Urbis maps out its future

Michael Barlow from planning consultancy Urbis talks to JACQUI WALKER about his company’s huge new contract, how Urbis got there, and its solid plans for future growth.

Planning consultancy Urbis has won an international competition to help Dubai plan its fast urban development. Urbis, led by managing director Michael Barlow, will spend the next year preparing the Dubai urban development framework, the plan for Dubai’s land use, housing provision, heritage management and sustainability strategies.

He talks to Jacqui Walker about how his Melbourne-based company won the contract, and how the company will boost its staff levels from 300 to 350. Any questions? Email feedback@smartcompany.com,au and Michael has promised to answer.


Jacqui Walker: How did you get the contract?

Michael Barlow: It was an invitation to tender that went out to 39 businesses around the world and our understanding is that it went to businesses that the Dubai Government thought were qualified and had experience in Dubai and the Middle East.

The Government encouraged entrants to team up where appropriate, and most of us teamed up in one shape or another. In the case of Urbis we had 90% of expertise required in-house, in economics, social research and urban design.

Who did you team up with?

WSP, which is a UK-based company, and it is a world sustainability expert and engineer.

We’ve been working in Dubai and the Middle East for the past four years on a fly-in and fly-out basis, and we opened an office in Dubai at the beginning of this year.

What’s going on in Dubai?

There’s a significant amount of construction. Dubai is seeking to position itself as a global city and one that will provide the best physical and financial trade facilities for the Middle East.

There are many Australian construction companies working in Dubai: Multiplex and Grocon. There are significant architecture businesses: Woods Bagot, Cox Richardson. There are a number of large engineering projects. Most of the large Australian development and design and construction companies are working in Dubai and the Middle East.

Why did you decide to open an office?

Urbis concentrates on servicing markets where we see growing cities, and the Middle East is requiring those services. We had been working there and flying in and out of Australia. It was difficult to sustain, the long flights and time difference. Being on the ground helps you become known, and people to get to know you.

What were the challenges?

There were a number of challenges – the cost of doing business for one. It’s not a cheap place. It’s the cost of establishing a business. There is an expectation that housing is paid annually, office rents are paid six months in advance, so you need a fair bit of cash to start. It cost over $1 million to set up the office.

But we already had a lot of clients and projects on.

Are you using local staff or have you sent Australian staff over?

We’ve sent 15 people from Australia and elsewhere to Dubai from the big project and have Australian expats and locals in Dubai on those other projects.

What are the cultural issues for them in Dubai?

It’s a very Westernised place, but still an Arab country. Emirates are extremely accommodating, but when you are in someone else’s country, you’ve got to observe their rules.

Is it difficult for female staff?

We have female staff in the business. In the business world, the women are well respected for their roles. In society more broadly it is still male-based society. Dubai is doing everything they can to bring women into senior positions in government and commerce.

How big is Urbis?

When I joined in 1985, there were just six of us. Twenty years later, Urbis has 300 people, here and in Dubai. We expect to have 350 people by end of this year. We’re a privately owned company; all of the shareholders work in the business.

What’s the main reason for growth?

There is increasing complexities in managing cities and so increased demand for our services. We have always had an aspiration to become a truly national company and now we are focusing on international growth because we see a lot more opportunity for us.

Our main international market is the Middle East, and we operate in north Asia on a fly-in and fly-out basis.

What is the biggest challenge to your growth?

The biggest issue is getting the right staff to do the work. We employ economists, urban designers, social researchers and planners, property advisers, development managers and knowledge managers.


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