Dimitri Papakonstantinou, managing director at Al Shafar Interiors, on why he puts people first, the role of disruptive technology in the fit-out business model, and his leadership style in the COVID-19 crisis

By Roma Arora
Photography by Ahmad Khader

He considers the organisation’s peoples as its greatest asset. His focus has always been building a strong culture ever since he joined as a managing director of Al Shafar Interiors (ASI), one of the leading fit-out firms in the region. Meet Dimitri Papakonstantinou who joined ASI in October 2018, and has taken the business to another level of success. Papakonstantinou wears many hats and he loves every bit of it— from being a boss to mentor, leader, friend and guide—he does it all with perfection. He is called people’s person because that’s the kind of emotions and values he is made up of. “I have a wonderful team and I do everything in my capacity to inspire and motivate them. From my side, I ensure that everyone in the company is aware of what we want to achieve and how we’re doing. There is full transparency and constant communication with the entire team.”

One Central 25 Hours Hotel

Papakonstantinou wants to take ASI, a subsidiary of ASGC Construction to the numero uno position and he knows what all it takes and that’s why he calls ‘people as his power’. He explains: “To get there we had to focus on our strategy, our clients, the sectors, the region, and our competition. We then put the right people in the right places and that’s my mantra. The overarching focus on all of the above however is building our culture. It’s ensuring that we are the best at what we do all the time, especially when someone is not looking over our shoulder. I am fortunate to have an amazing team around me that is committed to ASI and our values. More than ever, this was demonstrated during the lockdown due to COVID-19 when part of the team had to work from home.” As the COVID-19 outbreak has shaken and jolted every possible business in the world at an alarming rate, there is no industry which is spared by its adverse effects. The coronavirus crisis is unlike any previous crisis and has made the business leaders take a different course of action. Due to this pandemic, Expo 2020 has been postponed to the next year.

Both ASGC and ASI are also doing various pavilions for the mega event. How has this crisis affected the staff members, workflow, and overall business? Papakonstantinou answers: “When the COVID-19 restrictions were in place, we assisted our office teams such as the estimation department, finance, and technical departments to get set-up at home and work from there. Obviously, this was something we had never done before and we were apprehensive as to how effective it would be. Surprisingly, we realised that we were in a much better position than we thought and adapted quickly to support the other functions of the organisations.”

THINKING FORWARD : Dimitri Papakonstantinou, managing director at ASI

Talking about the business, Papakonstantinou further elaborates: “We’ve set out a five-year plan with regards to our growth and expansion which we keep circling back to every year to tweak and adjust. This year I think everyone had to relook at their plans and adjust their expectations. Nonetheless, we’re fortunate to still have had very positive growth year on year despite the effects of COVID-19.” Papakonstantinou is a firm believer of ‘looking ahead of the curve’ and has key targets and milestones in the five-year plan are: maximise ASI’s presence in Expo 2020 projects, focus on hospitality projects—new and refurbishments, digitising the processes in the factory, start a new trading division of materials from Europe and Asia and ultimately regional expansion beyond the UAE. Despite the current situation, ASI is on track with several projects across Expo 2020 and hope to continue to remain involved until the event is held next year. Papakonstantinou updates: “We’re involved in the turnkey construction of several pavilions such as Australia, Ukraine, Egypt, and Azerbaijan to name a few. This has been an amazing experience for our teams as these projects involve much more than just our usual scope of works as a fit-out contractor so the learning curve has been fantastic. With regards to our projects underway at Expo 2020, the majority of our clients decided to push ahead with the construction of the pavilions so we faced little interruption of our workload.”

It takes a village to run a business and Papakonstantinou is well aware of the fact that without the hard work and dedication of the team members, the business probably wouldn’t be where it is today. He is proud of his incredibly dedicated team and for his team and doesn’t shy away from admitting it all over again. He tells: “I couldn’t possibly find enough praise for our site teams for their immense support during the pandemic and continued to work, ensuring our projects are delivered whilst protecting everyone as much as humanly possible. At the same time, our office staff got the set-up as quickly as possible at home and managed to support the site teams despite the obvious challenges. I believe it demonstrated the spirit and culture of the company which we can all be proud of.” Papakonstantinou has made of a long to-do list and one of the most important priorities for him is to make sure that technology is adopted and people are made comfortable enough with technology to push for transformative changes in all the areas of the company. He feels that the important thing is to rethink what our real challenges are as fitout contractors and designers and see if there is a technology to offer a solution.

Papakonstantinou says: “Starting from the design stage BIM is making things easier however I don’t believe, it’s the end of all coordination issues. VR is certainly a technology which can be used more to provide a more realistic image to all stakeholders and potentially reduce redesign at a later stage. In the factory, we’re now in the implementation stage of CAD+T software for the design and cutting list preparation as well as barcoding and digitising the entire process. This allows the production team to have live information on the status of production of each item, productivity of each person, and utilisation of all machines. This has taken almost a year of preparation, so we’re very excited to see this to go live now.” Papakonstantinou knows the reality and admits that there are multiple challenges onsite for the contractors. From coordinating between several contractors and suppliers to getting feedback from internal departments, to ensuring that quality and productivity is measured and captured. “We are currently looking at developing software that can help us centralise this information and data to make the site teams every function more seamless. We’re working towards having this ready by the end of this year as several stages of implementations are required. It’s easy to sideline these projects as we all get busy with day-to-day responsibilities, which is why we’ve set up a department focussing only on transformation. The team aims to carry out specific projects across all departments to either adopt new technologies where possible or simplify processes.”

With the hospitality projects, ASI is currently involved in six hotel projects which are in various stages of completion— Address Dubai Creek Harbour, H2B, Aloft Hotels Garhoud and Al Riffa, and now soon-to- start Marsa Al Arab project. This will be a new landmark hotel next to the Burj al Arab and Jumeirah Beach Hotel.

Dimitri Papakonstantinou believes in team spirit

All the uncertainty due to coronavirus poses a tremendous challenge for strategy making. But this has not dampened the spirits of a visionary in Papakonstantinou. “Even though ASI’s work is mainly focussed on hospitality lately, we have a very broad portfolio of previous projects ranging from residential to commercial projects. I’ve never seen the reason to limit our offerings to a smaller segment of the market but rather to expand our know-how and presence.” Papakonstantinou signs off with a goal in his mind. He states: “I want to focus on our reputation as a fit-out contractor and build our relationships. We are looking to diversify our offerings with the introduction of bespoke construction materials which we will be starting soon and eventually grow our presence in the region.”

Aloft Hotel & Service Apartment Al Garhoud