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Learning on the Job

Muhammad Sardar has spent 40 years at Emirates Global Aluminium – and has never stopped learning.

For a company that has constantly evolved, one thing has remained a constant for the past two decades: the office belonging to Muhammad Saeed Sardar. “Whenever I change roles, I keep the same office and just change the plaque on the door,” he jokes.

In almost every other respect, his 40-year career at Emirates Global Aluminium – he’s the longest serving employee – has been about constant re-invention. And he says that is precisely why he wanted to work there in the first place. “I moved to Dubai from my home in Pakistan to work for a different company, but I had friends who worked at what at that time was DUBAL (Dubai Aluminium) and I saw how they were sent to the U.S. for training. It was obvious that EGA invested in its employees. I was young and ambitious and wanted to progress, so I also applied for a role.”

Muhammad, who turns 67 next year, got a job in production planning administration at a time when the production capacity of the plant was 135,000 tonnes per year. “We had been set up with British expertise. So we had British management and out of the 1,500 staff, maybe 1,000 were British,” he remembers, pointing to old photos on his office wall that show him with various colleagues, many of whom have long since retired.

After proving his worth for the first few years, he was given the opportunity to train in the production field, and was then sent for courses to be a supervisor. He says that he still has a copy of his appraisal from 1982 where his then-manager wrote that one day Muhammad would be a trusted part of the management team. It also helped that he was a hard worker. It was in that same year that a power problem at the plant resulted in him working literally 24 hours nonstop to help resolve the problem.

Since that time, his progress has been as constant as his work ethic. He has attended more than 70 training courses and has held a string of key positions across the plant. Asked to cite highlights from his career, he casts his mind back to EGA’s first major expansion in 1991. Muhammad was involved in preparing the aluminium bus bars for the expansion project, and from then on was a crucial figure in selecting, testing, installing and operating new machines at the plant.

He also points with pride to pictures and mementoes on his office wall of highlights from his career. In one, he’s pictured with a large gathering of industry experts. The photo was taken in 1995 at a conference in Spokane, Washington, where he delivered a technical paper. Asked whether his fellow attendees knew about EGA, he says they didn’t even know where the UAE was on the map. But then the company underwent its second major expansion in 2000, increasing production to over 550,000 tonnes per year and adding a ‘Made in the UAE’ stamp to its products. EGA, like the UAE, would soon become a global brand name, becoming the world’s largest ‘premium aluminium’ producer and the biggest industrial company in the UAE outside oil and gas. Muhammad proudly remembers hitting one million tonnes per year around 2005; a figure that is dwarfed by the 2.6m tonnes produced today in Jebel Ali and EGA’s Al Taweelah site, where the first phase began production in 2009, at the Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi.

These days Muhammad is as busy as ever, shuttling between the two sites. He says that, thanks to his many roles, he is an important bridge between the many production functions. He handles all the technical work relating to insurance, disaster management, legal and compliance, risk management and liabilities.

“We build to the best international standards for safety, the environment and for the product. And we also continually plan for the future, in terms of modernisation and automation. Every year we set aside money to cover the depreciation of our hardware over their useful life. When the machine is coming to the end of its life cycle, we have the money to invest in a replacement, and it’s my job to select what we need. So there is no equipment here that was here in 1979 when I joined. In fact, I have a plaque of a machine that I installed when I first arrived and then removed many years later.”

It’s obvious that Muhammad is as passionate as he ever was about this work. On a tour of the site after the interview, he points proudly to the many buildings where he had a hand in setting up the production lines, and he speaks about the time the British Queen and her husband Prince Philip visited the site. Asked how long he intends to work, he says that for as long as he enjoys the work and can add value, he is happy to stay, joking that he maintains his own health as carefully as he maintains his plant machinery. He says he’s proud to have spent his career at a company that respects hard work and has done his best to pass that experience along to the next generation.

“We have many people who were selected from within for promotion rather than just recruited from outside, as that gives us firmer foundations. For example, our Managing Director & CEO, Abdulla Kalban, started here as a supervisor. He would work shifts with me, when I was also a supervisor at the time. Everyone here works hard and learns from experience.”

But what he is most proud of achieving during his long career, are the opportunities EGA provided for his family. “The company gave great support for my children's education, and I am very proud of being a successful father.” He points to pictures of his family on the wall. “You can see my three sons and daughter. They were all born and brought up here, and they all got degrees. The life they have here has been good. All my children and grandchildren are still here and it makes me want to stay.”