When Salman Sharif FCCA joined Rixos Hotels as regional director of finance in 2018, the outlook was decidedly bright. With Expo 2020 Dubai on the horizon, Rixos, along with other hotel chains in the UAE, had embarked on major expansion in order to attract a share of the 25 million visitors expected to attend the six-month mega trade fair.
A luxury chain with a Turkish flavour and part of the Accor group, Rixos Hotels offers all-inclusive packages across most of its international portfolio. It currently has four five-star properties in the Gulf region and four more in the pipeline – two in Qatar and two in UAE – which are expected to double the number of room keys in the region to over 3,600 by the end of 2022.
Then, out of the blue, came the Covid-19 pandemic. Tourist arrivals dried up, due to travel restrictions and lockdowns across the globe. ‘Overnight occupancy dropped to zero,’ recalls Sharif, who was promoted to UAE country director of finance in 2020.
‘We did scenario studies assuming different occupancy rates so that management was ready to respond to a range of eventualities’
Country director of finance, Rixos Hotels, Dubai
Regional director of finance, Rixos Hotels, Dubai
Financial controller, Gulf Marketing Group, Dubai
Group financial controller, Marka PJSC, Dubai
Business analyst, Ginza Holdings (Evolvence Group), Dubai
Financial accountant, Ingie Etoile (Chalhoub Group), Dubai
Financial analyst, Azadea Group, Dubai
Accounts manager, TASK FZC, Sharjah, UAE
Audit associate, Khalid Majid Rehman Chartered Accountants, Lahore, Pakistan
Accounts consultant, Choudary Associates, Lahore, Pakistan
Time of reckoning
The onset of the pandemic was a time of reckoning. Sharif had to draw on all his skills and ingenuity to steward his department through the worst crisis and uncertainty following the devastating spread of the pandemic.
‘The year 2020 was a year of survival for everyone – for businesses and for individuals,’ Sharif says. ‘The finance department played a crucial role during those dark days and the precautions we took helped us come out of the situation safely.
He notes that the diligence of the finance team enabled management to respond to the fast-changing and uncertain business environment. ‘We did not know how long lockdown and travel restrictions would impact the industry,’ he recalls. ‘We focused on managing liquidity, and did scenario studies assuming different occupancy rates so that management was ready to respond to a range of eventualities. Alongside business needs, we maintained good relationships with our key stakeholders through transparent and timely communication.
‘In all our strategies,' he adds, ‘we kept in mind post-pandemic recovery and its impact on the immediate requirements of our operations.’
While some hotels in the region closed their doors for six months and suffered high redundancy rates, Rixos was able to reopen its properties in phases as soon as lockdown restrictions were eased, after just two months.
‘We were thinking about the human factor first,’ Sharif explains. ‘There were redundancies, but the majority of staff were retained because we knew the situation was temporary and that as soon as the restrictions were lifted, we’d need to be ready to start again.’
This decision paid off, as immediately following the lockdown there was high demand from local customers on staycations. With travellers now flocking to the UAE to visit the rescheduled Expo 2020 Dubai, as well as the recent Dubai Airshow, and with December’s Dubai Shopping Festival to look forward to, average occupancy in UAE hotels is already back to normal and the Dubai industry is reporting its highest monthly room rates due to the level of demand.
Passion and enthusiasm
A dedicated team leader, Sharif has a passion and enthusiasm for professional growth among his team of 50, many of whom are professional accountants.
‘My focus is to appoint qualified or technically strong people to my team, because it helps to understand business processes and learn new skills quickly to cater to business needs in the current dynamic environment. Fortunately, there is no shortage of talent in this market,’ he says.
‘Learning and development is very important. Learn every day, and do not stick to your job role alone. Try and understand other areas also, especially business processes and operations, and involve yourself to get an overall picture first.’
Key to success in the hospitality sector is, Sharif believes, an understanding of the industry model and the importance of customer service. ‘A knowledge of accounting alone does not bring success,’ he says. ‘A finance professional needs to understand the business and its particular operations, whether it is indeed hospitality, retail, F&B, or whatever. Only then can we be successful.’
Originally from Bahawalpur, Pakistan, Sharif spent several years in the retail sector before joining Rixos, including three years at Marka, a premier luxury retail operator and the first retail company in the UAE to list on the Dubai Financial Market. Marka’s business strategy was to grow by acquisition and Sharif, as group financial controller, was instrumental in a number of key deals.
‘In two quarters we did five acquisitions,’ he recalls. ‘It was a very strong professional experience for me to work at a listed company acquiring different companies using different systems and processes. My previous experience at Azadea, together with my accounting knowledge and IT skills, helped me a lot in implementing new systems, resolving integration issues, and consolidating and developing the reporting structure across the Marka companies.’
The move into hospitality in fact came at the invitation of a former director at Marka who, having seen Sharif at work in 2014 and himself moved to Rixos, wanted Sharif ‘in his A team’.
Rixos Hotels rooms, of which 1,732 in the Gulf region
Number of hotels in Europe, India, Middle East and Africa
Number of hotels in the Gulf, with four more due to open by 2022
Number of hotel brands operated by parent company Accor, including Raffles, Sofitel and Fairmont
Sharif came to the world of finance by chance. After graduating in computer science and statistics from the Government Degree College (now Government Post Graduate College) in Bahawalpur, he had planned to pursue business studies and start a business. But he chanced upon the ACCA course content at the Skans School of Accountancy in Lahore and the rest is history.
After gaining experience as audit associate and accounts consultant in Lahore, Sharif left for the UAE ‘in search of better career prospects’. His first role in the Gulf was with Task FZC, a specialist steel door manufacturer in Sharjah, UAE, as accounts manager. But his career really took off when he started as a financial analyst in Dubai at Azadea Group, an international retail franchise chain headquartered in Lebanon.
‘It was a turning point in my career, moving from a small company to a large corporate with a big brands presence across the Gulf. I got exposure to handling big data, business intelligence tools, investment decisions and group reporting. This rich experience helped set my future career direction and professional growth goals,’ he says.
After more than a decade in retail, the switch into the hospitality sector was a steep learning curve. Nevertheless, Sharif had faith that he could excel on the strength of his ACCA training and experience as a professional accountant.
Though quintessentially a family man, he spends his free time learning new things and keeping abreast of developments in the business world.
With his wife Sidra Salman – also an FCCA – running her own accounting, tax and management consultancy firm, does he want the accounting legacy to continue?
‘Naturally, parents are role models for their children,’ he says, ‘I would not force my kids to choose finance, rather I will leave to them to follow their interests. But I would love them to be fellows of ACCA.’