This Emirati businesswoman is scaling new heights

This Emirati businesswoman is scaling new heights

As the head of a business conglomerate, Haleema Humaid Al Owais wears many hats, but overcoming odds and keeping promises are some she is most proud of

A visionary. A risk-taker. A responsible leader. Haleema Humaid Al Owais, the 34-year-old founder and director of Sultan bin Ali Al Owais Real Estate company, rightfully deserves all these epithets and much more. Currently at the helm of three large companies that cover the entire scale of needs of her core business in construction, real estate development and real estate management, this Emirati businesswoman has proven time and again that how you deal with challenges is what eventually defines who you are.

It was a family tragedy in early 2007, when her father passed away, that led her to step into unfamiliar territory, one in which she had no prior experience. ‘There was no one to take over my father’s business,’ recollects Haleema. ‘My elder brother was pursuing his higher studies so I stepped in to manage the real estate section – which was then just in its infancy stage – as the idea of property development appealed to me. Our first building, which today serves as our headquarters, was only 90 per cent done then. The responsibility of organising the resources to complete the project, leading the construction process and handling all the formalities related to leasing fell squarely on my shoulders.’

When she entered the then predominantly male-dominated industry of real estate and construction, Haleema was just 22 years old. Undaunted by the herculean task ahead of her, she turned to her only known resources – a colleague’s husband in the construction industry (“He is now our General Manager”) and a senior colleague who had trained her in her previous job and has since left the UAE. This core team of three thus laid the framework for what was to become the Sultan bin Ali Al Owais Real Estate company.

‘We named it as a tribute to my uncle, who had mentored and raised my father and was a major influence in his life,’ says Haleema.

The initial months were the toughest requiring long hours of hard work. Later, in the same year, she oversaw the construction and handover of another multi-purpose building. Moderna, a maintenance and logistics company, was then established and launched to handle the maintenance requirements of the growing portfolio of properties. In 2008, during the global economic downturn, Haleema’s team acquired their third building from a construction company that was closing down.

‘It was a challenge to finish this project which was in its construction stage and hand it over for leasing on time,’ she says. ‘Around that time, my brother – who was managing the industrial division of the family business and sitting on the board of multiple privately-owned companies – and I decided to set up our own construction company as a subsidiary under our real estate establishment to cover our construction needs, instead of outsourcing to contracting companies.

‘By taking the challenges head-on and overcoming the obstacles through meticulous planning, dedication and passion, it has helped us grow both as a team and as a company,’ says Haleema. ‘I was a novice in the field and I was very conscious about that, but I was not afraid to ask those with experience for advice. I have no apprehension in admitting when I don’t know something. I also spent hours on research, studying all aspects of the business, driven by a passion to make it a success. Although my foray into this field was purely accidental, it has been instrumental in shifting my journey to where my strengths lay.’

 

These strengths, she points out, lay in building up a team and delegating authority with utmost clarity to transform the vision of the company into reality.

To further grow her knowledge of the rapidly expanding business, in 2014, Haleema enrolled for a Masters’ degree in Urban Planning at the American University of Sharjah. ‘Now, I have a more cohesive approach to planning; the underlying need is to merge form with function. Emphasis is placed on the built and natural environment to ensure improvement in the quality of life of the community that it serves.’

Haleema Al Owais has clearly come a long way since the time she first took reins of the new company. From a three-member team, ‘we have now grown into a family of 286 exceptionally dedicated and experienced individuals, and they are our greatest assets,’ she asserts. ‘At Sultan bin Ali Al Owais Real Estate, we focus on creating and sustaining an environment where our employees can grow professionally. We believe that every individual deserves a chance. One of our former teaboys – with adequate training – has improved his skillset and is now heading the plumbing division. We promote an environment that foster employees to realise their potential.”

Having such committed individuals to manage the varied aspects of the business has also meant that Haleema is able to devote quality time for her family, and for herself. ‘A typical day,’ she states, ‘begins around 6:30. There are two places I frequent in Sharjah just opposite the Canal and another on Al Fisht road, where I spend the first half hour of my morning with a cup of coffee. This is my ‘me time’; I don’t accept or make phone calls for these 30 minutes. I like to be alone with my thoughts.’

The one unwritten rule she follows is to either drop her daughters, aged 12 and 10, to school or pick them up. ‘The days I drop them, I have a long day at office which includes site visits and meetings with heads of the various departments. Evenings are reserved for my family and friends and most days when the weather is good, we spend time outdoors at the scenic Al Majaz Waterfront area alongside the Khaled lagoon.’

Her ability to organise her time well, stay away from micromanaging the business and implicit faith and trust in the decisions and capabilities of her senior personnel has allowed Haleema to pursue her other passions as well. Travel, is one such interest, that both feeds her curiosity and thirst for adventure. ‘When we were young, we didn’t travel much but I used to read a lot, and this stimulated my interest in new places and cultures,’ she explains. ‘Five years ago, I started ticking off places to see and have since been taking the occasional break from work. What I love about travel is that it expands your horizons. You get to learn something new; and it offers you a different perspective in ways that no other experience can.’

Of all the places she has travelled to, India remains her favourite destination, having been there four times already this year – to Jaipur, Kerala, Dharamshala and Mumbai. ‘And in India, it is Kerala that I love the most because of its inherent communal harmony and the way people with different faiths coexist there.’

This thirst for adventure extends to the action-packed thrill of climbing mountains. ‘I experienced the call of the mountains for the first time in 2014 when a friend asked me to join her on an expedition to Kilimanjaro,’ she explains. ‘I thought it was a hiking trip and had done minimal preparations in terms of fitness training. It was tough but really exciting. I had pushed my boundaries, and soon, found myself hooked to the sport.’

The following year, she took on the challenge of summiting the 5642m Mt. Elbrus in Russia, the highest mountain in Europe. ‘This is a glacier climb, and the unpredictable weather conditions made it extremely challenging and dangerous. We had to be roped in throughout and at one point, we could scarcely see beyond a hand-span. Then, we saw a mountaineer fall and fear took on a new dimension. It taught me a valuable lesson: to control your fear, and not let fear control you.’

Yet, it was an incredibly rewarding experience, asserts Haleema, ‘for mountaineering is very humbling. On the mountain you are not different from anybody else. Scaling its height and looking down on the mesmerising views can make you very spiritual. It is an impressive physical and emotional achievement, no doubt, but the undeniable truth is that as in life, there are no shortcuts to reaching the top – you have to earn it yourself.’

Since then, she has also done some high-altitude treks in Morocco and Bhutan, and made it to the Everest base camp. This year, plans are afoot to trek to the Inca masterpiece, Machu Picchu in Peru.

By the end of 2018, Haleema will also have given the finishing touches to a new project she is currently working on – a restaurant concept that caters to the needs of the student community. With a timeless ambience, laptop friendly tables and an affordable menu, she plans to open two branches, one each in Dubai and Sharjah. ‘I keep an open mind to new ideas to expand the scope of the business,’ she says. ‘I have never been afraid to step out of the comfort zone. I had ventured previously in F&B and faced some stumbling blocks along the way as you do in new fields but challenges, I believe, are an inevitable part of any business. These are only temporary, and yet, they do serve a larger purpose. I look upon obstacles and hurdles as a learning curve and this continues to help me grow and evolve.”
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