Lachlan Jackson, founder and Managing Director of Ecocoast, a Dubai-based specialist marine contracting and coastal protection services company, wasn’t at the company’s headquarters at Dubai Investment Park when I arrived there, as I was (obviously) a bit too early for our interview. In those extra minutes, I looked around the bright meeting room I had been seated in: besides a table and about six or eight chairs, the room contained a shelf with books (which were mostly entrepreneurship-themed), and the wall behind it was plastered with posters. Next to that, there was a whiteboard stocked with dry erase markers, and yellow and pink colored sticky notes scattered all over it, indicating that spontaneous brainstorming sessions often happen here to encourage frequent, efficient, and concise knowledge-sharing. Perhaps the most eye-catching element of all in the room was a wall decked in black chalkboard paint, allowing the team to write down ideas and plans in different vivacious colors.
If you want to understand how the Ecocoast team functions, just consider that one wall- it is a simple, practical, and not-very-expensive DIY solution, but even scribbling on it with a dusty chalk is a way of making the team members more deeply attached to and aligned with the commitments they have taken on. As another testament to this, later on in our conversation, Jackson would tell me that there are two executive coaches who work with the team, himself included, on a regular basis to hold them accountable for their goals. “Everything we do, every product or service that we start doing, we approach them like we are pioneers,” says Jackson, remaining valid and succinct throughout the interview. “We are either the first to bring it to the region, or we take an existing idea and make it better. We have a very narrow focus with what we do, but we dive deep back into the value chain, and we control the supply of our materials, the manufacturing, the project execution, and the engineering behind it.”
Launched in 2009, Ecocoast Contracting provides specialist marine contracting and coastal protection services -covering the full lifecycle of a marine or coastal project from development and protection, marine infrastructure, to operation and maintenance- to developers, contractors, operators and governments, primarily in the UAE. These services encompass two main areas -coastal protection and marine infrastructure- mainly focusing on the installation of marinas, marine piling, beach cleaning and maintenance. Since 2014, Ecocoast has cleaned over 2,800,000 square meters of area and removed over 2,240 cubic meters of debris from beaches and golf courses, equating to over 5,180 tons or 50 trailer loads. Today, Ecocoast Contracting is a parent company to Ecobarrier Manufacturing, a marine manufacturing firm Jackson set up in 2012, that designs, manufactures and distributes a range of marine protection and demarcation barriers under the brand Ecobarrier.
In one corner of the meeting room, there is a nearly flipchart-sized poster on the wall showcasing Ecocoast’s vision summary, including its core values (integrity, pride, curiosity, solutions, and transparency), core purpose (to innovate), and brand promises (100% delivery guarantee). In itself, the poster serves as a great visual to answer why Jackson started the companyexactly a decade ago, the then 24-year-old Australian moved to Dubai to launch a branch office of his father’s coastal engineering consultancy, but quickly realized that only few products which his father used to offer in their home market were manufactured or available here. “At that time [2008/2009], the market definitely was not advanced in this sector, in terms of a lot of the solutions; it was maybe 10 to 15 years behind Australia or even Europe,” he says. “There were a lot of big companies, but due to licensing restrictions and capital requirements, there weren’t any small companies, so a lot of the structures that were being built were simply a copy and paste version of large scale structures. There wasn’t anyone to come in, move quickly and take the risk on smaller structures.” Jackson spotted a gap of a fairly decent size between mega projects worth more than $10 million and smaller size projects of up to that sum, which were of no interest to large companies. “That gave us the first step up,” he remembers. “We were fortunate in a way that we started exactly when the downturn hit in 2009, the market fell out completely, and that took out a lot of big projects, but there were still a lot of requests from developers, hotels, and so on, for small size projects. In a way, we were lucky that in the first three years, we survived largely on the work from private developers and the hotels which hadn’t fallen out.”
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Before long, he was able to again marshal the necessary focus to spot another market inefficiency- no one was locally manufacturing environmental protection barriers, such as silt screens. Starting the manufacturing unit in 2012, despite being challenged by a limited access to key components and raw materials in the region, explains Jackson’s approach to not only innovation but the company’s competitors. “We are not the cheapest option, we don’t compete on price, and we don’t work on a product or a service unless we can be number one whether immediately, the minute we start, or in the next one to two years,” he says. “If we cannot be number one, it is of no interest to us. We never compete when it just comes down to price, because I believe that the race to the bottom destroys value. The minute products or services commoditize and it all becomes about price, innovation is dead. The race to the bottom kills it for the client, for the manufacturer, and for the industry. There are better ways to compete. Take silt screens for example. There wasn’t a high uptake of silt screens in the region, they were made of poor quality materials, they weren’t engineered properly, they weren’t made well. So, the companies used to buy and the municipality said they had to use them, but the contractors didn’t want to use them as they knew they would fail. So, we started working with the concerned companies to build something that is basically fit for purpose and that increased the acceptance of products, They then supported the product, and that helped them start working with the municipality.”
Ecocoast operates in 14 countries around the world: UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, KSA, Oman, Kuwait, Jordan, Gabon, Tanzania, Mozambique, Mauritius, Hong Kong, Maldives, Mexico. “For services, we are primarily focused on the UAE, but we do supervision works outside the east coast of Africa and throughout the Gulf,” Jackson says. “Products-wise, we ship all through the GCC, Africa, as well as to Hong Kong, Mexico, and so on. Primarily, we focus on emerging markets. We don’t have an interest of moving into Europe or too far into Asia or America, because there is already market saturation to some degree, whereas this region is still underserved. The other reason is the shipping and transport of products, so we use the UAE as our manufacturing and shipping base, and anywhere within a two-week shipping radius is our core focus. The challenges of expanding into other markets relate to the acceptance of the products. We are fortunate that a lot of our clients are multinationals, and they pull us into new markets. So, we analyze where our clients are going, which is usually a good indication of where the projects are. We come in quite early in the project, and when it is awarded, we generally come in quickly afterwards. But we still do need to do the hard work with consultants, municipalities and governments to help them understand the quality of the product and what problem we are solving. Once we have done one or two projects, we decide whether that market has more opportunities to explore further.”
Ecocoast has grown at a CAGR of 56%, counting eight of the top 10 dredging companies among its more than 90 clients across the Middle East, Africa and Asia. No single client makes up more than 20% of the company’s revenue, and 60% of revenue this year has come from repeat clients, Jackson states. “The market at the moment is not great, but there are still so many opportunities here compared to other places in the world, and you really can build something here,” he adds. “It is not easy, but that is half the thrill and half the challenge of it. Now, you mustn’t slow down. When people start comparing price on price, you need to find other ways to compete, and no matter what they say, having a profitable business is a mission behind every business. If you are not profitable, you can’t reinvest, you can’t grow and innovate, and that is where the market stagnates. I think that it is very easy to start cutting prices to compete, but it is not the right thing to do. The best thing to do is to double down and reinvest everything you have and do things differently. For example, if this area starts to commoditize and the competition starts to build up, maybe we can focus on another area or do things in a different way. The competition does catch up quickly. In many products and services that we do, there are copycats right behind us. At a certain point, you have to work out that you are not doing anything any different than the rest of the competition, so that’s when we take a step back and look at what we are doing now- Is it pioneering? Is it changing things? Is it improving the industry? If the answer is no, we take another shot at it.”
From a personal perspective though, to ensure that his future plans are not fits of irrational grandiosity, Jackson makes it a point to regularly advises with his peers- he is an Endeavor Entrepreneur, a global accolade awarded to high-impact entrepreneurs with the greatest potential for economic and social impact in their respective regions, as well as an active member of Entrepreneurs’ Organization. From his more experienced peers, he is mainly seeking advice on talent acquisition and retention as it is a pressing issue he is currently trying to solve. “It’s about managing 70 staff,” he says. “You do need someone to be in a full-time role just for that. A larger company can afford that. It is also about talent acquisition and talent retention, like for everyone else, because it is a big issue in the region. Six months ago, we assembled a team of six, myself included. That was extremely challenging. Finding people in the region with the experience in the industry is extremely difficult, particularly at what we do. People come from other larger companies or other industries, so we don’t hire based on experience, but on value and personality. Then our training comes in in terms of how quickly we can skill them up. But, finding them through the network of contacts wasn’t a great success. It was mainly through LinkedIn and external head hunters. We relied on that a lot and then we had an extremely long vetting process. We would take three to six months to fill a role.”
When it comes to entrepreneurship, Jackson is now on his second (successful) attempt. Prior to starting Ecocoast, as a fresh international finance graduate, he co-founded an Australian fashion label in 2003 with a manufacturing facility in Vietnam. However, he notes that starting up in the capital- and resource-intensive marine industry was a particular challenge. He opted to bootstrap the business, and is still its sole shareholder. “That makes you appreciate the value of every single dollar and every single business decision that you make,” he explains. “You have grown. If I could imagine myself here seven years ago, I think I would have been amazed with what I have achieved. I would love to say that when I started, I wanted to take over the world. But I really wasn’t. I was very much focused on a problem, I knew I could solve that problem, and that was what drove me very much at the start. I was very involved in the product development and the service development, and that was what motivated me. Only after three to four years did I start to look outside and focus on the bigger picture and that sort of opened my horizons. Now, I don’t want to build something for a fast exit, that is not the point. I am proud of what I do and what we have built. Building something just to profit and just to sell is not my approach.”