Setting up business in Dubai - tips, opportunities and challenges: interview with Matt Lawless, MD of Vital Certificates - Export Britain

Export Britain

Setting up business in Dubai - tips, opportunities and challenges: interview with Matt Lawless, MD of Vital Certificates

 

Q&A with Matt Lawless, Managing Director, Vital Certificates

What do Vital Certificates do and what is your role?

Vital Certificates provides attestation services for companies and individuals around the world. In basic terms, this means that we take documents that have been issued in one country, and make them legally presentable in a different country. As Managing Director, my role is to oversee the smooth running of all aspects of the business, and to determine future direction and strategy. I am fortunate to work with my amazing team of professionals, who together make these tasks a pleasure!

What made you decide to set up in Dubai?

We have been dealing with the Middle East, and in particular the UAE, for over 5 years, during which time we have assisted over 5,500 clients in Dubai alone. As our largest market, I felt that we had an opportunity to improve our customer service, and market penetration, by establishing a team in Dubai. I was fortunate to attend a seminar held by the team at UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), in association with representatives from many of the British Embassies across the GCC, in June 2014. What had been a vague idea was quickly brought into focus, in particular once I had met with the CEO of the British Centres for Business (BCB) in Dubai, Joe Hepworth. From that point on, I was convinced that the move would be a good one for Vital Certificates.

How did you go about setting-up in Dubai?

Following the seminar in June, I tried to join a trade mission being arranged by Santander Bank to take place that September. Unfortunately the mission was oversubscribed, but I decided to go anyway at the same time, figuring I could join some of the sessions being arranged by the Embassy and UKTI teams at that time. This proved to be highly valuable. The trip in September was the first of several to both Dubai and Abu Dhabi over the coming months. Over this time, I met with several law firms, representatives of various Free Zones, as well as the British Centres for Business. My aim was to assess all of the various options available to my company, which ultimately led me to establish a Foreign Branch with the BCB. Whilst there were several viable choices open to us, I felt that the wraparound support offered by the BCB would help to reduce the risk of making any significant errors during the set-up process. It also gave me some breathing space to work out exactly what type of business formation would be the best for Vital Certificates in the long-term following our year-long incubation.

How has locating in Dubai benefited your business?

Dubai is a market that relies heavily from business connections and relationships. Being on the ground meant that we were able to engage directly with our customers in the city, and to gain valuable information about exactly what our clients wanted (and were missing) from alternative suppliers in the region. We have been able to communicate the service values my company is built-upon, which ultimately leads to trust from our clients. By having a team based solely in Dubai, it has become easier to establish trust-based relationships, and to secure valuable repeat clients. I would conservatively estimate that our business will double in size due to our Dubai office within the first 18 months in-market. Being established in Dubai will also simplify the process of setting up further offices in the Middle East as well as further afield. Having a track record in overseas trade has really put us on the map (if you’ll excuse the pun).

Was it easy to set up in Dubai?

Doing anything in Dubai, or anywhere else in the Middle East, is a challenge. Not only do you have to get over the cultural differences, the alternative working week, and an unfamiliarity of the Arabic language, there is also a completely different approach to the passage of time. There is a level of bureaucracy here that has to be seen to be believed. Documents are only officially recognised in Arabic, and have to be stamped by department after department. This, at least, was one area with which we were familiar! Our decision to start up under the protective wing of the BCB really helped though. Susie and Joe were there every step of the way, especially important as I was (and remain) based in the UK. Their tenacity, along with the assistance and professionalism of our law firm, ultimately protected us from the worst of the delays and headaches. If I had to start it all over again, I’d choose this route every time. Vital Certificates Ltd (Dubai Branch) finally received its trade licence on 24th May 2015, just over 3 months from officially starting the process.

What advice would you give anyone setting up a business in Dubai?

My number one piece of advice would be to talk to as many people as possible and get a full picture of your options. There is only so much due-diligence you can complete remotely so you simply have to get out there and poke around. Ask every question you can, get second and third opinions, and then work out who you trust to assist you with an informed decision. I cannot stress highly enough how important it is to have a good lawyer behind you. There are many pitfalls to avoid, and having someone who knows the legal system, and can apply your circumstances to your options is essential. In the early stages, the advice and support provided by the team at UKTI (in my case headed up by Eve Husband in Yorkshire) helped to smooth introductions to key contacts in the region. This meant that I could make my trips to the region really productive. As a final word, just be prepared to allow more time than you think, then double it, and make absolutely certain that every possible piece of documentation has been checked, double-checked (and attested).

Any tips regarding the local business culture?

If, like us, this is your first office in the Middle East, be prepared to have your eyes opened. Everything is either subtly, or dramatically, different to business in the UK. Patience is essential as you find your way through all the hoops that will face you. Even before you start the process, get used to becoming a networking guru. Never before has the phrase “it’s not what you know, etc..” been more relevant. One of the key puzzle pieces for us was our connection with the British Business Group (BBG). Fortunately, one of the benefits of being a BCB client is that you get membership to the BBG included within the package. Make use of it! They are a fantastic resource for introducing you to relevant contacts in the city, and potentially knocking down barriers to meeting people who can kick-start your entry into the market.
Continually practice integrity, honesty and collaboration and you really shouldn’t go too far wrong.

 

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