The Big Project Middle East
December 30, 2013


King of the Hill

by Stephen White


Raouf Ghali talks to Stephen White about running the international
project management arm of Hill International

Raouf Ghali has just stepped off the red-eye from New York and walked
straight into an interview with Big Project ME at Hill International's
London offices - a smart, charismatic and witty interviewee - if he's
jet-lagged he's certainly not showing it.

"How did I grow my career?" When asked. "I started my career, I say, a
little bit on the wild side! I was completely crazy. I went into
places that others didn't."

The new countries that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union
in the early 1990s were desperately short of infrastructure and
desperate to modernise. However where most were daunted by the
challenges incountries such as Georgia, Romania and Bulgaria
presented, Ghali saw an opportunity.

"When I went into the CIS and the Balkans in 1993/94 the
infrastructure wasn't even there to do business," he says. "It put
things into perspective. (Construction) can positively impact the
economy; it creates jobs; even after completion it requires
maintenance, operation, etc. Most of all, you've left something
behind, a structure for better living or a production facility, etc."

For Ghali, the country that arguably best typifies those early years
was the one where it all began.

"I started with Hill in Armenia, when Armenia was pretty much at war
with Nagorno-Karabakh," he explains.

The repercussions of the conflict over the Nagorna-Karabakh territory
in southwestern Armenia are still being felt today, and the experience
he picked up there continues to shape Ghali's approach to running the
International Project Management arm of Hill, two decades down the
line.

"That was probably one of my best, key years. Difficult years, but I
learned a lot and met a lot of people," says Ghali, who was
responsible for project and financial control for procurement on the
European Bank for Reconstruction and Development-funded 300MW thermal
power plant in Hrasdan. "It went back to the basics. Relying on
yourself - technology wasn't there, communication wasn't there."

While the University of LaVerne Masters graduate was instrumental in
preparing and issuing the international tendering procedures that
helped to secure much-needed equipment at competitive prices for the
fledgling Armenian government; helping to scale-up a country's power
supply where it was in short supply wasn't without its challenges.

"For a while we didn't have electricity," he recalls. "There was an
average of three hours per day. We used whatever we could get our
hands on! We got batteries to keep the computers running, but we got
it done. We got through."

As he oversees Hill International's operations beyond the US market
almost two decades later, he is able to empathise with teams based in
far-flung and remote locations. When talking about those currently
helping to bring power and roads to Afghanistan, there is an
appreciation of the efforts it takes to be effective.

"Afghanistan is an extremely challenging place to be. I can understand
the difficulties they are going through. I think it's much harsher
than what we had to go through," he explains. "All these experiences
over time add up to providing certain aspects where you can do your
work much more efficiently."

The last ten years has seen tremendous growth for Hill. For the past
six years of that decade, Gahli has served as its president and he
reveals that it is currently earning $300 million in turnover ("from
consulting fees"), and employs a 2,800 strong workforce. The head
office for the International Project Management arm of Hill is in
Athens, it's a different and surprising location, considering the
Western Europe/US-centric nature of most global consultancies. Ghali
says that it is a consequence of its Balkan-centric growth.

"If you look at where we operate, the Middle East is by far our
largest region. Geographically we also have North Africa (a very
important region for us). When you look on a map, Athens is right at
the entrance to the Middle East," he remarks. "It's right across from
North Africa (Cairo is at centre of our operations there). It's also
at the heel of the Balkans."

The Middle East contributes 40% to 50% of the Group's annual turnover
with other markets growing in importance to complement Dubai and
Qatar, where it first made its mark.

"Now the driving force is really Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, Oman and
Qatar. Four points/markets that are very strong. And also very
different. In the Kingdom, as an example, we're involved in
healthcare, infrastructure (with our recent win in rail), and
education facilities. In Qatar we are seeing more and more large
projects in the infrastructure sector rather than the high-rise
buildings we would traditionally see."

Expanding on Qatar, he reviews the impact Hill International has had
on the country.

"We are quite involved in Qatar," he enthuses. "We went through a
major development (stage) and now Qatar is upgrading the
infrastructure. We are working on the Green Line of the Metro, the
Qatar National Museum; and continue to have several private
developments. There is still quite a lot of local private money being
invested - and we are confident it is sustainable.

"You cannot do all that development for just the FIFA tournament. Even
with pre-trials and everything else it is only going to be a
three-month period. It is the post-games period (which is the most
important). Qatar has a plan of how they are going to sustain this
expansion - they also need the infrastructure to go with it."

Oman, often ignored by a UAE and Saudi-centric media, is another
market that excites.

"There's a lot of activity there: it's a totally different ball game.
We are working on the airport, on hotel development; we've just been
awarded a project to support the Minister of Defence and we're also
participating on Oman rail," he reveals. "We're still in the
evaluation stage but we're hoping that they will finalise it by the
end of the year or the first quarter of 2014."

Oman is a major component in the establishment of a Gulf-wide rail
network but has slipped behind the efforts seen in Qatar (Q-Rail), the
UAE (Etihad Rail) and Saudi Arabia with its investment in high speed
inter-city rail.

"Once we, or whomever else, gets on board, they will need to start
looking at a realistic schedule," he says. "You can open certain
segments of the rail (for instance), it does not have to be the entire
corridor.

"I think mass transport has been ignored for a very long time in the
Middle East and the realisation that you need it to become sustainable
as a country and an economy is starting to come. Mass transport never
used to be a feasible profitable business. It requires volumes and
there is no alternative for long-term viability and environmental
constraints."

This is especially true in newly created urbanised areas where fuel is
still cheap. How do you sell it as a proposition?

"Traffic. Time, convenience and environmental protection. If you are
going to be travelling between one city to the other, and you have to
go by air, you need to be there one hour before; you land at the
airport; and it is usually way out of the city - and you have to drive
back in. Whereas a train can take you from centre to centre. Look at
Paris-London. Who would fly to Paris now from London?

"We are building some of the great airports of this century, right
now. There's Dubai, NDIA, Oman, etc. And you've got Midfield Terminal
too. We are part of the CM team on that as well."

When people see the word consultancy, they often imagine teams of desk
jockeys, but you get the impression that, as an organisation, Hill
International is much more than that.

"We are very well engaged in managing activities on all stages," says
Ghali. "It depends on what our scope is and this varies from client to
client, from project to project. We can be involved in the master
planning and the implementation. Sometimes we come in at a much later
stage."

While most of the global players in design and project and
construction management that are active in the region are able to draw
on expertise from teams based across their offices, Ghali has
encouraged deeper involvement within Hill International. The company
even runs its own peer review system which frequently sees teams
drafted in from Europe to probe, analyse and advise on projects in the
Middle East - and vice versa. This cross-fertilisation of ideas and
practices is essential as Hill International strives to push the
quality of execution upwards.

"You're being reviewed and the next time you are reviewing somebody
else. It not only keeps everybody on the edge but it is an efficient
way of sharing knowledge amongst teams," he explains.

"Take Latvia Library, for instance, and the Grand Egyptian Museum: two
different worlds but yet there are a lot of things that are in common,
the uniqueness of the building, for example. Latvia Library, for
instance, is not just a library but they have put a lot of old
artifacts such as old books, etc," he continues. "That means that you
have to have climate control rooms (for example). It has to be
user-friendly and well-engineered. Both are public buildings. Both
have high security - and yet you have to allow free movement and flow
for the guests. There are a lot of common similarities people would
not always think about."

The peer review meetings bring the top three people from two or three
projects together with Ghali and the regional manager joining the
meeting: "The team comes in and present the project status and the
major challenges they are facing. Then, as a team, we explore ideas:
have you tried this?, or, we had a similar problem and we found this
solution worked."

With full site visits frequently required and the removal of key
personnel from projects essential, it would be understandable if the
peer reviews placed drag to the pace of construction. Rather than
stretching out the project management process, Ghali argues -
convincingly - it has to be said that the reverse is often the case.

"It speeds things up. You find out that the guy - and I use this only
as an example - who handled the Qatar Museum is talking to the guy on
the Egyptian Museum and asked whether he had a similar problem, do you
know of somebody that can help? Yeah, I've got somebody on the team.
Can you spare him for a ten days? Sure."

Backing up the project teams is a technical core team for each region.
Ghali describes them as the 'back-office'. They act as another level
to Hill's quality control.

"They shadow most of the difficult projects when they are in the early
design stage. They have seen a lot of these projects and bring in a
lot of lessons learned to the table," he says. "This is part of our
service - we typically don't charge for it. It is also part of our own
quality plans."

Creating continuity and understanding between the teams has been an
asset as the International PM Group has grown. He adds for any given
country, Hill has now reached a size where it has enough staff from
that country to form the nucleus of its project teams.

"This is the starting point and then we start slowly recruiting. In
Turkey, for example, we've probably got a good 60 to 80 Turks working
for us. If we get a new project then I can transfer them back into
Turkey with international experience and the "Hill culture".

Hill's progress in the Middle East is notable for its two centre
beginning. Straddling both Dubai and Doha, Ghali says that the move
was a deliberate attempt to mitigate against risk. The company also
started pushing into North Africa in 2006 just as every project
manager and consultant with a passport descended on Dubai.

"Never have your business be dependent on any one specific location or
client," he says. "I always try to go where everybody else is not! In
2006, everybody was flocking into Dubai and the UAE. We were there -
and I thank my lucky stars we were - but that's when we made a strong
push for North Africa. If everybody is going to one place, it is going
to get crowded and you need to be thinking of going somewhere else. If
you're in at the beginning you take a lot of the work initially but
then you share. That's how the market moves."

He adds: "We've been quite successful in spreading throughout the
Middle East; very successful in spreading out in North Africa. We are
present in all of the North African countries now with the exception
of Tunisia where we are now looking at entering. We're doing very
nicely in Algeria with great growth potential."

He was told about Dubai's successful Expo 2020 bid as he was leaving
New York. He believes the win is well deserved.

"It's very, very exciting. I believe they already have infrastructure
for it. Nothing was really moving until they secured bid, now it's
going to be like the horse races where everybody starts (gestures to
signify the start of the race). Look at what Dubai has done. The 2020
win is a vote of confidence by the international community that the
international markets still believe in Dubai. It has become a major
city of the world over the last 15 years. They've done a great job so
far, and I'm sure they will do a great job of this event."