Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and the company?
I arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1999 to join Asteco, with the aim of further developing and diversifying my property experience – and I certainly achieved that! As Dubai developed into a buoyant sales market my two business partners (Linda Loughnane and Lubna A. Al Ruzeiqi) and I decided that we wanted to continue our careers focusing purely on the emerging Abu Dhabi market and therefore took the decision to form LLJ Property in 2005, to coincide with the early launches of investment zone sales in the capital.
How many people do you employ?
We currently employ 26 people.
How long have you been in the industry?
I have been involved in real estate for 31 years now and 13 of those have been here in the capital. I have seen so many changes over these years.
Why did you choose Abu Dhabi for real estate?
It chose me really! I came here on holiday in 1994 and 1999 and decided to continue my professional interest and experience in real estate here as I appreciated the scope, variety and new learning opportunities that the industry at that time would give me.
What one deal will you always remember?
It’s funny, but it is often the smaller deals that are the most memorable as the client is often much more emotional as the decision is financially nerve racking for them. I particularly remember a couple who bought a one bedroom flat right at the beginning of the emerging sales market in Abu Dhabi who then panicked about whether they had made the right decision. I was able to invite them back to talk their concerns through with me and they decided to go ahead with the deal. Two years later they invited me for a sparkling beverage as they had sold the unit and paid off their mortgage on their main home in Europe! They were so delighted as you can imagine.
Where do you live and what do you like about the area?
To everyone’s amusement I live in a really old building in Muroor! However I have the penthouse flat with a private terrace and pool which makes up for the shabby exterior and poor maintenance! I always laugh at the look on the faces of guests who haven’t been to visit me before as, being prominent in the Abu Dhabi real estate industry, they naturally expect me to live in a snazzy new building and the first impressions as they arrive very much contradict the interior of my actual flat.
What type of services do you propose on top of the typical real estate services e.g. relocation services, interior design etc?
LLJ Property has always focused on delivering real estate agency services rather than diversifying into supplementary services. Our motto was always to do what we know and do it well. I like to think that our customer service is excellent and that if we do occasionally get it wrong we put it right. 2008 saw a massive downturn in the real estate market, you made it! How did you make it through the financial turmoil? This was an exceptionally difficult time in the industry as we all know. I certainly had moments where I felt like a startled rabbit caught in headlights, not knowing which direction was the right one to take. I believe that we have come through so far by making some tough financial decisions and then resisting the temptation to diversify into any additional services that may have initially brought more income, choosing instead to knuckle down to being the very best that we could be in our key areas of expertise. The fact that the three partners of LLJ Property, Linda, Lubna and I, have a very good synergy of different skill sets also played a key part.
What key areas have you seen significant changes in since you have worked in real estate in Abu Dhabi?
The areas of change that stand out for me are the development of the transport infrastructure here, the transformation of the islands and the change in our landlord database, which now includes expatriate landlords who privately own property here.
Where in Abu Dhabi do you think prices are going to rise?
I think that in any real estate market in the world prices will be stable and provide capital growth potential in communities that are established, well managed and well facilitated.
Where in Abu Dhabi do you think prices are going to decrease?
I think as we see a move to quality the traditional tenanted buildings in downtown Abu Dhabi will suffer and landlords of these buildings will need to look at more active maintenance and management strategies to retain tenants.
25-30,000 new properties are expected to come on to the market in 2012. Do you think this will have an effect on price?
I think any influx of a commodity will have an adverse effect on prices and real estate is no different. However, as communities begin to fill and establish themselves prices historically stabilise. We mustn’t forget that real estate has always been seen in established markets as a mid to long term investment vehicle.
What are the most important factors to you when selling a property?
Customer service. We can’t control the market, prices and the number of available buyers, but we can give our sellers the best opportunity and customer experience by relationship management and active, professional marketing.
What is your favourite restaurant in Abu Dhabi?
This weekend I went to La Mer at the Sofitel Hotel for the first time and although there were a few teething problems as it only opened very recently I had a lovely dining experience. The Beach House on Saadiyat Island is a lovely location to watch the sunset from and I love the Blue Grill on Yas Island for a good steak. Abu Dhabi’s restaurant scene is changing dramatically at the moment due to all the new hotels, so my list of favourites is growing weekly!
Where do you spend your weekends?
Abu Dhabi! I am a real home bird and love pottering about on my terrace, however I am also working my way through my mission to stay in all of the Emirate’s nicest hotels – this month saw me on weekend breaks at the Park Hyatt and the Beach Rotana.
Where do you first take your guests when they visit Abu Dhabi?
The Corniche – the redevelopment of this area since I first arrived has been outstanding. The ability to walk the length of it now in a safe environment looking out onto the water is lovely. The public beaches are also very well presented and my guests often remark on how surreal it is to be on a resort quality beach in the middle of the capital. The Grand Mosque is also an absolute must-see and gives newcomers an opportunity to really understand a little more about the culture they are visiting.
What is your favourite project in Abu Dhabi?
Currently it is probably Saadiyat Island. It is quickly establishing itself and sensibly has ensured that the infrastructure and community facilities available to residents are already in place.
If money were no object, where would you live in Abu Dhabi?
Oh, what it is to dream! I guess if money really was no object I would be retired and living the life of a rich lady of leisure therefore I wouldn’t need to think about location and the commute to work. In that case I would probably live in an exclusive beach front property on Al Nurai or in a 5 bedroom executive villa in Saadiyat Beach villas.
Which of the unfinished or proposed projects would you most like to see completed?
Empire Tower, a unique building ideally situated in a prime plot on Reem Island that unfortunately had stopped construction on a low floor. The developer has assured his clients (of which I am one!) that construction will recommence but there are no signs of this yet.
When you leave Abu Dhabi, where will you go?
This answer changes depending on which holiday destination I am in at the time of thinking about it. Eventually leaving Abu Dhabi is also likely to coincide with retirement which makes the decision making process much more of an emotional one. I love the UK, which is my home country, and this has sense of belonging which has been highlighted even more after this year of Jubilee and Olympic celebrations, which have made me so proud. That said, 12 months a year in the UK weather after so long in the sun? I think not! I suspect that eventually I will have a base in the UK but will also spend time overseas crossing things off my ‘bucket list’!
Who is your business icon?
It’s a cliché but I love the quirkiness and daring of Sir Richard Branson. I greatly respect his ‘can do’ attitude and his belief that business shouldn’t be held back by unnecessary protocol, politics, traditional sentiment and red-tape.
If you could do anything to improve the real estate market in Abu Dhabi, what would it be? Bring in legislation so that the market can be fairly governed and allowed to develop into a real market, guided by the dynamic principles of market driven pricing, demand and supply, quality and location.
What achievement are you most proud of in your life?
At the beginning of last year I ran 11.75kms to raise money for cancer research after the sudden and untimely death of a close friend and colleague. It was singularly the most difficult thing I have done to date as I had never run before and to be frank, don’t have much self motivation when it comes to the discipline of exercise! My training started with me trying (fairly poorly) to manage 1km on the treadmill and it took me 10 consecutive weeks of training religiously 4 times a week to get there, but get there I did!!
What is the most relevant piece of advice that you have picked up along the way?
Manage stress. My dad told me a story at the time when the market here turned upside down about a work colleague who had let the stress of his job affect his personal life to the point that it had a serious impact on his physical and mental health. Dad’s point was that shortly after his colleague had a break-down the company he worked for ceased trading – his sacrifice was in vain, yet the tremendously negative impact on him and his family continues to this day. Our careers are obviously very important to us all, as is the necessity to provide for those we are responsible for – however I am in the real estate industry – I’m not saving lives. Allowing stress to take over the quality of my health and relationships with others is not worth the gain I perceive I will get. In fact, it actually adversely affects my performance and ability to succeed!
What are your projections for the year ahead?
Whilst polishing my crystal ball I think that within the residential sector in the next 12 months we will see a little more stability and an increase in the number of sales transactions, especially in the number of longer term residents who decide to invest in their own home and become owner occupiers rather than continue to pay rent to an investor.
Prices in many projects are currently hovering around the level that Abu Dhabi first launched at so those potential buyers that have been watching the market for a long time are finally starting to commit to purchasing. I also see the number of enquiries from tenants holding strong, but rents possibly softening further as the projects that are coming up to completion actually hit the market and provide competition. Tenants will continue to move to quality, choosing to live in buildings with proper maintenance procedures, parking and on-site facilities, which are often in more desirable locations.