Fifteen years after EllisDon began a journey that would establish the company as a force in the UAE project management space, the Canadian construction giant has launched an initiative aimed at helping to foster stronger links between the two countries.
Jamal Alsabt, an international student from Dubai enrolled in the Sustainable and Renewable Energy programme at Carlton University in Ottawa, Ontario, was selected as the first candidate for the Emirati Internship Initiative, a programme backed by the Canadian-UAE Business Council and the UAE Ministry of Education aimed at providing Emirati students with meaningful work experience at Canadian companies.
Last summer Jamal spent four months embedded with EllisDon’s Sustainable Building Services (SBS) group in Ontario, where he learned about all facets of the company and even discovered an interest in other areas, particularly in energy and digital services.
“The Emirati Internship Initiative is such a perfect opportunity to experience the responsibilities of being a part of a great company, which improves your educational, communication and working skills,” says Jamal.
While working at EllisDon he produced an in-depth report exploring various innovations in intelligent and sustainable technologies used in construction. The piece was published and shared across the company.
Launched by Middle East office vice-presidents, Wissam Ayoub and Daniel Murphy, the initiative proved such a success that EllisDon has committed to taking on two Emirati students for four months every summer. The company says its involvement was an opportunity to enhance its relationships with the UAE government and partners as it continues to grow its reach in this region. And now it wants to expand the project by encouraging more Canadian companies to get involved.
“The Emirati Internship Program is a way for EllisDon to support the UAE and help develop the young Emirati Engineers aspiring to become the future leaders in their fields. It is also an opportunity for them to learn best practices through our operation in Canada with the potential to engage them in the UAE,” says Wissam Ayoub.
Founded 65 years ago, EllisDon has grown to be one of Canada’s largest contractors, doing around $3.5bn in annual revenues. Some 15 years ago the company made the move into Public Private Partnerships (PPP), now firmly established as one of the most popular public procurement models in Canada. Most public infrastructure, including hospitals, courthouses, jails, roads, light rail and metro, is procured through the PPP system. The company started putting its own equity into projects, running them for 25-30 year concessions and even doing the facilities management (FM).
Having become a dominant player in Canada, EllisDon turned its attention to other areas, including the US, Colombia and the UK, where it worked on the famous One Canada Square building at Canary Wharf in London’s docklands. Yet, despite its background as a contractor, when EllisDon made a move in the Middle East around 14 years ago it made the strategic decision to focus on project management. The company has worked on a number of major projects in that time, a prime example being the buildings that make up the Golden Mile on the trunk of Palm Jumeirah.
Since then the company has worked around the region, for example delivering the Central Bank of Kuwait as project managers. Local clients have even taken it further afield. The Abu Dhabi Development Fund (ADFD) convinced it to work on a major housing project it was sponsoring in Afghanistan.
Currently, its biggest local project is the Emaar-Meraas joint venture, Dubai Hills Estate where it is project managing everything bar the Dubai Hills Mall and King’s College Hospital. On site there are many different contractors involved in working across close to 30 different packages that will be delivered in phases starting from the end of this year through 2019 and 2020. In Abu Dhabi the company is working with Aldar on projects including Ansam on Yas Island, currently being handed over to end users, and Water’s Edge, which is still in the early stages.
A bit different
EllisDon’s experience as a construction contractor gives it an edge when it comes to project management, says Wissam Ayoub. “We’re very hands on and practical because we have that background experience that we can use on projects,” he says.
In fact the company believes it has a number of weapons in its armoury that help it stand out from the crowd. “We believe in offering a “cradle to grave” service, over the whole lifecycle of a project. So we’re trying to implement this in our strategy in the Middle East but more on a consultant basis,” says Ayoub.
In the past year the company has introduced an FM consulting service, which draws on its FM experience back in Canada as well as its PPP know-how of whole lifecycle and FM modeling. This means looking at a building from an FM point of view, doing a design review, assessing the accessibility, maintainability and longevity of a building, Ayoub says.
In addition to its leading edge sustainability department, the company can also draw on the support of its various standalone Centres of Excellence in Canada. For example, it offers consulting on intelligent buildings, part of its energy and digital services. It has a BIM department employing 76 people offering virtual design and construction, a capability it has implemented locally as part of its project management offering. It works with developers upfront, using BIM to ensure timely delivery and quality of the project.
Unusual for a company like EllisDon, it also has its own R&D department. It recently developed a formula for self-consolidating concrete for the American Concrete Institute (ACI). It has even patented its own formwork.
Modular construction is another area of expertise. The company was involved in developing a six story jail in Toronto where each cell arrives onsite in a box - complete with beds and washbasins installed, HVAC and electricals connected – and then stacked like Lego blocks.
“We look at ourselves as being a bit different from others,” admits Ayoub. “We’ve really implemented a lot of technology in our services. We’re trying to inject more innovation into the construction industry, which has always been heavily criticised for being behind. This is one way of taking it a notch further.”
When it comes to technology, different clients have appetites for different things, depending on what they want to achieve, Ayoub says. The UAE has huge potential for innovation, though there are challenges in the market, he says.
“Constraints on liquidity and the financial side of things makes it tougher for companies to adopt new and creative ideas without taking a risk on that. But there are still some developers that are really keen to differentiate themselves by trying to implement things such as intelligent building. The ICD Brookfield building in DIFC is going to be a class A office with the latest technology.”
Ayoub spent seven years with EllisDon’s PPP development team in Canada. With so much experience behind him, does he see much potential for a procurement model that has gained plenty of traction in countries like Canada, the UK and Australia but little uptake so far in the UAE?
“We’re seeing a lot of initiatives being started and we’re keeping a close eye on that,” he says. “I’ve been involved personally on a few discussion panels and workshops investigating the prospects here. There’s a bit of work to be done to get to a place where it could be commercialised here I think. They’ve taken good steps so far with the decree that’s been issued and the PPP law and there’s been talk of creating a PPP procurement division, which I’m definitely a proponent of. You need a government entity to deal with PPP procurement where they take on those projects, do a value for money assessment and then produce a pre-qualification process to narrow it down to a few shortlisted consortia that can bid on it. It’s a costly procurement process, so from the point of view of a private sector stakeholder, you don’t want to invest a lot of money in pursuing a project unless you know that you stand a good chance of winning it. You don’t want to be one of 12 bidding, you want to be one of three. That’s the way it is in Canada.
“There’s work to be done but they are definitely getting there. Slower than I would have hoped but they are getting there. There are challenges and mindset is one of them but the mindset is starting to change and if they introduce a PPP procurement agency that’s going to go a long way. It’s been tried and tested in the UK, Canada, Australia and Korea where it’s been a successful model, so they can use that expertise and take lessons learned and best practices to deliver a proper framework.”