Rahail Aslam admits to feeling fragile when we meet at the offices of the Select Group on the 16th floor of Dubai Marina Plaza first thing on a Sunday morning. That’s less to do with the previous day’s late night at the Robbie Williams concert in Abu Dhabi and more to do with the fact that he had also completed a 10km Desert Warrior obstacle course challenge over the same weekend.
A keen sportsman, with a love of motor racing, squash, tennis and boxing, 45-year-old Aslam is not a man who spends much of his leisure time on the sofa.
He’s restless in his business endeavours too.
Having left school in Manchester, England, at the age of 16 to start up his own technology company, he built up the business within a decade to become one of the largest importers and distributors of computer hardware across the UK and Europe, with more than £1bn of annual revenues.
But by the late 1990s he felt that the IT industry had become too cut-throat and competitive to maintain attractive margins. He’d done well from the sector, but decided to diversify into real estate – initially in the UK and then the UAE, “an emerging market with the potential for strong growth”.
Soon after the turn of the millennium, Aslam established Select Group with a view to deliver some of the UAE’s leading residential projects. The firm’s first venture in Dubai was the launch of the 90-storey Torch Tower, for a while the world’s tallest residential building; it’s second was The Point.
Since then Select Group has delivered 6 million sq ft of development and has another 4 million sq ft of work currently under construction in the shape of the Residences at Marina Gate, as well as the purpose-built, wholly-owned 325-key InterContinental Dubai Marina hotel, ready for imminent launch.
And those two most recent projects characterise Select Group’s strategy. “There are two parts to the business – development and income-generating investment,” says Aslam. “Though the core of the business has always been residential property, specifically waterfront lifestyle properties in Dubai Marina.”
Select Group is benefiting from its decisions during the economic downturn of 2008-2012 to invest heavily into land bank and to diversify revenue streams with income-producing assets. “We took advantage of being in a buyer’s market, and that’s paying dividends now. We’re not searching for land,” says Aslam.
He emphasises the importance of securing sites with prime positions and no infrastructure risk, and where all services are already in place. “It gives you resilience when the market fluctuates, and keeps you ahead of the competition. Plus those developments are easier to sell.”
Ensuring the ‘saleability’ of its development projects is a motivation that drives Select Group to the point of obsession with design and specification. “It takes a full year for us to resolve the design for a project – before we start any sort of construction or marketing. It’s a full-on 365 days,” says Aslam.
“There are a lot of developers who have very little influence over their designs. They rely on their designers because they don’t have enough experience. But we have a fully-fledged development team and we look at a lot of detail when we’re planning these developments. And we contribute as much as the architects contribute. It’s a real joint collaboration to deliver a high-end, world-class property.”
Fascinatingly detailed scale models of the three-tower, 1,500 apartment Marina Gate development stand proudly in both the company’s office and its show apartment on the edge of the construction site, where shoring and piling works have been completed and where the edifices are about to begin their ascent. It’s hard not to covet one of the waterfront podium villas, which will fetch up to AED30m.
Models and mock ups both inspire potential investors and inform Select Group’s supply chain.
“When we award a main contract the design is fully resolved and finishes are fully specified, so basically it’s then all about supervision and execution,” says Aslam. “We resolve any issues before we start, so when the contractor gets on site, they have all the plans and need very little dialogue with the consultant – it’s just about making sure they’re delivering what’s on the drawing board.
“We try very hard not to make changes during the construction process, otherwise it can lead to variations and conflict. And the knock on effect is just delay, delay, delay.
“Completing on time is paramount for us. We have obligations to people who have paid us for properties and they want the keys. Our on-time record is good, if not perfect. And you’re only as good as your last project, and that – West Avenue – was delivered on time… Okay, maybe six weeks late.”
Despite the constant race against the clock, the outsourcing of design, consulting and construction services is something Select Group refuses to rush. “We go to great lengths to choose our suppliers, using an exhaustive process to tender and select the best tier-one firms out there,”Aslam says. And once we’ve appointed them we firmly believe in having long-term relationships to achieve our desired objectives.”
He reels off a literal ‘A-list’ of preferred project partners – Atkins, Aedas, Alec… “Identifying the right partners has been key to our success. We’re synonymous with reliability, consistency and quality, and for that you need the right supply chain.”
That means it is can be tough for consultants and contractors who have not worked with Select Group before to get a foot in the door – unless they have an impeccable track record and can help the company elevate its performance. “Alec [the main contractor on Marina Gate] is a new relationship for us,” says Aslam. “They’re one of the best contractors in the market, having built Dubai Airport, Abu Dhabi Airport and a number of huge malls. They specialise in large-scale projects and this is a huge project – with a GDP of nearly $1bn.”
But it’s not just about capability. “They showed the most commitment and motivation during the tender process, and there was a real connection between the businesses, and a real understanding between the parties.”
Aslam says that the benefit of successful, enduring relationships is the learning that translates from one project to the next – facilitating an iterative process of continuous improvement that, in turn, ensures a healthy level of repeat business from Select Group’s own customers.
“People who bought into the first project 10 years ago are still buying from us today, which is fantastic. Our product has got better each time,” insists Aslam.
And that’s not necessarily about the external ‘wow factor’ that seems to be a given for high-end Dubai residential developments, according to Aslam. “We’re more focused on spatial planning and layout, floor-to-ceiling heights, lighting, finishes, common areas. We design from the inside out, rather than outside in.” That said, he adds: “But Marina Gate is an architectural marvel. It’s just a box really, but it’s stunning. We’ve struck a great balance of iconic, great architecture and a superb podium look and feel.”
Aslam argues that, from an owner’s perspective, it’s more important to have a well-laid out, well-executed quality development than an iconic exterior. “There are two important elements to residential projects – the apartment space and your common areas. For a building that has 1,000-plus people living there, you need to allocate enough common space so that people can enjoy themselves. The pool size and gym space should be generous, with high-quality equipment. The reception should have the look and feel of a hotel. Corridors shouldn’t just be the minimum required by authorities, they should be a bit wider. So we do that on every project and it really does give you a nice look and feel.”
The company is looking ever further afield for the procurement of materials and tapping into innovation within the construction market. “We don’t just want to buy from this region. For Marina Gate we’ve been to Milan, Italy to buy materials that haven’t been seen here before – just to give a fresher look and feel.”
It’s Select Group’s most efficient building to date too. All the lighting is LED. And the company has sourced the most energy cost-effective efficient chiller system. These things translate into better yields for investors and a more sustainable future for Dubai and its ever-growing population.
“As a market, Dubai has no boundaries and it has ambitions to reach new heights,” says Aslam, betraying the excitement he still feels about the place, his work and his lifestyle here, even after all these years. “We’re embedded in this market, reaching new heights ourselves with our developments, and planning to be part of the growth cycle, which is planned for the next 20-30 years. If you look at what the ruler is putting in place, and exceeding on his promises, we’re in one of the most visionary places on the planet at the moment and it’s great to be part of that.”