La Casa’s Emad Jaber talks about the trials, tribulations and successes of being Dubai’s go-to engineer
By Chance, Luck and Hard Work
Emad Jaber is soft-spoken at first, in fact, he doesn’t do much speaking at all, that is, until he takes a seat and you ask him how he’s doing. Upon first meeting, his son Ayman said to ask only one question and his father would take care of the rest of the conversation. And that’s pretty much how our second encounter went, too.
Today, Jaber is the proud founder of one of Dubai’s leading architecture and engineering firms, La Casa. Having spent more than 30 years in the UAE, he has built and rebuilt not only projects that have pierced the emirate’s skyline, but also his own business. Starting off in Ramallah before moving to Jordan for university, it was pure chance (and luck) that on 8 June 1984, Jaber would end up in Dubai.
“It wasn’t my choice, really,” he said of his move to the UAE. “But as an engineer, if you wanted a good future, you needed to move to the Gulf region – so it was between the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. I applied to work at Sun Engineering and I got accepted. Although it was 1984 and the oil prices were down, so construction was slow and projects were small.”
His first assignment at TEST was to site engineer the Hamarain Shopping Centre and Marriott Hotel. It was a 150m dirham project that required structural, mechanical and electrical engineers, and Jaber welcomed the responsibility. He drew from it a kind of energy that would last decades.
“That really opened up a lot of things for me in terms of understanding engineering in reality,” he said. “There were a lot of senior engineers who I learned from. That project gave me a lot of experience, and I started learning about programming and logistics. The five years I was at Sun, I wasn’t coming across this kind of experience because we were limited to small-scale projects then. But this was huge for me, and I really found myself forming my capabilities as an engineer.”
An Economic (and Self) Bloom
It was the 1990s. Construction was booming, government projects were rolling in and the vision of Dubai was starting to form. Engineering became an attractive sector, said Jaber, and it was drawing out professionals from Kuwait, Iraq and Europe. And working with international consultants exposed those in the UAE to new ways of working.
“I learned the Western way of engineering,” said Jaber. “It was a more structural way, and with everything done according to the speciality of each engineer. It gave me a systematic way of management.”
TEST started taking on more types of projects, like schools and hospitals, and Jaber worked hard to keep up with the fast-paced momentum of the growing city. Working late hours, he started to offer his help to those in the different departments of the company. Eager to absorb as much knowledge and experience as he could, Jaber would stay well past office hours to learn about design, contracts, tendering and even business negotiations.
In 1997, his manager and close friend Ibrahim Salem resigned from TEST and started his own business, Design & Architecture Bureau (DAR), and Jaber was his first hire. “We started the office together and it was amazing for me. By then I had absorbed a lot of information and experience, and gained a lot of exposure, but I hadn’t practiced it yet. It was the time for me – I was at the top of the pyramid.”
Over a five-year period, DAR grew from two people to 140 and Jaber came to be a pillar of the company. Managing its structure and supervision, Jaber began leaving his prints across the system, making sure the young company would avoid pitfalls he’d experienced in other offices or improve in other aspects. It had been 13 years of an incredible commitment to hard work, and Jaber was finally beginning to reap the rewards.
“I would work through the night by this point,” he said. “New projects were coming in and construction in Dubai was thriving. We started building towers along Sheikh Zayed Road, and by the early 2000s, the freehold started. New companies like Emaar, Dubai Properties and Tecom Investments were popping up. The sky was the limit.”
By 2004, DAR was a greatly revered office in the UAE, and the amount of work coming in was beginning to teeter on unmanageable. The company’s expansion, too, was occurring faster than employees could process, and Jaber was feeling the weight of the workload.
“It was in August 2005, that, for the first time, it all clicked in my mind. Yes, I was enjoying what I was doing. Yes, I was working and doing well and bringing in work and making a profit for the company. But all this work that I was doing was for others, and I thought, maybe this is the time where I should start doing it for myself.”
By March 2006, nearly a year after that first thought crossed his mind, Jaber decided to gamble on himself and start his own architecture and engineering company. Driven by a new dream to create a business that his children could one day find comfort in, be inspired by and perhaps even take the lead of, Jaber, having tasted success, knew that he would either go big or go home.
“In 2006, the market was doing well. Everyone was busy and the real estate sector was rising. The challenge then was that it was all big projects, and there was no space for a small office. So I decided to not start with a small office – I wanted to start with a big office and challenge the big companies,” Jaber said.
He partnered with Nabil Al Khaja, who at the time was a representative for Dubai Properties, and according to Jaber, the amount of support he received from clients was overwhelming. “It was a form of karma,” he said, “for all the hard work I had done for others, everyone now supported me.”
The big projects were coming in from people who had worked with Jaber before, like Mohammad Al Gergawi, then chairman of Dubai Holding (now the minister of cabinet affairs and the future) and Farhan Faraidooni, then heading Tecom. They were clients who, beyond knowing the industry and those who worked in it, trusted Jaber’s quality-oriented work.
La Casa’s first project was a mixed-use development in Mirdif worth 800m dirhams. An 18-storey tower in JVC soon followed, and suddenly, projects snowballed. “From the beginning, we were not able to cope with the amount of work that we were getting,” Jaber said. “People were approaching us for new projects and we had to keep expanding. By the end of 2006 – or the first 6 months – we went up to 62 people to handle jobs that totalled more than 5bn dirhams.
“We had a turnover of 18.5m in the first half of that year. So instead of losing money, like you might expect, we made a 5.5m dirham profit.”
By the end of 2007, La Casa’s turnover was 132m with a net profit of 36m dirhams. The keys to success? Good fees, fast delivery and quality work, said Jaber. And by the end of the year, the company had swelled to 240 people. The first year of success empowered Jaber to scout the best architects and engineers in the region, as well as pick out an extravagant 16,000ft2 Bur Juman office.
But when the financial crisis of 2008 hit, La Casa lost nearly 90% of its projects, which were with semi-government entities. Left with the remaining 10% of the expected workload, La Casa was forced to downsize and restructure. “2009 was the year of thinking,” said Jaber.
“I said to Nabil, ‘We have built a successful company and made a lot of money. We’ve become millionaires, but now things are very difficult. Either we reinvest what we made back into the company to start over once again, or we decide that’s it – we’ve gone to Las Vegas and had our day and we shouldn’t gamble again.’ So I asked him, ‘Do you want to restart with me?’ And he simply said yes.”
La Casa downsized to a core team of 70 between 2009 and 2010, and during that time it expanded to other regional markets and opened offices in Libya, Syria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. By mid-2010, the new sub-companies started bringing in projects, and the small but formidable staff rejoiced.
“From 2010 onward, we started to feel steady. What was happening in the Dubai market was a dream, but there was now international competition. The market was like a small cake, and there were a lot of people around the table looking to get a piece. International companies were now looking at us like we were competitors – it wasn’t like before.
“Now I realise that was the real challenge. It was easy starting the office, and it was easy making the money, but the challenge was now proving myself. You don’t prove yourself when things are going upward, you prove yourself when things are going downward.”
Despite the Arab Spring of 2011, which affected countries where La Casa had opened branches in the year before, the company continued to thrive. It was, by then, a solid business with its feet firmly in the ground. It had just opened a headquarters in Motor City, and bought the property rather than rented. To Jaber, this gesture was a reflection of La Casa’s confidence in its future.
Today, the company consists of around 330 people, with offices across the GCC. And Jaber’s children, like his hopes more than 10 years ago had painted his imagination, have now joined him at La Casa. But the founder continues to hit the ground running, day in and day out, and he expects nothing less of those in his business – related to him or not.
“I’m always saying, ‘We need to prove ourselves!’ And a lot of people ask, ‘Don’t you think we’ve proven ourselves already?’ And the answer is always no,” says Jaber, partly joking, partly serious.
Since 2012, La Casa has been riding a wave of success, with developers coming back to the company and green lighting projects that were paused in 2008. And though industry dynamics have changed a little, with design competitions a thing of the now, La Casa remains as steadfast as ever, taking home seven out of every 10 design bids.
“I wouldn’t change anything,” Jaber asserted. “I’m living my life as though it’s a dream that I really like. When I was in high school thinking of becoming an engineer, I couldn’t have imagined this. My reality is so much bigger than I planned for myself.”