It’s almost the end of September and I’m driving through the heart of Sobha Hartland in Mohammed Bin Rashid City on a surprisingly pleasant weekday morning.
The waterfront community on the Dubai Canal was launched in 2014 and the community has sprung into life now.
Families have moved in, the landscaping looks beautiful, albeit a work in progress, there is enough and more green cover hugging the Forest Villas, and you hear birds busy nesting in the trees for the wonderful season ahead.
The two schools in close proximity are busy and fully operational. Around 1,880 units have been sold in this project, 242 units have been handed over and there’s a family moving in almost every week, with the total number now standing at 152 and growing.
Planting the seed
“How do you feel to see your vision translated into reality?” I ask PNC Menon, the founder and chairman of Sobha, when I see him in his office soon after my visit to Hartland.
At 71, Menon continues to be both a visionary and a performer, who has delivered results consistently in India and ever since he came to the GCC in 1976.
“It takes a bit of time you see,” he says.
“To establish anything it takes about 10 years. That’s the time it takes to get the first taste of success. We purchased this land in 2011 and now it’s eight years. I’m waiting for another two, 2021 maybe, and then I will be able to say my mission of achieving what I came looking for is over.”
There are a few things that Menon still wants to see completed in this timeline.
“I want to deliver the volume that I promised in this 8-million-sq-ft [183 acre] waterfront community. Just having a vision is not enough. We have to be consistent in our mission to deliver timely — Sobha Hartland aims to provide 5,000 luxury apartments and 358 villas and town houses surrounded by 2.4 million sq ft of green and open spaces.
"And second, I want the product to be fantastic. A building is like your body, you have to respect it and respect quality.”
Menon repeats the 10-year time frame several times as he speaks.
“That’s the normal time,” he says, “for anyone to understand your capability. When you start something you go through hell. We started greenfield, so there were enough challenges. People around you have to understand your capability and the only way they can do it by seeing and experiencing the product. And it is through our product that we differentiate ourselves.”
Focus on quality
Quality control has been one of Menon’s many strengths. He has a team of quality controllers, headed by Olaf Wagner, the head of quality assurance and technology, who report to him directly. “I leave it to no one. Small things catch my eye and I make sure I am able to offer premium quality products and uniquely crafted bespoke designs.”
Menon’s pride has also been growing Sobha as a completely backward integrated company. “We do everything ourselves. We started from design engineering, and we’ve gone into contracting, manufacturing… we don’t give out sub contracts to others. We make sure we have total control on time and quality,” he says.
It was in 2011 that Sobha purchased the first piece of land in Dubai at the MBR City. “The market was down at that time if you remember,” says Menon.
“But I am a total optimist when it comes to Dubai. I planted the seed of Hartland during that time and I’ve had to work very hard with the unwavering support of a team of highly qualified people who believed in my vision and my values. Hartland is a $4-billion project.
"It was a huge opportunity to set up this integrated community where families would feel welcome. I had to go on fighting till I realised my dream. But it’s been a good journey.”
Menon’s other dream, that of the G+60 Signature Tower, still remains to be realised and he speaks of it with a fondness of something that remains close to his heart. “It’s still a dream,” he confesses. “And I’ve been dreaming it for the last 25 years. It has not happened and I don’t think it will.
The market doesn’t have the appetite for it. I cannot go and build something that’s priced at Dh2,500-Dh3,000 per square foot, it’s not a good idea now.
I am 71 now and I’ve been dreaming of this since I was 46. I visualised it as something very upper end. But I don’t have the guts to do it now.
There has been a paradigm shift in the market. The new generation has no appetite for things like this. They don’t want to buy jewellery, or have cars. I’m not sure if building homes for this new set of buyers makes sense.”
Talking about market conditions, Menon discusses solutions that will make the real estate industry more sustainable.
“I am really looking forward to the recommendations of the real estate planning committee that has been set up recently. I am of the view that government entities or developers should take care of the social infrastructure. Let them build more hospitals, schools, hotels and malls and develop them on a commercial basis.
"They can leave the residential and office sector to the private developers. We should not be competing against each other.”
A good year
The year so far has been good for the developer. It has witnessed a steady growth in investments from international clients, notably Chinese investors, who have contributed investments valued at Dh500 million, followed by Indian, Emirati, Saudi, British and Pakistani investors.
“Our sales target for 2019 is Dh2 billion and we have already achieved Dh1.2 billion. But we have the potential of doing business of Dh4 billion in the next four years. All we have to ensure is that there is an annual increase of 5 per cent of Dubai’s population. We don’t need anything more than that to make sure there is a market appetite.”
The developer this year has also entered the UK market with the launch of the new 4,800-sq-ft Sobha Global Studio at 92 Park Lane, overlooking Hyde Park. The only thing that remains on Menon’s agenda now is the IPO. “There are certain parameters that need to be achieved before we go public,’ he says.