INTERVIEW: The Uber of the trucking world has big plans in Saudi Arabia

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Updated 02 August 2020

INTERVIEW: The Uber of the trucking world has big plans in Saudi Arabia

  • TruKKer CEO and founder explains how his fast-growing company can benefit from the pandemic disruption in the Kingdom and the Middle East

DUBAI: Midway through our Zoom call, Gaurav Biswas threw a big statistic into the mix: “One interesting fact I’ve learned is that Saudi Arabia has the highest per capita number of trucks in the world,” he revealed with a flourish.

Biswas is the founder and CEO of TruKKer, the Uber of the trucking business and one of the fastest-growing logistics companies in the Middle East. Trucking statistics are his forte, and Saudi Arabia is the main growth focus for his four-year-old company.

“Saudi Arabia continues to amaze me with how innovation is accelerating at such a rapid pace. Young Saudis are so ambitious, believe in technology, and are keen to deliver,” he said.

He told how the idea for TruKKer — which recently completed one of the biggest early rounds of capital raising in the region with a $23 million funding from some of its biggest investors — first came to him.

“I was having dinner with a friend who works in fertilizer manufacture. He was very agitated because he was let down by a haulage firm for a delivery the following day. It ruined dinner, but we saw an opportunity,” he related.

Like Uber or Careem, TruKKer users can order their vehicle via an app under the slogan “any truck, any time, anywhere.” 

Since it launched in 2016 as the region’s first technology-enabled truck aggregator, it has gained 12,000 drivers and trucks to keep the Middle East’s commercial lifelines moving, even in the trying circumstances of pandemic lockdowns and transport restrictions.

Biswas said he was “inspired” by similar tech-based haulage businesses in China and the US, but regards the Gulf region as especially suited to the concept. “Trucking is so fragmented here it makes even more sense than cabs. There’s a lot of smart investment going into an extremely fragmented business,” he said.


BIO

BORN: 1982, Gujarat, India

EDUCATION:

  • Bachelor of engineering, CEPT University, Ahmadabad
  • Master of engineering, University of Dundee
  • MBA Finance, SP Jain School of Global Management

CAREER:

  • Senior project manager, Arup
  • Director, AECOM

“The majority of cross-border truckers between, say, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, are individual owner operators, or very small transport companies. In the Saudi market, 70 percent are the small to medium sized fleet, up to 50 trucks. The top 10 or 15 percent is built of large fleet owners — more than 500 and up to 2,000 trucks. The fragmentation is huge and this is where the opportunity lies for us,” Biswas added.

When the pandemic hit earlier this year, it was a challenge to TruKKer’s business model. “I told our staff in a letter ‘guys, I don’t think anybody knows how to deal with this.’ There is no book about how to deal with a pandemic. So for the first couple of months we were learning, waiting and watching. But then we realized how the industry was reacting,” he said.

The impact came in various stages. First there was the hit on imports and exports to China, with its big container-based trade in the region.

Next there was the “massive impact” from regional lockdowns as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman and other importing hubs imposed lockdowns and transport restrictions to combat the virus. “For a lot of clients the top risk was the disruption to their manufacturing and their supply lines with employees falling sick,” Biswas said.

Then came the broader economic impact as industrial and consumer demand was devastated. He saw demand fall off in consumer-focused industries like retail, but also, strangely, in water delivery, a big business for TruKKer.

“We do a lot of distribution of soft commodities — for example, we are one of the largest suppliers of packaged drinking water. You might think that consumption would not go down, people still have to drink water whether they’re at home or at work. But it does have an impact on packaged water, because a lot of it is consumed in restaurants,” he said.

Even against this gloomy backdrop, Biswas saw an opportunity. “Smaller brokers, smaller transporters were either going into hibernation, or they were facing financial difficulties. So we took the approach that this is our time to acquire markets share.




Gaurav Biswas

“This was not just an opportunistic thing. This is our business model. We want to consolidate smaller suppliers into one big broker. We want to become the ‘mother broker’ in the supply space, and this is our time to make it happen at a much faster rate than would have happened anyway,” he added.

The signs so far are encouraging. March was TruKKer’s best-ever month of operations, but Biswas “put the brakes on” in April and May. July’s numbers were better than March, he said. “We used the last few months to acquire key clients. So the overall demand for trucking might reduce because of reduced consumption but we have taken the opportunity to grow,” he said.

How far does he think TruKKer can go in the tech-enabled haulage business? “It would be quite naive of me to say I’m going to control this market within this year or next. It’s a very large market and no one player can dominate the Saudi transportation industry. I think we can certainly become the biggest, and that’s not very far away. I would say by next year we will be doing more transactions that anyone in the market, so we would be the biggest,” he said.

TruKKer vehicles carry virtually any kind of product, from basic materials like petrochemicals, construction goods and equipment, steel, aluminum and copper, through to food and fast-moving consumer goods, paper and packaging products.

It has plans to get involved in the oil tanker business, but has so far steered clear of pharmaceuticals, which Biswas said was a “conscious decision” because of the special requirements of that sector.

He has also avoided the transportation of dangerous materials like explosives, although this is only a small part of the haulage market.

Egypt — the key to a broader expansion in Africa — is a focus of expansion at the moment, with eight TruKKer offices in the country and a presence in all the major Egyptian ports. He is also looking north, with operations in Jordan and other countries in the Levant that do business with the Gulf Cooperation Council.

An IPO in the Saudi markets in the next few years would be delightful for TruKKer.

Gaurav Biswas, CEO, TruKKer

And then, there is Iraq. “We’re quite serous about the opportunities involved with the rebuilding and reconstruction of Iraq, that is something which is quite close to our ambitions in the short term,” Biswas said.

This ambitious growth strategy will present its own challenges in a region infamous for the bureaucracy and security restrictions involved in cross-border trade. “Anything that crosses borders by land or sea or air comes with a lot of bureaucracy and documentation. Cargo movement comes with he amounts of documentation because of the multiple parties involved,” he said.

“The security risk is high, but I think the region ranks somewhere in the middle globally. Not quite up to the standards of Western economies, but much more secure than Asia or Southeast Asia. Law and order is a big thing in the region and people are less likely to break the law than they are in other parts of the world. But there are still things that happen,” he added.

He thinks that technology, for example in the tracking of cargoes, can be used to mitigate some of those risks, but would also like to see the region insurance industry raise its game. “I don’t think it has matured as fast as a few other economies,” he said.

In terms of TruKKer’s next steps as a corporate entity, Biswas and his team are working on a Series B fundraising that will probably take place before the end of the year. The Saudi Telecom investment arm STV was a big backer in the first fundraising round, and Biswas highlighted the synergy between his business and telecommunications technology.

“There’s going to be some very interesting times in the next few months. We’re going to add some very significant names to our shareholder list,” he said.

The endgame for a technology based start-up consists of two real options. It can go for a big-ticket sale to a trade buyer, as Careem did in its $3 billion deal with Uber; or it can look for a stock market listing via an initial public offering (IPO).

Biswas said that his priorities at the moment were the next round of financing, and with expanding operations. “We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about an exit. We’re more focused on what is happening tomorrow, or next month, or next quarter,” he said.

But with a bit of coaxing he admitted that a listing on a regional stock market does have its attractions.

“I think trucking is a very localized business across the world — you don’t want a foreign company to come and own your trucking industry. So from various perspectives — security, job creation and all that — the regional economies are really proud of what they’ve achieved in the past few decades.

“I think an IPO in the Saudi markets in the next few years would be a delightful outcome for a business like TruKKer,” he added.


INTERVIEW: For Richard Attias, the man behind Saudi Arabia’s ‘Davos in the Desert’, no mission is impossible

Updated 09 August 2020

INTERVIEW: For Richard Attias, the man behind Saudi Arabia’s ‘Davos in the Desert’, no mission is impossible

  • More than 70 international speakers have confirmed their attendance at the forum in Riyadh from Oct. 28-29

These are undoubtedly challenging times, but Richard Attias, the man behind Saudi Arabia’s “Davos in the desert,” is up for the task: Organizing this year’s Future Investment Initiative (FII) in the time of coronavirus.

The FII will go ahead this year on Oct. 28-29 despite the challenge of having thousands of attendees in one place during a pandemic. 

“As of today, it is physical,” the founder of global communications advisory firm Richard Attias & Associates told Arab News in an exclusive interview, from Paris. “I think virtual events are OK, but it’s not, to be honest, the best way to definitely do business together. It is not the best way to talk about big investments. You cannot make deals of billions of dollars and investment of billions of dollars just through virtual conversation.”

More than 70 international speakers have confirmed their attendance at the forum in Riyadh from Oct. 28-29, and more than 1,200 international delegates have registered for it. “This shows you, number one, the optimism that people want to have. People want to be back together. It’s very important,” Attias said. 

“People are quite frustrated to be obliged to be locked down or to not travel anymore. I think we want to be a live community and not just the virtual community in our society. I really hope and wish beyond the business that we’ll be 100 percent physical. And I hope that by the end of October we will not be facing more challenges in terms of health.”

But even if that’s the case, Attias is no stranger to risk management. “We have amazing risk management plans,” Attias said. “We predict all the different possibilities in terms of logistics. We have a fantastic team dealing on everything related to security, to health care, and of course, to transportation, accommodation. We have plans for everything.”

“Even when the time is good, you need always to think about Plan B, Plan C and even Plan D. This is part of our job. So, we are ready to go anytime. And we love being sometimes called like the Mission Impossible people or the Mission Impossible team, not to be too pretentious.” 

With the success of the previous three FII events, the non-profit FII Institute was created a few months ago by royal decree, and Attias is its CEO. “It helped us to be more and more in touch with different stakeholders and different global CEOs,” he explained. “And I only hear very positive feedback. The business community is looking in a very positive way to the Kingdom and definitely the Chinese, Americans, Europeans, and even Africans want to come to the Kingdom and to see what they can do in the Kingdom and with the Kingdom,” he said.

One of the reasons FII was created in Riyadh was to bring Saudi Arabia into the global conversation as a key player in the global economy, situated between the emerging economies of Eastern Africa, West Asia and the Silk Road. “If you look at how the economy is shifting today between West and East, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is very well located,” Attias said.


BIO
BORN: Fes, Morocco, 1969.

EDUCATION

  • Institut national des sciences appliquées de Toulouse.
  • Masters in mathematics and physics, Paris University.

CAREER

  • Chairman, Publicis Events Worldwide.
  • Chairman, the Advisory Board of the Center on Capitalism and Society. 

  • Founder, The New York Forum.

  • Founder, Richard Attias & Associates.


Attias said key global players in the financial field know that it is important to have a good understanding of public-private partnerships, where and how you should invest to have an impact, and how to help young entrepreneurs. “This is why FII was created. And it was created under the vision of his royal highness, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. I’ll be very frank, you know, it was his vision. And in total modesty, I brought my little expertise and experience on how to create great platforms which could have a positive impact.”

Sanabil Investments, a subsidiary of the Public Investment Fund (PIF), acquired 49 percent of RAA last year, Attias explained, “to build together a champion, not only in the Kingdom, not only in the region, but a company who could become a global champion in the field of strategy, communication and events. This is how things were born.” 

Attias spoke to Arab News about the mission of the evolving partnership. “First of all, our vision is to empower governments and I would say corporations, to really build their influence and to have to drive their impact. This is our vision. Our vision is really to support these governments and cooperation on that.”

Accelerating external growth is on his agenda, but it takes time to train and recruit teams. “We have now a great team in Saudi Arabia with more than 20 permanent staff that is growing,” Attias said. “This is something that we were achieving only in the past few months, during the COVID-19. And I’m very happy to have my colleague Rakan Tarabzoni as a COO of Richard Attias & Associates Saudi Arabia, and under his leadership we will be growing definitely in the Kingdom.” 

While Attias has a civil engineering background, he was drawn into the field of communications 30 years ago by following his passion: Bringing people together face-to-face to solve conflicts. “I decided, instead of building bridges as a senior engineer, to build bridges between people and to build bridges between countries and to build bridges between public and private sectors,” Attias said. “And this is something you can do when you are in the field of communication strategy and creating platforms and being a catalyst.”

Attias saw potential in Saudi Arabia 20 years ago, long before FII. “I’m not in Saudi Arabia by coincidence,” he said. “In fact, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia chose our company almost 20 years ago, when I was wearing my older hat as the founder and the CEO of Publicis Events Worldwide. It was the first time that SAGIA (the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority) was considering to organize and to host an international business conference, the Global Competitiveness Forum (GCF), which I started in Riyadh years ago.”

Through eight editions of the GCF, he discovered not only the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia but also its main asset: Its people and their vibrancy. “You know, at that time I was not calling that the vibrant society, but when I read the Vision 2030, I fully understand why this vibrant society was mentioned because it is what you are, full of young talents, very smart, very well educated and very open to the world.”

This is what pushed him to encourage his team at RAA to find opportunities in Saudi Arabia: “Because you have the audience, you have the good infrastructures, you have the right people and the right skills. And now you have a fantastic vision, which is his majesty’s vision and his royal highness the crown prince’s vision. The question now is to implement and to implement quickly because time is flying and to implement correctly with the right teams and the right people.”

Saudi Arabia has golden opportunities to offer through Vision 2030, Attias said. 

“It’s a land full of intelligence and it’s a land full of energy. In fact, it is a kingdom of energy. We always talk about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, about the kingdom of oil, the kingdom of energy, with a big E the energy of the people, the energy of the teams and the energy of the Saudi society. To be honest, this is what is inspiring and what is exciting and what is making all our teams very happy to be as often as possible in the Kingdom to produce what we have to produce.”

Despite all the major reforms, progress and advances Saudi Arabia has made during the past few years, the Kingdom has received some negative press and been the targets of some boycotts, but Attias has other thoughts. “You should look at the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a land of opportunity for investment and as a land of opportunity for being the catalyst of great projects where multiple joint ventures could happen.”

He added: “I would like to remind the businessmen that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is hosting the G20 this year, the first time that an Arab country will host the G20. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will host B20 by definition, which is the group of businessmen from the 20 countries.” 

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the company continues to thrive thanks to the shareholders, and Attias is confident about the future. 

“The world will be having still a lot of opportunities, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will be one of these driving countries in this industry,” he said.