From Mayo to Dubai, via Bus Éireann

Wild Geese: Paul Mallee is at the helm of a $300m virtual hotel brand in the United Arab Emirates

Paul Mallee, co-founder of Maison Privee: ‘I think the opportunities are significant [in Dubai]. The ecosystem here for startups is really coming along in leaps and bounds.’

Paul Mallee, co-founder of Maison Privee: ‘I think the opportunities are significant [in Dubai]. The ecosystem here for startups is really coming along in leaps and bounds.’

 

It was a series of fortunate career moves that led Paul Mallee to Dubai to set up a business catering to individuals seeking to rent short-term, upmarket accommodation.

Out of university, Mallee went to work with IBM as a consultant in Dublin before he joined Booz Allen Hamilton in their Dublin office. While working on aviation and other transport projects in the Middle East, one of the partners at Booz gave Mallee’s CV to the chief executive of Etihad Airways.

The Mayo man was promptly hired, moving ultimately to become the airline’s head of strategy and living full-time in the United Arab Emirates.

Originally from Knock, Mallee grew up in a business environment. His father had a hotel business and a printing business and he “grew up within the hospitality business”. The business bug led him to study commerce in University College Dublin after which he studied for a masters degree in strategy in UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School.

During his career as a consultant, travel and transport became the “key focus”, and he went on to work on projects with the Department of Transport here and other players in the Irish market.

Some time later, Fine Gael were running an election campaign in which they promised to end cronyism on State boards. With that, and living in Dubai, Mallee saw an opportunity to use his transport knowledge and he applied to become the chairman of Bus Éireann. He was successful and took over the reins in July 2011 at a time of deep difficulty for the State company in which industrial disputes and widening losses were an unfortunate feature of the times. During that time, Mallee flew home, at a cost to himself, every “few weeks” to carry out his non-executive role.

Without those ties, he still ensures he takes a trip home every two to three months. “It’s very important for me to stay connected and I spend as much time as I can going home.”

But his focus now is on Maison Privee, the company he founded in March 2017 with his business partner Rami Shamaa. The company started as a virtual hotel brand, offering high standards of accommodation targeting “discerning tourists” and corporate visitors. In the years since the company has expanded rapidly and in April 2018 it closed a Series A funding round at $4 million (€3.57 million).

The group now expects to have about $300 million worth of assets under management by the end of this year with revenues set to reach $6 million. “The revenue grows as we sign new properties and we’re looking at signing a significant number of units,” Mallee said, noting that the company delivers 30-40 per cent more net revenue to property owners who use short term lets than if they rented out their property for a year. “The growth of the tourist market in Dubai feeds into our ability to do that.”

But Mallee’s ambitions extend far beyond Dubai. “Certainly, we see our business as being globally applicable,” he said.

“From an operating perspective, companies like ours need access to properties on the ground. As we think about our international expansion, acquiring an operator in a local jurisdiction is something we’re keen on exploring,” he said, noting that the company isn’t against the idea of organic expansion either.

When the business does expand, Mallee may consider a move back to Ireland. “At some point it’s certainly on the cards but what exactly the timeframe will be I don’t know.”

In any event, he appears to be happy in Dubai – somewhere you can “go into any shop and find Kerrygold butter”.

Were there culture shocks when he moved to Dubai? “Not as much as people would expect. I think it is a very inclusive environment. It is a melting pot of different personalities.

“I got involved with the Irish business network from my early days and I found that to be a very welcoming and inclusive environment. The aim is to support the diaspora so that people get access to the people they need to get access to.”

The Irish, he said, are very well received in Dubai and he “certainly wouldn’t warn people off” moving there.

“I think the opportunities are significant. The ecosystem here for startups is really coming along in leaps and bounds,” he said.

His own startup has recorded significant successes since its foundation two years ago. At the Gulf Capital SME Awards 2019, the company is a finalist in three categories including “entrepreneur of the year”.

From a business and a personal perspective, the UAE seems to have been good to Mallee. But does he miss home? “You always miss home and it’s always an amazing feeling when you fly back in.”

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