Jan. 18, 2015

Nabil Al Zahlawi

UAE, Abu Dhabi

Nabil Al Zahlawi

Managing Partner, NFT Specialized in Tower Cranes

"The plan is to diversify our network and our equipment and eventually to launch an IPO in the future."


Nabil Al Zahlawi was born in 1956 and is currently the Managing Partner of NFT Specialized in Tower Cranes. He spent a large part of his career working with Potain, taking him to various markets across the Middle East. Other positions have includes General Manager for Taj SACMO in Saudi Arabia between 1980 and 1982 and Sales and Service Manager at Arabian Auto Agency in the same country from 1982 to 1987.

NFT began in Saudi Arabia in 1987 and moved to Abu Dhabi in 1994. What made you decide to set up here?

We were doing a lot of business between Saudi and the Emirates. I moved to Saudi Arabia originally to see why everyone was going there to buy equipment. Today it is totally the opposite: Saudis come to Dubai and Abu Dhabi and buy from here. Currently, we ship a large amount of our equipment from here to Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, I decided to move our activities and headquarters from Saudi Arabia to the UAE because the facilities here make doing business much more efficient. Our parent company and head office are in Abu Dhabi. We have the port nearby and clearing a container takes just a few hours, whereas in Saudi Arabia it takes around 15 days, and sometimes three weeks with regulations and inspections. We started our company with 20 cranes and it was successful. Then we added another 20 cranes, then another 100. Today we have close to 1,400 cranes in operation all over the globe. Looking at the media and market situation I believe that we are the number one in our field, not only in the Emirates, but worldwide.

Some 25 years ago, the main market for cranes in the Middle East was for used European cranes and it was based on sales rather than rentals. What made you start to get into the rental part of the business?

When you have any type of recession or slow momentum in business activities, people are not keen to invest their money. That is where rentals come in. The rental business has developed worldwide over the past 20 years. No one is buying assets today. As a dealer for the French company Potain (now Manitowoc after being bought by American interests), we realized that people do not want to buy cranes because of market instability. The shift into the rental market was a good move for us. We are very active in Saudi Arabia as well as in the entire GCC area, in the crane rental business, and have completed the largest project in the world by number of tower cranes at Princess Nora University, where we had around 150 of our cranes on one job site. This is the model we want to continue with, and it is not a matter of renting one crane or two; we think about what equipment and services we can provide for mega projects from logistics to operations. Recently we have started a new job on the third Bosphorus bridge in Istanbul. This is a huge enterprise. We won this important job, providing exceptional cranes with a 45 ton lifting capacity at a 320-meter height for 29 months. We always like a challenge and we like new ideas, and we invest in long-term business to build up complete confidence with our customers.

“The plan is to diversify our network and our equipment and eventually to launch an IPO in the future."

Where do you see the most activity in the markets in which you operate?

With our company based in the UAE, 2006 to 2008 were the best years for us. But from 2009 until today it's Saudi Arabia. Qatar is starting up now because of a few infrastructure projects, such as bridges, metros, and the stadium. We have no borders when it comes to business. Recently we rented some cranes in Uzbekistan and in Azerbaijan and for the A Stadium in Lyon, France as well as the viaduct in Spain. Locally, we have 45 cranes operating at a nuclear power plant in Abu Dhabi. We are negotiating a project in Egypt and in Africa, plus some in Mozambique, Réunion, and the Seychelles. We are also working on the Expo 2017 in Kazakhstan. In total, we are currently operating in 32 countries and our plan is to be in more countries in 2015, moving our business model from the UAE to the world.

Could you tell us more about the projects happening locally?

NFT supplies cranes to the Louvre Museum project on Saadiyat Island; we have around 14 to 15 cranes on that site. We also have some important projects in downtown Dubai and a lot of prospects on other projects leading up to Expo 2020, where we are still waiting for the tenders to come out, plus the new airport, and also some military projects.

How does your extensive network give you an edge in your business?

When we supplied cranes to build the new ADNOC headquarters in Abu Dhabi, which was 400 meters high with a major lifting capacity, we were the only company that could supply the full turnkey job at that scale at the time. We bought three special brand new luffing jib cranes and five special hoists for the project, and after we finished we moved our equipment to Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong. This is the beauty of our business when you have a big market network. You finish a project and you move the same equipment to another place and country. If I have an enquiry from the Far East or Europe I can send the equipment there. We can load one crane per day. In Europe they need three or four days to load one crane. The key to success in our business is knowing how to move the equipment quickly and correctly.

What are some developments in construction project efficiency?

Nobody today likes to use old-fashioned equipment. We use a high-speed hoisting winch when we have high-rise equipment, such as for building the 450-meter towers at Marina 101 in Dubai and also the tower in central market in Abu Dhabi. You cannot work at that scale with a traditional crane. You have to go for a high-speed winch and big lifting capacity, with less manpower. This means we have to keep investing in new technology and new assets. We have an engineering department in charge of any special application cranes plus marketing, and we are in daily contact with the manufacturer to share ideas. We work with them to build new cranes to suit the new requirements in the market. We have a technical department that develops the ideas and everything in-house, and then we share that with our manufacturing supplier to come up with the best lifting solutions for any project.

What opportunities do you see for investors coming here to the UAE interested in the construction market?

First of all, the beauty of this country is the facilities. There are also no visa issues. In other countries, you face serious visa problems, especially in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, so you cannot move people easily. Here we have enough people and manpower to answer any technical issues. The infrastructure of the country here is well ahead of any other country. If we bring a crane from Europe or anywhere else, we are able to clear it through the port on the same day. Plus, we do not need to pay a double tax if we decide to move the same cargo within GCC countries. This helps us to be very competitive in the market and in the region.

What is your long-term outlook and how are you investing for the future?

We continue to invest in people and in cranes. We also want to diversify geographically and open new markets, finding the best opportunity for business. Myanmar is a new area with significant potential—I have a team working on that—in addition to Indonesia and Malaysia as well. The plan is to diversify our network and our equipment and eventually to launch an IPO in the future. We have set up a three-year timeline to achieve this.

© The Business Year - January 2015