You don’t need a master’s degree in accounting to see that Hisham Farouk timed his arrival at Grant Thornton UAE with impeccable foresight. It was 1999, and he joined the leading financial advisory expert as a junior in the auditing division. After three years, he did an MBA in London, while still working for the firm, and returned to Dubai tasked with building a specialist consultancy in the areas of risk and technology.
It meant that at the exact time he began to expand his business horizons, so did Dubai. Big time.
"If you look at where Dubai was in the early 2000s, hardly anything was built between Deira and Jebel Ali," Hisham recalls. "But then we saw the massive rampage of growth in 2004 and 2005.
"We had a number of people in the organisation from abroad who’d been with us for 15, 20, 25 years, and they all went back to their home countries because Dubai was growing so quickly that it simply wasn’t the city they’d known.
As new regulations were developed and fine-tuned, so our services and business plan changed – we were always one or two steps ahead and could support our customers.
"It meant we had to rehire 100 per cent of our teams, completely rebuild the practice, at a time when the sheer pace of change around us was extraordinary. So we were able to grow in tandem with the city around us."
After oil was discovered just over 50 years ago, Dubai transformed from a small fishing town into the biggest city in the UAE and a global business hub. But it was from 2005 that the pace of change reached new heights – and Grant Thornton was perfectly placed to take full advantage.
"Our development is synonymous with the country’s," Hisham says. "What we did was make sure the services we were offering aligned to the new needs of the economy."
The firm took on unprecedented volumes of arbitration from 2005, when the Dubai International Financial Centre was set up: a financial hub for the Middle East, Asia and South Asia to encourage trade and investment. It led to a surge in international cooperation, but with it came red tape that Grant Thornton could unravel for its clients.
"We introduced a program for those living with disabilities, who we call ‘people of determination’," Hisham Farouk says. "It’s very important to see how they develop and thrive in our organisation, and it was also a wonderful turning point for us. Some were autistic, and it was actually the impact they had on our own people that was wonderful to see."
"As new regulations were developed and fine-tuned, so our services and business plan changed – we were always one or two steps ahead and could support our customers."
And when, three years later, the financial crisis hit, Hisham moved quickly to set up an insolvency service, which he oversaw for four years before becoming Managing Partner and CEO in 2012.
His first strategy was to double the firm’s value in three years, which he did bang on schedule in 2015. For good measure, he then doubled it again by 2020.
Now, with impressive consistency, he plans to do the same again for a third time before 2024.
But the aggressive growth hasn’t been at the expense of staff morale. In fact, Hisham has a reputation as a thought leader when it comes to workplace culture and wellbeing.
"A few years ago, we started our diversity and inclusion programs. I realised not as many women were becoming partners because, when they fell pregnant, they took a long time off work, and it was very difficult for them to catch up afterwards," he says. "Not only that, but when they returned to work, they were being landed with even more work than others to help them get back on track. It was an oxymoron, a commercial vortex!"
We’re constantly finding new customers, but I always say that our aim isn’t to win the client, it’s to win the second job from the client.
Hisham increased the maternity leave allowance and introduced flexible working hours and the right for working mums to pick up their children from school. He also installed safe spaces for breastfeeding.
"As an organisation, we paused and actually changed our policies – not to give women more rights to become a partner, but to ensure the policies allow for that variance to give them comfort," he says. "It’s about give and take; people by nature are good, so by looking after them, a sense of loyalty is built."
It also means internal promotions become more frequent and staff turnover declines. Hisham has hired many staff into entry-level positions – not unlike the one he held 22 years ago – and seen them rise to become partners.
And motivated people are much more likely to impress clients.
"We’re constantly finding new customers, but I always say that our aim isn’t to win the client, it’s to win the second job from the client," Hisham states. "I’ve been brought up to believe you can spend two or three years winning a client, but when you’ve done that, they’re your partner for life."
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