April 20, 2021

The big interview: Michael Mascarenhas

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The group chief executive of Desert Group talks about running a business that is dedicated to transforming the UAE’s arid environment via innovative landscapes.

How is the business structured and how long has it been going?

Desert Group was founded in 1988. A pioneer, it was the first company that introduced the concept of landscaping in the region and has been a catalyst in changing how the world views what was once a very arid region. However, given the dynamic environment there was an urgent need to optimise organisational structure, manage maturing business lines and grow new businesses to meet the changing needs of our customers and market place.

Desert Group has now been transformed into a very nimble organisation, where our goal is to balance innovation with performance and embrace strategic experimentation without jeopardising financial stability. Clarity in service lines with an emphasis on employee engagement, profitability, innovation and customer focus drives each vertical. We relish the uncertainty in the business environment and our structures and strategies are focused on adjusting quickly to new business conditions, and seizing emerging opportunities. What started as a landscaping company has become a behemoth that looks at various verticals within the horticulture and water industries in a very focused way.

Are you split into horticulture and water industry divisions?

The group is structured as a holding company and under the holding company you have 11 verticals. Each of these is run by a professional who has skills to take this vertical to the next level. The emphasis is not only on growth but on incremental innovation to create sustainable results. We have the recently formed desert INK, already a formidable force in the landscaping design sector. Besides the Build, Maintain and Waterscapes verticals, we have the largest Nurseries in the region. We have manufacturing and the iconic Dubai Garden Centre. Given the focus on food security in the region, Desert Group has established its vegetable growing arm. Our goal is to have the first organic certified growing capability in the region. We also have a sector called the innovation hub, which carries out research and development for the group. For instance, work on tissue culture, DNA mapping, protocol development etc, developing the next level of products in the landscaping and growing industry. We also have one of the strongest propagation arms in the industry. We have thus created a very vibrant group and continuously focus on value in our strategy.

So you have a design function away from the landscape function but also a design function within the landscape vertical?

We established desert INK to be an entity that could deliver value to our many commercial clients who need personalised attention. Given that Dubai is moving towards the 2020 programme, there are a lot of developments here which require unique positioning in the industry to appeal to the type of tourist the Emirates is trying to attract. The team at desert INK specialises in unique landscaping capabilities that differentiate one developer from the other and one theme park from another. The design section within the landscape function is to assist clients on their immediate needs.

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Who will build those?

Given that desert INK operates with a mandate of being independent and objective, its focus is on what the client wants. If the client wants it to go to tender or prefers to give it to anyone else they deem fi t, then so be it. It’s an independent division. Its loyalty lies with the customer and to further the mandate of each customer. The focus is on customer needs.

Where will the hotel segment fit?

Some of the leading hotel brands are our customers. We are the go-to company for our unparalleled attention to client needs and a value added service. Be it design, build or maintain – we are already servicing global customers, some in Africa and the Far East. Desert Group is fast turning into a global company and will go where the clients want us to go to.

Does each sector have its own branding?

Each of the companies operates with autonomy to focus on what drives shareholder value and meets market needs. So the focus is to give my general managers the tools to make them successful. If a vertical is best suited to develop its own brand, so be it. Underlying all that is the Desert Group ethos and philosophy, which works on “EPIC”. EPIC is an acronym for Employee engagement, Profitability, Innovation and Customer focus. The entire group works within this value system. It’s what drives us and makes our corporate existence interesting. With EPIC firmly embedded as a core value system, I’m happy for a group to take its own shape, address customer needs rather than for me to shackle enterprise and business energy.

We as a team would like to experience what the market needs and, in turn, provide an experience to the customer that sets our products and services apart. We are an aspirational group and my job is to create an environment that brings both individual and corporate success. My mantra is to create a vibrant group by strengthening employee engagement giving all a sense of purpose. If you do that, you have got a company that is challenging the marketplace and looking forward. Hence, we would like to be known as an innovative brand.

At the nursery, are your plants sold to other landscapers at a competitive price compared with how much you paid for them?

Yes. That’s one of the big advantages of having the growing arm. We get the type of products we want on demand but we also get to choose what we believe are products yet to be introduced in the market to our competitors. It’s the customer that is on our mind. As we move to sustainable solutions we must adapt what we grow to best suit the region’s needs. The focus is on native plants and shrubs. These are more resilient to the harsh climate and adapt well to the eco system.

Is the domestic landscaping sector a large part of your business?

We are evolving and while there is no deliberate attempt to reduce one vertical at the expense of the other, we do see a shift. It’s more important for us to be nimble and adaptive. Diversification within the group serves two purposes – it fits in well with our diversification strategy and, more importantly, we are able to stay ahead in terms of what the market wants.

Is there a big push for golf course development?

I imagine there continues to be strong demand for golf courses but I think the UAE is reaching its level in terms of saturation. What each course will have to do is position itself to offer a different experience from its competitors. A deeper understanding of customer needs will drive the golf market.

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What do you offer in terms of maintenance contracts?

We work very closely with our clients to assess their needs. Given our experience in the region we are able to provide advice and consultancy early on, finalise what is actually needed and, more how we can make their properties unique. It is all built bespoke. Desert Group is a one-stop solution so the client is talking to one supplier, one partner and we have to buy in and marry the whole group into their requirement. That way there are synergies we offer the client and we are responsible and accountable for the whole range of services we offer. Then the customer is able to get the best in terms of innovation.

Do you cover interior landscaping?

Yes. The plantscapes division carries out the interior design and we supply the pots and interior plants. We maintain that too. We also recently established the House of Flowers. We felt there was a gap in the market for a good florist and House of Flowers has just been established and will be marketed in the region.

How many garden centres do you have?

Just one at the moment but there are plans afoot to expand within the region.

Where does the future lie?

In innovating. So while consolidation happens we have to focus on what the customer needs and how we can create demand in sustainability and eco-friendly products. The next three years will be critical in terms of how we visualise the market and subscribe to what the region wants us to do. We want to bring excitement into an industry that many consider boring. Desert Group will continue to strive towards that.

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