Faisal Al Bannai

Chief Executive Officer at DarkMatter

Faisal Al Bannai

Faisal Al Bannai is a dynamic practice leader with 20 years experience in technology and startups. He also provides strategic vision and leadership on cyber security issues.

Twenty years ago, after completing his business school training in London, Faisal Al Bannai was planning to start a company. Searching for inspiration, he realised that his fascination with mobile phone messaging could be utilised for corporate use, an idea that was gaining international currency at the time. Along with a couple of friends, Al Bannai began to develop the software to facilitate this vision, but despite their best efforts, the project took longer than expected. Deadlines came and went, and in the end, the idea failed to materialise on time. Nevertheless, that failure resulted in a positive – a lesson that Al Bannai never forgot. He says: “It helped me to learn an invaluable lesson in business. The lesson was “Not everything goes according to plan,” and I still gain wisdom from that insight today.”

Al Bannai continued to develop and enhance mobile software when he came across an opportunity to source and import mobile devices into the UAE at much lower prices than was common on the market at the time. This was the beginning of Axiom Telecom, which over the last nineteen years has grown to become the largest mobile and connected devices reseller in the region, with over 2,500 staff and an annual turnover of AED 9 billion. Al Bannai is rightly proud of this achievement, as he states: “I have been involved in the growth and development of Axiom Telecom from the very beginning, and it has been exciting and fulfilling to have been able to make such an impact on such an important sector as the communications industry. We are very proud of the progress we have made over the past twenty years.”

A new venture

This fascination with constantly evolving and cutting edge technology subsequently pushed Al Bannai to begin a new endeavour – the foundation of a cyber security firm called DarkMatter. He identified a clear need from businesses and organizations alike to have leading cyber security experts based on the ground in their own region – experts that would offer a full spectrum of cyber security services. He surmised that cyber security would become a vital tool in the struggle to protect digital activity. As information and communications technology (ICT) converged increasingly, and given both the amount of data being transmitted across networks and the steadily increasing number of connected digital devices, he recognized the need for effective cyber security to protect that data and those devices.

He notes: “At DarkMatter, we believe that in order for this region to continue growing economically and socially, we need to provide cyber security expertise right here, under one umbrella. A company with its headquarters in the UAE that could become an international cyber security powerhouse.”

Cyber security solutions, under one umbrella

DarkMatter is an international cyber security company headquartered in the UAE. It is staffed by a team of tier one cyber security specialists with global experience, dedicated to providing secure, trusted and integrated cyber protection services to government agencies and businesses alike. DarkMatter offers a complete portfolio of cyber security solutions with the company’s work being underpinned by industry leading intelligence and research and development (R&D.)

Al Bannai informs: “We operate R&D facilities in Toronto and the UAE, and develop our own intellectual property in-house. The company also cooperates and partners with a range of vetted and experienced global technology companies in the development of our products and solutions. DarkMatter does not just implement; we innovate, and create totally new security solutions today in order to combat tomorrow’s security threats.”

A significant challenge is the number and sophistication of cyber attacks that are growing exponentially alongside our rapidly increasing demand for new technology. It is also difficult to conquer historically established perceptions that cyber security is a ‘back of the office function’, to which little attention is paid until major breaches, hacks or loss of data occur. These perceptions are changing, but there is still sufficient motivation for individuals to seek out weaknesses in digital systems, especially as it is sadly true that preventative cyber security measures are often only introduced after a critical breach has occurred.

He explains further as to how DarkMatter helps to address this problem: “We advise entities follow a Cyber Security Life-Cycle approach that incorporates prevention, detection, response, and recovery as a guiding principle, with the assumption of a breach being advised.”

What makes DarkMatter different

Al Bannai believes DarkMatter has the expertise and the tools to build a truly global cyber security firm, with the UAE becoming a net exporter of intellectual property. Trust is key to   differentiating from the other competitors in the market – trust earned by delivering consistently high levels of security and service. He says: “We believe we have numerous strong differentiators, though trust, expertise and the proper use of the tools available are three main areas that clearly set us apart from providers that exist in the region today.”

However, perhaps the strongest weapon in DarkMatter’s arsenal of security is the talent of their staff, which is evident on a global level. “We have attracted tier one global talent to work with us here in the UAE, and their track record and previous engagements showcase the extent to which they are amongst the finest experts on their subject matter in the world. Our leadership team has been drawn from the most successful organizations across the globe, where they have already achieved a proven track record of innovation and success.”

According to Al Bannai, DarkMatter’s other strength is that they are the only cyber security company in the region – one of an elite few that can offer an end-to-end, global portfolio of solutions ranging from advisory and infrastructure provision through to intellectual property and end-user devices. These offerings are backed by DarkMatter’s own R&D activities undertaken in the UAE, Canada and China, producing their own intellectual property. And finally, the company has deep and long established relationships with national governments.

We can be under no illusions – as our use of and reliance on the internet and digital technology has exploded, so too has the potentially disastrous impact of cyber-attacks on individuals, companies and even nation states. In order to stay one step ahead of those who would launch such attacks, companies like DarkMatter have become integral to the fight against cyber attacks, and the first line of security to defend against them.

Al Bannai concludes: “We are constantly instituting new ways to consider cyber security and place it at the centre of the development of digital economies and societies, with the impact of our activities set to be felt long into the future.”

Ramesh Kalyanaraman

Executive Director, Kalyan Jewellers

Ramesh Kalyanaraman

Kalyan Jewellers, an incredibly popular brand name in the jewellery industry, began its journey from one single small store in Kerala. It now aims to close the current fiscal year with over 100 showrooms. 

They say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Add 23 years and Kalyan Jewellers has become the wealthiest jewellery company in India. TS Kalyanaraman, chairman and managing director of Kalyan Jewellers, entered the world of business at the age of twelve, when he used to visit the family textile shop to learn the basics of business from his father. He went on to set up Kalyan Jewellers in 1993, with an initial investment of Rs 7.5 million (USD 110,000). Today, the company has a net worth of over USD1 billion, and he is personally positioned at number 87 on Forbes’s list of 100 richest Indians (2014.)

Kalyan is widely recognised as one of the oldest, most trusted business names in Kerala, representing a splendid legacy of over a hundred years in business says Ramesh Kalyanaraman. He states with pride: “Kalyan is a family run business that has been trusted for over 110 years.”

The start to their jewellery business is a story of inspiration, innovation and serendipity. Kalyanaraman says: “Our primary business was in textiles, and people used to come into our shops to buy clothes and outfits for weddings. In India, jewellery is also considered an important part of any wedding, signifying, as it so often does, status and wealth. So customers began to suggest that we start a jewellery business, especially as we were already known as a trusted and reliable company. Consequently, as a result of customer advice, we started our jewellery business in 1993.”

Kalyan offers a wide range of classical and contemporary jewellery designs, produced from top quality gold, premium diamonds and luxurious stones. The brand presently owns more than 200,000 designs and a customer base of around 2.8 million people. The company operates 94 jewellery stores in southern and western India and in the Middle East. Kalyan Jewellers also expects to achieve the milestone of having opened 100 showrooms by the first half of the current year. And to demonstrate global faith in the brand, global private equity fund Warburg Pincus, invested USD 200 million in Kalyan Jewellers in October 2014.

When Kalyan Jewellers first opened in Kerala in 1993, the owners were unaware of the colossal extent to which it would grow. Kalyanaraman says: “We didn’t realise that every year, by adding three or four showrooms, how rapid our growth would be. In retrospect, after two decades we can see how far we have come and that our footprints were strong enough to pave a sustainable path to firm success.”

Seven showrooms on a single day

Kalyan Jewellers has progressively widened its wings in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region since it began expanding its international operations. The brand has invested over QR 600 million in its GCC network, and opened 21 showrooms. Kalayan is also one of the leading jewellery brands in the UAE. A design and production facility has been set up at the Sharjah Free Zone in the UAE, and owns over 150 kilograms per month of gold jewellery processing capacity. “As a group we have expansion plans to enter all the countries in the Middle East, because this region is easily the biggest market for jewellery in the world,” says Kalyanaraman.

“We began in Dubai, where six showrooms were launched on the same day two years ago.”  Kalyan Jewellers are planning to open five more showrooms in the UAE in 2016. And recently they have invested QR 200 million in Qatar as part of their market entry strategy. This is the first brand ever in Qatar to open seven showrooms on a single day. Kalyanaraman firmly believes Qatar offers superb opportunities for his jewellery business: “Qatar has the highest per capita income in the world. And Qatar’s appreciation of high quality luxury goods makes it an irresistible destination for Kalyan.”

It is true falling oil prices have recently created extra pressure on Qatar’s business environment, but as Kalyanaraman says: “All of us know there is a slowdown due to a recent fall in the price of oil, but we are not looking at short term goals. As a brand we have to consider possibilities in Qatar over the long term, so even if we can’t make enough revenue within our first one or two years, it will only increase our focus on future success. We are confident the economic situation in Qatar will surely improve. And, after six months, we will conduct more surveys to see if we want to add more showrooms to our portfolio. We currently also have stores in Kuwait, and within five years plan to have a business presence in all the countries of South Asia.”

Big brand, big way

The brand has enjoyed a long-standing position in the market for over two decades primarily due to its unique marketing strategy. They have always made a conscious effort to enlighten the customer about gold itself. The brand has famous brand ambassadors, including megastars like Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bachchan, Prabhu Ganesan, Akkineni Nagarjuna and Manju Warrier, all extremely popular across wide classes of people and different demographic groups, helping the brand to create a unique space in an extremely saturated market. These brand ambassadors spread the brand’s core message, which is: “Trust is everything.”

They also have a habit of opening several stores in one country on one day, as they did in Qatar. Kalyanaraman comments: “Whatever we do, we do in a big way, because the brand is very big, so we wanted to keep this focus on size and quality in our presence in Qatar. Because our brand is especially prominent in India, people have great expectations of us, and when we start our showroom in a new country, we try to replicate that ‘wow’ factor in our approach.”

The brand is also very aware of one trend in particular, and has shifted its business approach in order to maximize benefit to the company. “In previous years, the trend has been to buy an item made from gold because of its resale value, but these days the younger generation looks at the design first. They want something new, different, and exciting, and in this context, a great deal of importance is placed upon excellent design. Before, purchases were also primarily price oriented. Now we have noticed and have adapted to a shift from the primacy of price platforms to selection platforms,” Kalyanaraman explains.

There is no doubt, when it comes to understanding the jewellery business, Kalyan are second to none, and their pieces adorn some of the most discerning clients worldwide. With pieces hand crafted to the highest standards using only the finest gold, stones and other precious metals, a purchase from Kalyan is not only an investment in the future, but also in a contemporary work of art. And achieving this successful blend of trust, reliability, modernity and value is no easy task. The secret, as Kalyanaraman concludes, is hard work, and sincerity: “If someone does business with sincerity, and doesn’t attempt shortcuts by compromising service, design or quality, success will surely ensue.”

Sandeep Saihgal

Vice President, Huawei Devices, Middle East

Sandeep Saihgal

Sandeep Saihgal is driving strategies to expand the company’s regional footprint and bring innovative, smart and simple mobile technological solutions to our everyday lives.

Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. is a rapidly emerging and truly global Fortune company, and has become one of the foremost providers of communication, information and technological products and solutions on the planet. Sandeep Saihgal, vice president of Huawei Devices in the Middle Eastern Region, started working for the organisation in late 2013. Initially an engineering graduate, he went on to acquire a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA,) with particular focus on marketing. He is currently in charge of developing Huawei’s various strategies to extend the footprint of their Consumer Business Group in the Middle East. He is helping to achieve this aim by various means, such as establishing and expanding networks with vital retail and distribution partners, thus consolidating Huawei’s reputation as one of the world’s most innovative companies.

He explains: “More specifically, I focus on Huawei’s product and go-to-market strategy for the Middle East to improve the brand’s profitability and visibility across channels in the region. Since I started my time with Huawei, we have really strengthened our brand. We have launched products that are perfectly in sync with our high global standards, and that are in keeping with our overall plan to brand build in the region, whilst paying close attention to local market attributes.”

Innovation is the key

Founded in 1987 by Ren Zhengfei, an engineer in the Chinese people’s liberation army, the company’s headquarters are in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, China. Huawei develops communication networks and sells devices to over one third of the world’s population, in over 140 countries. Huawei is dedicated to constant technological innovation, and they invest over 10 percent of their annual sales revenue into research and development, (R&D,) with more than 45 percent of their 170,000 employees involved in that sector alone. In order to maintain and extend their competitive dominance, they have established ‘laboratories’, which oversee and consolidate innovation, research, and platform technology development under one roof.

According to Saihgal, Huawei’s significant growth over the past couple of years can be largely attributed to this specific focus: “With more than 14.2 percent (USD 6.3 billion) of our total revenue put back into R&D and 16 research laboratories established around the world, we strive to develop a diverse range of products that ensure there is something for everyone.”

Diversity drives demand

Huawei’s emphasis on diversity is another major factor that is driving global appetite for their products. “We have a range of devices and product lines tailored to a variety of different lifestyles and this personalisation is what I think drives our strong sense of brand loyalty. In 2015, we shipped over 100 million smart phones worldwide.”

Saighal goes on: “For example, our Mate series has large screens and long battery life, making it the ideal business phone. And our P series boasts an impressive camera, (especially in the case of the P9,) which is great for those who love fashion, photography and style.” Additionally, to ensure even greater levels of customer satisfaction, the company has taken after-sales services to the next level, opening over 17 service centres around the world.

Focusing on the Gulf

The Middle East remains a significant market for Huawei, and its share of the Gulf’s smartphone market alone rose from 4.2 percent in 2013 to 10.1 percent in 2015 according to IDC. Saihgal reveals over the years Huawei has established itself in different segments throughout the GCC and in the Qatari market in particular, rapidly becoming one of the top brands in the region. “In an arena with numerous other existing high-end brands, I believe our models stand out, particularly in the Qatari market,” says Saihgal and goes on to add: “In the Gulf we aim to continue to take more of the market and witness significant growth across the region. At Huawei, we will continue to be a customer-centric company, continuously pushing the boundaries of ICT in order to bring the value of innovation not only to the GCC but to the rest of the world.”

Saihgal believes smartphones are becoming essential for people working and living in the GCC.  Of course, such devices are purchased for a variety of different reasons, which he believes drive the expected growth. For example, he says: “Our recent phone launch of the Huawei Mate 8 offered business and working professionals alike the chance to work remotely and keep up with their daily tasks. Our P series models, such as the Huawei P9 and P9 Plus, are better suited to those looking at style and design.”

Pricing strategy

Many in the industry have speculated mainstream brands act as tough barriers to penetrate the market, but Huawei managed to buck this trend by raising themselves to become the number three market shareholder in Q1 2015. A key feature of this rapid rise has been their smart pricing policy, which apparently meets the needs of all classes of savvy, value conscious customers, and has given them their extra competitive edge. In essence, besides offering uniqueness in design, Huawei offers top quality devices at more affordable prices. Smartphones that cost less than USD 200 accounted for 10 percent of total smartphone sales in the Gulf in 2013 and by 2015, this had risen to 37 percent.

Huawei has also done well with its higher-priced models. Saihgal notes: “We put a lot of time and effort into listening to what our consumers on the ground are saying, hence our diverse product portfolio. We offer models such as the G series to those looking for high performance smartphones with advanced capabilities at an economic price, whilst simultaneously, at the other end of the spectrum, the Mate series is a better fit for those looking to pay a premium for features that truly elevate the standard of existing technology. And this array of models priced at different points is what keeps us competing in the smartphone market.”

Future plans

In 2016, Huawei is looking to roll out some new additions to its extensive product portfolio, especially focusing on tablet, smartphone and smart watch categories. Saihgal clarifies: “We’re already starting to pick up momentum with our Lady Watch and M2 tablet, both of which were introduced at CES 2016.” Additionally, in August 2015, Huawei inaugurated the first regional Flagship Customer Service Center in the UAE, and has plans to open more in the near future across the GCC.

Huawei’s rapid rise to global dominance in the sector is plainly evident, and the company got 2016 off to a solid start with over 10 million smartphones shipped by the end of January alone; Saihgal confidently expects to exceed this number by the end of the year.

Rizwan Sajan

Founder and Chairman, Danube Group

Rizwan Sajan

The Danube Group has developed from a small trading firm to the top construction and building materials company in the Gulf. 

A young boy loses his father at an early age – a trial and tribulation to anyone, particularly a minor. However, the child in question was, by luck or by grace, blessed with tremendous willpower and a determination to overcome the challenges he faced after such a loss. He managed through inner strength, learning and self-determination, to prepare himself for a big leap into a successful future, and as he poignantly tells: “I lost my father when I was quite young and that’s when I decided to venture into business. I didn’t want to disrupt my school or college education, so I waited until I was 16, when I thought I was ready for the big leap into self-employment. I wrote to my uncle in Kuwait, who replied that I needed to be a minimum 18 years of age before I could start working for him.” These are the words of the child in question, Rizwan Sajan, who became a billionaire businessman as the founder and chairman of the Danube Group.

Sajan’s success story began when he arrived in Kuwait in the early 1980s and, within a short period of time, became well versed in the intricacies and procedures of the building materials business. When war broke out, he was forced to leave Kuwait and search for further avenues in India and elsewhere. “In the early 1990s, I came to work for a company in Dubai, and by the end of my first year there I had saved enough to launch my own building materials company. That’s how Danube started, with just two employees, and today I am proud to have a team of more than 2,500 employees.”

Success spanning three decades

Sajan has been on that journey towards the top for over 30 years. “I encountered many challenges in the beginning, particularly as I had minimum capital to start with. I had saved about AED 100,000 during my first year working in Dubai, and even starting my own company involved a great deal of risk. However, I knew that I could always find a job that would take care of our expenses even if my business venture failed. Additionally, I had a great deal of support from my wife Sameera, who gave us both a year to try our hands at business and be successful. We put our heart and soul into it, there was lot of hardship along the way, but looking back now, I have no doubt that it was all worth it.”

The business units at Danube Group are doing well, and despite tough market conditions, they have recently posted an excellent half yearly report. The team is confident they will close the year on a high, but as Sajan says:  “I have a few words of advice for them – they must stay cautious in their approach, make informed decisions and not act in haste.”

Danube Group has two major divisions – Danube Building Materials FZCO, and Danube Home (Home Interior and Décor Solutions.) These companies provide more than 30,000 products across the MENA region. The different business divisions of Danube are as numerous as they are diverse, and besides the two aforementioned, they include Milano (bath products and solutions company,) Danube Properties (residential property development arm,) DanubeDirect.com (home solutions and electronics products online shop), Danube F&B (Cha Cha Chai Café and Lounge,) Danube Fashion (Tudors Shirts, XTI Footwear,) Danube Systems (Security and Smart Home Solutions,) and Alucopanel Middle East LLC (architectural applications).

Danube Properties

Danube has recently undertaken an impressive expansion into the Dubai real estate market through their new arm, Danube Properties. Their ultimate goal is the provision of highly affordable, top grade urban housing. And success seems perfectly possible in this sector too – it is notable that on one single day at the sales launch event of their first residential project, ‘Dreams by Danube,’ they sold all their new property within a mere three hours. Sajan reveals the unique 1 percent payment plan without any interest devised by Danube Properties has been a huge success ever since its introduction in 2014. 2015 was the year of ‘affordable housing’ and ‘convenient payment plans’ and the positive message has paid off.

Sajan says Danube is one of the first private developers to offer affordable housing combined with a special payment plan of 1 percent per month. According to him, all of their housing projects incorporate unique and innovative concepts in their own right, and Danube offers an affordable payment plan for long term investors and end users, wherein the buyer makes a 10 percent down payment, followed by a further 15 percent within 60 days. The total balance amount would then be paid in 75 equal monthly instalments of only 1 percent per instalment, without interest. Sajan says: “The most attractive part of the payment plan is that it requires the buyers to pay only 52 percent until handover and the balance in four years after that handover.”

Sajan believes the property market has become too focused on luxury and super luxury segments, whilst middle-income buyers were not catered for, even though they actually formed a very high percentage of the local population. The majority of this population, having committed to and stayed in the country for such a long period of time, now consider Dubai their home, and Danube Properties identified this gap in the market and created an opportunity for the mid-income population to invest in real estate.

Expansion plans 

Currently, Danube Group has a total of 42 stores in GCC countries, predominantly in the UAE. “We plan to open six more home furnishing stores worth around AED 200 million by the end of 2016,” says Sajan. In January 2016, their retail arm, Danube Home, opened a 60,000 sq ft. flagship store in Dubai, with an investment of AED 40 million. “The new stores will be in the range of 50,000 sq ft. to 70,000 sq ft. each and there will be two in the UAE and four in Oman,” he adds.

Due to Rizwan Sajan’s vision, enterprise and innovative thinking, Danube has risen from humble beginnings to become one of the leading players in many challenging business sectors. And while cash flow and business experience matter, the real secret that he would like to pass on to young entrepreneurs is simply this – hard work. “Two plus two should be five and not four. One is required to work, work, and work, as there are no shortcuts to success. Furthermore, find the right people and then impart your trust to them – empower them to do the job and they will not let you down,” he concludes.

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