Hill is an American construction consulting firm that provides services including program and project management to clients involved in major schemes around the globe. Founded in 1976, it brings vast experience and understanding to its projects, having participated in over 10,000 project assignments with a construction value of more than $500 billion. Hill International has been using Egypt as a base for its North Africa projects for over a decade, and combines its international expertise with local knowledge. Here, Waleed Abdel Fattah, Hill International’s Vice President and Managing Director of Africa, explains how his company penetrated the market, as well as the company’s plans to remain a key player in North Africa’s rapid development.
What were some of the challenges you have faced in Egypt?
In the beginning, it was the concept of project managing. That idea simply did not exist in Egypt. So I think the challenge was bringing in project management, which we managed to do successfully. It has now become more of a common knowledge, especially with foreign direct investments. Most foreign investors come with the concept of project management in mind. When we started, the majority of our staff consisted of expats; now it is the other way around. We have locals in Egypt and the other African countries. This gives us another competitive edge. We have had good times and difficult times. We had uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya all almost in one month. However, out of that turbulence, we came out stronger – we became much more competitive.
How would you describe the company’s competitive positioning in Egypt and North Africa?
We have a great mix of expats and locals. Much of our local staff have joined the company and spent a few years with us, and are really amazing. Some of them have worked on three or four projects. We are also present in the GCC and in European countries, so this gives us an international exposure combined with local knowledge. This all transfers to a competitive advantage as it enables us to compete with international firms while having a competitive price. Some projects, like the airport, metro, and the museum needed more expats because of their nature. Yet on projects like hotels, banks or resorts, our local staff is highly experienced, and I would say 95% of our staff that works on those projects are local. Another advantage is having a head office that provides us with any additional support.
Hill International was recently awarded a project management services contract for the Madinet Nasr for Housing & Development (MNHD) company’s mega mixed-use projects: Taj City and Sarai, as well as the Underground Metro in Cairo. Could you expand on those projects?
Yes, we won the Taj City and Sarai contracts, and we have just started on both of them. They are major developments. Again, project management is a new concept, which the client has decided to adopt in the company to focus more on the development side. We had a successful bid; and now we are there working and doing our services diligently. The Cairo Metro is at the other end of the spectrum because we won this job through an international competition for technical assistance for line 3, phase 3. We have been working with them for two years now. I think at the beginning it was a challenge since the previous lines were already running through their internal efforts. Our job was to introduce a more systematic approach using the latest project management tools. After a year and a half, all sides were content and I think we will have a part in the new work they are planning: light rail, monorail, and high-speed rail. These are all huge projects. Another project we are proud of is with the Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company (EGAS). We are helping them in capacity building. Here, we are assisting on the development of the gas network connections within Egypt for households that can’t afford it. It is an advisory role. We are basically doing workshops with them through out the country. This is great exposure for the company. We are doing the workshop with many individuals from various backgrounds. It was a good experience to have everyone at the table. The reaction has been amazing. To be honest, it left a good impression on everyone that experienced it.
The Egyptian government is focusing a lot on developing the country’s infrastructure. To what extent do you feel that this construction boom is sustainable?
The difference between Egypt and other countries is that there is a huge demand in Egypt. Anything that the government does with infrastructure is going to be used. I don’t think they will be a burden on the government. There is a huge demand for basic housing, and that need increases only as the population increases. Luxury housing, at the far end, is something that could be looked at because they need a lot of maintenance, so you must really understand how you are going to manage it. But basic infrastructure is basic infrastructure. I think it’s a “no-brainer” as the demand is massive.
Do you feel that the fast economic development of the country imposes new needs in terms of the future?
I think the benchmarks are being raised and this is the beginning of a new era. Let’s see how the changes and development would happen. Every week, there is something new going on. New industry needs, more roads, and more electricity, for example, so you have to support it. I think the culture now in Egypt is changing and there is more understanding that new infrastructure requires maintenance. We have just done a tender for operator and facility management of the Egyptian Museum. They need someone to manage the whole facility, which I think is a major shift in the way things are done. Hopefully, we will have an operator there by the end of the year.
Within these infrastructure developments, do you see opportunities arising as synergies between the public and private sector?
Of course, we are taking advantage of what is going on here because we know the market. Sometimes projects are moving at a speed that even exceeds expectation. But the investor, contractor or service provider who can cope with the speed will fly. You can see what Siemens has done with electricity. They have moved faster in Egypt than anywhere else. So if someone comes into the market, we are here to help. All of this is music to our ears. What else can we ask for? There are many ongoing projects and there is still a lot of demand. We help with planning and control of the project; and ensuring that it gets delivered. The situation could not be better for us.
How do you see your company’s future in Egypt and North Africa?
In Egypt, we continue to help the ongoing projects. The next four or five years will be full of projects, and I am expecting things to get even busier. We are trying to look more at major infrastructure projects. We are continuing with the airport and hope to see more in the transportation sector. It should be easy to grow in the coming years. We also have a lot going on in Morocco. We have just finished the container terminal in Tangier, which is the first fully automated terminal in Africa. We finished it in two and a half years and it is something we are very proud of as well. I think it will spur development in the whole area, and we have played our part. We have other developments in Morocco and have been helping many GCC investors there.
In Algeria, we have an ongoing major mixed-use development project for residential purposes, offices and retail. Algeria needs a lot of infrastructure work, and we have a lot of local staff there, doing everything in French. So we are well prepared to help that happen. We are about to open up in Tunisia as well. It’s not the best time for investment there, but I think that will soon change. There will be elections near the end of the year, and in November, they will have a new president. I think after things settle down there, there will be a lot of development as it is needed. Last, but not least, hopefully we will be able to get into Libya. Our biggest office used to be in Libya. We used to have more than 700 people there. We had universities, residential projects: We hope that one day Libya will come back, as we still have our office there in operation.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I would like to introduce something new – facility management. We found that it was a gap in the market, and we are trying to fill that gap. We believe that with all ongoing construction, there is even going to be a big need for operating and maintaining entirely new cities. We have started to look more into it because although the impact of it may not be huge on our bottom line, it gets to humans. It is something that made a difference and that I am very proud of.