Marina Mrdjen-Petrovic speaks to Ben Corrigan, CEO and founder of Bluehaus Group, about his journey from being an interior designer to establishing a successful firm in Dubai, which celebrates its 15-year anniversary next month.
While there is no one-size-fits-all formula for building a successful interior design business, Ben Corrigan, CEO and founder of Dubai-based firm Bluehaus Group, seems to have it all figured out – how to start it, run it but also how to keep going.
Throughout the boom, the global financial crisis, the post-crisis recovery and the recent oil price slump, Corrigan’s company has grown steadily from three to 60 people, and is celebrating its 15th birthday in April.
“I firmly believe, having recently created our ‘2020 Vision’, many of our founding values and principles still exist from the first year we were established,” Corrigan begins.
Born in Tehran and raised in Singapore, he moved with his parents to England to finish school. While still at Bournemouth University, he established his first business, called Hybrid Concepts, doing a great deal of freelance work to pay his way; mostly in nightclubs, bars and cafés along the south coast. Interestingly, his final major project at university was a nightclub called Soundhaus.
“I was very much influenced by the Bauhaus art movement and school in Germany in the early 1900s, which I studied at university, and this then influenced the naming of Bluehaus Group when I conceived this business,” recalls Corrigan.
After moving to the Middle East in early 1998 to work for the Copenhagen Group, an established architectural and interior design practice, he says he immediately enjoyed the ‘can-do’ culture of Dubai. And in the early 2000s he felt there was an opportunity to establish his own business.
Corrigan breaks down the company’s growth into both positive and, in some cases, challenging milestones.
He specifies: “During the early days of 2003, winning our first blue-chip client, to moving into our third head-office in 2012, to strategically diversifying into new sectors or establishing a new division or capability within the organisation. There have been challenges along the way as well. The global financial crisis was challenging, but when I look back it was the best thing that could have happened to Bluehaus Group, and our industry for that matter. We were forced to make some tough decisions and truly define the business; what we do, who we do it for and how we do it. Rather than down-size, which is what many firms were doing, we invested. I hired an external business coaching team to come in and help us, and that was one of the best decisions I ever made. We still use them to this day.”
Bluehaus Group established an architectural division in 2014 and is currently delivering a number of projects, including residential buildings in Al Barsha, Dubai, a hotel in Dubai and a museum in Jeddah.
“Interior design remains our core business, particularly with our diversification strategy into hospitality, retail, leisure and entertainment,” he adds.
Commenting on the challenges of managing the team, Corrigan considers himself to be “a servant-leader”.
“If our people are served and at their best then we all benefit, including our clients and partners,” he explains. “We live in a transient part of the world, so it is important to invest in your people and culture, while looking to encourage new and exciting talent, to ensure the people you have are happy and engaged to deliver their best work.
“We also drive a no-nonsense culture; if it needs saying, say it. We encourage people to speak up regardless of rank or title, challenge when necessary, show discipline around meetings or workshops and deliver on promises both externally and internally. In this fast-moving market, we don’t have time for politics or bureaucracy. That said, we as leaders understand our people work long hours, so the time we spend in the office or out supporting clients and partners should be engaging and enjoyable. We work to ensure there is a positive energy in the office.”
Bluehaus Group recently launched its “2020 Vision” for all of its divisions.
“We invest in leadership and team coaching from an organisation called 2bLimitless. This is something we embarked on during the global financial crisis and now consider to be a fundamental aspect of leading and building our business.”
In addition to the coaching, all employees have undertaken the Gallup Strengths-Finder, leading people to move into roles that best suit their strengths, which Corrigan describes as a win-win situation.
While Bluehaus Group has historically designed corporate interiors, in 2014 it diversified into other sectors, including architecture, hospitality, retail and leisure.
Corrigan says that the next three years look very encouraging: “The Intercontinental Hotel refurbishment at Dubai Festival City is one we are very excited about, in addition to three other hotels we are involved in.”
He adds: “To capitalise on the success of our work in the retail sector in 2016, we are working on a large scale retail project in Kuwait as well as another in Saudi Arabia. Within architecture, we are involved in two residential buildings in Al Barsha, a museum project in Jeddah and a number of other projects.
“Within the leisure and entertainment sector, we worked with Majid Al Futtaim on the Ski Dubai refurbishment in 2016 as well as the Orbi Entertainment Centre in Mirdif City Centre also for Majid Al Futtaim.”
With the delivery of the Chanel regional headquarters in Dubai Design District, the executive offices of Dubai Chamber, the design for a digital experience centre in Emaar Square, and a progressive office for Dubai Smart Government, the corporate workplace is still a strong sector for Bluehaus Group.
“Some multi-nationals have global guidelines, and some allow you total freedom. Chanel, for example, does not have global guidelines for its corporate workplace but requires a disciplined focus on consistency with its strong and well-respected brand; whereas Siemens has a very disciplined set of global guidelines to follow. We have always looked to strike a balance between respecting multi-national global guidelines and knowing the ‘non-negotiables’. It may be a Siemens office, but something about it should say this is Siemens Abu Dhabi, for example. With Chanel, it was a great project as there was an element of freedom to design from a blank canvas but with a strong focus on aligning with the elegant and stunning brand that is Chanel. It was important that when you walked into the space, that even if there was no logo or brand, you knew you were in the Chanel office.”
Commenting on the advantages of delivering projects in the Middle East, Corrigan says that the fast-moving nature of the market means things get done without the bureaucracy many can experience in other markets. However, he added that this situation has, however, been a bit of a double-edged sword.
He comments: “It can mean that the project process can be less structured than perhaps in more mature markets, and expectations can on occasion be unrealistic, which can put a project team under pressure, meaning the client is not always getting the best value or best solution. This requires careful management.”
Corrigan adds that expectations on timelines can be challenging to manage, making the distinction between a fast-track programme and an unrealistic one.
“We understand that in some cases clients or their project managers have genuine drivers or reasons for a project programme to run aggressively. That can be managed but must still be achievable. We are also seeing projects being unnecessarily aggressively run because that is what the client representative believes is the norm. In situations like this, we find it prudent for the client and project team to sit around a table and focus on distinguishing what the key drivers are, what is the objective of the project, what does the end-goal look like and try and work backwards. Often once this is agreed, and the team are aligned, the project can be delivered within a more realistic, yet still fast-track, manner,” says Corrigan.
In 2013 Bluehaus Group invested in Building Information Modelling (BIM) with a goal to have fully-integrated BIM across the business (interior design, MEP and architecture) by 2014.
“This has been an exciting and interesting journey which frankly took us longer than expected and at a greater cost than anticipated, but the group truly started to feel the benefits towards the end of 2014,” says Corrigan. “We also utilise 3D laser and point cloud surveying on all of our projects to ensure the base information we progress design from is accurate.”Bluehaus Group is now using virtua
l reality (VR) on most projects, and this is something it is continuously developing. However, for Corrigan innovation does not always mean new.
“You can create a process or product that is new but makes you less productive. That is not innovation. Innovation by its very definition must mean an improvement to a lifestyle, a process or a product,” says Corrigan, concluding: “To create an innovative culture is to create a culture of continuous improvement.”