P.N.C. Menon is the Founder & Chairman of Sobha Group of Companies. A simple and down-to-earth person hailing from a small village in Kerala, who set extraordinary goals for himself, who ventured onto foreign shores and established international standards both in India and abroad, all in a span of over three decades has truly built a professionally managed organisation with several companies in the group. Never satisfied with the current challenges and always seeking out more and raising the bar each day to improve and innovate, Mr. Menon’s journey of life is a ceaseless quest for perfection. Following, Ink magazine speaks exclusively to Mr Menon:
Sobha Group is a multinational, multi-product group with developments and investments in U.A.E., Sultanate of Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Brunei and India. Established in 1976 by myself, a first generation entrepreneur, as an interior decoration firm under the name of Services and Trade Company in Muscat, Oman, the group has grown into one of the most respected names in all the countries in which it has established businesses. The organization is one of the fastest growing and foremost backward integrated real estate organisations in the region. It means that the company has all the key competencies and in-house resources to deliver a project from conceptualisation to completion. Sobha is primarily focused on residential and contractual projects. The Company’s residential projects include presidential apartments, villas, row houses, super luxury & luxury apartments, plotted developments and aspirational homes. We are currently developing Sobha Hartland, a mixed-used development in the heart of the city of Dubai and also on the banks of the Dubai Water Canal.
2. Please tell us a little about how you started out in this business and when you decided to be a part of the Real Estate world. Would you say yours is truly a ‘rags to riches’ story?
I began my business in Muscat in 1976 with $7 in my pocket after a chance meeting with Captain Sulaiman Adawi, an Omani army officer, in a hotel lobby in Kochi, Kerala. Within 45 days later, I was in Oman, looking for business and upon landing in Oman, I and my partner borrowed 3,000 Omani riyals to start a small street-side furniture and interiors business under the name of Trade and Services Co. Initially, it was a ‘briefcase business’ — trying to fix small things, maintenance, etc — and then it developed into an interiors outfit. Slowly and steadily, we repaid the loan and began to grow our capital. By 1984, the company began to get big contracts, driven mostly by word of mouth due to its quality of work. Soon after I received a call to work for the Sultan’s office in Muscat, to work on a palace. The rest is history. My company then went on to work for the royalty of Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and the president of Tajikistan. I spent the most glorious part of my career designing and developing palaces, royal facilities and mosques.
I believe The Grand Mosque in Muscat bears testimony to my work. Over the course of these 8 years, I developed a strong bond with Oman, a country which provided me with a strong foundation and “backbone” that has enabled me to achieve greater success in the years ahead. In 1995, my family and I were granted Omani citizenship. This recognition symbolizes my strong and lifelong connection with the Gulf. As a globally-minded entrepreneur, I decided to expand Sobha’s footprint in 2003 to Dubai, the business capital of the Middle East. Dubai’s world-class infrastructure, sustainable economic growth and access to international talent made this an ideal location for us to establish Sobha Middle East, a privately held company with plans to diversify across multiple geographies and sectors, including luxury residential development, education, hospitality and furniture manufacturing.
In the recent past, due to our unwavering focus on quality, Sobha Group has been recognized as one of the Top Real Estate Companies in the Arab World 2016 by Forbes Middle East and also ranked 9th in the Top 50 GCC Developers Rankings 2016 by Construction Week. I have gratefully received honorable recognitions such as part of the various rankings for richest business men in GCC by Forbes ME, Lifetime Achievement Awards, Inspirational Leadership Awards and many more.
3. What in your opinion are the top three things that separate Sobha Group from your competition in terms of the company’s developments?
The top 3 things that separate us from other players in the market will be Quality, Timely delivery and our diverse portfolio of projects.
Quality: Sobha stands and strives for benchmark quality, customer centric approach, robust engineering, in-house research, uncompromising business ethics, timeless values and transparency in all spheres of business conduct, which have all contributed to making it a brand trusted for excellence. Sobha is an organization where quality meets excellence, technology meets aesthetics and passion meets perfection. It is a brand is synonymous to quality and perfection. With a reputation for unmatched construction and interiors, Sobha Group has delivered over 89. 64 million square feet of both residential and commercial projects since inception. It has 71 ongoing projects with a developable area of 101 million square feet
Delivery: Sobha Group is one of the fastest growing and foremost backward integrated real estate organisations in the region. It means that the company has all the key competencies and in-house resources to deliver a project from conceptualization to completion. This enables us to match the timelines committed at the beginning of any project. Sobha is primarily focused on residential and contractual projects. The Company’s residential projects include presidential apartments, villas, row houses, super luxury & luxury apartments, plotted developments and aspirational homes.
Diverse portfolio of Projects: At present there are three major projects under construction, two of which are located at prime locations in Dubai and are expected to be completed by 2020. The Sobha Hartland project was launched in 2014, which is a $4 billion dollar, mixed-use development. The resort-style luxury housing project encompasses 8 million square feet of freehold community in Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum City. 30% (2.4 million square feet) of the community is only reserved for greenery.
We recently announced our forthcoming Hartland Estates Townhouses – the largest and only townhouse project in the heart of Dubai and along the Dubai Water Canal. Its close proximity to Dubai’s top attractions makes it a sought-after project. At the end of the first phase of Sobha Hartland, we have launched 48 Villas and 160 apartments which have already sold in a significant number. At Sobha Hartland, residents will have access to wide selection of world-class amenities like two international schools, nurseries, malls, cafes, tennis courts, yoga centre, swimming pool, clubhouses and spas, mosques, and healthcare facilities. Moreover, the project is just three kilometers away from Dubai’s top attractions. This makes Sobha Hartland an ideal long-term investment for all nationalities.
The Meydan Sobha District One project is valued at $8 billion. It is a joint venture with Meydan Group and will develop 45 million square feet of freehold land into an exclusive destination of luxury villas and mansions surrounded by expansive green parks and lagoons within the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum City. Phase One of the project will consist of 267 villas with handover commencing in the 4th quarter of 2016.
Sobha Group is also developing the Firdous Sobha scheme, a mixed-use island development that will have villas, apartments, hotels, shops and leisure facilities with a total value of around $6.8 billion. The scheme was announced by us earlier this year and will cover 53 million sq ft or area.
4. Which has been the biggest challenge that you have faced so far as a real estate company and how has Sobha Group overcome these obstacles?
Dubai is a commercial capital for three billion people out of the Indian subcontinent, Africa and the Middle East — roughly 40 per cent of the [global] population. The creation of the city has been a very important part of the success of the real estate business in Dubai. Dubai is the most sustainable real estate city in the Middle East. It is a cosmopolitan city, with beautiful weather five to six months in a year and delivers high quality living and is not very expensive like Europe. Real estate business is cyclical but no one is able to say how long a cycle is going to last, whether it is a positive or negative cycle. The downturn that started from the second half of 2014 continued during the whole of 2015. This is only guesswork, but if you take two years as a cycle, in the middle of 2016 we may get into a positive cycle again. We expect that if not by the second half of this year, definitely by the first half of 2017 it should be back to normal. Cycles have become very short. I have started getting a feeling that these cycles are two plus two — that means two years of positive cycle, balanced by two years of negative cycle. Even during the two-year negative cycle, we would say that it is not totally negative, but about 40 or 50 per cent of what one could sell in a positive market
5. According to you, which areas in Dubai currently are the best for residential and commercial purposes? Which areas would you advise to people looking to invest?
The areas that are on top of the list for those buying properties include Dubai Marina, Downtown Dubai, Palm Jumeirah and Jumeirah Lake Towers, Dubai Sports City, Business Bay and Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum City. And at one of these popular areas, Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum City, Sobha has launched ‘Sobha Hartland’—an eight million sq ft project that comprises contemporary L-shaped villas with an option of 12 floor-plans, semi-detached villas, townhouses, plots and modern high rise apartments
6. Which Sobha Group project to date has been your team project and why?
Sobha Hartland – The resort-style luxury housing project, encompasses 8 million square feet of freehold community in Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum City. Its close proximity to Dubai’s top attractions makes it a sought-after project. Sobha Hartland, surrounded by 2.4 million square feet of greenery and set along the Dubai Water Canal, enjoys the unique advantage of prime location backed by over 40 years of expertise Recently announced the release of new freehold apartments at Sobha Hartland Greens, which are luxurious and exclusive eight storey apartment buildings located on the Dubai Water Canal.
These new freehold apartments are very attractively priced with exceptional payment plans for both the end-users & Investors. Completion of the first 2 apartment buildings is expected December 2017.
Also, recently we have announced its forthcoming Townhouse community in Hartland Estates at Sobha Hartland. With special focus on lavish space and privacy, the Townhouses at Sobha Hartland will be spread across three floors and each unit will be of 3300 square feet. Phase 1 of the Townhouses will comprise of 27 units.
With Hartland Greens, waterfront villas, and now Hartland Estates – Town House community, Sobha Group continues to set a benchmark in offering world-class bespoke living experience. At Sobha Hartland, residents will have access to wide selection of world-class amenities like two international schools, nurseries, malls, cafes, tennis courts, yoga centre, swimming pool, clubhouses and spas, mosques, and healthcare facilities. Moreover, the project is just three kilometers away from Dubai’s top attractions.
7. Where do you envision Sobha Group 10 years from now (expansion plans etc.)?
The real estate transactions have shown a positive growth trend compared to last year as per the Dubai Land department statistics. The real estate business is expected to carry the growth momentum into the last quarter of 2016. Sobha Group has also seen increase in sales compared to the last year. Sobha Group in addition to the current two large scale developments of Sobha Hartland and District One, is planning to develop two large scale developments with a combined land area of 10 million square meters in UAE.
8. Where do you see Dubai’s property market heading in the next few years?
With each passing day, my conviction and inspiration towards the future potential of Dubai only increases – primarily due to the vision, dedication and world-class execution of the country’s leadership, particularly that of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. This has propelled Dubai to gain a strong foothold on the world stage as an extremely resilient and sustainable city.
I view Dubai as a “magnet” that will continue to attract the world’s most enterprising entrepreneurs, innovative companies and global citizens who wish to make this city their home. As a citizen of the Gulf and an entrepreneur who believes wholeheartedly in Dubai’s future potential, my vision for Sobha Group is to participate in this city’s future journey, which I am sure will reach a level of unprecedented growth and success in the years to come
9. Which country’s real estate industry are you most impressed with and why?
Well, it has to be the Dubai real estate market which is extremely promising. The perks of Dubai Real estate and investments will primarily be:
10. Your Top 5 ‘must visit’ places in Dubai and why?
Dubai is a commercial capital that caters to over three billion people from the Middle East, Indian subcontinent, Africa, and the CIS countries — which equates to roughly 40 percent global population. There is no comparable city in any of these regions, with the vibrancy, connectivity, safety and beauty that make Dubai so special.
From my perspective, Dubai is the most sustainable real estate city in the Middle East. It is a cosmopolitan city, with beautiful weather six months [in a year]. The city offers a high-quality lifestyle which is more affordable than many comparable cities in Europe. Furthermore, both of our projects, Sobha Hartland and District One, are located in the heart of Dubai in a location that cannot be matched nor replicated. These are all factors that have contributed to our success in Dubai, where we are focused on providing the highest quality standards of residential living in the heart of the city. Sobha Hartland project is located in the centre of Dubai on the banks of Dubai Water canal which is slated to officially open in November 2016. Some of the noteworthy attractions of Dubai are at a 3km radius from Sobha Hartland – eg: The Burj Khalifa, Meydan Race Course, Ras Al Khor wildlife sanctuary, Dubai Water fountain, Dubai Canal and many more.
11. Does Sobha Group partake in any CSR activities?
Our work is driven by our commitment to social responsibility. I have helped found and fund a senior citizens’ and widows’ home, healthcare centre, educational institution for underprivileged children and more. I view myself as a philanthropist to the core with a deep-felt commitment to social responsibility, and am engaged in numerous charitable causes. For me, it is not charity but an obligation, a social obligation, giving back to the society a major share of what we have earned. The social initiatives undertaken by myself have clear goals in specific areas of development and are truly replicable models in the society. As part of The Giving Pledge – a philanthropic initiative started in 2010 by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, I have pledged to give half of my wealth earlier this year.
Details of some CSR initiatives:
Sobha Academy was started to empower and enable the rural poor to break away from the vicious circle of poverty, ignorance, deprivation, and exclusion by providing their children with high-quality education. As of now, more than 650 children have access to free, quality education with 90 new students admitted each year. All their requirements, including food, transportation, uniforms, books and medical care are provided at no cost.
Sobha Hermitage, located on 23 acres of verdant green estates, is a benevolent home for the aged and deprived. It is the epitome of humanity offering love, care and support to the neglected sections of the society – senior citizens as well as young widows, referred to as “young mothers,” and their children.
The Sobha Health Care Center targets 2,500 families below the poverty line, senior citizens of Sobha Hermitage and students of Sobha Academy along with their parents. The facilities are state-of-the-art and include free consultation, diagnosis, tests, treatments, and medicines.
12. Do you have a favorite quote regarding business/ entrepreneurship that you would like to share with us?
I am never completely satisfied. I feel there is so much more to progress towards quality. My belief “Passion at Work” is what motivates more than 3,500 Sobhaites today to become specialists in their field. Let the drive for perfection start from within.
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