How did you decide to bring this concept to the Kurdistan Region?
It is an industry that I have been following quite closely for eight years. I have been looking for the perfect opportunity. In the UAE, there are over twenty serviced office centers. In Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman the serviced office concept is very common, but there is nothing here. Erbil is a safe, stable, oil-rich capital city with no serviced offices, and foreign companies wish to expand their presence in the emerging marketplace of the Kurdistan Region. I saw this gap in the market and decided to set up the first and only serviced office center in Kurdistan.
What were the key challenges in bringing this concept to Kurdistan?
The fit-out was the biggest challenge, because skilled craftsmen were simply not available. We took this floor when it was a concrete shell. Skilled builders, carpenters, interior finishers, and project planning are areas where huge strides could be taken going forward.
The other challenge was explaining to people what we do. You have to remember that most of our clients are foreigners or foreign companies, so they have probably seen it in Europe or America. But for those who have not, I always say, “I can explain it to you, but just come around and have a look.” Once they come around, they understand.
What is your customer service philosophy?
The whole point of what we do is that clients can come here, sign an agreement, and start work immediately. They move straight in and stay for as long (or as short) as they like. Everything is included and we take away the headache of having to manage a property. The logic is that I want to win clients and I want to keep them. I do not want to upset them, and I want them to be so comfortable here that they never want to leave. That is why, every morning, we have fresh croissants delivered from the best bakery in town, a bowl of red apples, Italian coffee, and English breakfast tea- everything just to make people feel comfortable. All these small things people really value.
What makes Azure serviced offices unique in terms of services?
The key area of our strategy is pricing and services. What we do is take a bundled approach. We include everything- not only their office, but also free use of boardrooms and meeting rooms, Wi-Fi, and all the utilities. The backup generator is included. We have a steward and tea, coffee, and beverages. We have a reception. We include a phone on your desk, so you have your own phone number, and, if people phone that number, it is answered in your company’s name on our reception and put through to you. All of that is included.
Why should people rent your offices when they can rent a flat or a villa?
We are here, we are up and running, and you can move in today. When you rent a villa or a flat, you have to add into that all the utilities, Wi-Fi, maintenance, the up-front capital expenditure of fixing the AC, remodeling, repainting, buying furniture, and the time cost of that. Plus you will not have a receptionist, security, or a steward. If you include all of that, we are between 30-50% cheaper. Plus, we are flexible. You can leave after three months, or, if you just need a space for a special project for six months, you can take an office for six months just for one project. Nobody else can offer you that. So, life is a lot easier here.
You are also the head of the Kurdish-British Business Council. How would you define doing business in this market?
Doing business and setting up a company in Kurdistan is reasonably straightforward. If you are setting up a company that is owned by individuals here, it can take just three weeks. What takes time is setting up a subsidiary or a branch of a foreign company. If you are setting up a branch of an British company, you have to get all your company papers stamped by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and notarized back in London, brought out here, and stamped again by the KRG. Those papers will then be used to help establish your subsidiary or your branch here. It can be as little as three weeks or as long as three months. The fact is, though, in most sectors you can have 100% ownership as a foreigner, which, again, sets Kurdistan apart from most Middle East countries including the UAE.
How have events of the last few weeks affected business?
The last week has been tragic for all those affected and my sincere sympathies go out to families that have been decimated by these terrible events. I am so impressed by the hospitality of the Kurdish people towards the Christians, Arabs and Yazedis. Thank goodness too, that we have the Peshmerga to protect us and now the USA and UK are stepping in to help.
The threat to Erbil is, at worst, medium. But the perception of an event can cause chaos and that in itself brings some dangers such as lack of imports. Asymmetric threats persist. Logistics is a concern and flights have been reduced. The US airstrikes have improved morale and people are much calmer. I had one new client due to fly in and sign up, they postponed their trip but are still going ahead with opening an office here at Azure.
Overall, I expect projects may be delayed by a couple of months but businesses cannot afford to ignore the possibilities that are here.
Can the companies that rent offices come here and work whenever they want?
Yes- 24/7. We have our staff on the premises from 9am to 5pm. If people want to come in at 2am, that is fine.