Roy Nouhra, ASIS founder and CEO talks about work/life balance and the way it all started
Article below as featured in CPI Financial.
The Finance Chair of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization UAE made the necessary changes to his career when stress started to make his health suffer.
I was born in Lebanon and moved to Paris when I was one month old due to the war that started in 1974. I lived in Paris until I was 12. I moved to Montreal until I was 16, and then to Washington DC until I finished university.
I started studying Business with a minor in International Relations. Two years into it, my father asked me what I was studying and when I told him he asked me if I was learning anything. I said I wasn’t. He suggested I move to Engineering because we have a family business that is engineering related. Usually people move from Engineering to Business because it’s easier. He told me if I made the switch and I graduated, he would buy me a Ferrari. I love cars and racing cars so I moved to Engineering the next week.
I studied Civil Engineering and graduated with honours. When my dad came to buy me the car, I declined it. I wanted to earn it. Because I was top of my class, I was able to study my Master’s degree for free. I completed my two-year Masters in Engineering Management in one year, again at the top of my class. It all came easy to me; I do not know why because my grades weren’t good in high school.
After graduating from my Master’s degree, I got a job offer in Washington DC from the biggest contracting company there. They handpicked the top of the classes and I was offered the job without an interview; they sent me a letter saying the job was mine if I wanted it. I had been away from the Middle East too long, and I had never come back to Lebanon. I decided I wanted to be closer to my extended family.
I moved to Lebanon where the family had a wood trading business. I started managing this business which was simply horrible. The business environment there was very different to the business environment that I learned about in the US. Also, within a year, the traffic got to me. The war had finished and all the roads were being reconstructed. Traffic is my kryptonite; I cannot deal with traffic jams.
A year later we decided to close the business. I had previously come to Dubai to visit my brother, who had come here the same year that I went to Lebanon. I decided I liked the place–it was quiet and calm and there was no traffic, and the potential was huge. It wasn’t Dubai of today. The lack of traffic was part of the reason for coming here in 1998 to manage the family business, and we had an electromechanical contract.
For a couple of years we were working, having fun, and enjoying life here. Everyone knew everyone. When the boom happened we grew exponentially and the traffic increased, which started getting to me. As the business grew, we started having issues with our main contractors. My health started to deteriorate from the amount of stress. I was still young back then; I was in my mid-20s and I was responsible for around 1,500 employees. A couple of projects got delayed for reasons out of my control. If the owner decides to stop paying the contractor and you are the sub-contractor, then you are not going to get paid either.
At a certain point, I was very tight on my cash flow and there was nothing that I could do. This was the hardest lesson that I learned–if your cash flow is not managed properly, even though the situation might be out of your control, your business will suffer for it and you might lose your company. I could not pay salaries for two months and I could not sleep at night. We were able to bounce back and we were never in that situation again because we became much more conservative in our approach.
I decided to take a step back and diversify the industry that we were in. I wanted to stay in the UAE because I love this place. The business environment is amazing, but I wanted to get out of contracting. I wanted to get into something I was passionate about, even if it meant starting from zero. I wanted to have fun while working.
Aside from car racing, my passion has always been water skiing and snow skiing. I have been doing skiing since I was around four years old and car racing since I was 16. When I was around 10 years old there was a new invention that came out called Skurfer which was like a surfboard that was towed behind a boat. My brother and I each had one. We did not know where they came from. But this was basically the first wakeboard that was ever invented. Only 100 were ever produced and we had two.
I suggested manufacturing water skis to my brother. We looked around and came across a company called Liquid Force. The CEO of the company was Tony Finn, the inventor of the Skurfer. When he saw the picture of me and my brother as a kid with his products, he wanted to work with us. We started manufacturing for him. Fifteen years later we manufacture 90 per cent of the world’s wakeboards, in Jebel Ali. This is a great way to work in what we were passionate about. Four years ago we took the same approach with the snowboard industry, and now we manufacture 25 per cent of the world’s snowboards. So this is growing market for us.
I also wanted to build race cars in the UAE but there was no market for it. Since we knew about fibreglass from the wakeboards and snowboards, we decided to look at boats. After researching the boat industry, we found a niche market in rigid inflatable boats, and we got into that. That is where I spent most of my time now. We manufacture customised, high performance boats which we sell to the military and professional customers. These boats can go out in the harshest environment to reach its destination in the shortest time, because two minutes or 30 seconds can make a difference between someone living and someone dying.
Around seven years ago I decided that I needed to do more schooling. I joined an organisation called Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) which offers peer-to-peer learning, and it motivated me to do an owner management programme in Harvard Business School for three weeks every year for three years. It gave me a nice refresher regarding new business practices that I could bring into my business to make it more efficient.
Balance is very important. Before I was married, I had no balance at all. I had no time for anything except work. After my health suffered, I made the distinction between ‘me’ time and ‘work’ time. When I got married, it was me, the business and my wife. That is the balance that I try to keep now. As people grow older, they manage stress and time differently. Not everyone is able to do that, but when your body tells you that you are going too fast and your health gets affected, then you are forced to find that balance.