Ibrahim Al-Zu’bi: heart of the business

Weaving social responsibility into your economic model has payoffs that stretch beyond good press, says Ibrahim Al-Zu’bi, head of sustainability for UAE-based real estate firm Majid Al Futtaim Properties

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) can be a tough area to make your mark. Littered with beach clean ups, charity sports days and staff whip-rounds, the CSR landscape is one where the best of intentions can fall short of sustained progress.

While many companies treat CSR as an add-on, Ibrahim Al-Zu’bi believes that instead it must be embedded into the core of a business to succeed. As head of sustainability for UAE-based Majid Al Futtaim Properties, he has been hands-on in driving a major shift from the firm operating a stand-alone CSR programme, to it evolving into a broader and more inclusive sustainability strategy.

Transparency makes the work stand out among its corporate peers and an annual sustainability report documents successes and failures with equal honesty. It’s an honesty aided by third-party oversight from global real estate consultancy JLL, whose advisor’s statement - included much like an auditor’s statement in a financial report - praises success and chides shortfall.

Al-Zu’bi’s passion for a company’s societal responsibility is clear when he speaks. In a field that can be foggy and vague, he is precise about how the issue should be handled.

“We put annual targets and measurable key performance indicators (KPI) in place,” he says. “We embedded it within the business and the KPIs of the staff. But most importantly, we are transparent, we report, and we share the results.”

Poor CSR is characterised by reactionary programmes, conducted in isolation from a firm’s goals, staff development, or any real connection to the business. Al-Zubi sought to address this from the outset, taking the time to identify the issues that mattered most to the business and its people, then setting goals to improve them.

The firm asked a lot of people what they thought, eventually narrowing these views down to 13 different areas deserving of special attention. Local economic development, community wellbeing and engagement, and labour conditions in the supply chain were among the issues pinpointed as important. With issues come targets, some hard - a minimum of 50 per cent of staff had to receive basic sustainability training in 2014 - and some soft; the company had to develop community engagement guidelines for development and operations.

“It’s not something extra we do, it’s in the heart of the business: it’s the mentality, the way of thinking,” explains Al-Zu’bi. “We don’t think of the community in isolation and we don’t think of the business in isolation.”

Al-Zu’bi describes the work as community investment and it does not come without a cost. The company puts the bill for such investments since 2010, in cash or in kind, at more than AED31.3m (about $8.5m). In 2013, the cost was AED11.7m, but the company estimates the return on that investment, in created public relations value, at AED25m. Proof that the company is investing not donating is found in projects that have weaned themselves off their initial funding, such as the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre, which received funding in 2012, but no longer needs support thanks to its growing success.

Al-Zu’bi believes the ideas of CSR and sustainability have made great gains in this region over the last five years and is confident that momentum is with him and others dedicated to furthering the idea of sustainable businesses. He predicts a significant leap ahead in the coming years, which will bring with it greater demand for information and assistance.

“There will be a new demand for tools to implement sustainable businesses, from green building, to well being and staff activities, through to giving back to the communities,” he explains. “It will result in lots of job creation.”

For Al-Zu’bi the business case for all this work is clear. For one, there are measurable financial benefits to managing waste, power and water. But there are also a benefits accrued to brand reputation, long-term profitability and the company’s position as a corporate citizen. The firm’s own customer satisfaction research indicates that its customers care about these issues; typically more than 85% of respondents across its malls and hotels tick ‘yes’ when asked about it directly.

Another factor is also in play, as Al-Zu’bi believes potential investors now look broadly at sustainability as part of a company assessment, not just at its financials. He also acknowledges the growing impact of sustainable and ethical consumerism.

“I think people in this part of the world - all stakeholders in the community - are hungry for data,” says Al-Zu’bi. “We all like to see the data and the numbers. There is nothing to hide; we are sharing data because I believe being transparent is also part of giving back to the community. We are giving them data that is worth a lot of money and we spent a lot of money to get it.”

Al-Zu’bi would like more companies in the region to do the same, with the hope that by doing so they might share their findings and improve overall performance. While this may take time to come to fruition, it is clear that he will keep pushing for CSR and sustainability to be a core part of Majid Al Futtaim Properties’ business. “We understand that it makes sense for the business and it makes sense for the community,” he says.