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Roads less traveled

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Roads less traveled

It is risky and sometimes scary to get involved in post-conflict economies and countries like Mongolia that are modernizing apace: the rewards make it worthwhile – and these are by no means just financial rewards. By John O’Hanlon, Business Excellence, Research by James Boyle. From the July/August issue of PRESIDENT&CEO Magazine.

On March 1 this year, ACCL International’s President, Haji Habibullah Pirzada, opened the company’s newly-built headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan. ACCL is a Dubai-based, middle market company that makes use of its unique approach to partnership in a variety of post-conflict or underdeveloped regions worldwide to create wealth. It is a sign of the success of this unusual company that it has grown out of the premises it occupied since it was established in 2003 to be become one of the largest employers in Afghanistan. Commercial success in Afghanistan is counter-intuitive, to say the least, and it is no place to take a risk-avoidance strategy. But the opportunities for people of vision are huge.

Dubai is the Hong Kong of the Middle East. It’s politically stable, tolerant and very business-friendly. Given our global expansion plans, we thought it was ideally suited as our international headquarters from which to support all our international operations, as well as from a procurement, logistical and financial perspective.

Pirzada was accompanied at the opening by his co-founder Sargon Heinrich, a cosmopolitan and multilingual former Bechtel executive whose experience includes managing the logistical support to the international initiative to put out the oil-well fires Saddam Hussein left behind when he was chased out of Kuwait at the end of the first Gulf war. That experience must have given Heinrich a taste for unstable, challenging post-conflict, what he calls “austere” environments, because he headed over to Afghanistan where he met Pirzada, who led a construction and dry-wall company in Kabul. Together, they set about the task of building training facilities for the future development of Afghanistan, some of them based on former US military establishments.

Starting Small

The pair started with small refurbishment projects in and around Kabul, gradually taking on larger assignments until, today, ACCL manages almost 3,000 staff. This growth has been organic, and has been fuelled by local staff, explains Paul Stukel, a codirector of ACCL International. “That has been a key part of our philosophy in Afghanistan and elsewhere summed up in our tagline Afghans Building Afghanistan. A lot of the large players bring in their own people, do their thing and then leave. There is no legacy, no local development.”

The “get in/get out” approach is a sound business model, and it works in the short term. But sustainable business calls for a different approach.

“If you are going to do business in Afghanistan, Mongolia, Kenya, UAE, you really ought to help the local economy, so that when and if you leave, something of value remains.” It is this approach that has worked so well in Afghanistan, allowing ACCL to be much more effective than “arms-length” companies. “We know the locals – because we are the locals,” says Stukel.

ACCL International has exported this model to Mongolia, among other places. Just over a year ago, ACCL moved into another office in one of Dubai’s outstanding buildings – the Reef Tower. Dubai, the company’s strategic hub since 2005, is something of a contrast to its operational locations, but it is ideal for the company, says Stukel.

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