Investing in the future

Written by
Karam Filfilan

16 May 2018

16 May 2018 • by Karam Filfilan

Ten years ago, Waha Capital – or Oasis International Investments as it was then known – set out to reinvent itself. The organisation, which had primarily operated in the aviation industry, was rebranded and opened up by founder Hussain Al Nowais, who decided to diversify away from aircraft leasing to focus on investment strategies.

Waha decided to invest in the Middle East’s burgeoning economies, particularly in five key areas: offshore oil and gas services; financial services; healthcare, infrastructure and the legacy aircraft leasing business.

The results have been startling, particular given the worldwide economic downturn of the past few years. In 2014, the company posted a net profit of AED1,733m, a seismic 466% increase on the previous year. However, by 2016, profits were down 30.7% year-on-year as global economic disquiet took hold. Despite this, shrewd management saw profits return in 2017, with figures released earlier this year showing preliminary net profits of AED425.9m up 4.6%.

Impact on culture

The person charged with dealing with this rapid transformation from a people perspective is HR director Ergham El Bachir, who joined the business just after the new strategy was put in place in 2009. She remembers the impact the transformation had on the culture of the organisation.

“It was a rapid change. We had to develop an appetite for investment to attract investors, then help our directors learn about new industries and geographies. We also had to build up principal investment teams and capital market teams.

“We have a saying in the region – you build the plane while you fly it. That’s the speed we had to move at,” she laughs.

The speed of growth and development meant El Bachir has been constantly hiring over the past decade. However, talent attraction is not a problem for the business – with El Bachir describing talent-attraction issues as “close to zero”. A challenge that does exist is finding and integrating talent with the right skills into Waha Capital’s “unique” set up, which involves being a publically listed but highly regulated business in the investment industry.

“We have a reputation for being a little picky,” admits El Bachir. “We needed very specific talent for some of the positions we were hiring, such as investor relations, for which initially we didn’t have a dedicated department. Sometimes, the talent doesn’t exist, so you have to grow it internally.”

When hiring, El Bachir seeks input from a variety of sources, both inside and outside of the HR department. Leaders from business sectors will often sit in on interviews with hiring managers and feedback is sought from different departments and levels of seniority 

Rigorous training

Once selected, new hires go through a rigorous induction programme to bring them into Waha’s culture, including HR open days focusing on values, culture and communication, and more technical based training on regulatory systems.

The investment business provides a significant budget for internal training, which is not limited to senior executives. El Bachir cites entry-level employees who were sent for training in London in 2017 within months of joining as an example of the opportunities open to Waha employees.

This investment in talent has seen Waha Capital post impressive attrition levels over El Bachir’s tenure, with average length of service around five years – unusual for such a young business. 

“In our frontline and management positions, people stay forever. Most of the investment team have been here more than eight years, but our average tenure is more than five years. That’s excellent for our industry,” she says.

El Bachir is keen to change the negative perception of HR as an enforcer or ‘police’ of the company. Consequently, she ensures that she and her function are constantly available to people in the business, preferring faceto-face communication over emailed memos. She believes this opportunity is greatest with younger talent.

“Culturally, to be able to brand HR as a place where people can get feedback, plan their careers and gain guidance is one of my passions. My favourite thing is to walk new joiners through the first year of employment,” she says.

El Bachir believes the key to changing HR’s image lies in combining emotional intelligence – what drives individuals – with technical HR knowledge – such as strategic business aims and structure. This is particularly relevant for the next generation of talent which is motivated differently to previous generations. With Waha Capital planning on hiring aggressively over the coming three years and moving into new areas of business, attracting this talent will become increasingly important.

“How can we help our young people fit in?” asks El Bachir. “Young people don’t feel the way previous generations do, they have a different understanding of the world. We need to start thinking about organisation design to help attract them, and I believe that appealing to their beliefs, motivations and utilising their experience is vital. We need to talk more.”