In 1938, as the first oil was being produced in the Burgan field, two men decided that business conditions were favorable for a new venture. Abdullah Saleh Al-Mulla, then secretary of state, with partner Saleh Jamal, set up a small electrical and domestic appliances shop in the heart of the old city, swiftly acquiring the GEC (UK) franchise. In 1947, an associate company was founded - Bader Al-Mulla and Brothers. Within a short time, this company took on the Chrysler distributorship and followed this by expanding into other business areas such as marine products, air conditioning, travel and equipment supply.
Abdulla Najeeb Al-Mulla Deputy Chairman of Almulla International Financing and Investment Co. is a well informed man with strong character, interestingly shy and yet has great sense of humor, a man of his position managing one of the multi-layered business empires in Kuwait makes you have nothing but respect of the humbleness of the man behind the chair.
Can you tell us about the beginnings of the family business?
In 1938 Almulla was started in a small shop by Abdullah Saleh Almulla. Business grew and in 1945 he first took the agency for Dodge Chrysler. In 1948 he imported the first vehicles. Business was challenging at that time as the new Kuwait wasn’t set up in terms of roads and streets, so to enter into an automotive business was quite challenging. Up until Independence Day in 1961 the business had grown into three major areas and since that time three generations have come into the business.
What does Almulla Group’s business cover?
Almulla Group covers three major areas; we have the commercial sector which covers automotives, travel, office equipments, car sale and rental, garages and spare parts. The second sector is engineering which is mostly covered with building automation, fire fighting, electrical, plumping, security, transport refrigeration, Almulla steel, ducting and civil construction. The third sector would be financing and investments, Almulla exchange and an insurance company where we represent ‘Oriental Insurance’ which is the largest investment company in Asia.
What are the challenges that you face today?
Believe it or not one of the major challenges in any family business is how to avoid family conflicts. Ten years ago the company moved from being a privately owned company to a shareholding company within the ownership of the family, that was a big challenge to take to secure the third, fourth and fifth generation of ownership as the family grows.
How do you prepare family members to work in the business and how do you manage to distribute the work?
Well, from my experience at first we start in heavy training program which covers all the businesses we are in, just to get first-hand feeling of how the business is managed. And the way we handle the business is that every family member goes into a certain field either as far as his education or interest, whether it’s engineering, financial or commercial. And usually the previous generation stays in the holding company and manages the business on a quarterly basis while our generation handles the daily operations.
What are the landmark dates and turning points for Almulla business group?
Major agencies are considered landmarks for us as in 1948 we got Daimler Chrysler, and 1973 we got Mitsubishi. In 1990 we started from zero after fifty-two years of business everything was totally destroyed. This date is considered a milestone for us as head office was burned down, stocks of all our goods were emptied, most of our locations were damaged and the manpower to run these businesses fled out of Kuwait. So coming back after liberation and starting from almost point zero where we had to recruit people and praise to God due to our old employee’s loyalty we were able to get them back and they agreed to come to a country with a somewhat unstable base and actually reached an agreement with them to only get 50% of their salaries for the first 6 months just so we could rebuild. Thank God within two years most of our businesses came back to operation. And as a courtesy gesture for all employees who sacrificed in the hard times of 1990 return, we have paid them back the full 50% of the previous months. We believe that the success and growth of any business depends on the people.
What is your operation size?
In 2010 our manpower reached almost 6,500 including our joint ventures companies. The major manpower comes from three different sectors. The cleaning division with 1,000 employees, security business where we represent Securicor in the UK has about 2,000 employees and the engineering division which also has 2,000 employees - the rest is distributed amongst the other business divisions.
Do you have any regional or international presence?
Only regional. A few years back we went to U.A.E. to open a small automotive dealership for Chinese products which we already have in Kuwait. In Qatar we opened a business of car rental, we have investments in Jordan, and soon we are starting a joint venture in Egypt for a Mitsubishi automotive dealership.
How did you deal with the recent economy crisis?
To be honest we got affected. And it was difficult on the company because of the commitments on the group within Kuwait and internationally. We didn’t have such bad businesses decisions though but we experienced a bad pace from individuals, corporate and surprisingly the government as some of the governments sectors projects that were handed over it took six months from them to settle the payments. Other than that we took quite a difficult decision to cut down both man power by 10% and cut down on departments cost so whatever was planned changed as we had to find out how to bring it down 10% just so we can end our financial year to have a break even more or less rather than sticking to our current operations at the time and not sure where would it take us. And to be honest, we don’t feel that the government handled the crisis well in terms of right leadership, rules and regulations and supporting the economy. But we were able to survive due to our good relationships with some international banks that were there since before 1990 until this day.
Today, the group has demonstrated its resilience by emerging, post-liberation, stronger than ever. By getting the business basics right and adding vital ingredients of imagination and willingness to lead markets, Almulla has built a reputation for delivering its promises which is well recognized by the world’s leading companies.
First published in Men's Passion issue #27 December-January 2010-11