UAE. The Dubai World-owned developer Limitless recently added Saudi Arabia to the list of its target markets globally that includes Russia, China, Vietnam, India and the Subcontinent. The company says it is constantly monitoring three categories of target markets for opportunities and KSA “ticks all the right boxes” in its global strategy. It will open an office in Riyadh in the near future, adding to Shanghai and its Southeast Asia regional office in Singapore.
In this interview with Imad Benharouga, Head of Corporate Strategy at Limitless, BI-ME finds a group that wants to bring all the very best experiences from the Dubai real estate sector to the rest of the world.
The pace of progress is certainly swift for Limitless, the Dubai government-backed masterplanner and mixed-use developer that only formally announced its existence in April 2006. The desert track to the company’s beautiful but half-completed headquarters building across a construction site and alongside a twelve-land highway close to Dubailand, could almost be a metaphor for Dubai itself.
In July this year the opening of the Southeast Asia regional office in Singapore represented a major step for Limitless in that market. The company has appointed Philip Atkinson as Regional Director for Southeast Asia, with responsibility for the company’s activities in Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. By the end of this year he will head a team of 20 researchers and planners for Southeast Asia.
Born in Australia, Atkinson has been the principal consultant on the development of hundreds of mixed-use, master-planned communities in Sydney and Melbourne, working for the Land Commission of New South Wales and Bensons Property Group in Victoria. He will use his specialist knowledge of large-scale, urban developments to lead a number of upcoming Limitless projects, including a major development, currently under negotiation, near the Vietnamese capital Hanoi. Several other potential projects for Limitless have been identified across the region.
Other target markets include China, India and Pakistan, and the emerging regions of Europe, especially the Moscow area. Limitless has embarked on an aggressive recruitment campaign for all the regions where it is active.
On the Asian developments, Dusan Mills, Head of Development at Limitless, comments: “This part of the world is an exciting and dynamic region for Limitless. We are currently negotiating a significant project near Hanoi in Vietnam, and, by this time next year, we expect to have half a dozen projects underway in the Far East.”
In China, opportunities are being pursued by Mark Jared as Business Development Manager for Asia, with responsibility for the company’s strategic activities in China and other parts of the region. Jared has spent the last two decades with Portman Holdings in Shanghai, where he held various positions in real estate development, general management of mixed-use projects, marketing and leasing. A fluent Mandarin speaker, he has also worked on major projects in Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam, and played a key role in the first Chinese-American joint venture real estate project in Shanghai.
Starting with its Downtown Jebel Ali flagship (pictured), Limitless plans to leverage the experience and expertise of its team - gained while conceptualising and executing some of Dubai’s most prominent projects - to create balanced, distinctive developments in selected markets around the world.
Limitless will also act as the incubator, innovator and master-planners for selected complementary real estate projects for Dubai World. As CEO of Limitless, under the philosophy of ‘delivering distinction’, Saeed Ahmed Saeed is leading the delivery of a new breed of self-sustaining urban communities.
Saeed began his career as a Project Engineer with Dubai Ports, Customs and Free Zone Corporation (PCFC) in 1992. Eight years later, in 2000, he was appointed Managing Director (Projects) at Nakheel, where he spearheaded some of the most prestigious developments in Dubai, including The Palm Jumeirah, Ibn Batutta Mall and The Gardens. At Nakheel, Saeed was also the driving force behind several world famous projects such as The Palm Jebel Ali, The Palm Deira, The World, Jumeirah Village and Jumeirah Islands.
In a few words he has defined the goals of the Limitless: “To take responsibility of every aspect of a project’s development. While the core strength of Limitless lies in development, it will provide complete and integrated real estate services to its customers from the initial stage of feasibility studies right through to property management with various alliance partners. However, it is innovation that will set us apart.”
Initial equity capital for Limitless comes from Dubai World, but the company has said it plans to tap the debt markets and it will also look at strategic investors to finance its early growth and new projects. Imad Benharouga himself founded an Internet media and consulting company prior to joining the Nakheel team as Senior Operations Manager and Advisor to Saeed Ahmed Saeed.
BI-ME: From the outset Limitless seems to have positioned itself as a master developer that aims to be different and which delivers on its promises. What are the key strengths and skills of the group?
IB: Limitless is an international, global real estate property developer specialized in large-scale urban communities. Although the company is a homegrown business in Dubai, the focus from day one has been international and it is based on delivering distinction.
This is based on our three core competencies, which are our masterplan capabilities (for example in city planning), our waterfront development expertise, and our ability to take a project from concept to the delivery phase.
BI-ME: Can we expect any new announcements soon of future projects in Dubai or other markets?
IB: Our first project, Downtown Jebel Ali, is our flagship projects and is a classic example of the type of projects that we will go into. This is a 200 hectare project [following 11 kilometres alongside Sheikh Zayed Road] and in terms of the planning it follows the Limitless philosophy, which is based on four key principles.
These are the principles, firstly of diversity (in terms of having many uses such as recreation, housing, retail and commercial). It is built to a human scale, meaning that it is pedestrian-friendly as reflected in the alleyways and the layout of the streets. It has strong connectivity, both within the development and externally, being next to four Dubai Metro stops [one for each zone]. The fourth principle is how we restore and preserve the natural systems and monuments. This is more important in other places, and not in Dubai where we are usually working in the desert.
BI-ME: Limitless is a name that certainly conveys the concept of having a strong vision. Can you give us any insight into how the name was chosen and what does it say about the strategy of the group?
IB: We wanted a name that would convey the philosophy of the company; that it is going global, and that there is no limit to the opportunities we are looking at. It reflects the fact that the company will as far as possible push the envelope in terms of innovation, not just in terms of the geographic market it enters.
BI-ME: Could you give us some examples of that drive for innovation and that philosophy in practice?
IB: In a development we start with an idea. In some cases we start with a clean slate in terms of the land allocation, and sometimes there are existing structures. We deploy our planning principles. At the same time we are looking at how do we create beauty? We look at how do people interact and meet up in interesting places. We want to have some excitement in that place, whether it is through the use of water or symmetry in the site, or things that are missing in the area.
At same time, I must say that we employ all the data and we are looking at sales in the background of course, with the customer in our mind.
We achieve our objectives by having strong relationships with external planners and architects that we have formed over the years. We work with some of the best architects in the world, as well as our inhouse design team.
BI-ME: So in terms of planning you create a template around commercial objectives, then you allow your architects and designers full scope for expression. Would that be a fair description of the approach?
IB: We set the footprint of the area right at the outset; then follows the development code and the design guidelines. Then the architects come in later and they have to abide by the development code. In other words what they do has to fit in with the fabric and the materials specified, or it might be in terms of a certain percentage of glass specified for the façade. It doesn’t mean that we hinder the creativity of the architects.
BI-ME: Limitless itself is still quite a new company. What is the strategy for these international mega projects, which have very large financing requirements?
IB: We have a completely global marketing strategy that we are implementing. We set guidelines for all our target markets and some opportunities are currently being run through the feasibility and due diligence stage. I can say that we have specified four regions as target regions, the GCC & Middle East, South Asia, China & Southeast Asia, and Europe, Russia & CIS.
We have a policy that we don’t disclose details of projects until the binding agreements are executed. But what I can say is that we have a healthy deal flow expected in all these four zones.
BI-ME: Will we always see Limitless in emerging markets? Without going into details, are there some specific countries or opportunities where the group will be able to apply its expertise?
IB: We have three types of target markets. The first of these is what we term strategic markets, where the potential for long-term growth is very substantial. This is where we take a long-term approach. We would be very active with several projects in such a market and it would serve as a hub for developments in other neighbouring countries, for example in the case of India.
Then we have defined tactical markets. These are more risky, but they are still important to the growth of Limitless. We carefully assess each opportunity one by one. Thirdly we have defined the opportunistic markets. Overall we want to have a deal flow which fits our objectives. In the background we assess all the suitability of these markets. We have very rigorous field testing procedures and Limitless has teams constantly reviewing macro aspects of these markets, the economy, currencies and regulatory features, as well as the micro, by taking a dive into the market, looking at different specific risks and financial regulations.
BI-ME: Could I get some details on how you are progressing with your projects such as Karachi Waterfront or the Domodedovo project in Russia?
IB: Yes, the Pakistan project was announced a while back and it is a 25,000 hectare development to the West of the city. It is a case of leveraging our capabilities to create balance in communities and assisting the Pakistani government in supplying the social and housing needs of Karachi.
BI-ME: Could you put in perspective for us, 25,000 hectares, what kind of area is that?
IB: You can compare Dubai Waterfront which is 20,000 hectares and it is approximately one and a half times the size of Paris. So it is a complete city beside a city. To give you an update, we are working on the different elements of the masterplan. In terms of the elements, it is a city, so it will include everything – transportation connections, affordable housing, luxury, business and retail – everything that a city should have.
In Russia, I can say that at one point we entered into discussions with one potential partner. We decided in the end not to pursue the development because it didn’t meet our objectives and we are assessing different opportunities in the Moscow area.
BI-ME: What are the challenges when Limitless enters a new market?
IB: We are leveraging all the know-how acquired in Dubai over the years. We are taking the Dubai real estate experience all over the world. But your question is very relevant, the challenges are somewhat different from what we are used to in Dubai. Here we are used to an environment without red tape, thanks to the policies of the government.
Sometimes we will work at the government level and sometimes we will work with private companies. In terms of the challenges, they vary from one market to the other. But they are usually tied to the regulatory or legal issues, for example with getting approvals for a land use plan. This is not something that was unexpected for us. We have recruited team members in all the target markets, who are constantly working on the ground to maneuvre their way through these challenges. We have opened a new regional headquarters for Southeast Asia in Singapore headed by Philip Atkinson and we have an office in Shanghai headed by Mark Jared for China.
BI-ME: How is Limitless structured on a project by project basis?
IB: Each project has a working team and the work is not only done at the department level. One of our strengths is that we are cross-functional, with one development manager in each case to drive the project, like the captain of a ship, with the different players around him.
BI-ME: Which are the interesting international markets where Limitless is not present at the moment? Are all the group’s target markets in emerging economies?
IB: I mentioned our guidelines previously, but certainly there is India which has 200 million people migrating to the urban centres within just a few years. So there is massive growth there and there is a gap between supply and demand. This presents great opportunities for developers and it fits in very well with our core objectives.
BI-ME: For Downtown Jebel Ali could I get an update on the construction, sales and what are the plans for the people mover and how the area will link with Techno Park nearby and the new airport?
IB: For the details you would need to talk with our sales and marketing team, but this is 95% sold in the first three of the four zones. The residential element of the first zone to date has been constructed and the fourth zone will be released for sales in the near future. Each zone will be connected to the Dubai Metro, with each having its own internal people mover, it is designed as a pedestrian-friendly environment which is something new for Dubai. There is a particular emphasis on the spaces between buildings and spaces where people can walk. One fifth of the land in Downtown Jebel Ali will be green, either parks or park spaces.
BI-ME: How does Limitless distinguish itself in the area of marketing to international buyers/investors, after sales service, re-sales and guarantees?
IB: The Limitless philosophy is not limited to planning, it spreads to all aspects about how we market, how we look after our customers and our people. This extends to the process for sales and aftersales for Downtown Jebel Ali. I can say that we took into account all the previous experiences in the Dubai market.
BI-ME: Regarding the Dubai market, the main subject of the moment seems to be about the high construction costs. Sometimes it seems to be an issue of cement, sometimes aluminium and sometimes the absence of the international contractors. As everyone says, the Dubai residential market is in a boom, but would you say it is at the top of the business cycle? Would you say it will mature and change in the future?
IB: For Dubai the cycle is difficult to define, because we haven’t seen one yet. However the market data indicates that supply is definitely catching up in Dubai. So at some point there will be a balance that will be reached in the not too distant future. This is a natural progression and it is healthy.
BI-ME: Finally, where will we see Limitless two years from now?
IB: You would expect us to have a portfolio that, over time, has the three aspects [strategic, tactical and opportunistic] that I mentioned, with risk that is properly managed. We have a robust market entry strategy, but it is not carved in stone. We are constantly learning in the markets where we are active and we constantly review and refine our marketing strategy every 90 days.
I like to use the words of Eisenhower, who said, ‘I have always found plans to be useless. But planning is indispensible’. Like all good plans, our plans have to be constantly updated.