El Nezami: Making a Dubai stopover on way to success

The chairman of Victoria Group, Amin El Nezami, is a dapper, affable man. He is the scion of a business family that started operating in Cairo circa 1919. With a paternal grandfather dealing in metals and the maternal one operating a textiles plant, business runs in his veins. Yet his journey in the UAE was less about old privilege and more about an insistent providence conspiring to keep him in the country, as he tells it.

"The year was 1974. I was 13 years old. I wanted to start out in the family business and my grandfather gave me a very important job,” narrates El Nezami. “I walked in, and he handed me a mop and told me to start cleaning the textile factory top to bottom."

Each year, El Nizami was promoted and shunted from department to department. By the time he started college, there was not a single department he hadn’t worked in. The only post he could see beckoning was as headman of the business.

He asked for a promotion, fully expecting great things. He was sacked instead.

"I have nothing else to teach you, and there's no place for you here. You can now go work for your paternal grandfather," El Nezami remembers his maternal grandfather as saying.

Now in his second year of college, El Nezami started his education in metals. Copper and iron became second nature, while his formal education netted him a degree in commerce. Eventually, he could learn nothing more about metals from his grandfather’s business. And typically, he was sacked again.

"I'd been sacked again. So I thought I'd go visit India. It would be an excellent vacation. I landed in Dubai on my stopover. It was a different time, and you didn't need visas to enter."

A DUBAI LANDING

It was the Christmas of 1983 when El Nezami landed in Dubai for the first time. He looked up an old friend – a tennis coach at the InterContinental Hotel Sharjah. There, he met a couple of gentlemen and a conversation started. El Nezami walked out of the chat with a firm job offer for two weeks, after which he promised himself he’d leave to India.

"So I started work for a couple of weeks. And during that time ran into an old teacher, originally from the UK. She tried hiring me for a project she was working on for the Dubai Ruler's Office."

El Nezami wasn’t enthused. “I said no, no - I have to leave. My vacation in India awaited, and my family [was] expecting me back in Cairo. But she wasn't having any of it.”

And the project in question? It was to help create the Rashid School for Boys and the Latifa School for Girls: two of the mainstays of the UAE’s secondary education system, where the entrance rolls read like a Who’s Who of UAE royalty. So rather than boarding a plane to Cairo, El Nezami was shunted into the world of education.

A SCHOOLING IN EDUCATION

El Nezami was convinced his inevitable departure for Cairo had only been postponed. "I told my family it was only for a year. I'd finish my contract and head to Cairo,” he says, while pulling out old yearbooks showing a veritable parade of UAE leaders passing through the Rashid School For Boys.

Providence, it seemed, had other plans. His contract didn’t end with the schools finishing construction. “I was 23 at the time. The schools where finished. But suddenly the Ruler’s Office told me they hadn’t in fact hired any teachers yet. I was told to help out with the recruitment and also asked to invigilate the school's first entrance exam."

Finally, a Scottish head teacher was hired, and El Nezami started packing his bags – for Cairo, of course. It was 1986, and this time he even managed to reach there – for a full day.

The Ruler's Office called bright and early the next morning. The previous headmaster had been summarily fired for a transgression and the Rashid School for Boys needed a fill-in. El Nezami was wanted for the job. There were to be no arguments – a fast-tracked visa was already waiting at the Dubai Airport.

And thus El Nezami found himself back in Dubai, and in charge of the school he had helped build. Nevertheless, a new head teacher was soon found. And after a year of being his right hand man, El Nezami recommenced his regular refrain. "Thank you very much. And now, I'm going back to Cairo."

The headmaster was a smart man and knew a good thing when he saw one. He immediately went to the Ruler's Office and flatly stated that it would be impossible to make things work without El Nezami. And once again, it turned out that El Nezami wasn't, in fact, going to be leaving for Cairo.

El Nezami's elusiveness finally prompted a family visit to the UAE. They saw Dubai’s potential, and it was agreed that El Nezami should start a business. He was largely left to his own devices on how to go about it. He set up Al Mashrabiya for selling antiques and jewellery, while his Al Duniya General Trading venture handled generic commercial activity.

In 1996, El Nezami returned to his education roots, opening the Victoria English School in Sharjah. It's a throwback to high quality British education, with a large part of the experienced faculty coming from the rainy isle. The reticent guest, it seemed, wanted to stick around a bit longer.

ORGANIC EXPANSION

A school generates its own specific overheads. "We realized we were going through around AED 800,000 (USD 218,000) in printing every school year. So I asked myself whether it might be a good idea to open our own printing press."

Victoria Printing Press was the natural result and was established at the turn of the millennium. The press has expanded its remit since inception, and now also handles medicine and F&B package printing.

But printing presses aren't cheap. A single color machine can cost half a million dirhams while high-end six-color ones carve a hefty AED 12 million from the budget.

The necessary cash, says El Nezami, came from banks. "It's a point of business. Don't use personal savings for business. All large businesses use loans to fund investments, even if they have the money."

ADVICE FOR ENTREPRENEURS

El Nezami’s business has grown, with plastics, aluminum and glass concerns being added in the face of market demand. He says good business is about hard work. “If you like your business, you’ll be happy working there. And there's no substitute for hard work. I still wake up at 5 am.”

People are important for growth, he says. “Find the right people for the right place, regardless of nationality and origin. Don't try getting involved in every element of your business. Find people, trust them and empower them.”

The Victoria Group is now an established business and its cheques are considered the equivalent of banknotes in the industry. And El Nezami, the reluctant visitor, has finally decided to stay.

As seen on Zawya Business Pulse. To see more, please click here