ULMATEC Dubai – carving out a northern niche under the desert sun
ULMATEC Services L.L.C. in Dubai might seem an unlikely success story, yet in many ways it makes perfect sense. Coming from one of the coldest countries on the planet, ULMATEC CEO Kjetil Leine, a Norwegian, has set up shop in one of the hottest. “You get used to it,” he laughs, “just like Norwegians are used to the cold.” More important for Leine than the climate, are the business opportunities that Dubai affords.
“It’s a great place for the shipping business. The community is truly international, and all types of ship traffic converge here, from tankers to containers and offshore.” Leine had a long and rich maritime service history when he founded ULMATEC in 2013, starting with his education as a naval engineer, to his globetrotting days with Norway’s Ulstein Group, to his first engagement in Dubai with Goltens over 20 years ago.
“I had many different employers in many different places, but eventually I realized I wanted to live and work in Dubai,” Leine tells. “I knew ULMATEC was interested in growing their business in the Middle East, so we found another Norwegian partner and started from scratch, with only me on the ground down here. I had no office and no employees, just a business plan.”
That plan would later prove invaluable for ULMATEC. They eventually opened a workshop in Dubai Maritime City, but only two years into the project, the bottom fell out of the oil market. “We had just started to build up our business when we were forced into crisis mode, but we had faith in our plan and stuck to it instead of closing down.” The plan involved focusing on core business and establishing solid partnerships, both of which pulled ULMATEC through when others went under.
“We don’t try and do everything. Our core business is in diesel engine and governor overhauling, with automation and electro as growing segments.” The second part of their plan was to acquire representation rights for high-quality marine equipment from reputable suppliers – many of them Norwegian.
“Regional representation was critical for us when the oil price fell,” Leine confirms, “but it has remained a cornerstone of our business.” Here too, the Norwegian connection was significant: “TMC, Sperre, Finnoy, Maritime Partner and others are all known for their quality, and they were seeking solid representation in the Middle East. I had good relationships with most of them from before, and it is easier for them to have a Norwegian partner who can speak the language and knows the way Norwegians do business.”
Celebrating their five-year anniversary in 2018, Leine is proud that ULMATEC has come this far without any government assistance or subsidies. “We started when the price of oil was historically high and business was good. When the oil price collapse brought everything down, we kept our focus on quality, and that has stood the test of time. We retained our good suppliers, and good customers kept coming back.”
ULMATEC Services currently employs around 35 people at their 10,000 sq. ft. workshop, with turnover in 2017 of NOK 80 million. “The market has picked up again,” Leine confirms. “2017 was a good year.” While the business came to them in the beginning, ULMATEC has shifted to a more global model, sending their qualified experts to where the work is. That being said, their local business remains at the core: “We provide good local service on Norwegian and European equipment. Instead of flying people down from Europe, we send our local staff north for training. That allows us to respond more quickly, and keep costs down.”
Leine sees ULMATEC’s position as being a lower-cost alternative to OEMs when it comes to overhauls and maintenance. “We are quicker on our feet, and less expensive.”
And while the customer base in Dubai is highly international, the many Norwegian clients operating in the region are particularly inclined to bring their business to Leine: “In the Norwegian shipping community, your word is your bond. They know they can turn a job over to us and be sure it will be completed as promised.”
Finally, how is it that a Norwegian came to thrive in the desert of Dubai? “This is a fantastic place to live and work. They have everything you need to live well, and do good business,” Leine assures. But with summer temperatures up to 50C, the heat must pose challenges for a native of the frozen north? “Both places can be extreme,” he relates, “you just have to learn the ropes.” One vital lesson he has learned is the importance of taking care of his people in the heat: “Respect is at the forefront, with ample breaks, a healthy environment and appropriate clothing, while ensuring the team is hydrated and happy.” That sounds like a northerner who has found his place in the sun.