From a first investment in Dubai Marina back in 2002, to building a fully integrated real estate company, PALMA HOLDING and its CEO and founder Kareem Derbas, are known for iconic projects.
Those who have lived in the UAE for a decent amount of time will remember when Dubai Marina was still under construction – a glamorous new community waiting to spring to life. In many ways, the marina marked the beginning of the emirate’s emergence into the global consciousness as a hot new destination to watch. It was a definitive period for many people.
It was around this time that one of the first private UAE developers to enter the freehold market, Palma Holding, chose Dubai Marina to begin building its brand. The first investment foray was a small waterfront residential plot; aiming to differentiate the firm decided to build some of the largest apartments in the marina, with only three apartments per floor. It was an instant success, as the Founder & CEO Kareem Derbas recalls with justifiable pride.
“We were ninety percent sold out in the first month,” he said. “This Dh120 million residential project – which we named La Residenica Del Mar – was the beginning of our journey to developing more than Dh5 billion worth of unique residential real estate in Dubai’s prime districts.”
Derbas had an interesting route to founding Palma. After graduating from the American University of Beirut, he spent his first year working as an auditor at Arthur Andersen in Abu Dhabi, followed by two years as a management consultant with Ernst & Young in London.
It was a foundation that served him well he said: “Those three initial years working with such high calibre multinationals was a great foundation for my entrepreneurial career.” When he did find his way to Dubai in 2002 – along with many others with an ambition to create a new enterprise – he knew passion and tenacity were going to make the difference.
Be passionate, be diligent, be inspired if you live by these principles, you will have no limitations.
“If I had to sum up my personal philosophy it would be: pursue excellence, be committed, and have fun,” he said. “I truly believe that every human being should strive for excellence in whatever they are doing. Be passionate, be diligent, be inspired – if you live by these principles, you will have no limitations.
“One of my favourite quotes is that of H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai – ‘in the race to excellence, there is no finish line’ – this is one of the quotes I remind myself of every day.” Derbas added: “To build a successful company over the long term, I believe in remaining committed to your customers, your employees and your partners. Staying true to your commitments will ultimately garner loyalty and brand value beyond expectation.
“And you must have fun. We spend seventy percent of our lives at work. You better be having fun with your career choice.”
Staying upbeat probably helped Palma Holding keep going during the tough economic years of 2008 to 2012. Indeed, during that challenging time they managed to deliver all their real estate projects in excess of Dh3.6 billion, including two of their most iconic projects, Silverene Twin Towers, and the Infinity-Cayan Tower, both in Dubai Marina.
Derbas believes maintaining your focus and holding on to your vision is the secret of success in Dubai, and in business in general.
“This is one of the most exciting and fast-paced real estate markets in the world,” he said. “With that comes huge benefits, together with complexity and competitiveness, so one of the most important elements of being a private developer is defining yourself with the utmost clarity and conviction.
“You need to have a crystal-clear vision, you need to define your target market, you need to focus on one sector, and then aim to be a world-class player in that niche. Palma has been able to find a niche in high-quality, prime residential developments that offer its residents an exceptional lifestyle coupled with long-term investment value.”
He says one of the key highlights is that the company has maintained its record of delivering all of its projects.
“Yes, we have only developed nine projects, but we have delivered and all of the projects stand out as unique developments in their own way. I would rather be known for being a boutique developer with a perfect reputation for delivery, than being known as a big developer with a poor track record.”
He is positive about Dubai’s ongoing potential and has no doubt about the city’s readiness for Expo 2020.
“Dubai is always two steps ahead of the game,” he said. “The emirate has continuously demonstrated that it delivers on its commitments and most of the time over exceeds our expectations. I have no doubt that it will be ready for the expo and will demonstrate a new definition of world class event hosting.” Optimistic, but still a realist, Derbas says the real estate market he works in hasn’t yet found a perfect footing.
“As the market continues to mature, I would like to see it being regulated from a supply side. Although there are merits to both sides, open markets, and regulated markets, I would be a proponent of seeing some light regulations on the supply side to ensure the supply and demand metrics remain in a state of harmonious balance.”
When it comes to finding his own harmonious balance outside of the working sphere there is really only one activity that counts – fishing.
“I fish almost every weekend, together with my lovely children that have been indoctrinated with the sport,” he said. “I travel to remote places around the world to explore new fishing destinations and learn new techniques. I have also twice qualified with my team for the Fishing Offshore World Championships.
“This year I participated together with my son, brother and two of my best friends in the 2017 World Championship in Costa Rica, where we were placed fifteenth in the world, and more importantly had a ton of fun.” As someone so obsessed with sea life, his favourite escape destination comes as no surprise. “Hands down, it is the beautiful Maldives, which I have been visiting almost every year since 2005. It’s a place that allows the whole family to reconnect with nature in a breathtaking setting – no cars, no pollution and for most of the holiday, no electronics.”
It seems water is never far from the Palma CEO, whether it’s business or leisure. In 2018, the company will deliver the exclusive beachfront Serenia Residences on the Palm Jumeirah.
“We have spent an immense amount of time tirelessly going into every detail of this unique beachfront project to ensure it eclipses all our previous projects and lives up to our reputation for delivering world class residential developments,” Derbas explained.
Next year promises to be a landmark one for the company as they will endeavour to bring to the market yet another new residential project – soon to be announced – that Derbas says promises to be one of Dubai’s most vibrant suburban communities and aimed at active lifestyles and contemporary living.
This article appeared in Prestige Magazine November/ December 2017 issue.
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