The art of big business - Emirates24|7

The art of big business

Social and cultural issues are closest to Kanoo's heart. (SUPPLIED) 

Mishal Kanoo is not your typical businessman. The Deputy Chairman and CEO of the Kanoo Group, he treats business as a byproduct of a life he'd rather consume with things "more fulfiling" – design, philosophy, teaching. It's no wonder then that the group's business interests are equally diverse. From shipping, oil and gas, power and industrial projects to travel and tourism, exhibition and courier services and retail activities, the Kanoo Group does them all.

Any talk of his businesses draws straight-forward, non-emotive responses. But throw in a mention of his personal stake in an art gallery and Kanoo's eyes light up.

Sitting in his Kanoo Group office in bustling Bur Dubai behind a large desk covered with neatly arranged framed photos and knick-knacks – including half a cigar on a wood-and-gold ashtray and a miniature orange Hitachi truck – Kanoo, 39, explained his journey to becoming head of his family-owned group.

He recounted how his argumentative streak that has made him something of a local media personality – he writes regularly for a variety of publications, maintains a popular website and gives talks – reared its head at a young age in the midst of his Western education.

An argument with a US university dean over differences of opinion brought an end to all thoughts of taking a degree in computer science, though his first choice had been architecture. "That [dispute] kind of shot any suggestion in that arena," he said with a chuckle.

For a year he was undecided about what to do until he found his calling after coming across an economics book that said, 'No two economists agree on one thing'.

"I said that's what I'm taking because I can't be wrong – no matter what I do I can't be wrong."

In addition to a degree in economics and business administration, Kanoo has two MBAs under his belt – one from the University of St Thomas in Texas and the other from the University of Sharjah.

Kanoo, arguably the most outspoken local commentator on the UAE's development, said a personal role model in his life – not specifically from a religious point of view – was Prophet Mohammed (PBUH).

"It's about the ability to persevere in uncompromising situations where you really have to dig into your character and your personality to see how strong you are. It is looking at his life and his perseverance over adversity."

Tradition and family play a major role in Kanoo's life. He said his greatest achievements so far are his marriage to Sanaa and his 18-month-old-son, Hamed.

The youngest of three children – he has an older brother and sister – said the person he admired most was his mother, Lulwa.

Kanoo has managed to fuse the traditions of a 100-year-old family business in its sixth generation with a modern 'consulted management' style that calls for decision-making based on consensus.

"It's a small paradigm shift that allows people to come into full blossom. You allow other people to go ahead and do the business, you don't need to micromanage. I think that was the one thing I did bring to the company."

There is, however, a sense that there's some unexplored creativity still bubbling away beneath his businesslike exterior. Despite having always wanted to be a part of his family's successful business, Kanoo laughed as he said there were moments when he thought it was time to leave.

He said: "Not because the business is bad, it's just that there's only a certain amount of effort, time and energy that you can give to a certain thing and then after that it becomes routine and you are no longer creative, you are no longer adding more value to it.

"And instead of being something that you enjoy, it becomes something that I won't say you hate, but it just doesn't do it for you any more."

When I asked what specific goals he had when he was younger he thought for a few moments before replying: "I still want to be an architect – maybe not an architect per se, but a designer."

"That's obviously something I'm interested in. I'd like to be able to design cars. There is that drive in me, I just can't figure out where or how to get it or, you know, resolve it at this present time. Perhaps in a few years as I grow older and more mature that might be something I will be focusing on outside the world of business."

He has in a way combined a personal connection to the art world with his business expertise by becoming an indirect patron of the arts. He opened Meen Gallery in Dubai's Al Quoz industrial district three years ago with two partners to help develop Dubai's Arabic and Islamic art scene.

"Before starting the gallery I was looking around and there were perhaps one or two serious galleries here. I'm a very visual person as in it's very important for me that something I see is aesthetically pleasing. And as a businessman I try to look for value-for-money purchases.

"Since I can't control the external environment I'll try and support the internal environment of a person who decides he wants beautiful things in his house."

Kanoo seems to revel in the art of debate and rhetoric in general. He said his favourite – non-religious – book was Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand's thousand-plus-page novel about an ideological struggle between socialists and extreme libertarians.

This passion has also driven him to want to return to university and study philosophy, a subject he said is mostly viewed negatively here.

"I really think philosophy is a positive thing. It's pure thought, not adulterated by anything."

Although a businessman by trade, Kanoo said social and cultural issues were closest to his heart.

And despite a brimming work schedule and personal life and a desire to one day write a book he would also like to go back to university and teach. He taught a family business course at the University of Sharjah until his son was born.

"It's a sacrifice – either I spend time with my family or I teach. And at this point I have a young child and I think he is more of a priority than teaching at present.

"Perhaps a few years down the road when he's a little bit more mature and goes to school I will have more time, and that might be the right occasion to go back to teaching. That is eventually what I want to focus on."

So what's a typical day like for one of the country's busiest CEOs?

He replied: "I rise as early as 6am or as late as 9am depending on what has happened the day before – whether I had an event or a dinner to go to, or if I had nothing to do besides watching a football game at midnight. My wife has made a point of ensuring I have breakfast because prior to getting married, breakfast was the last thing on my mind in the morning. It does its job, it keeps the energy levels higher!

"I then come up to the office and get into my paperwork and e-mail as soon as possible. Then I have meetings with different people in the company and interact with different people from outside. That would be the morning period and it usually has to do with routine and a bit of tactics.

"When it reaches towards the afternoon it becomes a bit more about strategy, as in looking outside at what other businesses can be added to the company, what other things we should be looking at. Then I go home and I try to shut out the business – but my wife would tell you I fail in that respect!"

A good leader's traits

Intelligence and acumen: "I don't necessarily mean this person has to have a degree, but he needs enough intelligence to be able to understand what's happening around him."

Humility: "To be able to say that you're wrong when you're wrong."

Being open to others: "I think this is the most important aspect – to listen and pay attention to what people are saying, it doesn't matter who the person is."

Follow your instincts: "Believe your gut because a lot of what you do could be hard work and just bad luck, and your gut feeling can tell you whether something is going to succeed or not."

Lifestyle CV

Lives in: Jumeirah

Drives: Audi RS4

Relaxes on weekends by: "Spending time with my family, and football."

Favourite place to hang out in Dubai: "On my sofa being a couch potato watching the football."

Favourite thing to spend money on: "Watches. I don't know how many I have – too many."

Last book read: Waiter's Rant by Steve Dublanica (aka The Waiter)

Favourite book: Altas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Aside from property, most expensive item purchased: A watch.

Piece of art you would most like to own: "There are so many. Anything by Claude Monet would make me really happy."

Would most like to live: "Wherever my wife and my kids are."

Favourite holiday destination: "Anywhere – I like to go and see new and interesting places."

If you weren't a businessman: "Probably a teacher in a university."