Most weekdays when he is not travelling, UAE National Adel Abubakar negotiates rush-hour traffic to reach a smart but modest office block located opposite a neat lake and park in downtown St. Louis, Missouri. The innocuous setting belies the importance of Adel and his team’s role in the Emirates Global Aluminium story. Last year, EGA America Inc. supplied over 500,000tonnes of ’premium aluminium’ toNorth America, or almost a fifth of EGA’s worldwide sales.
This figure is even more impressive considering the competition from both established US-based smelters and other international companies, not to mention the challenge of shipping the product halfway round the world from EGA’s smelters in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Adel has held this role since 2012, and is responsible for all day-to-day operations of EGA America Inc.’s business in North America.
And by ‘all operations’, he jokes, that means everything. “I have a high-performance team, but it is small. There are 24, 25 people running everything we do here, and it’s a pretty flat structure. Which means I'm also the HR person, the IT guy, the commercial lead. You get pulled into everything but that's how you learn. You run with it and learn as you go, and I've enjoyed the challenge.”
Adel has come a long way since joining Dubai Aluminium in 2006 as Senior Manager, Business Development for New Aluminium Smelter Projects. “I’d spent around ten years in the banking world, but then I wasn't enjoying it anymore - it's not tangible and you're just dealing with paper money,” he says of how he made the switch from finance to industry. “So I spoke then to a friend of mine who recommended EGA because they wanted someone to build a new team, and I was fortunate to get the job. This was 2006 and the role was a lot of fun. It was exciting to be involved in the development of Al Taweelah, which at that time was being developed by Emirates Aluminium. We were trying to get several other projects off the ground; it was dynamic, challenging and I learned a lot.”
Adel was directly involved in the work that led to the creation of Emirates Aluminium in Abu Dhabi and subsequently the formation of Emirates Global Aluminium. “I had to learn how to deal with very senior people at a Government level and it took a lot of hard work to build the teams, but I like roles that aren't clear-cut and that are challenging and interesting. To see EMAL and then EGA come to life is really rewarding and I still have relationships with people involved in those discussions.”
In 2010, Adel joined the Marketing and Sales department and was given a remit for the Americas. “The US market was small for us at the time, so I worked on building that up, and we also entered South America for the first time. A year into that process, I was asked to also handle part of European business, which I did for a couple of years.”
But Adel was increasingly drawn to the potential of the US market which he thought, given the distance and time zone difference, needed greater focus. “I was ambitious, and I felt there was room to grow. But we needed a better way to serve that market, so I recommended that I move there fulltime to build a team. Our leadership approved the idea and I moved in 2012.”
A permanent base
The next two years were spent building a core team and, in 2014, opening an office. At that time, US sales accounted for less than five percent of EGA’s worldwide sales, a figure that has grown fivefold since then. Today EGA regarded as the highest quality supplier in the US and has a reputation for service, quality and reliability - which begs the question of how it was able to establish such a firm footprint so quickly.
“It’s a combination of factors,” replies Adel. “First we had to work on the structure. We hired our own people, opened our office. Secondly, we had to adapt. We’d previously ordered on-demand from the UAE, which takes 90 days to arrive. So I invited our CEO to come over in 2014 and meet all our key clients, which he did. He quickly agreed that we needed on-the-ground stock, so now we have around 15 warehouses across the US to help us serve our customers’ needs more efficiently.”
With this infrastructure in place, Adel and his team could then focus on properly servicing those clients. “We go further than most of the traditional suppliers. You’ve got to be reliable, you need to understand the market, and you have to stay close to your customers so you know what they want.”
The one thing Adel didn’t have to do was convince the customers about the merits of EGA’s aluminium. “Our quality is a given. We supply the highest quality metal, so we don't even have to have that conversation with our customers. But it’s obviously a key to our success.”
Many of those customers are companies in the supply chains of important sectors such as the aerospace and automotive industry, and the end-users of much of the metal are world-renowned brands making products and infrastructure relied upon worldwide.
EGA supplies ‘premium aluminium’ to the US and competes on quality and reliability more than price. “We’re not out of the ballpark but we demand a premium price for a premium product. We supply super high-purity metal that very few manufacturers are able to produce consistently, so it won't ever be the cheapest metal. And now some have a tariff advantage over us [after the US Government introduced a 10 per cent levy on most aluminium imports in 2018].”
Quizzed further on the success of EGA America Inc., Adel returns to the theme of reliability and excellence – two factors that stem from EGA’s continual investments in new technology and its focus on long-term performance rather than inflated quarterly results.
“This is especially relevant in the US market where there hasn’t been a new smelter built in almost 50 years. So they are disadvantaged from a technology and energy efficiency point of view, which creates a lot of issues because you get breakdowns and other problems.”
Adel says that his customers are extremely impressed with the contrast when they are brought over to see the facilities at Jebel Ali in Dubai and Al Taweelah in Abu Dhabi. “The market is very tough at the moment but EGA is still investing in its future. And when we bring customers to the UAE to see our plant, they can see that it's obviously had a lot of investment and upgrades. And they want to be associated with a brand that is known for quality. The brand carries weight.”
Life in the United States
As for Adel, he and his family are enjoying life in the States. “My children are here, and they speak with American accents; they’ve adapted as kids do. A very important part of our job as parents is to keep our children in touch with our Emirati heritage, and we come back regularly” he says. “But here we like the outdoors; hiking and things like that.”
He also describes his customers as “very welcoming” and “good people” with whom he enjoys doing business. “They’re straight shooters and tell you when they don’t like something and when they do, which takes time to get used to as it’s very different to our culture in the UAE, but I’ve learned to really like it - you know what they think!” he says with a laugh.
And most importantly business is still going well. “When I got the plan from head office for 2020, I was scratching my head about how we’d achieve this number. But the orders are coming in and we should hit the target.”
In the end he says it is about the brand values that everyone at EGA has worked so hard to build. “It’s respected and known across the world for quality, and customers want to be associated with it,” he reflects. “That’s a good position to be in, whatever the short-term market conditions.”