Never giving no for an answer
Albonian International has been built up by CEO Jamal Nachabe on a simple yet effective promise – to always deliver for clients on MEP and now facilities management projects
Writer: Tom Wadlow | Project Manager: Ryan Gray
The 1980s were a difficult time in Lebanon.
A country in the midst of civil war, it wasn’t until the end of the decade that the conflict ended and a degree of stability and rebuilding emerged, the 15-year dispute coming to an end with a newly unified government under President Hrawi.
For Jamal Nachabe, setting up the now vastly successful mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) contractor Albonian International in 1987 was no easy feat.
“I worked different jobs for the majority of the 1980s after graduating as a mechanical engineer,” he recalls. “It was towards the end of the unrest in Lebanon and I was living in Beirut –the times were rather tricky, the market was uncertain, and no one was quite sure about what was on the horizon.
“That being said, I wanted to work for myself, be my own boss, and have my own business. I learned the basics of how to manage engineering, trading, and financial works and, relying on my previous experience, I decided to establish my own company, Albonian, dealing with local suppliers on sales, engineering and contracting.”
Fast-forward to the present day and the business stands as a leading MEP contractor in the UAE and wider region, working for both governmental and private clients across a huge variety of projects in its home country and abroad.
The company’s home country is Lebanon, a market where it continues to be engaged in numerous projects, while major developments have been completed in Doha (Qatar), Amman (Jordan), Lagos (Nigeria) and Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) over the past 20 years. However, since 2006 the major focus has been on the UAE, its head office and majority of engineering personnel based in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
The firm’s services are widespread, covering engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) as well as maintenance of heating, ventilation and air conditioning, district cooling, plumbing, drainage, water treatment facilities, pumping stations, firefighting/protection, telecoms infrastructure, building management systems and electrical installations.
“I still believe as strongly today as I did in 1987 in Albonian and in what it represents,” adds Nachabe. “My philosophy is unchanged –never give no for an answer to my clients –and this is what has formed and kept our strong partnerships with all of our customers.
“If a beach-side resort wanted an EPC solution for full MEP works, Albonian was their partner. If an office development was looking for a switchboard manufacturer, we were ready. If a new highway project was looking for a contractor to install the lighting network, there we were.”
Delivering no matter the circumstances
This attitude has stood the company in good stead through what is by the CEO’s own admission a tough period for the region’s construction industry.
“The next five years are going to be tough on most contractors in the region,” Nachabe continues. “The times are more trying than ever. In a business dominated by cash, our cashflows are becoming increasingly harder to maintain due to delays in payments and outstanding arbitrations from previous projects.”
However, Nachabe is confident projects will continue to come Albonian’s way, not least because of the stellar track record built up over the past 33 years.
Projects will also arrive in different shapes and sizes, the ability to adapt and diversify signalled as key to the longevity of the company moving forwards. For example, Albonian now operates a standalone facilities management (FM) business, enabling the group to offer a one-stop shop style offering to its clients.
“FM is the future of the market and strong FM companies are the ones that are backed by MEP EPC companies with in-depth knowledge, capable of delivering turnkey retrofit solutions to improve energy efficiency and guarantee a good return on investment,” explains Nachabe.
“That being said, our focus on MEP contracting will not lessen. In fact, we have recently completed many specialised projects of varying scales from large state-of-the-art data centres to boutique luxury restaurants.”
Indeed, looking back on 2019, the CEO is able to cite a number of successfully completed and recently awarded projects.
These include the high-end The Court apartment building in Jumeirah 1, the 22-floor Fareed Tower 2 apartment tower in Business Bay, the show village of Tilal Al Ghaf Development for Majid Al Futtaim, the Souq Extra Mall extension in Dubai Silicon Oasis, and 232 villas in the Zahia Community in Sharjah for Majid Al Futtaim.
Going into detail on two further landmark developments, Nachabe says: “One of the most challenging projects completed this year was the expansion of the Tier 3 certified data centre for Gulf Data Hub.
“Located in Dubai Silicon Oasis, the expansion was to add two data halls with white spaces capable of accommodating 400 racks each. The challenge was to execute, test, commission, and hand over the project in just three months by providing the required N+N and redundant cooling and power source to achieve Uptime’s Tier 3 rating.
“Another project currently nearing handover is the prestigious 168-apartment, 50-storey 1/JBR high-rise tower by Dubai Properties. Our partnership on this and many other projects with Dubai Contracting Company (DCC) has now become synonymous market-wide with tier 1 quality.
“WSP, the consultant on this project, makes sure of this, as well as the level of detail that went through making 1/JBR the most luxurious residential development on the real estate market today. Our philosophy is once again achieved here. You won’t ever feel the MEP installations –you will only feel that they effortlessly work.”
These two examples sit alongside several significant contract awards achieved in 2019, including the MEP and ELV package for the 32-floor, 317-guestroom Le Meridien Mina Seyahi Hotel extension for Al Wasl Hospitality in Dubai.
Albonian is also working for Musanada on a 204-villa development in Al Ain in the UAE, near the border with Oman, with other contracts covering MEP works for a restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel in Jumeriah and the MEP design and build for the 17-storey Dubna Tower (Dubai).
Dubai is a particularly promising avenue of business for the company, the highly anticipated Expo 2020 providing many opportunities. Here, Albonian has started the MEP works for the French and Belgian pavilions.
“Whatever projects are available are favouring cost over quality,” Nachabe says. “However, at Albonian we are known to do the exact opposite. This is why we need to find creative ways to increase efficiency, improve productivity and reduce cost, all the while maintaining our standard for quality.
“Our clients are continuously turning to our skill and expertise in value engineering and design in order to reduce cost and meet their budget constraints. Therefore, we are curating special relationships with suppliers and subcontractors in order to develop solutions to reduce cost and add value to our projects without getting in the way of quality.”
Transforming with technology
This rings particularly true in the realm of technology.
“I’m a strong believer in technology to improve workflow, increase efficiency, and be able to provide better services,” Nachabe continues. “I think that it can help staff as well as management in improving the internal workings and processes of the company.”
The CEO cites SAP’s Business One ERP system as a case in point. Streamlining and automating its accounting, HR, and payroll procedures, the solution has also enabled Albonian to drastically improve its procurement department, especially in the area of purchase order tracking and store management.
Computer aided facilities management software is another recent technological investment that has greatly benefited the FM business. Its team is now able to generate more insightful reports, keep track of orders and monitor trends, while clients are benefitting from greater transparency and punctuality of work delivery.
Building information modelling (BIM), however, is arguably the greatest gamechanger of recent times.
“BIM has been a whole different ball game,” Nachabe explains. “We’ve invested greatly in the past four years in bringing our team up to speed with BIM software and solutions and brought certified trainers into our in-house training facilities for 60 hours of training.
“While the market as a whole hasn’t fully moved to BIM yet, we are looking towards the long term here. Only a handful of our projects are being done on BIM at the moment, but we anticipate this number to grow over the next few years.
“The built-in features can, importantly, reduce the number of hours spent on coordination drawings and quantity take-offs, and they will also make execution much more direct. We have invested in the purchase and maintenance of this software and are trying to have it replace AutoCAD in the next five to 10 years.”
Nachabe hints at the importance of training and development in bringing staff up to speed with the latest industry solutions.
Here the company dedicates sizeable resources into gearing up its recruits to operate effectively in the field, not only teaching them how to use various technologies, but also instilling a problem solving ability that enables Albonian to live up to its promise of never taking no for an answer.
“This is why we hire fresh graduates from various universities across the world and mould them into self-reliant engineers that can handle any task you throw at them,” Nachabe says.
“Our engineers have the ethic of not resting until they find the answer to the problem. Albonian has become a school of MEP for many of our staff. Fresh graduates steadily become senior engineers, and project managers shortly thereafter. The team knows how to work smart and get results.”
They also know how to work safely, the company deploying a strong HSE policy which involves regular training and awards for colleagues who embrace and promote a safe working environment.
And it is this level of expertise and attention to detail that will steer Albonian into next year, the massive Expo 2020 event one which Nachabe particularly has his eyes on.
The CEO is determined to continue operating against the grain, championing quality above all else and sticking to its principles which have seen the firm grow enormously from its humble beginnings in 1987.
Nachabe concludes: “I have two sons –young men in their late 20s now –but Albonian is my third baby. Years of hard work, long hours, and unchanging work ethics have helped me and my resilient team put Albonian on the map as what it is today.
“Albonian represents dedication and commitment. It represents our hard work to always strive to find a workable solution to our clients’ problems. We are partners, not just service providers and not just contractors.”