BORN IN Melaka in Malaysia, Nor Shaharom Bin Mansour, Assistant Director, Projects, Burj Khalifa, was involved with Dubai’s iconic project since Day 1, in all three stages — the design, the construction, and the handover. Shaharom shared some invaluable insights into his life and career in a freewheeling interview with Mehre Alam, in the year 2010. This article appeared in the book titled ‘Young Asian Achievers’, which released in 2011.
THE PEAK of his career coincided with the completion of the tallest structure the mankind has ever built. Quite a coincidence it was. For Nor Shaharom, Assistant Director at Emaar for the Burj Khalifa project, it was indeed a dream come true. He confessed it was no less than a fairytale with all its magic potions of anxiety, drama, action, sense of purpose, and yes, above all, a final euphoria, triumph… joy unlimited.
“Malaysia Boleh” (Malaysia Can Do It), we tell him, to which he responds with a smile. Then the smile widens as he replies back: “Malaysia Boleh.”
Shaharom, an architecture graduate from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in the United States, was involved in the Emaar Properties’ Burj Khalifa project right since its inception. However, for Shaharom, who was born on 15 February, 1966, his personal quest was more grounded. “When I accepted the challenge to join this project, I felt this responsibility as a Malaysian to prove that one can compete with the very best of people drawn from across the globe,” he says.
“You are basically involved from the conception of the project right up to its completion,” is how Shaharom, who was originally seconded to Emaar from a Kuala Lumpur-based project management company, sums up his role.
He considers himself lucky to be involved in all the three stages of the construction at Burj Khalifa — the design, the construction, and the handover — something that gave a huge fillip to his confidence level.
And, as an “employer representative”, he got to work with the industry’s best consultants and contractors from different disciplines and cultural backgrounds, and “some of these individuals were simply phenomenal!” he gushes. (The job of employer representative entails monitoring of the design and construction of the project and ensuring that the employer’s interest in terms of cost, time and quality are met, something that is achieved through close teamwork and coordination between the employer, consultants and contractors).
The Early Challenges
Shararom recalls how during his first year at the project — 2003 it was — it was quite a challenge as the KLCC, his then employers, were the only Asian consultant out of 45 from all across the globe.
“We really had to work hard to claim our stake and to make sure that our presence was felt. There were times when our recommendations were given a go by. Things, however, changed in a year’s time. We gained the respect of our peer consultants. A couple of years later, things were running pretty smoothly. We were gelling stupendously with consultants from very different backgrounds, as well as with the rest of the team members working in different disciplines.
“It took some time to get into the flow of things. I had to walk the extra mile to earn respect from colleagues who are all from overseas,” he admits.
In 2008, he became an Emaar staff. After that the things became different. “One was truly feeling at the top — being consulted by one and all. Sometimes it’s fine to be at the top; to be able to manage the team.”
But the design coordination among 45 consultancy packages and construction coordination among various contract packages was quite a task. “Breathtakingly difficult,” he points out.
The complexity of the structure — 5 million square feet of high-end hotels, residences and offices; the logistics and safety of 12,000 workers; 22 contract packages; materials storage hosting; and then, to add to it all, the weather (windy conditions slow down construction) — he braved it all.
Which were the best moments? Shaharom is quite clear on this: January 4, 2010 — the day of the grand opening of Burj Khalifa and climbing the spire top of the tower in January 2010. “Some said we were the first humans to scale the spire after the new name of the tower and its height were announced,” he points out.
Among his golden moments he also counts briefing former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed (in June 2010) during the latter’s visit to the “At The Top Observatory” at the tower.
Any strange moments? “In January 2009 I received a call from a friend in Abu Dhabi. He was asking to confirm if the super tall building was sinking due to unexpected settlement,” Sharaom recounts. “Of course I told him this was all bullshit,” he adds.
“Normally, a lot of people ask a lot of questions about the Burj Khalifa — from downright silly questions to intelligent ones?”
Occasionally, he also comes across individuals who he has met for the first time — after, may be, mere exchange of emails and phone calls — and they would tell him: “From your name I guessed you are a local. But while you speak a bit of American accent, you look like a Filipino! What are you?”
At times when he goes out with friends he is introduced as: “This is Nor, my friend.”
Pat comes the reply: “Oh you are the one! I have heard about you.”
How does it feel to be recognised as one of the most well known faces from the Malaysian community? “It feels good, especially when the VVIPs from my country visit the UAE and I get a call from the embassy asking me to accompany them to the “At The Top Observatory” at the tower,” he says with pride.
Do the VVIPs complement him? “When the current Prime Minister of Malaysia Abdullah Ahmad Badawi came here (in January 2010), he said he was proud to know that a Malaysian was in a key position in the Burj Khalifa project.”
And, what did Mahathir Mohamed tell him? ”We are proud of you. Keep going,” recounts Shaharom.
He has been involved with the project since the Day 1. How does he feel when he himself goes to the top and casts a glance down? “If there is one word that can describe it, it’s ‘overwhelming’. Time flies. This is my eighth year here. This was a barren land. Now the entire neighborhood of the tower has become the attraction of Dubai. At downtown Dubai you get everything — hospitality, retail, commercial space, residence, landscaping… everything. It’s just unbelievable.”
Even to this day, Shaharom never fails to be awestruck by the sight of the architectural wonder making its way towards the heavens.
Hobbies and Pastime
When not busy with work, how does Shaharom like to spend his time? “I used to play a lot of golf back home in Malaysia. I used to play golf during my early years in Dubai also but with increased responsibilities hardly any time is left for this pastime.
“Other than that,” he says, “I like to hang out with friends at some select Malaysian and Singaporean joints in Dubai. There is this small restaurant in Karama area in Dubai, which I am really fond of.”
How does his family look at his achievements? “Of course the entire family, particularly my parents, is very proud of me. But the proudest of them is my eldest daughter who is all of 16 and is into writing (She is the eldest of his three children).”
This pride is a result of his work ethic. While saying that he is “very ambitious… My motto in life is ‘No Regrets’,” he believes that “when you take up an assignment you must give your 100 per cent to it so that even if you come a cropper you can still be proud of yourself because you tried your level best and you gave your 100 per cent.”
How has the overall experience been like? “It’s been similar to one of a firefighter: you are always on the alert.” But, he adds: “I never thought I would be involved with a super tall structure like the Burj Khalifa… not even in the wildest of my dreams.
“I also never thought that one day I would be rubbing shoulders with a leader like Mahathir Mohamed and spending an uninterrupted 45 minutes with him,” he says with pride.
Dubai and Malaysia
Shifting from Malaysia to Dubai did not pose much adjustment problems for him. The reason: “Lifestyles in both countries are a lot similar. We are both moderate Islamic countries; we allow people of different faiths to practise their faith freely. Both countries have people from different backgrounds coming to earn a living people and contributing to development.
“Former PM Mahathir Mohamed had said that by the year 2020 Malaysia would become a fully developed country and everyone is working hard to achieve that target. The same thing is being witnessed in UAE, looking at the way the country has been moving. One can clearly see it’s going in the right direction.”
His first employers were a medium-size architect firm in Kuala Lumpur, where a majority of the projects he was assigned to, were hotels. Later, he was recruited by KLCC Projeks, a property developer and project management subsidiary of Petronas (Malaysia’s oil giant) which was behind the development of the Petronas Twin Towers. As the youngest architect in the line-up at KLCC, his involvement was more on the peripheral development rather than on the Petronas Towers.
At this pinnacle of his career now, is he looking at attaining even greater heights? “There is a strong likelihood that I might be involved with another super tall building coming up in the region,” he replies.
Shaharom, who has a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, USA, believes that the tourism potential of the Petronas Twin Towers in his native country Malaysia (in Kuala Lumpur) can be given a fillip as there are lessons to be learnt from the Burj Khalifa model.
“For Burj Khalifa, we knew what we wanted from the day one. The idea was that we don’t want people to go to the observatory deck just for the view. We wanted to create something more interesting and grand by ensuring that the experience, both interactive and educational, started from the ticketing counter all the way up the tower. And that’s exactly what has happened.”
No wonder Tourism Malaysia and Petronas are exploring the possibility of further developing the tourism potential of Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Twin Towers.
As we take his leave, we repeat to Shaharom: “Malaysia Boleh…”
And we see his face lit up with joy. “Malaysia Boleh,” he replies back.