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18 April 2014 Last updated
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Mary Jane Alvero-Al Mahdi: From factory worker to company CEO

From a Dh1,000-a-month job in a textile factory to becoming the CEO of a leading independent testing laboratory in the region, Mary Jane Alvero-Al Mahdi has come a long way. She tells Burgess Baria why it’s so important to keep aiming high

By Burgess Baria
30 Dec 2012 | 12:57 pm
  • Mary Jane Alvero-Al Mahdi

    "Life is a series of mountains to be climbed"

    Source:Stefan Lindeque/ANM Image 1 of 3
  • Mary Jane Alvero-Al Mahdi

    Mary Jane is proud that she has been able to lead Geoscience to new heights.

    Source:Stefan Lindeque/ANM Image 2 of 3
  • Mary Jane Alvero-Al Mahdi

    Mary Jane with her staff at the lab. She dreams of mentoring more and more people, encouraging them to think out of the box.

    Source:Stefan Lindeque/ANM Image 3 of 3

When Mary Jane Alvero-Al Mahdi arrived in Dubai in 1992, little did the then 22-year-old Filipina, a graduate in chemical engineering, know the lofty heights she would scale in the UAE. All she had at the time was a job as a quality assurance officer at a textile company in Jebel Ali, one that paid her just Dh1,000 a month. Still grieving the death of her father who had lost his battle with a chronic lung condition, she desperately needed to financially support her mother, who was running a small restaurant, in the education of her four siblings.

“While we were young, we lived in absolute comfort as my father’s business was thriving,’’ she says. But once his lung condition worsened, he was forced to remain confined to the bed and his business suffered. “It was up to my mother to look after us five children from the profits of the restaurant she was running,’’ says Mary Jane. Determined to help, she did part- time jobs while studying hard to earn a degree in chemical engineering.

After graduating she first worked in a company in Manila before she got the job offer in Dubai. A few months before she was to leave for the UAE, her father died. Mary slowly but steadily worked her way up the corporate ladder and today she is the CEO of Geoscience Testing Laboratory, a leading independent, testing laboratory in the Middle East, which conducts tests on construction materials and micro biological tests on food, water and air. “I went from riches to rags, and then back to riches,” she says.

Hints of her success and recognition are visible in her spacious office – crystal, silver and gold trophies adorn her desk and cabinets; on the wall hang pictures of her receiving awards from the Governments of the UAE and the Philippines. She likens life, with all its challenges and achievements, to one of her hobbies – mountain hiking.

“Life is like a series of mountains to be climbed. Once you reach a peak, you don’t stop; you just find a higher mountain to climb.” In the 14 years she has worked at Geoscience, Mary Jane has led the organisation to become one of the best laboratories in the Middle East.

In the process she has also distinguished herself as an outstanding businesswoman and leader. Geoscience’s staff has grown from eight when she joined, to over 500 today. From a lab space of 1,000 square feet in the Al Rashidiya area in Dubai, Geoscience today boasts a 140,000 square feet sprawling lab complex at Dubai Industrial City.

Mary has led Geoscience to work on mega-projects such as Downtown Burj Dubai – which included the Burj Khalifa – the Dubai Metro, and Emirates Road. Accolades followed – she was honoured as the runner-up of the Emirates Businesswoman Award in 2008.

In the same year, the President of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo bestowed an award that recognised Mary as “an outstanding and exemplary overseas Filipino worker’’. Other honours include the ‘Woman of Substance 2009 Honoree Award’ and ‘Most Distinguished Chemical Engineer Award’ 2009. 

“Every step of the way, I’ve received a lot of love and encouragement from my husband Mohammad Al Mahdi Lari, and my parents-in-law. They are so proud of me! I only wish my father could have also seen what his daughter has achieved today,” she says.

Work

Before I graduated as a chemical engineer in 1991 in Manila, I was accepted as a trainee with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. For six months I assisted my seniors in a very interesting project – reviving a biologically dead river called Pasig, which runs through Manila. It’s been years since I left that project, but I am happy to see that a large part of this river has been rehabilitated.

Immediately after that, I joined a textile factory as its Quality Control Engineer. It was while working here that I applied for a position of a Quality Assurance Officer of a textile company in the UAE and I was taken on.

I arrived in Dubai in 1992. My boss was impressed with a quality control process I created for him and recognising that I was over-qualified for the position, he gave me the freedom to move, even extending me moral support as I interviewed with Al Futtaim Wimpey Laboratories for the position of chemist.

There I undertook a range of civil engineering and infrastructure projects, and had a testing and analysis division. When the Chief Chemist left, I was promoted to fill his position. After six years, I was headhunted for the Geoscience Testing Laboratory and I accepted to join as the Quality Assurance Officer.

In those days, Geoscience had a staff of just eight and operated out of an office in Al Rashidiya. Once there I initiated a series of changes in the entire system, re-structuring and re-engineering it. It took me weeks – and I was working on the entire gamut of operations, from testing and analysis, to reports and worksheets and managing the team. There were several evenings when I even slept in the lab.

As our market reputation grew, our market share also increased and we subsequently took up a larger lab space in the Al Quoz Industrial Area. We were awarded with prestigious and numerous infrastructure projects from the government and private sectors, and we expanded our scope of activities to more of specialised testing. In 2000, I was promoted to General Manager, and in 2003, to CEO.

I firmly believe that as a leader, I need to keep equipping my people to anticipate change and adapt. I like to coach, to be a mentor and facilitator. I ask my team to get outside their mental box – their comfort zone and explore. Mistakes should be viewed as stepping stones to rise up again. Everyone fails, don’t be afraid.

Play

I’m the fourth of five children and my father Renato Alvero was a well-to-do businessman and my mother, Martha, ran a small restaurant. Our early years were spent in comfort. Life was beautiful and carefree when I was living at the farmhouse of my paternal grandparents at the age of six. It is common in our country to spend the young years with grandparents. It was an idyllic setting – verdant hills, cascading waterfalls and pristine beaches. Every weekend, our parents would make the two- to three-hour trip from Manila and visit us.

I always ranked in the top ten students at school. From an early age I loved sketching and enjoyed watching cartoons.

My father was doing very well in his business in machinery parts in Manila but it began to suffer as he couldn’t concentrate on it after he was diagnosed with severe emphysema, a progressive condition that destroys lung tissue, making breathing increasingly difficult. I was in high school then and only 15. His condition was so bad that he couldn’t move out of his bed. The cost of medicines was high and his savings from the business and even the profits from mother’s restaurant were not enough to meet his medical expenses.

I did my best to help her. During my lunch break, I would rush to the market and buy some provisions for her restaurant. While pursuing a degree in chemical engineering at the Adamson University in Manila, I took up a part-time job at a fast-food chain as a counter service staff. This way I could at least defray some of my education expenses, which were being jointly shouldered by my mother and my aunt who was working in Saudi Arabia at that time.

But things changed after I got a job in Dubai and I began to rise in my career. I met and married my husband Mohammad Al Mahdi while in Dubai. Since our marriage in 2003, we have been blessed with two children – Humaid aged eight, and Noor, one and a half. Together with Ali aged 20, Abdulla, 16, and Hanan, 14 – children from his former marriage, we live in Sharjah. My family and their needs come first, but I also do take out some time to participate in community service.

I make it a point that Geoscience provides free geotechnical testing and soil analysis services whenever a mosque is to be built. I am also a founder member of the Board of the Filipino Digerati Association. As a not-for-profit organisation, we provide free training in computer operations, professional and personality development. My own history of financially difficult times prompted me to grant scholarships to outstanding chemical engineering students who are unable to pay for their education.

Dream

I dream of mentoring more people, especially my female compatriots in the UAE. I am convinced that many of our dreams will be fulfilled if we advance our education, practise and share what we have learned, go the extra mile every day, think out of our box, and explore.

My dream is to keep on educating myself. Education is the greatest enabler that helps you keep climbing higher. Recently, I completed an MBA programme from the Philippine Christian University, and have embarked upon a doctorate in Business Administration at the Lyceum University in the Philippines.

My ultimate dream is to have a happy God-fearing family, and to live a simple life. I want my children to embrace life’s true values – to be compassionate, to look after each other, and to work hard with determination, humility and intelligence. There is no greater treasure than a loving family who find it in their hearts to be there for one another in times of need.

By Burgess Baria

By Burgess Baria

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  • Asif Hashmi, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

    First of all I want to congratulate Ms. Mary Jane Alvero-Al Mahdi for achieving such a remarkable landmark in her career. This is really a great motivation to all of us especially for the new starters in all the professions. Always thinks about the top is the key to success as she did as well and also ready to sacrifice for the sake of learning and development is also very important. Nothing is impossible in the life if one can make all the efforts in a significant manner. One thing is also important as she did the same that do not take any job light or useless, if you are new starter and frustrated about the pay scale then you should make yourself updated according to the market and in the future there is no reason that you will not become successful.

  • AP, Muscat, Oman

    Miss Mary had gone thru difficult stages in her life, but it was her strong determination and confidence which kept her moving and suceeding. Truly encouraging and inspiring saga

  • Marcie, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates

    Very inspiring kabayan. Thanks for your sharing your story which is similar to mine. I am once a housemaid in 2004 but through hardwork and decipline I have level up my career and having been worked with the top management as PA and later on learned international trading import-export which open up new oppurtunities. Keep up the good work!

  • RAVOOF, Chennai, India

    Awesome and extremely inspiring especially for the present generation(who want everything in life immediately).

  • Protagonist, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

    Dedication and hard work! Keep it up!

  • Shisi, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates

    Really touched with the inspiring Story of this great woman.She is a true icon for all those who feels themselves stranded with no aim..They should be get inspired by her..hats off...

  • mohamed anwar, sharjah, United Arab Emirates

    I like your views and hard work. You being the role model, we will try and educate others as well.. Congratulations for your growth.

  • Flordelisa, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

    Congratulations Ms. Mary Jane! Very impressive profile and you have reached the star . The song & quot; Impossible dream" indeed become possible in your journey. Proud to be Filipina!

  • Jona, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

    Thank you for your very inspiring story. I will always keep this phrase for myself "Everyone fails, don't be afraid"

  • Jose Dizon, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates

    Congratulations! I am so happy to read your story. It inspires me to do more in my job and for my family. Keep up the good work.

  • Mikhail Fernandes, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

    i have a dream that is to become a CEO since i was 15 and now im 24 still holding on to that dream no matter how hard it will be i'll never give up nor back down.

  • raja, dubai, United Arab Emirates

    Hats off, you are real inspiration to others!

  • Lawrence, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

    BRAVO!!! Please dont get tired of sharing your fortunes.

  • Mohamed Lishid, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

    I was born in Dubai and now after completing my B-tech in Biotechnology from india I have come back to Dubai to pursue my career but am not able to get any job as nobody want to take freshers. But dont you think all experienced people were freshers once and it was that bold step of somebody to take them to job is what make them experienced. Well am very impressed to read the story of Mrs. Mary Jane.I also have come to Dubai dreaming high and she has certainly motivated me .I have come to practice what i have learnt. I am sure I will reach where I want to be with this detremination and confidence in life.

  • Aishah Madrid, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

    Awesome and inspiring story..

  • dileep.k.s, Dubai ,, United Arab Emirates

    Making the impossible things possible is the capacity.