family is in conflict, as that’s where you see a lot of businesses fail, especially in the second generation and third generation when the cousins do not get along, so we’re lucky in that sense that we all get along very well. Me, my sister Amira, my brother Abbas, the youngest one Mehdi as well. With the youngest one, I consider him a son as. there’s a 16-year gap between us, so I feel like I’ve raised him. The important thing is that we all get along very well and that has helped us in the business and each of us has our strengths. I’m very strong operationally, while my sister is very good in sales and what she does, on the other hand Abbas is very good with his relationships and contacts, so we kind of all complement each other and we all have our strong points where we sort of lift each other up.
Has working with family ensured you have honed any particular soft skills?
One of the main skills I’ve learned is diplomacy. You really have to learn how to communicate, and you have to make sure if there’s any sort of disagreement, you should convey the message without upsetting the other party. Another skill is that you have to learn how to listen to people and you have to learn to read between the lines. When you’re an employee and employer you can be more direct, however, when it’s family you’re going to try to mould what you’ve seen or say things in a certain way and you have to really pick up that skill of understanding what that person really needs, and that is something we’ve come a long way with and we still have a long way to go.
What three key things do you need in business to succeed?
You need to have attention- to-detail, you need to be aggressive, when you see an opportunity jump on it and take it, don’t procrastinate and you have to be willing to take bigger risks. Don’t be scared of failing, as it’s part of the process.
If you could share one piece of advice with anyone starting in business, what would it be?
When you see an opportunity grab it and don’t think twice. Also, don’t ask too many people for their advice, as most people don’t want what is best for you to begin with and if everyone agreed with you on something, it’s probably the wrong decision in the first place.
What or who to you is a Trailblazer and why?
For me, it’s His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE as I don’t think there will be someone like him again. Even today, if you look at what Dubai was 30 years ago and where it is now, you’ll be amazed. Honestly, the way he has built a team around it along with the infrastructure. He’s really a unique visionary, so in my eyes, he’s definitely a Trailblazer in all aspects.
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Images: Supplied, Photographer: Mark Mathew