Why the Dubai boom fails to reach everyone

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Nicolai Tillisch, bestseller authour and consultant, on why the Dubai boom fails to reach everyone, interview by Gérard Al-Fil.

Nicolai Tillisch CEO of Dual Impact
Nicolai Tillisch CEO of Dual Impact

Management consultant and bestseller authour Nicolai Tillisch spoke to Arabian Gazette in an exclusive interview on why trial and error for startups or blue chip firms, no longer works to stay profitable in Dubai’s booming economy.

A look at Nicolai Tillisch’s career, is sufficient to see that the Dane is not just any consultant. Having learned and worked with leading global brands like consultancy McKinsey and Company, Hong Kong-based conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa and Nokia, few corporate advisors based in Dubai have a deeper understanding of the headwinds and tailwinds private businesses face in the region.

Tillisch, author of the book, Effective Business in the Gulf, a local bestseller in the Gulf Arab region, established his own consultancy firm Dual Impact, “because I identified the need among privately-held businesses government owned entities, across all industry sectors in Dubai and in the region in revamping their corporate structures and businesses processes in order to generate sustained added value amid increased competition in the Gulf Arab region.”

Old yardsticks, new horizons

While his book is written in a somewhat technical and analytical language, his clients appreciate Tillisch’s style of naming problems and of getting things done quickly. One of his clients, a CEO who did not want to be named, said;

“Despite Dual Impact’s theoretical depth and extensive experience, they really make their approach to leadership and management easy to understand and turn into practice.”

Asked why any business in the Gulf would need consultancy while the economy was booming amid record high oil prices and relative political stability, Tillisch answered simply ‘because the old methods to generate profits from the pre-crisis boom were obsolete.’

Nicolai Tillisch; “Yes, Dubai’s economy is booming, but the go-go years are over. I am constantly approached by firms who aim to get back on track, for example through cost cutting or by entering new market segments.” Tillisch mentioned four new factors which corporate Dubai had to be taken into account. Firstly, the Gulf Arab business scene became more mature and secondly more international, which lead thirdly to more complex organizations, said Tillisch. And fourth, governments of the six Gulf Co-operation Council countries (GCC: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman) strive to diversify their economies to reduce dependency on oil and gas.

These four new factors mean a constant, dynamic change of any business environment for the coming decades,” he added. In some cases he consults firms which are total newcomers, in other projects Tillisch develops new business structures, organization diagrams or recommends new authorities within matured companies. “It is at first about theory, but then it is all about execution,” said Tillisch who met lots of enterprises which tried to fix challenges through hiring new people, “but a human resource department cannot implement effective structures, there are limits if you want to raise your business to the next level.” — Nicolai Tillisch, owner of Dual Impact, a Dubai-based management consultantcy and bestselling authour

He affirmed that some companies have taken measures to adapt to the new reality, but that old approaches were still widely ingrained.

Competition has indeed increased in Dubai. The Dubai free port zone Jebel Ali harbors 6,400 companies, among them branches of 120 firms with Fortune 500 ranking. In the onshore banking hub Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC), founded just 9 years ago, 382 authorized firms are licensed, whereas 22 of the 25 biggest banks in the world run offices here.

“No doubt, the need to develop and deliver has increased and most firms and public institutions are insufficiently prepared for the challenges of Dubai 2.0.” — Nicolai Tillisch

Mosaic in a melting pot

On an individual level, Tillisch develops plans for executives to improve their leadership skills.

“I call it the personal mosaic which has to be built. Leadership has a very strong emotional side and a very strong rationale side. I train executives how to effectively balance the two sides.” — Nicolai Tillisch

The latter approach is the reason why the subtitle of his book reads; Mastering leadership skills for greater success.

Tillisch likes to cite the example of Rizwan who became a chief operating officer of a company in Dubai, but he was not prepared to understand the logistical operations. This new COO had to deliver from day one but got lost in the amount of work and had simply no time.

Tillisch and his team developed a 6-month action plan for Rizwan, which was summed up in a 3-page document. The coaching was framed by regular one-on-one sessions between Rizwan and Dual Impact.

“Thanks to the great help and coaching I received from Dual Impact, we could develop a strategy to both involve and motivate the team. Reaching the first milestone was the key; once we achieved the first target, everything seemed possible,” (Rizwan) the COO, is quoted as saying on Dual Impact’s homepage

Recent developments demonstrate Dubai’s ambitions to compete with global heavyweight cities, like Shanghai, Singapore, London, or New York.

“Competitors pour in amid stop-watch speed, but few executives have time to adapt to rough conditions without neglecting the daily operations. That is where we move in with Dual Impact.”

On a few occasions, Dual Impact has turned down requests.

“Consultancy over time only works if there is trust. If there is no trust, then implementing new measures is like shooting blanks.”

Competition is also fierce in Dual Impact’s turf. Dozens of international consultancies have set up branches in recent years in the Gulf, hoping to cash in the ongoing boom.

“But our clients can call us at any time and we do not send teams for short period of time to their offices, like the big consultancies. Our slim, customised approach, usually over 7 months, is unique in the market.”

Tillisch’s mode of speaking is soft and he has an open-minded attitude — tools which are helpful in the Dubai melting pot, where 2.8 million people from 200 nations live. Despite his impressive career and his height of 6 feet, Tillisch is a down-to-earth man. This is why Tillisch is also a much-in-demand motivational speaker.

In his office near the world’s tallest tower Burj Khalifa (828 meters), Tillisch usually wears casual dress. He has a full beard, a common accessory among Arab men, but rare among Westerners.

C-level insider and down-to-earth

During the early years of his career, when he was based out of Copenhagen, Tillisch recalled that he was a “business nomad”.

“I was flipping between various projects under extreme pressue, changing from one plane to the next, traveling around the globe. Many executives in Dubai do the same and that’s why I think I understand their needs.”

On his Twitter account @nicolaitillisch he displays pictures of his business trips and family picnics at Dubai beaches.

Tillisch, who lives with wife and two kids in Dubai, sums up his services with; “Executive coaching, leadership development and business development, these are the three pillars of Dual Impact. But, I am not a head hunter. Through my advice, I help firms to increase profits with their given resources. If a CEO thinks he has to exchange a line manager then I abstain from any advice.” — Nicolai Tillisch who offers his services to companies in the Gulf Arab region and globally. Outside the region, Dual Impact has ample customers in Europe.

His office, located on top of Dubai’s Aston Martin showroom, which is near the 828 metres verticle Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower. Despite his book success, Tillisch said he will not rest but look forward to many more years in consulting Dubai and GCC firms to reach out for the stars.

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