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Meinhardt executives share why human capital is the most important investment

If you're planning for the long haul, go beyond one figure - investing in human capital is paramount to business longevity.

No opportunity is too small when it comes to business. En route to Dubai recently, Meinhardt group executive chairman Shahzad Nasim, 67, ran into a client that the engineering group had been courting for some time. The client gave him a seemingly impossible task: Draw up a proposal to build a shopping mall in Saudi Arabia and mobilise a team for a presentation by the time they touched down in two hours.

Recounting the incident, Omar Shahzad, Nasim’s son, tells The Peak: “He did it, even though there was no guarantee that we would win the project.” Well, they did.

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For Shahzad, 37, it illustrates his father’s unwavering dedication to his work – even after nearly 40 years in the industry. “As he never took work home, I didn’t know about his professional attributes until I started working with him. I’ve come to learn about his enormous passion not just for the job and company, but also for engineering.”

Seven years ago, Nasim, then group CEO, acquired Meinhardt in a management buyout from Victoria Meinhardt, daughter of the group’s late Australian founder, Bill Meinhardt.

When Shahzad joined his father in 2010, he boldly expanded Meinhardt’s network in the Middle East, even though the region was reeling from the global financial crisis and an infl ated Dubai market. From just one office in Dubai with 60 staff, Meinhardt presently has 450 staff in 12 offices across the region.

Since the buyout, this father-son tag team has led Meinhardt in doubling its revenue and managing construction projects worth $20 billion annually, including One Raffles Quay, Gardens by the Bay, The Dubai Mall, the world’s largest shopping centre, as well as the upcoming Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail project.

Meinhardt group executive chairman Shahzad Nasim and his son, group CEO Omar Nasim

BEYOND THE FAMILY Shahzad Nasim and his son, Omar Shahzad, believe that to build a legacy, a company should not be centred around one figure.

Nasim’s hands-on approach has rubbed off on Shahzad. What the latter lacks in experience in the engineering sector, he makes up for with ambition. Instead of finding comfort in the familiarity of finance, the former investment banker is now at the frontline of operations, managing Meinhardt projects around the world.

His financial expertise has also come in handy: To diversify and add value to the business, he has set up a financial advisory arm that provides consultancy services and feasibility studies.

Even though his father has given him full rein of the business, Shahzad, who became group CEO three years ago, is not taking his position for granted. Shahzad, who is an only child, says: “He doesn’t expect me to consult him but I believe a CEO should inform the chairman. That’s good corporate governance. I think it’s the Asian mentality of respecting your elders and then making a decision based on a consensus.”

Nasim says: “I advise him based on the experience I’ve earned over the years.” And it is a rich one indeed. The Pakistan-born, naturalised Singaporean joined Meinhardt’s then fl edgling 10-man Singapore offi ce in 1978, worked his way up the ranks, and helped to expand the group’s network to 45 offices around the world. Nasim had also overseen the construction of the Overseas Union Bank building in 1981, the tallest building outside of the US at the time.

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The son holds his father in high regard. During this interview, he is happy for his elder to lead, even as the latter repeatedly points out that the future belongs to Shahzad’s generation.

“He’s passionate about and soft with people, although I think he is a bit harder on me,” he says of his father. “He’s very supportive of staff going for professional training. We have a robust programme in every office to groom new staff , even interns.”

Shahzad has taken this further by partnering the Economic Development Board in opening two Centres of Excellence – one on Smart Cities, the other on Project Management and Construction Management – to groom local talent in urban infrastructure.

Even though Meinhardt is a privately held company, the last thing they want is to build it around one central figure. That, to them, is the downfall of many family-owned businesses. Nasim says: “A company built around one individual will die with that person. You don’t build a company to last only for your lifetime. Legacy is more than just about family values. How do you take a company’s hard-earned reputation and expand the business, while maintaining essential family values such as integrity and honesty?

“It cannot be that all the best decisions are made by me or him. We must decentralise decision-making. Good leaders surround themselves with good people.”

PHOTOGRAPHY Vernon Wong ART DIRECTION Fazlie Hashim