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Tue 9 Feb 2010 04:00 AM

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Family ties

Established in 1973, IMEC's growth has reflected the evolution of the district cooling industry in the UAE. MEP Middle East speaks to father-and-son team Fahed and Aslan Al-Barazi about the company's distinguished history and penchant for innovation.

Family ties
Fahed Al-Barazi.
Family ties
Aslan Al-Barazi.

Established in 1973, IMEC's growth has reflected the evolution of the district cooling industry in the UAE. MEP Middle East speaks to father-and-son team Fahed and Aslan Al-Barazi about the company's distinguished history and penchant for innovation.

Fahed attended the University of Florida's School of Engineering, whereupon he immediately set about distinguishing himself at Moore Dry Kiln Company in the US in the field of heat transfer. This was about 1964. "The batteries of heating coils I recommended were half what the manufacturers were trying to sell them.

The end result was a saving of about US$1 million." In appreciation of his achievements, ‘preference status' US citizenship was secured. Fahed joined the Borg-York division in 1966 to become its youngest Middle East GM, a record that stands to this day.

"The main reason for establishing IMEC was simply that I wanted to be independent. Being GM was fine, but what was next? The fact that I had become GM at such a young age was certainly a stepping stone in my reputation and credentials," reflects Fahed. The products he started out with were non-competitive with Borg Warner/York as such, comprising allied equipment such as boilers and fans.

"This was the early 1970s, when Dubai was hardly anything at that time. Reciprocating chillers and air-cooled packaged equipment had just made their appearance on the market. The district cooling industry as we know it today was still in its infancy," explains Fahed. Interestingly, the hub of innovation during this period was Kuwait, which opted for centrifugal water-based cooling for anything over 300 TR, which meant using cooling towers, and air-cooled condensers for up to 120 TR.

Centrifugal chillers

Kuwait also introduced centrifugal chillers, which the mainly British-orientated consultants in the UAE at that time were quite leery of. "Air-cooled, packaged equipment was not really viable for large projects, as you ended up with ten chillers for a cooling load of 1 000 TR, for example," says Fahed. He was quick to take note of the pioneering spirit of Kuwait.

"IMEC's first major success, now we are talking 1978, was three years after I had left Borg Warner/York. Our first major breakthrough was supplying the cooling requirements for four major naval bases in Kuwait, for which we supplied huge AHUs from the UK, a move that made the industry sit up and take notice," says Fahed. In addition to car-park areas 5 and 9, the project comprised 18 000 TR, which was a staggering size at the time.

Not content with his initial resounding success in Kuwait, Fahed then entered the Iraqi market with a new range of cooling towers, immediately landing a 1 500 TR project, the National Research Centre.

This success resulted in various renowned manufacturers approaching IMEC to represent their products exclusively in the region. "Thus we added AHUs and FCUs to our range, for example. Our strategy was that we added products to our main range as and when we needed them, or as a result of being approached directly."

This meant that Fahed began to forge business relationships that have endured for decades. "Our client base is extensive," he acknowledges. "Many are friends and acquaintances who have known us since the inception of the business, and beyond that to our student days. We have acquired a good set of loyal clientele, which has enabled the company to survive the vicissitudes of the current global economic turmoil."

Kuwaitmilestones

Fahed is particularly proud of the fact that he has personally witnessed, and contributed to, the evolution of the district cooling industry in the Middle East. "The first milestone was the Kuwait Radio and Television Compound (6000 TR) and the Kuwait International Airport (7000 TR). I was the effective designer; York centrifugal chilled water systems were specified." Fahed says his success in this regard was based on rigorous equipment selection and evaluation.

"What I did was apply the principle of ‘mix matching' equipment, which resulted in the selection of a smaller compressor system, a move that immediately saved 15% in total capital and energy costs." It sounds simple, but Fahed says the engineering underpinning this decision meant looking closely at factors such as kW/t and the square feet per ton of surface area.

"I got big orders on the basis of this, as consultants would normally have to approach the factory for such data, and I was much faster as well." Later in Europe, AHUs and FCUs were built for IMEC, based on Fahed's design, for which he still has the catalogued engineering details.

The next major development in the fledgling district cooling industry was the Gold Market in Kuwait, a project for which Fahed advised the Ministry of Public Works, Electricity and Water to opt for a combined system comprising centrifugal and absorption systems. (Today IMEC is continuing this trend of innovation by championing ice thermal storage, a system that employs absorption chillers.) Another major project at this time was the 1 000 TR Hilton Hotel in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

"These major projects were the inception of what eventually resulted in district cooling as an industry. What is important is that we are continuing to promote new technology in the industry to this very day," notes Fahed. Aslan concurs: "You need to have a particular commitment to take up a possible innovation and change the market's perception about it.

For us, the process of innovation is very simply finding a gap, something that has not been used in the area but logically should be. We then fill this gap with the new technology. It takes a lot of education of the industry to change a mindset to a new way of thinking, but it is an enjoyable process in and of itself." Added capital cost

Fahed cautions that a lot of so-called modern technological improvements "do not justify the outlandish added capital cost, such as a run-around coil in an AHU, which practically doubles the original cost. This is unjustified in terms of less than 10% added efficiency.

"It takes that much extra effort when people are used to something and do not want to innovate or change. Here the issue of risk-taking is more entrenched." However, legislation is resulting in something of a step change as the trend of green building spearheads the adoption of innovation as a viable business practice, says Aslan.

So what has made IMEC endure for such a long period of time? Fahed's answer is simple: "It is our reputation and integrity," he says. "It is based on our professional background, our ongoing contribution to the market, and also on a personal level." Aslan, for example, has become a leading authority on cooling tower technology. When clients seek out his advice or expertise, they also often enquire after his father, the founder of the company.

Another issue that cannot be ignored is prevailing market conditions. "A critical factor of any company is its financial robustness, which allows it to ride over any bumps on the road to success," says Fahed. Aslan adds that a key issue at the moment is cash flow.

"A company may have an order book filled with a backlog of orders, or projects in the case of a contractor. However, if the cash does not flow timeously from the client to the main contractor and down the supply chain to suppliers and sub-contractors, companies can choke to death as they are unable to cover their running costs."

Dead end

Looking at the market more specifically, Aslan says that "district cooling is practically halted now and come to a complete dead end. But it should move back in 2010. That being said, there are still some projects going on, and we are on top of that. That is very important. You obviously need to be winning orders at the same time."

Another major issue is the increasing multinational nature of manufacturing conglomerates, which flood the market with cut-price products. "Every company without exception is either wholly or partially manufacturing in China, India, Pakistan, Korea, Taiwan or Malaysia.

For example, all horizontal split-case pumps used in district cooling in particular are made either in India or China," argues Fahed. Such products are then shipped to the US and re-exported under different brand names, and at vastly increased prices.

"This is something that over the last ten years has turned the market upside down. For example, a fan used in a cooling tower costs US$1200 if imported from China. That same fan, made in Germany or the US, costs US$12000. This state of affairs has caused great turmoil in the market among suppliers and manufacturers," says Fahed.

Aslan comments that the basic principles underlying mechanical engineering have not changed over the years. "As a field it has not changed much since the 1960s, and very little in comparison to other sectors such as computer engineering.

The greatest changes have been in increased efficiencies." Having said that, Fahed is of the firm opinion that the quality of mechanical engineering in the UAE is on a par with the US, and is certainly superior to that in Europe. "I can say without reservation that, apart from the US, we are unequalled."

Aslan says this is because of the size and scope of the district cooling industry in the UAE, which has transformed itself into the biggest in the world. "The tonnages here are unheard of elsewhere. In the US, a big plant is 25 000 TR, whereas here it is 100 000 TR. Here they are constantly setting new design records.

So if you want to be a district cooling design specialist, you really need to have acquired experience in the Middle East market." Another engineering challenge is the associated primary and secondary stage pumping involved. "You have to be a very competent engineer to lay out such systems, as you are taking water kilometres away from a central point," adds Fahed.

What does the future hold for IMEC? While Fahed has gradually stepped aside, Aslan has taken over the reigns of the company. "We are a genuine family-owned business," says Fahed. "If Aslan had not been interested, I do not know what I would have done. I would have probably sold it. As the Koreans say, people pass away, but companies should remain forever."

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destefans@yahoo.com 9 years ago

Hi Fahed!! I'm always and will always be very proud of you!!
And very very proud of Aslan!! You did a great job in this life with family , friends and business!!

With all my respect, admiration, apreciation and love,
Denise Estefan

EduardoRubiera 9 years ago

With Egypt in the news now I couldn't but think back to my days at the University of Florida and who I knew from that country. I remembered your name; we were both in engineering and members of ISO. I congratulate you and your son for your success with the family business.