Interview: Jana Malhas, Ultimate Solutions, on serving Dubai’s high-end CI clientele
Charlotte Ashley speaks to owner of Dubai-based custom installation company, Jana Malhas, about her journey from Jordan to catering to the high-end market in Dubai, and diversity in the industry.
“When I was five apparently I used to take a clock, DVD player or anything that was in front of me, dismantle it and then try and put it together again – some more successfully than others…” recalls Jana Malhas. Many years later this natural curiosity for the mechanisms powering the technology behind the surface would show itself again and lead to a successful career at the forefront of the custom installation industry in Dubai.
An English, Arabic and French speaker, Jordan-born Malhas’ background studying Information and Decision Systems at San Diego State University (graduating with honours and distinction) opened many doors, but it was family ties that led her to Dubai after stints in the US and Canada. “When I first came to Dubai I took a temporary job as a salesperson (which I was never going to be good at) at a housing developer,” explains Malhas. “They had installed some smart home equipment but the systems (e.g. lighting, AC and audio) were not working well together and far from user-friendly, so during my spare time I used to go and programme them, purely out of passion.” Malhas’ talent was soon recognised and she would be appointed the company’s go-to IT person two months after joining the sales team, and soon would hire another staff member to form a dedicated department.
A gap in the market then became clear as clients – chiefly owners of villas in luxury complexes in Dubai – soon would specifically ask Malhas to equip their home with the latest smart technology. “Of course I couldn’t because I wasn’t a company, but I believe I was in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the opportunity.” Her own custom installation company, Ultimate Solutions, would be born in 2007, and go on to take on a roster of high-end clients, most recently including the developers of the 35-floor Volante Tower complex in Dubai’s Business Bay.
Ultimate Solutions has grown to now employ a close-knit team of 10 full-term staff, and chiefly works in the luxury villa market, though is starting to dip its toe in the MDU market with its reputation growing thanks to the four years it put into the Volante project. “I’ve recently started being more confident going vertical rather than horizontal, which of course is more challenging.”
Malhas is no stranger to a challenge however – relocating to three different countries aside, starting your own company as a female in what’s been an extremely competitive marketplace in recent years required resilience. “I think being a female in the industry has both positive and negative aspects,” says Malhas. “It definitely sets me apart when dealing with clients, but it was also a very big challenge when working with the contracting industry at the start as there’s definitely no women there.” She adds: “People can be harsh as they are so used to being direct working with many different nationalities. Once you’re thrown into the construction sector you’ve really got to put on the helmet of a worker and treat everyone like a worker.”
She also feels the pool leaders of technology companies being largely male-dominated at first took some getting used to; “I think at the beginning it may have felt a little different at first for my employees to take orders from a woman.” Malhas’ persistence evidently paid off, however, and the company has succeeded and grown when others have fell short of satisfying Dubai’s discerning clientele. “In past years the market here has been more competitive as there were more companies around who have gone out of business now. I can think of at least three, both big and small, that have closed due to not being able to deliver on their promises or have gone bankrupt.”
What does Malhas believe is the secret to keeping UHNW clientele happy? “I would say adding the personal touch.” She continues: “I don’t let anything pass quality control without checking a project delivers what we promised in the beginning.” With this in mind, Malhas has a rule of attending to maintenance requests within 30 minutes and being on hand 24/7 – whether through WhatsApp, email or phone. “Even though you may have the best system out there, you may have some find of failure later down the line and we need to be there to tell them before it can have an impact. The client never should feel like they’ve been left alone to deal with something – our job isn’t done when we close the contract.”
Such clientele may be her company’s lifeblood but Malhas often steps back from the world of the ultra-wealthy to consider those not so well-off, especially given her roots a Jordan, a country caught in the conflict which is devastating nearby parts of the Middle East. Malhas and her family work to fundraise for refugee schemes in her home country and Syria and Iraq. “People always ask why have I not been tainted and wanted more working with people that own mansions,” says Malhas. “I think it’s in part due to how I’ve been raised, but I cannot go out and buy something unnecessary and expensive when I know someone else cannot eat and drink. Giving back to the community and being satisfied with what I have is very important.”
"It’s amazing how many villas I go into that have the best systems but they’re obsolete and not even being used – education is vital."
Malhas’ work ethic has proved successful to date, with Ultimate Solutions attracting interest from other nearby countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kuwait and even Malhas’ home country, Jordan, but despite the demand being there, Malhas is keen to stay directly involved in projects. Working solely in Dubai also allows the integrator to easily use recent projects as its ever-changing and up-to-date ‘showroom’ to prospective clients – currently, the aforementioned Volante Tower, featuring a home cinema and full home automation & entertainment system. The dedicated Auro 3D cinema is proving particularly useful given trends Malhas sees in the marketplace: “In the high-end market, an increasing number of clients are requesting home cinemas in their villas. The majority of villas we’re working on right now have high spec 6, 9 or 12-seat cinemas. Everyone wants to own one.” A strong focus on being more eco-conscious is also apparent according to the installer (for example, sensor-controlled AC and lighting and blinds acting in accordance with light levels in the room), especially among building developers who wish to demonstrate clear energy savings to their client.
Notably, a technology much-embraced by consumers across the US and parts of Europe, voice control, is a strictly a staple of high-end clients in Dubai. “Whilst the medium-level, mainstream ‘smart’ home market is going more practical and budget-orientated (across automation, lighting and AC), the niche (i.e. wealthy) want to have the latest technologies: home cinemas and of course, a user-friendly interface which will ‘just work’ immediately. This has recently extended to voice and Amazon Alexa.” Whilst many in Dubai can attest to being to offer the ‘latest’ technology, Malhas believes the point of difference is in the detail; “It’s not enough just to have technology, anything customised has to be integrated very well and have an interface clients can interact with.” Malhas adds: “This is why we always take clients to a show apartment or show villa – so they can see that what we deliver is actually working, because our value is in programming.”
Looking to the future, a key area of growth in the local marketplace Malhas pinpoints may come as a surprise to most; “In Dubai clients are really steering towards security and having their villas secure and safe. They want cameras, glass detectors, door sensors, alarms, because lately we’ve been hearing (across all levels of home) that there have been incidents, so they are really concerned about security at the moment.” Dubai may outwardly appear particularly safe due to the strict local laws, but Malhas says the recent change is even meaning the police force is looking to introduce standardised guides to redesigning and deploying a security system in and around the home with the help of integrators.
For the industry to continue to thrive in 2018 beyond, Malhas affirms that there is a need for sector-wide education of not just the end client, but the real estate developer, contractors, consultants involved at every stage on the project, on the role a CI should play. “With more and more people wanting them, custom installations really have to be introduced at an early stage, because once you’re dealing with different parties, defining the scope later on becomes very hard,” states Malhas. “I’ve often found other parties sometimes have a certain degree of resistance for whatever reason, but it’s important to recognise that we’re all working towards the same goal.”
“I also see a need to educate these people that even though you can get the same system from different dealers, the premium you add on the system goes all onto programming, “ says Malhas. “It’s amazing how many villas I go into that have the best systems but they’re obsolete and not even being used – education is vital. They need to know that the dealer has to have the knowhow and experience for a project to be successful, and this comes with time. Everything down to the infrastructure of cables is imperative.” She concludes: “It’s necessary for all parties to see that the smart home is not only a brand, but what’s in the back-end and what’s underneath – that there are layers to what they see before them.”