Syed Iftikhar Ali has worked in various finance roles in the UAE for over three decades. He reveals the changes that his career journey has had on his professional outlook, and how he is using his expertise to change the company he runs…
BROTHERS NEVER part!” retorted Latif Galadari… as Syed Iftikhar Ali handed in his resignation.
This was the type of camaraderie that was shared in the Dubai of yesteryear. The eighties was a time when there was only one free-to-air English broadcast TV channel which was on air 12 hours a day. When the city did not house the world’s tallest tower, largest mall, or the first 7-Star hotel.
Nevertheless, since 1833 when Sheikh Maktoum bin Butti Al Maktoum persuaded over 800 members of his tribe of the Bani Yas to follow him from what was then part of Saudi Arabia, across the desert to the Dubai creek, it has been a benchmark of leadership.
Chapter in history books
The ethos of the Emirate could best be described by its leadership strength and business acumen. A global benchmark of entrepreneurialism at its acme. When Iftikhar Ali made the decision to forget about medical school and become an accountant he had no idea that he would be walking hand-in-hand with the men who would be writing a chapter in the history books of humanity.
Is it destiny or luck? A question pondered for centuries and to the faith driven, it was destiny and to the empiricist… it was luck. To Iftikhar Ali it was just a job.
“You know back then, we did not have all these fancy computers and real time systems. I often worked 17 hours a day, pencil in hand assisted only by a calculator. You could say it was tough work, but there was something romantic about working the numbers by hand, about having your fingers on the cash flows on a daily basis,” says Iftikhar, who is CEO of Pinnacles Strategic Consultancy and formerly the Group Finance Director for one of the most prestigious family offices in the Gulf.
The job of the Chief Financial Officer by many measures is one of the toughest corner office positions. The weight of accountability for the company’s most valuable item, its cash flow; guardian of the company’s most coveted secrets; champion of the businesses’ finances. The CFO carries the mass of the company with very little limelight or recognition. For over three decades this was Iftikhar’s stock-in-trade.
“I was not exactly sure what I wanted to do with my life but I knew I wanted to be in a position to make a difference and have measurable results and my uncle advised me that the accountancy profession would afford me such a privilege. So off I went to become a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Pakistan, which at the time seemed like torture,” he narrates.
“To pass the exams you need to study at least 4 hours a day and this is generally done while you are working, so really you have to sacrifice your personal life. I guess as they say… without sacrifice there can be no progress. I have to say the vocation has been kind to me and I have had the opportunity to work with the most brilliant professionals. I do feel blessed,” he adds.
The lure of Dubai
After becoming a Chartered Accountant, Iftikhar joined the Oil and Gas industry in a BP subsidiary in Pakistan called Sui Gas in the finance department. Here, he honed his skills and worked for three years. Then out of the blue he was invited to Dubai for a job interview.
The year was 1976 and even back then, Dubai had a certain allure to it as a land of opportunity. A region known as a haven for traders and businessmen liberally peppered with bravado and entrepreneurial spirit. One of Iftikhar’s friends had been hired by the Galadari family and when another post came up he referred Iftikhar for the position.
‘Dubai’, the word alone, was expressed with an extra ounce of verve and brio as Iftikhar told friends and family he was going on an exploratory trip regarding a job opportunity and was planning on being back in a couple of days; the thing is, he never came back.
Like so many expatriates who leave their country of origin to enjoy a short overseas work experience, only to watch the decades pass as they become rooted in the Middle East’s business hub. They often foster a love for the country rivalled by only the most patriotic locals themselves.
“After being here for 30 years I can say one of my observations is the deep love of their country and their leaders the people of the UAE have,” says Iftikhar.
“I was excited to go to Dubai but did not think I was going to get the job the way I did. They flew me to Dubai and I met with the Galadari’s. Abdul Latif E. Galadari was there with his elder brother Abdul Rahim E. Galadari and in 1976, they had their office by the creek. Hughes of orange and yellow spilled across the sky as the sun set, it was around 6:30pm when I walked into the Galadari head office for the first time.”
“I was met with the usual warm Arabic hospitality and offered a hot cup of ‘Ghava’, Arabic coffee. A welcomed gesture after my travels. Latif was very warm and personable. He got up and shook my hand. He was not in a candura but was wearing white pants and a white button down short sleeve shirt, a dress best suited for the hot dessert environment. The first meeting was short but it was the beginning of a long professional relationship and friendship.”
“You really couldn’t grasp how big the business was from automobiles to newspapers, heavy equipment to machinery, ice cream to engineering; it was a real powerhouse of a group. When you spoke to Latif and his brothers, their business acumen was immediately apparent; often complimented by a splash of genius. He was a remarkable judge of character. He would spend some time with a person and then immediately make his mind up. In my case he hired me on the spot. I had to send my resignation back to India through a friend and I haven’t gone back ever since!”
Managing family business
The Galadari’s were one of the original business families of Dubai and have been a pillar of the business revolution that has taken place in the Emirates. They first opened in the early 1960s and have had a rocket fuelled ascent to the top of Arab business world. Latif and his elder brother Abdul Rahim were the visionaries who catapulted the family business into new dimensions at break neck speeds. From real estate to hospitality, the Galadari’s were even one of the anchor investors of Dubai Bank in the 1970s.
Iftikhar Ali represents the last bastion of the old guard; cadre of men who literally broke new ground initiating core businesses and bringing vital services to the UAE.
“Working with the Galadaris was an experience, they were true business visionaries. They set up and started the ‘Khaleej Times’, the first ever English daily newspaper and have done so many firsts. Sometimes I would get a call at 3am and Latif would say ‘I hope you weren’t sleeping I just had this new idea’ and I would say of course I wasn’t sleeping as I was always eager to hear his vision and ideas. He would instantly have a vision, a road map and a plan in his mind and the banks would be lining up to finance his projects,” says Iftikhar.
“Leaving a company in Dubai was like leaving your family. We were very close and there were many nights in which the Galadaris generously afforded me their hospitality until late in the evening,” says Iftikhar.
As the business day would begin to wind down to a close, Latif would say to Iftikhar; “what are you doing tonight? My wife is cooking a delicious meal for you, you must come over to my house.”
“He was a very kind man with a big heart. Unfortunately the time had come for me to leave the business. It was really a decision which made my heart sink and when I handed in my resignation, Latif said; “what are you doing, brothers never part!” I can still hear those words today, but I had to leave and spread my wings as I was still young and wanted to get new experiences.”
Sense of business direction
Iftikhar ended up joining Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and for many years he enjoyed an international career with the Oil & Gas giant; a tour of duty that even included an overseas stint in Italy. It was not too long before another of the Emirate’s business moguls would lure him back to the City of Gold, Dubai. This time it was indefatigable Abdulaziz Al Ghurair, the man behind Mashreq Bank and the Al Ghurair family fortune.
“Al Ghurair was one of the sharpest business leaders I have ever met. Ghurair seniors drove the bank to profit every year for over 20 years by the time I joined. The bank was opened in 1967 and used to be called The Bank of Oman. I asked him why he called it such and he said; ‘back then there was no UAE, we just had the Trucial States and Oman was much more established at the time, so we chose Bank of Oman’,” says Iftikhar.
“Abdulaziz was a much focused businessman. He would not waste time talking about the weather; he would get straight to the point. He was very switched on and possessed a deep sense of direction. As head of finance and treasury for the bank I reported directly to him and he was always extremely pleasant and friendly.
Even back in the late eighties and early nineties Mashreq Bank had 27 branches and offices in America, UK, Sudan, Egypt, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka; it was one of the big success stories of Dubai. The name was changed from Bank of Oman to Mashreq in 1993; a name which means both sunrise and sunset in Arabic.
Thinking out of the box
Today Mashreq has 54 branches and is strategically distributed across 12 overseas offices in nine countries. They are the largest private bank in the UAE with one in two households in the UAE banking with them.
“I became enamoured with Islamic Banking at that time and was slowly lured by the Dar-Ul-Mal which is the investment arm of the Islamic Investment Co Bahrain. Ethical banking romanticised me and I had to experience it first-hand so I left Mashreq and moved to Bahrain.”
Iftikhar would not leave the Emirate for long as in 1996 he was offered a position with one of the most iconic family groups in the UAE. A place where he worked from 1996 till 2012 before starting his own company Pinnacles Strategic Consultancy.
“A family office brings one face-to-face with gifted men of intellect, vision and foresight. There are competing pressures on time challenging projects where decisions have to be taken, the mind gets creative to think out of box and offer competing views rather than echo thinking of the market’s pedestrian masses. The questions are complex with no precedent to take a baseline from and the ability to prioritise work, while juggling the myriad of challenges that one faces, while all the time keeping one eye on the horizon is paramount for success in this environment.”
As the Group Finance Director, Iftikhar had to manage the organisation’s liquidity, offer deep insight into the toughest investment decisions and has had the opportunity to spearhead numerous Green Field operations.
“To be successful, your operations have to be water tight but business development is the key driver for rapid growth, and if you want to lead you have to have high growth. So as my career shifted, I became more and more involved in where the company was heading and how I could help facilitate a high growth environment,” he says.
Diversification is critical
After almost 17 years of service to his employer, Iftikhar decided it was time to run his own business and started Pinnacles Strategic Consultancy, which offers services such as capital structuring advisory, business set up services, strategy, decision analysis and overall financial advisory.
When I asked Iftikhar if he has any advice to offer after his years of business experience he said; “When managing the finance function for a diverse large conglomerate, the most important role for anybody is business development. You can only grow from strength to strength if you keep a push on growing the top line, diversification is critical.”
“Opportunistic moments need to be seized or another family group will seize them. So you need to be agile, streamlined and capable of acting quickly. Finally, you have to be on top of IT advancements, these will increase your operational efficiency. These are some of the critical elements I think you need to be on top of… all the time.”
“On the other hand, my advice for the individual would be this; make sure you become qualified and invest in your education.”
“For me the Chartered Accountancy has been a passport into the corner office, it has afforded me the chance to work with amazing people, an opportunity which I believe I would not have gotten if I was not professionally qualified; and finally you have to work hard as there is no substitute for hard work.”
* By Shane Phillips – Managing Director, Shane Phillips Consultants