“Our heart is in the right place. Our core businesses are aligned with the strategy and mission set for this year and beyond,” states Muna Al Gurg, director – retail for UAE-based diversified family business Easa Saleh Al Gurg (ESAG) Group. “But the pandemic has pushed us out of our comfort zone and as leaders, we have reassessed the way we are doing business – from effective communication to excellent service and everything in between.”
In the GCC, family businesses like ESAG Group have a considerably large workforce. During a crisis like COVID-19 that is causing significant job losses, taking care of a large workforce while sustaining business must be a huge and challenging task. Like individuals, businesses are also hurled out of their comfort zone, as they pivot to stay relevant to the evolving and challenging retail landscape. Amidst the turbulence, Al Gurg remains committed to her strong belief of “change starts with us.”
“Today we have an increased urge and drive to be relevant and responsible – in what we sell, in what we communicate and in what we do,” she reaffirms. “Once the pandemic is over, what people will remember is if, as a business, we were relevant and responsible. Thus, we took some decisions right in the beginning; as the pandemic broke out, we decided to not make any redundancies. We want to get through this period together with our people. And all of us have been very committed, disciplined and sincere to achieve our respective goals, even while working remotely.”
“We have also closely focused on cash flow and liquidity while developing defensive strategies and approaches. We consciously decided to not embark on any over-ambitious projects with the potential to derail the group; instead, we chose to sharpen our focus on profitability,” she adds.
As the COVID-19 pandemic related temporary shutdown affected businesses in various ways, ESAG Group reaffirmed its commitment towards responsible business strategies with an aim to generate value for all stakeholders. “Clear and honest communication with our employees, partners and clients was crucial to reassure people on the way forward for the business,” Al Gurg states.
Ensuring overall well-being
Amidst a health pandemic, the ESAG Group was swift to undertake all possible safety measures for its people, adhering to government guidelines around health and safety in the offices, factories, stores as well as at the staff accommodations. “Our blue-collar staff at the accommodations were monitored very closely to ensure safety, following quarantine measures where applicable. Quarantine rooms were available in the accommodations and various other project sites in order to isolate where necessary. Precautions and safety procedures were being emphasised on a regular basis by our HR team. Similarly, we addressed our customers’ health & safety concerns, especially related to deliveries, clearly communicating our sanitisation policies,” Al Gurg elaborates.
Along with physical, mental wellbeing is also crucial, especially at a time when the stress levels have been rather high under a pressured environment. Responsible businesses realise the importance of supporting their people’s overall well-being, as self-care has become crucial.
“Much before COVID-19, I used to conduct ‘breakfast chats’ with female employees of the ESAG Group, and most topics dealt with well-being. Irrespective of a crisis, understanding the importance of well-being is pivotal,” Al Gurg shares. “I miss those sessions now; and one of the first things I did was to reach out to the group that would attend these sessions, sharing with them tips on what I’m doing to stay well. For instance, exercising daily that helped me to deal with everyday challenges; I’ve never been fitter than now. I also consume good, positive and creative content based on my preferences. These are simple but important things outside of work that can help a person to get through a difficult period. Think about it – at a point, we were even restricted from mingling with family and friends.”
Creating equal opportunity
Alongside overall well-being, inclusion and equal opportunity at the workplace at all levels are also important. As such, the ESAG Group board as well as the business functions are quite diverse – with male and female members at all levels. And Al Gurg is very passionate about ensuring inclusiveness and gender equality in organisations, “as diverse teams are seen to make better decisions and drive higher profitability.” She has also joined as a board member of the ‘30% Club’, a global, non-profit gender equality mission-driven organisation.
“As change really starts with us, the ‘30% Club’ urges members to assess gender equality within the organisation before looking out,” Al Gurg observes. “We have conducted a gender equality assessment within the ESAG Group. Towards the beginning of 2020, we changed our maternity policy to 90 days of full paid leaves, aligned with the UAE federal government’s advice. It was unanimously approved by both male and female members on our board. It is, thus, crucial to have women representation on the board as we can bring up topics related to women.”
In order to facilitate meaningful communication between all employees, the ESAG Group has been organising several activities such as weekly yoga sessions, the art of dialogue sessions, different courses as well as fun events like pizza nights and CSR-related efforts. “It’s incredibly important to have an organisation that’s well-balanced from work and social perspectives, encouraging meaningful dialogues between male and female colleagues,” Al Gurg affirms.
Putting in place a corporate governance structure
The PwC ‘Middle East Family Business Survey 2019’ found that succession planning was a key issue for 53% of respondents, while 66% agreed that assessing the right skills and capabilities as a top concern and professionalisation of the business was a key goal for 72% of respondents. As a way forward, PwC suggested that “Middle East family businesses must professionalise, including processes, structures and systems. They must establish better family and corporate governance and organise succession planning for a smooth transition from one generation to the next.”
The larger an organisation, the more important and challenging it becomes to put in place a governance structure, Al Gurg opines. “We have over 3,000 employees with different layers and processes, which makes corporate governance crucial for the organisation. We have a family charter that explains the responsibilities of every stakeholder clearly. We also have committees – investment, growth and so on – that assess ideas put forward. These ideas are objectively evaluated by people who are unrelated to the function in question, while a family member is involved in the assessment process. Each person adds value to these committees in their own way, ensuring that business is conducted in an ethical manner.”