A broad vision – Emad Jaber of Lacasa talks business and nationhood

Since its formation nine years ago Lacasa Architects and Engineers has become a major force, not only in the UAE but across the wider Middle East.

After Emad Jaber founded the company growth was rapid and billions of dirhams found their way into its coffers – but along came the crash of 2008 and a major downsizing resulted.

Jaber faced a big decision – to close down operations and preserve the profits he had left or use the cash to rebuild.

Diversifying across the region he chose the latter. Now Lacasa is back on top and its founder has a new dream – to help his homeland of Palestine to become a true nation.

Here, Jabar tells MEA about his journey as a businessman, architect and patriotic visionary.

He said: “The formation of the company came into my mind in 2004 – 2005 after 20 years in Dubai I wanted to start out on my own. I had the connections, the experience and the trust and confidence of the people. So I knew I   could do it myself. This was the dream.

“So in 2006 March I resigned from my job and I went for the adventure, without any fear. Yes, it was a calculated risk. But Dubai was prospering, construction was going up., real estate was booming. So I was confident.”

Jaber’s first stage was to get the right licence to trade – and then there was the issue of a name.

“A lot of names were discussed than I find Lacasa. It means ‘The Home’ which I like and it is unique. It’s a Spanish name. So June 2 2006 was when I started in my own office. I was alone, no-one else.

“So it was time for a head-hunt. I wanted head of concept, head of contracts, head of design. I approached these people to join me.

“My friends who were developers knew that I was going to start. In fact this is a good way of thanking all the people that supported me. We start appointing and by September the headquarters  was ready, but even before we moved to our offices in Burjaman we knew we needed more space.

“Between 2006  and 2008 we reached 250 people, AED45bnof work had been done in total. In 2008 we bought in AED352m. It was incredible. It was a profitable business, it was an exciting business with a lot of prestigious projects. Everything was amazing. It was like a dream.”

But then the financial crisis hit the world and virtually overnight Lacasa lost 90% of work. Jaber quickly realised this was no minor hiccup and hard times were going to last for a considerable amount of time.

So how long did it take him to realise this financial situation not minor blip?

“I knew the impact and it likely effect immediately,” said Jaber. On 16 October 2008 we were okay – 17 October 2008 things were bad. It was immediate.

“All the developers are my friends and the CEOs were calling me saying they would be sending me letters saying they want to halt projects and this is not for a short period. They would say we are not saying it’s a cancellation – it’s on hold. But they told me this would not be for a short time.

“I will always I remember 16th and 17th. First we lost 20% of our projects. So second we have to lose that amount of our staff. We have people who are idle. It had to be immediate as we were given no notice.

“We had a management meeting and I explained the situation and we said ‘let’s move and let’s move fast’. First we have to lay off staff and the first batch was around 70 people, immediately. We discussed the names and it wasn’t about qualifications, it was about jobs. This job is stopped so the whole team goes.

“I decided I would be giving the termination letters to the staff. People said it will be difficult for you but I said, I hired them so I will be the one to give them the termination letters. I sat with the 70 people and explained the situation.”

And far worse was to come as the global economic crisis continued to extert its grip on the industry.

Jaber said: “March 2009 it was the second batch and that was cutting to the bone. It was 120 people we had to let go and that was not easy.

“So from a workforce of 250 it was down to 60. This is the fact we had to face and we also had to make a strategic decision.

“We can just close the office and say ‘no more Lacasa’ we have made some money and done what we set out to do. Or we could reinvest the profits from one and a half years and go for the next challenge.

“As we started from scratch we could start from scratch once again – that is want we decided to do. So first we have to think what to do. This [architecture and design] is what we do, this what we love to do.

“But we need to find diversity and so we looked at other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Everybody wants the expertise that is coming out of Dubai. Everybody was welcoming us. So it was easier than we thought. The first office we opened was in Syria, the second in Libya, the third in Qatar, then Saudi Arabia then Sudan.”

The company also needed to arrange and reorganise its internal office in Dubai. Then it had to sort out the necessary trade licences following its reorganisation, then it needed to get projects in order to pay salaries.

In Syria it was able to get jobs immediately, mainly office buildings. Libya saw a $300m dollar job arrive and work started to come along from Saudia Arabia and Qatar.

There was now enough volume of work and so the firm started to recruit – especially on the concept design side of its operations.

Jaber said: “We were thinking that we want Dubai to be the kitchen. All the designs have to come from Dubai in order to maintain the quality. It is also the best place for the talent to come. So we start hiring architects. At the end of 2009 and in early 2010 the circle started again.”

In total 35 people appointed up to 2011 and all were hired for markets outside the UAE.

Jaber said: “We were more mature and more confident with a good reputation in the markets we had started. The news was Lacasa was getting work and it was doing good work, both in and out of Dubai.

I feel that 2010 was the recommence of Lacasa. I was concentrating on marketing the office as well locally and across the Middle East and North Africa.

Company revenue had been AED354m in 2008. It went down AED130m in 2009 as there were still some projects left over from before the economic downturn. But just AED22m was earnt in 2010 – even though prospects were improving.

The turnover rose to AED27m in 2012 AED35 a year later and in 2014 it reached AED80m. It is forecast to reach AED100m this year.

Staff numbers also rose from a low of 60 to 80. Employees now number 165 in total.

Jaber said: “We took the decision to talk to the people we had to let go and see if they wanted to come back. Some were here, some in Palestine and Jordan. But we have hired around 80% of the people we laid off. Others we couldn’t find or they had jobs in which they were happy.

“Now we have a good staff, work, a good reputation with developers, we are expanding.”

Jaber now has his sets set on a wider vision.

“As a personal dream Lacasa was one – to establish my own office, establish a good reputation and help people by offering them jobs,” he said.

“But the other dream is Palestine, my home country. I want to invest and I want to combine that investment with a mission. This to help the people there- whether it is in education, real estate or any other sector that I know. This will provide jobs and opportunities for people – this is the big dream.”

He admitted the country had changed since its lefts its borders and an adjustment in his thinking and approach was necessary

“I left Palestine in 1979 went back 2006 so I had to get to understand the market and the mentality of the people as both had changed. There had been the second Intifada [uprising] and that really was a war with Israel.

“The economy was destroyed, unemployment was very high, the people were in need of everything, you could see the sadness in the faces of the people. I was not easy to move within Palestine as the roads were cut and it was taking hours with checkpoints everywhere.

“But the challenge was there – the political situation was stabilising so I think it’s the right time to start. It wasn’t a big dream like now – it was just making a start and going forward step by step. There were no facilities for doing a big job, so I said ‘okay first I have to buy the plots’– let’s understand the market by working in it, rather than asking people.”

Rumours of corruption in both business and government abounded during that period so Jaber took the decision to see what is happening on the ground.

He said: “In 2007 I started small projects – the first was classrooms for a school, a donation from my side to the government. Then six apartments then a villa. The first real investment was in 2012, which was 30 luxury apartments in Ramallah for $6m. It wasn’t a dream project as I was looking for something that will touch the people more and be bigger and provide more benefit.

“I was thinking what can we do? By studying the market and meeting the officials everyone was very sure we need a school in Palestine. But the way they were thinking was different to how I was thinking.

“They were looking at the schools that were there. For me it was about raising the bar to the international standards we have in Dubai. We want to go very high – this will encourage other investors to match what we are doing. Help the country, help the people.”

The ground breaking ceremony for the school took place in May, in the presence of Prime Minister Rami Al Hamdallah. Subsequently President Mahmoud Abbas has enthusiastically embraced the project.

Jaber said: “We didn’t comprise with anything – this is the reaction I got from the officials and the President, the Prime Minister and the government. Everyone was offering to help with the construction. This is exactly what I want to see. I wasn’t ever sure I could ever do this sort of large scale project but now I can say with confidence the reality is far above what we expected.”

Now, while Palestine remains a priority other emerging markets have taken a back seat, although the company is still active in both troubled Syria and Libya where offices opened in 2009.

Jaber said: “By 2011 things were changing though, instability was a major factor. Revolutions starting with Libya then Syria were taking place. But even so, we do still have a presence in these markets – but not so much.

“In Syria we had 42 engineers now it’s three. Libya we had 12, now two. But I am still very concerned to have offices there as the time will come when we can start working there. Now we are busy in Dubai we are happy in Dubai. But we want to maintain a presence in other countries.

“It will hold us in a good way for the future. The investment and expertise we have obtained means it is important to maintain our presence. In Sudan we are doing good jobs we have a team of eight out there. Small projects but important ones.”

The company has a strategy in working in emerging markets which uses both the worldwide reputation for design excellence which is Dubai , along with knowledge gained locally.

Jaber said: “The branding of Dubai has helped us as it is known across the world and particularly valued in pre-mature markets in terms of industry and architecture.

“The model we use is as Lacasa in Dubai we have a regional partner who knows the countries market, officials, way of working and regulations. That is the right combination – the design is done in Dubai to the Dubai standard. The regulations and knowledge about the market come locally. This is the magic formula.”