For as long as he can remember, Khalid Al Khatib has had a passion for fire protection and safeguarding lives. “From the beginning, I knew where I was going and strategised my life accordingly,” the CEO of NAFFCO (National Fire Fighting Manufacturing Company) reveals to The CEO Magazine.
“I’ve always had a single ambition in my mind: to do something special, to create a company that is recognised on a global level.” After high school in Abu Dhabi, Khalid studied for an industrial engineering degree in the US, a foundation then reinforced with a certificate in Fire Protection Technology.
“The goal was to start a manufacturing facility,” he explains. “But I wanted to ensure I had a good education behind me before I went into business.” Education came first – a philosophy that he still proudly upholds in the company today.
On his return to the Middle East, Khalid put together a small team to achieve his goal. “We were 15 people, maximum,” he recalls. “That is how we started: gradually.”
Today, with headquarters in Dubai, NAFFCO employs more than 15,000 people, including 2,000 engineers, and has over 550,000 square metres of manufacturing facilities.
From an early focus on fire extinguishers, the company has grown to become the go-to name for all manner of firefighting equipment and fire protection systems. This portfolio includes fire alarms, addressable emergency lighting systems, security systems and even custom vehicles, such as fire trucks, ambulances, mobile hospitals and Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting (ARFF) trucks.
Its products and expertise reach more than 100 countries. “Our engineering house is one of the best in the world and our products hold some of the biggest approvals from (global safety certification companies) UL and FM Approvals,” he explains.
Engineering, Khalid enthuses, is not only the heart of his business, but also the “backbone of any company that really wants to succeed”. But, while he acknowledges that his is a company that invests heavily in its engineering division, NAFFCO is greater than the sum of its parts.
“Just like an orchestra, it’s not enough to have the best violin or piano player. If someone isn’t in rhythm, what will you have then? A big noise,” he laughs. “Even if you have good engineers, if you don’t have flexibility and management, your progress will be restricted.”
While Khalid acknowledges that the company has achieved a lot in relation to its age (it was founded in 1986), overnight success is something he doesn’t believe in. “Nothing will happen in one day; there’s no such thing as a miracle. Everything takes time,” he says.
Instead, hard work, efficiency and the willingness to constantly revisit and revise his vision are drivers. “I always say we have to plan, work hard, check and act.”
Yet, as an ingredient for success, nothing comes close to the passion factor. “Saving lives and property are my primary concerns,” he explains. “While we can support others with our experience, engineering, manufacturing and quality products, when you have passion something is different.”
That is what powers NAFFCO. “I won’t tell you that I don’t do profit – I have to – but if I had to choose between quality and profit, I’d choose the former,” Khalid says. “If a customer says they want price without quality, that’s not my playground.”
This uncompromising focus on quality is also the reason for NAFFCO’s growth. “We have an excellent share of the UAE market, our base,” he says. “We’ve also just arrived in Australia and that’s a market that is moving very well; as is India, where there’s a lot of potential. Wherever there is an opportunity, NAFFCO is there.”
The company has also made big inroads into Bangladesh, a nation which has experienced firsthand the devastating effect of fire all too many times. “Working hand in hand with the government and local UL representatives, we have upgraded factories and introduced or enhanced sprinkler systems, fire pumps, fire alarm systems and emergency light systems,” he explains. “We’re witnessing a decrease in fires, so lives are being saved. It really is going very well.”
More than simply manufacturing products that protect lives, however, NAFFCO puts education at the forefront of its operations. “We might supply you with the best fire extinguisher on the market, but if you don’t know how to use it, then what good does it serve?” Khalid asks.
Instruction – on its products and fire safety in general – is one of the company’s most important missions. “We believe that education is the only way to accomplish an upgrading of safety in each country,” he says.
“We believe that education is the only way to accomplish an upgrading of safety in each country.”
The scope of its programs ranges from firefighting training (it is one of MENA’s leading educational providers) to first aid/CPR courses and free seminars for schools. “Education has put us in front of a lot of people,” he continues, adding that “each course contributes to our main focus: saving lives.”
A collaboration with the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) reinforces this industry-leading expertise. More than 2,000 people have attended seminars on topics such as smoke control and automatic sprinkler systems in both the UAE and Egypt. “We’re not really looking for any profit,” Khalid explains, adding that NAFFCO subsidises up to 90% of the costs for participants, who come from around the globe.
Along with product installation and maintenance training programs, one of the simple, yet highly effective, educational projects that Khalid reveals NAFFCO is currently working on is a video to teach families the simple steps required to safely escape a smoke-filled building.
“This isn’t about selling a product,” he explains. “Instead, it’s about sharing knowledge that can save lives.” It will be available in multiple languages and is due to be released at the start of next year.
What are the three pieces of advice that Khalid would give to new entrepreneurs who are just starting out in business?
- Set small, realistic goals: “You have to plan first,” he says. “But targeting million-dollar earnings a year after graduation isn’t achievable. If you don’t reach it, you’ll break yourself immediately.” While he encourages an overall vision, he advises setting challenging, yet attainable, small goals. “Set out a road map for how you will reach them. If you can’t, that means they are not realistic.”
- Work hard: “Once your plans are in place, you have to work not only efficiently, but really hard towards realising them. Nothing in life comes easily. And check, check, check. After three months, ask where you have got and where you are going. Refocus and make sure you redo your plans according to your vision.”
- Find your fire: “Don’t connect yourself passionately to money – that will come – but align yourself to certain internal values. At the end of the day, life is not only about money,” he says. “I often tell people that, when I go to work, I feel as if I’m going fishing. It’s my hobby too. If you put me in another career, maybe I wouldn’t be successful. This one I love because it triggers me from the inside.”
In terms of fire safety, Khalid says that NAFFCO has made a significant contribution to the UAE’s status as one of the safest countries in the world. Working with the UAE’s Civil Defence on its fire and life safety codes, across design, testing, commissioning and maintenance, Khalid is proud to say that, today, from skyscrapers to hotels, “safety regulations of the highest order have been adopted in buildings in the UAE”.
Some of the high-profile properties that the company protects in Dubai and the UAE include the Burj Khalifa, the Mall of the Emirates and the Louvre Abu Dhabi, along with public transport services such as the Dubai Metro and Dubai Tram.
Regionally, it has exported its fire protection services to Bahrain, Egypt, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait. “Wherever we have a base, we ensure we have the framework in place to offer fire safety guidance. You have to give in order to take,” he adds.
One of his proudest moments was when he was approached by a highly respected consultant in Dubai, who congratulated him for having shifted the paradigm in the country. “He told me that, not only had NAFFCO changed the fire safety code, but it had also upgraded all the services for the other codes,” Khalid recalls.
“Everything else has had to keep up with the standard we have set.” Yet, while he is aware that the company “has contributed in an effective way to changing the mentality of the people”, he says that ensuring the public – especially those with influence such as government figures – realise the importance of fire safety is an ongoing challenge.
“How can I convince someone to, for example, put a sprinkler in a hotel when they don’t believe in the need for it?” he asks. And, with ever-evolving innovations and the constant introduction of new materials, Khalid warns that there’s never been a greater need to implement stringent fire safety codes. “Take lithium batteries, for example,” he says.
“This is new technology that we must develop specific procedures for. There’s a risk of a serious accident if the wrong extinguishing agent is applied to it, which can lead to disaster.”
Another significant challenge is internal: finding talent who share his vision. “We have the machines and the systems, but at the end of the day, you want people with passion. That sometimes proves difficult,” he explains.
“It’s a long process, especially when we’re opening a new branch or a new division.” Spark and an alignment with the company’s beliefs are two of the main criteria – passion, of course, is the third. “I don’t want people who don’t love their jobs,” he continues.
Exactly how do you protect the tallest building in the world from flames? Fire protection systems NAFFCO designed, installed, supervised, tested and commissioned in the 828-metre Burj Khalifa include: sprinklers, hose reels, fire hoses, landing valves, extinguishers, hydrants, an FM-200 suppression system, foam-based extinguishing systems and pre-action systems (activated upon detection of smoke or fire alarm).
More than hiring the right people with the right skills, ensuring they’re placed in the right role is critical. “There’s an art to keeping them there,” Khalid continues, adding that motivation – whether it takes the form of financial incentives or career progression, or both – is a responsibility that he takes extremely seriously. “I am their leader and I need to find a way to keep our people energised.”
“I often tell people that, when I go to work, I feel as if I’m going fishing. It’s my hobby too.”
Money, while obvious, isn’t the easy answer. “Of course, it should be a factor, but it’s not everything. What is important is how you adopt their thoughts and how you listen to them,” he says. “People become enthused by a company when their ideas are put into place and they feel appreciated.”
One of the initiatives he has introduced is a two-way KPI. “It’s not only the boss who evaluates his team, but also the team who evaluates the boss.” The strategy is obviously working.
Along with longstanding members of staff (“some who have spent 20, even 30 years with the company”, he says), Khalid explains that he’s found himself approached by ex-employees, asking if they could return to the fold. “They tell me how much they regret leaving.”
It helps that Khalid is what he calls a “working CEO”, one of the first people to arrive at the factory every morning. “I am there in front of them,” he explains. “I believe when people find their boss fair, they will be fair in return. Plus, if you are not a fair leader, you will struggle to retain the top talent.”
Along with an open-door policy, an emphasis on respect and dignity are other hallmarks of his leadership. “We treat everyone as equals,” he explains. “It doesn’t matter if you are the CEO or the office boy, nobody is allowed to touch anybody’s dignity.”
Everyone, no matter their seniority, is encouraged to speak up – and loudly – with ideas and opinions. “Maybe they are right, maybe they are wrong, but if from 100 proposals we get two or three excellent ones, then mission achieved,” he explains.
“I look at mistakes as free positive feedback.”
Despite providing such highly critical products and services, Khalid has a glass-half-full approach to error. “Sometimes, I look at mistakes as positive feedback received free of charge,” he says.
“Without mistakes, what can you learn? How can you move forward? How can you fix yourself?” he asks. Rather than listing one single moment that he regrets most in his career, he says he prefers to “forgive, forget and move on. It’s human to make mistakes. But, rather than point the finger, the energy is better spent on learning from it and ensuring you avoid similar slip-ups in the future.
“Every one of us is focused on performance and maximum effort,” he continues. “And I’m really proud of what we have at NAFFCO, which is excellent engineering and manufacturing, and, above all, the people and the passion for the job. I often tell people that, when I go to work, I feel as if I’m going fishing. It’s my hobby too.
“At the end of the day, my vision is to leave a fingerprint on this industry. Nobody will remember if I made 100 million dollars. No, instead they will remember that I have done something very special; something that really made an impact and protected their lives,” he concludes.
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