In Good Company

In Good Company: Sonrise in Meinhardt

Group CEO of engineering firm envisions new era of construction after joining his father's business

Even a brick wants to be something, the famed American architect Louis Kahn once said.

"If you think of Brick, you say to Brick, 'What do you want, Brick?' And Brick says to you, 'I like an Arch.' And if you say to Brick, 'Look, arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lintel over you. What do you think of that, Brick?' Brick says, 'I like an Arch.' And it's important, you see, that you honour the material that you use. You can only do it if you honour the brick and glorify the brick instead of short-changing it."

It is Mr Omar Shahzad's job to ensure that while honouring the brick and the aesthetics that architects divine around it, each of the projects for which bricks are brought in by the millions is executed within budget, on time, and will last in perpetuity.

Mr Shahzad is group chief executive officer of Meinhardt Group, one of the world's largest project engineering companies. With contracts around the world worth US$20 billion (S$27.7 billion) annually, the 39-year-old is involved end-to-end with dozens of buildings and facilities that people will routinely enter without a care, much like chefs who toil lovingly over a dish only to watch quietly as a diner wolfs it down without so much as a downward glance.

Take the building of Singapore's One Raffles Quay, for instance, which Meinhardt had taken over from another consultant. Built over a live MRT tunnel and deep tunnel sewerage systems in an area where the clay tends to be soft, it was one of the most complicated structures the firm handled, especially with the tough safety guidelines, including on vibration, imposed by the Building and Construction Authority.

"Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) had made it aesthetically beautiful," says Mr Shahzad, referring to the American architectural firm that designed the 1.3 million sq ft twin tower facility, purpose-built for the financial industry. "We came up with the idea of making it perpendicular to the MRT and shifting the orientation of the building to get a better view. We spent a lot strengthening the foundations and convinced KPF to put in some transfer structures on the third and fourth levels that were not part of the original design. By doing all this, we saved $25 million on structural issues alone."

Going by his training, Mr Shahzad ought to have been inside the building looking out than outside looking in. Educated at Warwick School in England and with an economics degree from Tufts University in the United States, the Singaporean began his career as a management trainee with Citibank during the bust, serving as a credit analyst. He subsequently joined Lehman Brothers to get a feel of the investment banking business, enduring the long hours that come with that trade.

Mr Omar Shahzad, group chief executive officer of Meinhardt Group, says he wants to balance the company's work in constructing buildings with a new focus on infrastructure projects, seeing that Asia will witness unprecedented infrastructure expansion in the decade ahead. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Four years later, the family called. His father, Dr Shahzad Nasim, was involved in buying out Meinhardt, the company he had helped build, and needed his only son by his side.

"My job was to arrange the funding and we didn't have a lot of numbers. A lot of work went in and the management buyout went through. Once that was done, I was in two minds - stay in Meinhardt or return to Lehman. My parents said stay, and I did," says Mr Shahzad.

Mr Shahzad speaks of a new era of hybrid technologies, precast composite steels, prefinished-prefabricated material and modular construction. That's for materials. On the labour side of the equation the future is in robotics - machines doing construction work, and external facades being polished by robotic capsules that do not brush against the building's "skin". Drones are getting commonplace for survey purposes.

It's not easy entering your father's business as an earmarked successor and heir. Grizzled veterans inside and outside of the business eye you with scepticism, and measure your every step against the 40-year track record of the parent. The tall and courtly Dr Nasim, who is well respected in the industry and has a solid engineering background - including a master's degree from the National University of Singapore - was not an easy act to follow.

Starting in finance, Mr Shahzad was soon given charge of the Middle East operations, where in the face of an economic bust, a key question was whether to cut exposure to the market or stay. He says he saw it as a challenge. Rather than cut losses and flee, he trusted in Dubai's long-term potential and, using the city as a base, expanded the business into Qatar and Saudi Arabia. More recently, Meinhardt has acquired businesses in Africa.

"We now have a proper Middle East-Africa business on the back of organic expansion," he says. "That was my main contribution at the time and it gave my colleagues comfort that I was more than my father's son or a mere number cruncher. Now my clients around the world demand my presence at project meetings."

The company has placed 400 staff in the Middle East region, which, at one time, contributed a fifth of its new business earned. Iconic projects completed include Dubai Mall, a 12 million sq ft facility completed in 2009 that draws as many visitors annually as passengers using Changi Airport. Current projects on its books include the expansion of Doha airport and the King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh.

Mr Shahzad says when he started going to the Middle East, he'd been told that high-level personal contacts were important. Besides, historically, the region had turned to American and European consultants.

"I profiled Meinhardt as a Singapore company," says Mr Shahzad. "And I took a stand that we will go to clients on the basis of being the best in the business. Aside from the Singapore brand image, it helped that only Asia had recently executed the scale of projects being undertaken."

That, and one more thing. When Gulf clients called Western consultants on a weekend, they found their calls were often not answered. On the other hand, they found the Meinhardt executive available at all times.

"I still get calls on a Friday night saying, 'Come, see us Sunday morning', and I fly down," he says, explaining his frequent weekend absences from Singapore. "That kind of thing really endears us to them."

Historically, Meinhardt's work has leaned towards constructing buildings. Mr Shahzad says he wants to balance that with a new focus on infrastructure projects, seeing that in the decade ahead, Asia is going to witness unprecedented infrastructure expansion.

"We are doing incredibly well in Asia ex-Japan," he says. "Now, I am focused on the Asean region, generally, and very bullish on South Asia, particularly India."

Meinhardt was involved in the modernisation of Mumbai and Delhi airports and sees a steady pipeline of projects from India, which is in the middle of an aviation boom with air traffic rising at about 15 per cent to 20 per cent annually. Besides, some two dozen cities are constructing metro rail systems.

What is the future of the construction business? Dubai already shows off its first 3D "printed" building.

Mr Shahzad speaks of a new era of hybrid technologies, precast composite steels, prefinished-prefabricated material and modular construction. That's for materials. On the labour side of the equation, the future is in robotics - machines doing construction work, and external facades being polished by robotic capsules that do not brush against the building's "skin". Drones are getting commonplace for survey purposes.

There have also been vast developments in modelling where you change one condition and other conditions adjust immediately. This simplifies things, cuts down project time and reduces chances of human error.

"You have to be at the forefront of these technological innovations, and we are. People expect that from a Singapore-based company," says Mr Shahzad, whose one grouse is that competition has halved consultants' fees from the 1 per cent it used to be.

It's a complaint you also hear from architects in Singapore. The city state has shown it can put up world-class buildings but when will it have architects matching the reputation of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, or the legendary Chinese-American I.M. Pei, who recently turned 100?

Mr Shahzad points to companies such as Woha and DP Architects, saying they are increasingly gaining a good name globally. At the same time, it also cannot be denied that Western firms have broader experience and cities like London and New York are a fount of talent, passion and creativity, essential ingredients in the trade.

"We are looking for engineers all the time and we bring them in regardless of whether or not we have work for them immediately," he says.

"Singapore is one of the better places to find talent. There is growing awareness that you can have a good career path in engineering and others, such as banking, come with their own risks. But we need to do more to spread awareness."

He came into the firm to help in a management buyout. Would he now use his financial skills to take the company public? Meinhardt has talked about a share sale before.

"We are looking to list in another three or four years after building the company some more," he says. "Ideally, I would like to do it in Singapore but I am also conscious that we do not have too many engineering companies listed here and while that has its positives, it also makes it difficult (for investors) to benchmark Meinhardt against other companies."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 11, 2017, with the headline 'Sonrise in Meinhardt'. Print Edition | Subscribe