‘Saudi is on the right track’: CEO of NAI

Boudewijn Heilijgers

Boudewijn Heilijgers

JEDDAH – Seeing the office of Mercedes-Benz Saudi Arabia (National Automobile Industry) CEO may confuse anyone who enters there the first time. Is this working place of the chief executive officer of a big company? Sure, the room is spacious: 10 leather chairs surround a large meeting table, an organized desk occupies one of the corners. The office overlooks Madinah Road and the Mercedes assembly plant. But to say the place is lavish – as one would expect of any CEO’s office, let alone that of a luxury car distributor – is a gross overstatement.

In an interview with the Saudi Gazette, the CEO himself, Boudewijn Heilijgers, is perhaps not a typical “big boss” either. Friendly and cordial, the Dutchman in his late 50s appears to be a manager who cares about his employees, from the salesmen around the country to the mechanics and assembly workers in the plant.

The explanation could lie in the CEO’s own career path. Following his studies of business economics in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Heilijgers’ first job was as a salesman for Daf, a Dutch truck manufacturing company that took him first to England and in the early 1980s to Iraq.

“(In) the street behind me there was a huge office of Mercedes-Benz,” Heilijgers comments on the beginning of his career path in Iraq. Throughout the years, he got to know most of the Mercedes employees. Once back in Europe, he received a call from an old Mercedes acquaintance asking him whether he was interested in joining them.

Ever since then, Heilijgers has been with Mercedes-Benz in Germany, France, the Netherlands, and since August 2008 in Jeddah, where he became the chief executive officer as well as general manager of National Automobile Industry (NAI) and Juffali Industrial Products Company (JIPCO), which both belong to the Juffali Group.

A factory in the middle of the desert

In the Kingdom, Juffali Automotive Corporation (JACO) has been the exclusive distributor of Mercedes-Benz passenger cars since the 1950s. Some 20 years later, NAI was founded as a joint venture between Mercedes-Benz and the Juffali Group in order to assemble Mercedez-Benz commercial vehicles locally. Juffali Industrial Products Company (JIPCO), for its part, provides sales, marketing and after-sale functions for the Mercedes-Benz range of commercial vehicles, which include vans, trucks, and buses. Heilijgers takes care of both NAI and JIPCO, and the NAI assembly plant is located right next to his office.

“In those days, (the factory) was a couple of kilometers outside the city, it was in the desert, and in ’77 the first trucks came out,” Heilijgers explains, adding this has continued up to today, with the only difference being that the factory is now “almost in the center of the city.”

Booming business

From the way he talks about the Kingdom and his experience of living and working in the Middle East, it is clear that Heilijgers enjoys being in this place, and he admits that he is a very lucky man: While the car industry all over the world has been struggling to survive, here – a little dip in 2009 aside – “business has been booming.”

That is not to say that there are no challenges working here. Apart from the heat and dust – not the easiest conditions for an assembly plant, but also not for the air-conditioning system of the trucks – “there are a lot of differences compared to working in Europe,” Heilijgers admits. One important dissimilarity: “If you work in Germany you work with Germans, if you work in Holland you probably work with Dutchmen around you, and the same in France with French people. Here, you come to a company and I think we’ve got something like 24 nationalities. It’s like working in the United Nations!”

Another difficulty is the competition. “Of course, Mercedes Benz and the Juffali family are not the only ones who see that there is a huge potential and market in Saudi Arabia. To put it bluntly: everybody is here.” However, the CEO firmly believes that “if the demand is there, you can cope with the rest.”

Saudization difficulties

Rather than trying to mask his opinion, Heilijgers confesses that Saudization also remains a challenge for his company, although he finds the pressure currently exerted on companies “very logical” and says it is “crazy” that there existed companies with only a small percentage of nationals and a big majority of foreigners until recently.

The current Saudization efforts bring along challenges for both companies and Saudi employees, Heilijgers believes. “We have 200 assembly line workers, we might have another 200 mechanics, there is only one general manager, there’s only one HR manager.” In other words: Not everyone can be a big boss or engineer, and it is not only challenging for the company to find mechanics and assembly line workers but also for society to produce them by providing sufficient vocational and technical training.

Solving this issue does not happen overnight, the CEO thinks. “Not being used to the idea” is the main reason there are so few Saudis taking up this kind of jobs, according to him, and it takes time for society to realize that “menial work can be very satisfying and rewarding. “Not everybody can have an office job, and there is nothing wrong with working in a factory or as a mechanic.”

Of course, this is easily said by a big CEO with over 600 employees, but he may have a point. And, as he puts it, nowadays mechanics are extremely clever people. “The days that you could repair a truck with a hammer and a screwdriver are gone. You need computers and diagnostic knowledge,” he exemplifies.

As part of its Saudization efforts, NAI recently signed a deal with Yanbu Technical College to get young graduates to work for them. “They are here during the week, we give them housing, and then on the weekend we facilitate their transport back to Yanbu.”

Heilijgers, remarking both NAI and JIPCO are categorized as “green companies” in the Nitaqat program, is happy with this step. “We definitely want to bring in more and more Saudi nationals and then develop them within the organization, but to get this influx of young people for these specific jobs, especially technical jobs, is not easy … especially here in Jeddah.”

Retaining Saudi nationals

In an attempt to curb the practice of some companies to hire nationals for the lower paid jobs and keep the managing positions for expatriates, the Labor Ministry is currently studying the option to categorize companies in the Nitaqat program according to the percentage of total salaries Saudis receive as opposed to only the number of Saudi employees.

Heilijgers recognizes this phenomenon, but believes it is something that has to grow: “People tend to go for proven experience.” For positions of all ranges inside a company, “you just got to find the Saudi with the right education and the right experience. Not for every job you can take somebody straight from school.”

He nevertheless finds it sad these strict regulations are necessary. “If the private sector had always sort of taken [hiring nationals] into consideration,” it wouldn’t have been necessary to create a Nitaqat policy. “Now we got to catch up, but you got to bear in mind that this … not something you can do very quickly.”

On the other hand, coaching employees and providing a career path is a must to keep Saudis in the company, Heilijgers says, and his HR department is currently developing new programs to reduce turnover rates, particularly among young Saudi men working in the factory. Their ambition derives not only from trying to comply with Saudization laws, but also because, as Heilijgers puts it, it costs a “bloody fortune” to continuously look for new staff. “You don’t want to lose too many people you invested in on the training side.”

Another way to retain Saudi employees could be by offering them working conditions more similar to the public sector, such as a five-day working week and increased salaries. Heilijgers supports the former, but the latter, according to him, is harder to realize due to competition. “The moment the cost of labor in Saudi becomes more expensive than [in] other countries where you can have a truck factory the companies will move, and we have seen that in Europe. You must be competitive.”

Women working in the factory

When walking around in the NAI and JIPCO offices, one notices only a few ladies working for this company, but Heilijgers is a staunch supporter of hiring women.

“I think a company with a healthy climate must be a reflection of society,” he remarks, and this also applies to women or people with physical disabilities working in the business. The CEO adds that he is “really impressed with what these ladies do.”

During his six years in Jeddah, Heilijgers has hired women to work as secretaries, the entire customer relations department consists of ladies, there are women in the finance department and even in the factory. “Of course, we have segregated them from the men, but we have two departments (in the factory) solely occupied by women,” he explains. Their work consists of light assembly and logistical work.

The reason these ladies are doing so well, Heilijgers believes, has to do with the fact that they choose to work rather than having to. But not everyone is happy to see ladies doing something traditionally seen as a men’s job.

The question what the family members of these ladies would think of them working in a truck assembly factory was “a big worry,” the CEO admits. “I definitely don’t want to offend or upset anybody. So, we’ve been very careful in the whole selection process. We’ve shown the parents or husbands the working environment.”

So far, this has prevented any problems from happening, and the company is “definitely looking at employing more ladies.”

Suddenly, Heilijgers stops talking, clearly hesitating whether he should reveal something or not. “Maybe, yeah, I’ll tell you a little secret,” he then continues. “I’m even having discussions, but I haven’t completely convinced my colleagues yet – I’m even wondering why we cannot have ladies in sales. That’s, for me, the next challenge.”

He respects that not everyone has accepted the new role of women in the society. “On the other hand, your own newspaper – almost daily there are articles about successful businesswomen in Saudi, about a female Saudi pilot, or women in the Shoura (Council), or Saudi women who get international awards for achieving things. So, in my 6 years here I have already seen the difference.”

To those who say the change does not happen fast enough, Heilijgers replies that “slow change is better than no change” and that “sustainable slow change is much better than if you want to revolutionize something.” Sticking to his business jargon, he adds: “I think Saudi is going on the right track.”





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