Senior finance executives in the Middle East upbeat despite uncertainty

In Saudi Arabia, 71 percent of finance executives expected strong or modest growth this year. (Reuters)
Updated 19 June 2019

Senior finance executives in the Middle East upbeat despite uncertainty

  • Some 72 percent of those polled regionally thought they would see economic growth this year
  • The report also highlighted the core importance of next-generation technology and innovation on corporate dynamics

DUBAI: Senior finance executives in the Middle East are less optimistic about the prospects for economic growth than they were 12 months ago, but remain positive on the outlook for their companies and investments.
That was the main finding for the region of an international poll conducted for American Express, the global financial services firm, by Institutional Investor, the business information group, and presented to media and corporate clients in Dubai yesterday.
Mazin Khoury, chief executive officer for American Express in the Middle East, said financial executives were “operating in unsettled times.” Despite this, “they are concentrating on their day-to-day business but keeping an eye on the future,” he added.
Some 72 percent of those polled regionally thought they would see economic growth this year, compared with 92 percent last year, in part due to oil price fluctuations. Only 10 percent said there would be a significant contraction in growth.
In Saudi Arabia, 71 percent of finance executives expected strong or modest growth this year, roughly the same as in the UAE. Amex noted that “despite oil prices rising in early 2019, long-term global trends point to more supply and less demand.”
The poll was taken late last year, before even greater recent volatility in the global oil markets, as well as worries about global trade and faltering economic growth.
A majority of them — some 64 percent — thought that “socio-economic changes and global trade policy” would strengthen their companies’ growth prospects, with only 5 percent expecting these factors would weaken their outlook. That was broadly in keeping with global averages, Amex said.
“Expanded foreign trade will be based more on organic strategies than partnerships, the executives through, with most companies likely to set up or expand foreign operations and use online media for marketing to pursue international growth strategies,” in a sign of a more nimble approach to foreign trade in the Middle East.
The report also highlighted the core importance of next-generation technology and innovation on corporate dynamics, as well as the importance of young people under the age of 24, as both customers and employees.
Some 78 percent of respondents said they had explicit strategies to appeal to “Generation Z” consumers, who make up between 50 and 64 percent of regional populations.
The report did not include data relating to consumer spending by Amex customers. Khoury said that his business had not seen any impact from recent negative trends in economics or geopolitical factors.
“If it happens it will not affect American Express alone, but there has been no impact. It is too early to judge,” he said, referring to increased tensions in the Arabian Gulf region.
“Our customers are still calling us to book their travel, we are still engaging with corporates
and signing new corporates. They are continuing to spend,” he told Arab News.


The Musk Method: Learn from partners then go it alone

Updated 18 September 2020

The Musk Method: Learn from partners then go it alone

  • Entrepreneur building a digital version of Ford Motor’s iron-ore-to-Model-A production system of the 1920s

Elon Musk is hailed as an innovator and disruptor who went from knowing next to nothing about building cars to running the world’s most valuable automaker in the space of 16 years.

But his record shows he is more of a fast learner who forged alliances with firms that had technology Tesla lacked, hired some of their most talented people, and then powered through the boundaries that limited more risk-averse partners.

Now, Musk and his team are preparing to outline new steps in Tesla’s drive to become a more self-sufficient company less reliant on suppliers at its “Battery Day” event on Sept. 22.

Musk has been dropping hints for months that significant advances in technology will be announced as Tesla strives to produce the low-cost, long-lasting batteries that could put its electric cars on a more equal footing with cheaper gasoline vehicles.

New battery cell designs, chemistries and manufacturing processes are just some of the developments that would allow Tesla to reduce its reliance on its long-time battery partner, Japan’s Panasonic, people familiar with the situation said.

“Elon doesn’t want any part of his business to be dependent on someone else,” said one former senior executive at Tesla who declined to be named. “And for better or worse — sometimes better, sometimes worse — he thinks he can do it better, faster and cheaper.”

Tesla has battery production partnerships with Panasonic, South Korea’s LG Chem and China’s Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd. (CATL) that are expected to continue.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Investors awaiting ‘Battery Day’ announcements on Sept. 22.
  • Musk has hinted at significant new battery developments.
  • Partners and acquisitions have helped give Tesla an edge.

But at the same time, Tesla is moving to control production of cells — the basic component of electric vehicle battery packs — at highly automated factories, including one being built near Berlin, Germany and another in Fremont, California where Tesla is hiring dozens of experts in battery cell engineering and manufacturing.

“There has been no change in our relationship with Tesla,” Panasonic said in a statement provided by a company spokeswoman.

“Our relationship, both past and present has been sound. Panasonic is not a supplier to Tesla; we are partners. There’s no doubt our partnership will continue to innovate and contribute to the betterment of society.” Tesla did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Since he took over the fledgling company in 2004, Musk’s goal has been to learn enough — from partnerships, acquisitions and talent recruitment — to bring key technologies under Tesla’s control, people familiar with Tesla’s
strategy said.

They said the aim was to build a heavily vertically integrated company, or a digital version of Ford Motor Co’s iron-ore-to-Model-A production system of the late 1920s. 

“Elon thought he could improve on everything the suppliers did — everything,” said former Tesla supply chain executive Tom Wessner, who is now head of industry consultancy Imprint Advisers. “He wanted to make everything.”

Batteries, a big chunk of the cost of an electric car, are central to the Musk method. While subordinates have argued for years against developing proprietary Tesla battery cells, Musk continues to drive toward that goal. “Tell him ‘No,’ and then he really wants to do it,” said a third former Tesla veteran.

The changes in battery design, chemistry and production processes Tesla expects to reveal next week are aimed at reworking the math that until now has made electric cars more expensive than carbon-emitting vehicles with combustion engines.

Tesla is planning to unveil low-cost batteries designed to last for a million miles. 

Tesla is also working to secure direct supplies of key battery materials, such as nickel, while developing cell chemistries that would no longer need expensive cobalt as well as highly automated manufacturing processes to speed up production.

Panasonic is partnered with Tesla at the $5 billion Nevada “Gigafactory,” while CATL and LG Chem supply cells to Tesla’s Shanghai factory, where battery modules and packs are assembled for its Model 3 sedan.

Panasonic recently said it is planning to expand its production lines in Nevada, which supply the cells that then go into the battery modules assembled next door by Tesla.

But the Nevada Gigafactory partnership almost didn’t happen, according to two former Tesla executives. Musk ordered a team to study battery manufacturing in 2011, according to one former executive, but eventually partnered with Panasonic in 2013.

Now, Tesla is testing a battery cell pilot manufacturing line in Fremont and is building its own vast automated cell manufacturing facility in Gruenheide in Germany.

The roller-coaster relationship with Panasonic mirrors other Tesla alliances.

During its development alliance with Germany’s Daimler, which was an early investor in Tesla, Musk became interested in sensors that would help to keep cars within traffic lanes.

Until then the Tesla Model S, which Mercedes-Benz engineers helped to refine, lacked cameras or sophisticated driver assistance sensors and software such as those used in the Mercedes S-Class.

“He learned about that and took it a step further. We asked our engineers to shoot for the moon. He went straight for Mars,” said a senior Daimler engineer said.

Meanwhile, an association with Japan’s Toyota, another early investor, taught him about quality management.

Eventually, executives from Daimler and Toyota joined Tesla in key roles, along with talent from Alphabet Inc’s Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, as well as rival carmakers Ford, BMW and Audi.

Some relationships did not end well, however.

Tesla hooked up with Israeli sensor maker Mobileye in 2014, in part to learn how to design a self-driving system that evolved into Tesla’s Autopilot.

“Mobileye was the driving force behind the original Autopilot,” said a former Mobileye executive, who declined to be named.

Mobileye, which is now owned by Intel, also recognized the risk of sharing technology with a fast-moving startup like Tesla, which was on the brink of collapse at the end of 2008 and now has a market value of $420 billion.

US tech firm Nvidia followed Mobileye as a supplier for Autopilot, but it too was ultimately sidelined.

In addition to partnerships, Musk went on an acquisition spree four years ago, buying a handful of little-known companies — Grohmann, Perbix, Riviera, Compass, Hibar Systems — to rapidly advance Tesla’s expertise in automation. Maxwell and SilLion further boosted Tesla’s ability in battery technology.