Scaling new heights

Tom Barry, Petroceltic Having just fully retired from Arabtec last year, Tom Barry spoke exclusively to Lynne Nolan about his time at the helm of the UAE’s leading construction company.

Undoubtedly, the project Arabtec and I are most proud of is Burj Khalifa. When we took this on, we knew that no building had ever been built to such a height and new world records would be set for many of the techniques and technologies used, let alone for the height factor.

As CEO of Arabtec, Tom Barry witnessed the company’s progression from humble beginnings to its completion of a diverse portfolio of major construction projects in all sectors of real estate and infrastructure.

Tom, 66, recalls how his early interest in civil engineering was “really a family thing.”  Influenced by his father, who was a very successful engineer with his own consultancy practice in Dublin and his elder brother, a civil engineering graduate, Tom graduated from UCD in 1969 with a BE (degree) in civil engineering.

Unlike his father and brother, Tom was attracted to the construction sector, rather than the professional or consultancy side of engineering. Drawn to the opportunity to become a chartered engineer and gain a British qualification, “as it was more recognised throughout the world, as even then I had in mind that someday I would go abroad to work,” he took up a job offer from Sir Robert Alpine & Sons in the UK.

Starting out as a site engineer in Scunthorpe, where the company was building a huge steel-making plant for British Steel, and later working on bridges and roads within the development as a section engineer, Tom later moved to Northampton as a section engineer and, subsequently, chief engineer on a shopping centre. After working at McAlpine’s London office to gain experience in design work, mandatory in order to become a chartered engineer, Tom successfully sat his exam and became a Chartered Civil Engineer.

He moved to Leeds to work on a large city centre project involving a huge shopping centre and a high rise office block, holding responsibility for the office block, which was completed in 1976.

It was during his time at McAlpine’s that Tom met two people who would be instrumental in his next move. These men were another recent graduate Riad Kamal, and Colin Weekley, under whom he had worked in Scunthorpe and Northampton.

“Riad had moved around the UK like me and had also achieved his ambition of being a chartered engineer. Then he decided to return to the Middle East, where he was from, and set up a construction company in a place called Dubai, where a building boom was about to happen as they had ‘oil money.’ He persuaded Colin to join him, which he did, and Arabtec Construction was formed,” Tom recalls.

“I then got the phone call in the summer of 1976 asking if I would join and after some discussion, I accepted and resigned from McAlpine’s.”

Moving there in September 1976, his first visit to the UAE, “turned out to be a very fortuitous move, although I had no idea at the time!”

Asked about the main differences between working there and Ireland or the UK at that time, Tom says there were a “multitude” of differences.

“First of all we were in a very hot climate, in a Muslim country with a totally different culture. Construction was totally different, with all labour and junior staff being of Asian origin, mostly Indian, with an approach to construction techniques that we would have considered well out of date,” he says.

“We, therefore, had to breed a new construction culture by training them all in more modern methods technically, as well as health and safety. Standards had to be improved, but most were willing to learn and improve themselves and their work ethic. In those days, it was hard to get the right materials in the right time, and it was a hard slog,” he adds.

Prior to Arabtec Construction completing paperwork and registration, allowing it to commence projects, Tom spent two years working on design and project management matters for big infrastructure projects in Dubai and other emirates for consulting group Halcrow International. Such projects included Jebel Ali Port, Khor Fakkan Harbour and other marine-type projects.

Joining Arabtec, Tom was “excited at the prospect of joining a newly-formed company which had ambitions to become a large company in the area, modernise construction techniques and take on bigger and better projects and developments.”

Early on, Arabtec formed a JV with a German construction company to build a 17-storey office building on Dubai Creek, which was then the tallest building in Dubai, and he says, it is “amazing that 30 years later Arabtec would be part of a JV building the tallest building in the world.”

Starting out as a project manager at Arabtec in early 1979, in charge of three projects, Tom became “involved progressively with all aspects of the construction company.” He became chief projects manager and deputy general manager, before taking on the role of general manager after Colin Weekley decided to leave and return to the UK.

During the early 1980’s, Arabtec grew, building cold store projects in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Muscat, as well as apartment buildings using an innovative formwork system called Tunnelform, which was later converted for use in building villas, which Arabtec excelled at in the 90’s and noughties.

Tom reveals that Arabtec “barely survived” the severe depression in the construction sector around 1987, yet “things started booming for Arabtec after they won the Emirates Hangars project, which they successfully completed.” Arabtec was also very active in the oil and gas sector in Abu Dhabi at this time and was involved in a number of important projects offshore on Mubarras Island, Abu Dhabi.

After being awarded the Emirates Hangars project in Dubai Airport, followed by numerous other prestigious projects in the ever-expanding Dubai Airport, Arabtec really started to take off in the mid-90’s, taking on its first real high rise building in Dubai, a 55-storey residential building. The company also started its Arabtec Living division, which exclusively built villa developments.

When awarded, the Emirates Hangars Project was the biggest project ever awarded to a single contractor like Arabtec, and it was the springboard for our future success.

“Having successfully completed such projects, our name and reputation for on-time delivery of a quality product became known and projects poured in. They ranged from high rise commercial and residential developments, hotels, villa developments involving thousands of villas, airport projects – in fact anything we could handle,” he says.

As Arabtec expanded, so did Tom’s responsibilities, and alongside Riad Kamal, Arabtec initiated the process of getting certified to ISO 9001. With that Quality Management system in place, Arabtec started securing bigger projects and with a Board in place, Tom became Construction Director and General Manager in 2004.

When Arabtec achieved certification to ISO 9001, it opened many new doors to them and during the period 2002 to 2008, Arabec were awarded “project after project,” some remarkable in size, including the construction of the JBR project for Dubai Properties, “which involved the construction of 13 high rise towers very close to each other, in a very tight time frame.”

During this time, Emirates Palace was built, as well as the Address Hotel, the Fairmont Hotel and the Burj Khalifa.

Riad Kamal, chairman and managing director at the time, decided that Arabtec should go public, which it did in late 2004 and was then quoted on the Dubai Stock Exchange in Dubai Financial Market.

“Our share price tripled overnight and then went to a level of six times the initial price through the next 4 years. I became a Director of the Holding Company and Executive Director of Arabtec Construction. Then Riad Kamal, who became CEO of the Holding Company, whilst retaining his position as chairman of Arabtec Construction, decided to appoint me as CEO of Arabtec Construction in early 2009, a position I retained until I decided to retire in 2011,” he reveals.

By 2007, Arabtec’s labour force rose to 52,000 people and it became the biggest employer in the region,” however the increase in staff numbers created huge logistical problems, as labour camps and transportation had to be able to the cope with the demand.

“The biggest feather in our cap then came along when we led a joint venture to successfully tender and win the construction of the tallest building in the world, the Burj Dubai, subsequently renamed Burj Khalifa, after the president of the UAE. It took about five years to complete this, but it was a very proud moment for us at Arabtec when Burj Khalifa was completed and opened in January 2010.”

Asked about the projects he is most proud of, Tom responds: “Undoubtedly, the project Arabtec and I are most proud of is Burj Khalifa. When we took this on, we knew that no building had ever been built to such a height and new world records would be set for many of the techniques and technologies used, let alone the for height factor.”

Other projects that he and Arabtec are “justifiably proud of” include the Emirates Hangars Project, which when awarded was “the biggest project ever awarded to a single contractor like Arabtec, and it was the springboard for our future success,” and “our first high rise, completed successfully ahead of programme and to a high standard.”

“Burj Al Arab, too, is held in high esteem by Dubai and the world, and we are proud of the fact that we executed all the interior fit-outs of the public areas, restaurants, ballroom and spa,” he says.

Mubarras Island was Arabtec’s biggest offshore project and the key to the project was logistics. “We controlled this well by buying our own service boat and contracting a fleet of tugs and barges to expedite materials and food to the island every day to keep the manpower active and achieve the demanding programme. We had a 24-hour logistics management team on this.”

“Emirates Palace, which has the most fantastic and expensive finishes of any project in the world, is a project that is up among the best we have ever done. To be built in a very short time period, in time for the GCC Conference, was the contractual requirement that we signed up to and the joint venture that we were part of, again achieved this objective by working 24-7. A major achievement in the end and the finished product demonstrates this,” he comments.

Arabtec’s reputation for completing projects on time and to a high quality level were instrumental in it being awarded such hugely iconic projects after it had satisfied the tendering requirements, he believes.

When Tom semi-retired in 2011 and subsequently fully retired recently, Arabtec had around 25,000 employees across all its operations, Gulf wide. Although a far cry from the numbers in 2007 and 2008 when he was CEO, the construction boom was at its peak in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and all its resources were fully utilised there.

In late 2008, the world crisis hit Dubai, resulting in many projects being stalled or cancelled. “We had to downsize our labour force quickly and diversify geographically on an urgent basis,” he recalls, as they explored and set up in other countries, winning projects and relocating staff.

Arabtec is now established in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt and India and has also established a company in Pakistan.

“We continue to look at other countries and opportunities in the MENA region and now have the philosophy: ‘the world is our oyster.’”

Arabtec continues to focus on the region, with the biggest of its projects being the Midfield Terminal for Abu Dhabi Airport, which has just commenced.

“We are in a JV for this project with CCC and TAV, who are major players in the construction market in the UAE. This is probably the biggest project ever awarded in the UAE, valued at over $3 billion.”

Arabtec is also working on the expansion of Terminal 2 at Dubai Airport and a number of medium to high rise projects in Abu Dhabi. “We are also finishing off another iconic project in Dubai, called the Infinity Tower, which rotates 90 degrees through the height of the building.”

“In Saudi Arabia, we are constructing a 5000-villa project and we are working on Jeddah Airport with our partners Saudi Bin Ladin construction.”

Arabtec has a number of high rise building projects in Qatar, one of which is the World Trade Centre, and it is working on a large university building in Kuwait. In India, Arabtec is working on a residential complex with apartments and villas.

In St Petersburg, Russia, Arabtec has been awarded the early or ground works for the ‘new’  Gazprom Building, having worked with them on the original tower and site, before the decision was made to change the location.

Arabtec has offices in every country it works in. While its head office is located in Dubai, it has a branch office in Abu Dhabi, as well as offices in Doha, Jeddah, Riyadh, Kuwait, Bahrain, Cairo, New Delhi, Karachi and St Petersburg.

Tom’s involvement in Arabtec over the past year or so has been mainly of an “advisory” nature, as he remained on the Board of Arabtec Construction and four other subsidiary companies in the Holding Group. However, he is now fully retired and has stepped down from all Boards, and will “let the new Arabtec Regime just get on with it!”

Asked about the secrets of his success as CEO, Tom says it was “developing relationships, not only with clients and their construction teams, but also with my fellow board members, colleagues and my own staff,” and dealing with everybody in a fair and reasonable manner, without any arrogance, as well as “always being honest and straightforward in all dealings and matters.”

Splitting his time between Dubai and Portugal, with frequent visits to Ireland where much of his family still live, including his mother, Tom is a lifelong and founder member of Emirates Golf Club and he enjoys playing some golf with friends and his wife Jacqui fairly regularly.

With the severe downturn in construction in Ireland, graduates with a sense of survival are looking to Dubai and the Middle East as primary targets, he says, with Irish expats like himself willing to meet and try to help aspiring graduates and out-of-work Irishmen whenever necessary, while Enterprise Ireland and the Irish Business Network in Dubai are also available to help.

Tom believes that “from the beginning, there was a strong Irish community and community spirit in Dubai. The Irish Society goes back further than when I came here, so there was always get-togethers and of course, The St. Patrick’s Night Ball. It was always great to be able to meet up regularly with fellow Irish and have a pint or two.”

“That spirit still prevails and now we have the Irish Society, the Irish Business Council (Network), the Dubai Irish Golf Society and even our own GAA entity called the Celts. All thriving and fun to be part of.”

Discussing Dubai’s incredible transformation over the years and how it has become “one of the most recognised cities in the world,” Tom comments that “Sheikh Mohammed and his father before him, Sheikh Rashid, always had visions to make Dubai into something and they certainly achieved that.”

“Dubai, besides having the tallest building in the world (Burj Khalifa) and what is considered to be the 8th wonder of the world (Palm Jumeirah), has been developed into a city of the most innovative and iconic buildings of the world.”

As a place to live, Tom describes Dubai as “a place where you have everything. The best in shopping; hotels; restaurants; sports; good living conditions; modern roads; a cosmopolitan, relaxed and safe place to be and live, and of course, generally great weather.”

Dubai has progressed to become a very modern and up-to-date place to do business, he believes, due to its convenience for travel, with Emirates Airline flying to all corners of the world in the most technically-advanced aircraft.

Looking to the future, Tom intends to enjoy his retirement. “Construction has been a hard life really. Working in that sector in Dubai has been very demanding, working long hours and even seven days a week. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and then again neither was Dubai, but it had very demanding deadlines and programmes to be met as everything was practically required ‘by the next day’!”

He will maintain his residence in Dubai, assisting Arabtec on a consultative basis where necessary. He plans to spend a lot of time in Portugal at his holiday residence, “travel a lot, play golf a lot, visit Ireland to see family and friends, and generally just enjoy myself and be with my wife Jacqui and son Ross, who is at university in Edinburgh studying Economics.”

As an industry veteran who helped spearhead Arabtec into becoming the biggest construction contractor in the UAE, what advice would he give to young Irish men or women who are at the helm of newer companies in the UAE?

“First of all, be patient. Sometimes it takes time in Dubai and the UAE to get what you want and where you want to be. It will take a lot of effort there and you yourself have to make things happen. Don’t sit around waiting for things to happen or expect everything to come to you. Make it happen. Be prepare to invest time and money and knock on as many doors as possible.”

Click here to view the article as it appeared in Issue 2 of the Arab-Irish Journal. 

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