Family ties

Zeina Tabari was never keen to join the construction giant run by her father Khaldoun, but a three month internship changed all that. A decade later, she has become one of Drake & Scull’s top executives, helping to guide the company into new markets and new opportunities

No one, least of all Zeina Tabari, imagined she would ever work for the family business. The 29-year-old originally wanted to open a chocolate shop after finishing her degree in finance, not work in the HR department of Drake & Scull, the contracting firm run by her father, Khaldoun Tabari. But a three-month internship was quickly followed by a full-time job offer and she seized the opportunity.

“My father offered me a position but I got paid peanuts at the time. It was basically ‘come in and do the work',” she laughs. “But I enjoyed it and I thought that I added a lot of value.

“When you work for the family business you need to prove yourself. There are two sides to it; the expectations from your family are way too high — they expect you to be there 24-hours a day — and your colleagues don’t take you seriously because they think you are there because of your family, they don’t think you are qualified. So you have to prove yourself to both sides,” she adds.

In the decade since Tabari joined the Dubai-based firm, she has more than proved herself capable, and today as chief corporate affairs officer, she heads up the company’s investor relations. Some experts in the industry are already touting her as a future boss of the entire company though, ever modest, she says: “I am not on the board of directors as of now… I don’t think I have the right qualifications or I didn’t have at the time we did the IPO, it was my first job officially and I believe that regardless of our ownership it should be based on qualifications and experience.”

Perhaps most importantly she has also learned to love the firm her father helped transform into a multibillion-dollar regional powerhouse.

“We did not float to cash out — we are not here for the money — we are here because we love this company; it’s a legacy for us. Drake & Scull is not the only company that we own but it has a special meaning to my father because he has seen it grow,” she says.

Tabari’s father acquired a majority stake in Drake & Scull International, the UAE-based arm of the UK mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) specialist in 1998. With revenues of less than AED100m ($27.2m) a year, DSI was a far cry from where it finds itself today. Several years later, Tabari acquired the remaining stake and its UK operation changed its name to Emcor Engineering.

“I never used to see my father when I was younger, he was so busy working,” says Tabari. “But the company has grown from a turnover of AED100m ($27.2m) to hopefully this year we’ll close at AED2.5bn ($681m).”

With a market cap of AED1.81bn ($493m), the company certainly looks in healthy shape.

The firm, which now employs 20,000 people in twelve countries, posted a 76 percent increase in third-quarter profits in November, beating analysts’ expectations as it grew its business across the Middle East and North Africa. Tabari is just as confident about the year ahead.

“Based on a secure backlog, which is around AED7bn ($1.9bn) today, we expect that next year we’ll probably be growing around 20-25 percent compared to 2011,” she says.

The Tabaris were as optimistic about the region’s long-term growth prospects in 2006, when they made the decision to IPO and list on the Dubai Financial Market. Wanting to be fully involved in the process, Tabari decided to go back to school to learn the skills required to take care of investor relations.

“I really wanted to be a part of the IPO experience but I didn’t have any experience at the time or the qualifications. So I went to London, did my Masters and an MBA in finance and worked for an investor relations company for six months before coming back and taking on the investor relations function [at Drake & Scull],” she explains.

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