A culture of promoting and expanding businesses through personal referrals is flourishing in the UAE. This has been encouraged by Business Network International (BNI), the world’s largest referral organisation, which is active in 37 countries. The networking group launched its first chapter in the UAE in 2005 and now has seven – the latest opened in Abu Dhabi last month.
BNI was founded by Dr Ivan Misner in the United States in 1985 and its members include CEOs, chairmen, managing directors and experts from different professions. Nick Pearson, Middle East Regional Director of BNI, tells Emirates Business how the organisation works and how its members benefit from networking – and reveals its future plans.
How does BNI operate in the Middle East?
BNI is an international organisation with 5,010 chapters and 103,607 members in 37 countries worldwide. It is a franchised organisation and is growing rapidly. In the Middle East we started operations in the UAE and in the past two years we opened six chapters in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi. Over the next few years the objective is to expand further across the Middle East. Each member carries a business cardholder with the cards of every other chapter member.
When they are out with their contacts, friends and business associates they often identify a need that could be satisfied by a chapter member. They refer their contact to that person or leave a business card and put the two in touch – it is a personal recommendation. The good thing is, obviously, over time you build up trust and relationships with your fellow members. This gives you the confidence to refer them to friends and business associates as you are convinced they will do a good job.
How did the breakfast-time launch of the Abu Dhabi chapter go?
We thought it was high time we opened a chapter in Abu Dhabi and hopefully it will be first of several in the capital. The response was excellent. It was funny because, when we were putting the launch together, people were saying, ‘But Abu Dhabi is different. You will never persuade people to come to a breakfast meeting at 7am in Abu Dhabi – people don’t get out of bed at that time’.
I’m delighted to say about 70 people attended the launch – it exceeded our expectations in terms of the number who attended.
The other thing was the quality of those present. We had chief executives, we had managing directors and we had some very senior decision-makers. And I think that is a good sign as far as the future of the organisation in the city is concerned.
How many members do you expect to have in Abu Dhabi?
An ideal chapter, to maximise its effectiveness, has between 35 and 40 members. We started off with 11 founding members and we are hopeful that we will at least double that as a result of the launch. We should start with between 20 and 25 members. Over the next few weeks we will be inviting more visitors to come to the chapter meetings with a view to getting above 30 as soon as we can.
Our experience in other parts of the world has shown us once a chapter attracts more than 30 the amount of business it can generate for its members grows exponentially.
What is the membership in the Middle East?
At the moment we are limited to the UAE. In Dubai we have just launched our sixth chapter and have more than 100 members – the figure is growing every week. With the launch of the Abu Dhabi branch the total UAE membership has reached 150 and by 2011 we expect to have 2,000 members. Within the next three months we anticipate having a second chapter in Abu Dhabi.
We allow only one person per profession in each chapter and have received applications from people whose categories have already been taken by others.
What about entering other GCC countries?
In the past three months the management of BNI has expanded – I took on a regional director’s role. The structure is that we have a national director who is responsible for the Middle East and now we have two regional directors working in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. This is freeing up time for the national director to look beyond these horizons. He is currently in the process of evaluating other opportunities in other emirates and countries. Over the next few years you will see BNI expanding into other GCC countries – and maybe beyond.
What do you offer your members?
Networking, word-of-mouth and referrals help people to obtain business all around the world, but particularly here in the UAE. In many cases it is who you know, not what you know, that drives business. BNI first and foremost is a business-oriented organisation – we are there to generate business for members. And like any good organisation we measure our results, we set ourselves targets and we track our performance. What people find attractive about BNI is it is a focused organisation. The members meet for 90 minutes in the morning purely to refer business.
What qualifications do you need to become a BNI member?
We welcome people to come and visit our chapters. We love to have them at our chapter meetings as visitors. If they like what they see they can submit an application. We have a membership committee that works like a human resources department and vets all applications, and if an application is deemed suitable and there is no conflict of interest in categories then that person is able to join.
We have a subscription fee that is minimal compared to the amount of business that can be generated by BNI. Some of our members in Dubai obtain almost 50 per cent of their total turnover through BNI. We always say to our members they should see BNI as their biggest customer because potentially it is the biggest source of income their firm will have.
What volume of business has BNI helped to generate in the Middle East and globally?
Globally, including this region, the organisation passed 5.5 million referrals between its members in 2007, generating around $2.2 billion [Dh8bn] worth of business. That is a conservative figure because all we were able to track was the first time a business was referred. Obviously if you get into a relationship with somebody as a result of BNI you may continue to use that person’s services. So we would estimate the real figure is at least four times as great because we cannot track all businesses. Since we started two years ago in Dubai, the first five chapters generated just over Dh15m of business, which means each seat in BNI is currently worth Dh150,000 a year.
How do you see BNI performing in the UAE in 2008?
Our target for this year is 250 members and a good proportion of those new members are going to come from Abu Dhabi. Currently there is a lot less networking activity in the capital than in Dubai so there is an appetite in Abu Dhabi for this kind of organisation.
Global total of referrals between BNI members in 2007
Worldwide membership of the organisation
Number of BNI members in the UAE
Regional Director for Middle East, BNI
Nick Pearson, a modern languages graduate from Newcastle University, assumed the part-time role as regional director of BNI last year. He joined the organisation as a regular member in 2006.
He is managing director of Dubai-based Pearson Consulting, which works with multinational and local fast-moving consumer goods companies in the areas of route-to-market strategy and sales effectiveness. Prior to setting up Pearson Consulting he worked in sales and general management for Mars, Diageo and Reckitt Benckiser. He was born and raised in England and spent seven years in West and South Africa before moving to the UAE in 2003.
Referrals give businesses a major boost