Realty check: Dr Anas Kozbari

In a rare interview, Dr Anas Kozbari, the chief executive of Invest Group Overseas, explains why his firm is back investing in the Dubai market, and his plans to expand both abroad and at home

Spend a couple of hours with Dr Anas Kozbari, and you’ll soon become very familiar with his personal mantra: ‘the process is the product’.

“Don’t be fooled by the suit and tie,” warns the Syrian-born managing partner and chief executive of Invest Group Overseas (IGO). “Most of my time, I have my working boots on and my helmet by my side.”

There are, in fact, two Anas Kozbaris. There’s the immaculately tailored businessman, who has two degrees and a doctorate, and who works from a 38th floor office that has one of the best views in Dubai. Then there’s the hands-on company man, who likes to get onsite at his firm’s real estate projects at least twice a day.

“I get involved in almost all steps of the development process from the design to choosing all the finishing materials first-hand,” he says, earnestly. “You will see me on my hands and knees, testing marble. I test electromechanical equipment, switches, everything.

“Anything the end user will see and touch, it has to be approved by me — personally.”

For Kozbari, if the process if correct, the product will sell. So far, it looks like he has done a pretty good job of managing both the process and the product at IGO.

Now celebrating its tenth anniversary, IGO was originally set up as a division of the MAG Group — chaired by Syrian entrepreneur Moafaq Al Gaddah — with its aim being to look for and invest into opportunities outside the UAE, especially in countries like Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. While concentrating on real estate development, the original plan was also to diversify into investments in Islamic banking, tourism and healthcare.

In 2006, IGO teamed up with Dubai megadeveloper Emaar Properties to launch the Eighth Gate project in Damascus, Syria. Worth an estimated $1.7bn, the Eighth Gate is a mixed-use project, featuring commercial, retail and residential space in three large zones. Work on the site had progressed quickly, but the ongoing crisis in Syria has forced IGO to put a hold on project.

“We effectively introduced real estate development as an industry into the Syrian market,” says Kozbari. “But with what’s happening right now in Syria, we had to slow it down and shift somewhere else.”

Instead, the focus has come back to Dubai. Last year, IGO launched the Polo Townhouses in the Meydan masterplanned community, which has 106 homes. Last month it followed that up with the launch of the Polo Residences, a community featuring 29 four-storey apartment buildings. Altogether, both projects are worth an estimated $545m (AED2.1bn).

“After the Cityscape event last year, people were questioning why we were announcing projects before the Expo win was announced, as they said they would sell better if we launched it afterwards,” Kozbari recalls. “We said no; to show our commitment and to be a part of the belief in this market, let’s do it right now.

“We wanted to send a message that the recession no longer exists, we have our money and we want to reinvest in this part of the world, whether Expo 2020 was awarded or not.”

As it turns out, of course, Dubai was handed the rights to hold the showpiece event in November last year. But the early launch certainly whetted investors’ appetites.

“I would say the demand was phenomenal [for the Polo Townhouses],” says Kozbari. “Within seven days the entire project was sold. Even for the Polo Residences, I assure you that we have pre-registration almost two times over what we have offered.”

So what’s driving the interest? According to Kozbari, it’s not just the fact that the Dubai property market is back on the upswing. He also puts it down to the location, which, as part of the Mohammed Bin Rashid City masterplan, is seeing plenty of other developments taking place.

“Some people were skeptical about the location, but we got some land and — frankly speaking — I wish we had got more of it,” he says. “I believe Meydan is the right place to be — Meydan is the future. It’s close to everywhere — a couple of minutes from Dubai Mall, and ten minutes from the airport, with spectacular views of Downtown.

“In addition to that, it’s pollution free; no major roads cross the project. And there’s plenty of greenery there too, so it’s a magnet for ecology lovers and walkers.”

Kozbari says that much of IGO’s focus is on creating a ‘community’ rather than a ‘colony’.

“Our gated communities will be designed beautifully, with running tracks and a clubhouse — a true one, like you see in the United States,” he says. “There will be pools for the kids; it will be a real community.

“The level of finishing will also be expert; in my houses, you will never see ceramics on the ground. It’s going to be marble, with the latest fashion, the latest accessories and the latest finishing. To top it all off, we are going through the green code; we’re among the first projects to implement this code, and this really reflects on our commitment to this approach.”

Work on the two projects is already under way, with Kozbari revealing that IGO has just signed up a contractor — Abu Dhabi-based Technical Architects General Contracting Company. Both developments are due to be handed over by the end of the first half of 2016.

Further down the line, the chief executive also says that a couple of other projects are also being fleshed out, including in City of Arabia (part of the Dubai Land megaproject) and Business Bay. Elsewhere in the world, IGO is also betting big on the Texan city of Frisco in the United States, where it is building a mixed-use project worth an estimated $500m.

“The mayor of Frisco was here in Dubai ten days ago to have a look around, along with the Frisco Economic Development Corporation, and they were astonished,” says Kozbari. “The concept [we are building in Frisco] is very close to the Downtown concept you see here, with a nice shopping area, residential and office spaces and also a hotel.

“Our office in the US is working day and night on the designs, and we’ve already Gensler [a US design and architecture firm] as one of the contenders to do the masterplanning — they’ve done a great job so far.”

When questioned as to whether IGO will be reaching out to any of the markets it had originally planned to cover at its launch, Kozbari says that it will be staying put for the time being, and concentrating on the projects it has in hand. The reason? Put simply, it’s that he’s bullish on the Dubai real estate market and sees no real need to expand into less certain markets in the current environment. That attitude is perhaps unsurprising given the spiraling prices in Dubai over the course of the past 18 months or so.

“The market is more secure today, it’s a regulated market,” says Kozbari. “The regulations that have been put in place make it safe not only for owners but are a safeguard for developers too. Competition in the past between developers was unfair. A lot of — as I call them — parasites came to the market, poisoned it and left, giving the market a bad reputation.

“Nowadays, given the new rules, the escrow process and the need to show financial commitment, it is very hard for bad companies to compete. Today, in the private sector, I would say that there are ten companies that can operate in this market — we are one of them.

“The market is safer than ever before, it’s secure and it makes us willing to invest in this market, knowing that, yes, it’s tougher, and it takes a longer time to get our profit back, but at least we are going to get it.”

The major question is, of course, whether Dubai’s astonishing resurgence is sustainable, or whether it will lead to the kind of crash that almost forced Nakheel into defaulting on its payments in 2009, shocking global markets.

Kozbari says that the Dubai of 2014 is very different to the Dubai of five years ago, and points out the IGO itself has been a willing partner in helping local regulators formulate their new rules.

“The last time, it was an open gate,” he argues. “People got in and got out. Some people got out making a lot of money, and some people went bust. Today you need to have enough muscle, enough financial power, enough knowledge about sales and marketing and a competitive product in order for you to get into the market. It’s no longer an open gate.

“In the past, nothing was secured — even the land. You would put ten percent down on the land, and then start selling straight away. You didn’t own the land, but you were selling on it, and you were also selling the dream that there would eventually be a house on that land. As I see it, the market is a bit chaotic.”

He adds: “Nowadays, it’s a regulated gate. But when you get into that gate, the government secures your interests and the interests of the end-user, and leaves the market to set the prices. You can see that no-one in the private sector is getting into megaprojects any more, because we know our limitations.”

Outside the world of real estate, IGO is also giving plenty of thought to the hospitality market, again driven by the resounding performance of Dubai’s travel industry.

With the emirate aiming to hit a target of 20 million visitors by 2020, and with occupancy levels remaining in the 86 percent mark, it’s certainly become an industry of interest for most investment firms.

IGO’s entry point into this market will come through a brand bought up by the MAG Group about five years ago. The Orient Club is a name that will be familiar to most Arab nationals as the top private club in Damascus, which has played host to the likes of Prince Philip, Gamal Abdel Nasser and the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding president of the UAE.

“We are now creating the concept,” says Kozbari. “We will have a property called the Orient Club Hotel, it’s under study right now. We will start first in Dubai and then we are going to other places.”

It may sound like he has a lot on his plate, but Kozbari, who took on his first senior executive role aged just 31, working for a Dubai-based retail conglomerate, looks like he can handle the pressure. As well as his many work commitments, he also finds time to spend with his children, 14-year-old twins Leena and Amer, as well as ten-year-old Maya.

“Some of my people think I am tough,” he says, when asked about his management style. “The level of follow-up I have — it drives them crazy. But to me it’s a positive sign.

“If you don’t follow up, especially in our part of the world, I don’t think you can deliver.”

For the future, the chief executive says that he’d like to see IGO go public in a decade’s time, although he declines to speculate as to what the market value would be. But given his dedication and his extraordinary attention to detail, there are few who would bet against him making this dream a reality.

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