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Sun 16 Jan 2011 12:00 AM

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Stay ahead

Unfinished projects a new market, say Mark Nasseh and Andre Tufenkjian of Prime Home Electromechanical Company and JCB Engineering & Consultancy.

Stay ahead
Nasseh refers to JCB’s consultancy work as ‘true engineering’.
Stay ahead
Good-quality work translates into good-quality referrals, says Tufenkjiad.

Many construction companies have sought to diversify to keep
business flowing, but few are so adamant that this means sticking to their home
market as the men behind JCB Engineering & Consultancy and Prime Home
Electromechanical Company.

Diversification for these two companies means expanding
their respective services, with Prime Home able to export some of the latest
building products around the region to still capitalise on projects even if it
stays within the UAE.

Today, Mark Nasseh, general manager at Prime Home
Electromechanical Company, and Andre Tufenkjian, partner at JCB, are seeing the
fruits of two medium-sized businesses that have kept calm during the financial
storm and gradually added new disciplines to offer clients.

JCB is a pure engineering design and consultancy practice,
originally Lebanese and now into its 45th year, with an extensive list of
project areas, including environmental engineering, transportation and traffic,
architecture and master planning for infrastructure, as well as consultancy for
feasibility studies. Prime Home Electromechanical is about a tenth of the age
of JCB, having been launched at the start of 2007 by the two men to provide MEP
services with a growing business line in interiors and fit-out work.

The business partners have complementary skills sets, and
seem very much of a single mind. Prime Home is the newest company, forged in
the boom years of Dubai
and expanding from pure MEP works to finishing in an attempt to beat the
emirate’s downturn.

“It happened by coincidence, and also the market helped us,”
says Tufenkjian. “We started with MEP and then as MEP progressed, we started
with the interiors and fit-outs. Then as the market became tighter we started
to diversify and tried to capture as much as possible from the market, so as to
increase our scope [in order to be able to] survive in this market.”

He adds that the ability to complete both the electrical
installation work and fit-out effectively removes the occasional ‘clash’ when
two different companies are contracted for the competing two areas of work.

“When we approach [the client] and talk to them about having
the solution for everything, as we are one team, then they are happy,” he says.
“The point is that, as the market gets tighter, you need to diversify, whether
horizontal or vertically. We said, ‘let us do the following: rather than go to
other countries, we just increase our scope of work’.”

The finishing part of the business was only added in the
last 18 months, adds Nasseh, following clearance from the authorities.

Nasseh, a graduate in civil engineering specialising in
hydrology, began working at JCB 15 years ago in Lebanon as a senior engineer. As
the company was winding down, the two men secured the right to use the company
name overseas, first setting up an office in Toronto.

He calls the many areas of consulting carried out by JCB
“true engineering”, though adds that they always had plans to add innovative
products to the service that could be sold on a per-project basis.

“We are trying to add new things to JCB; the engineering is
going on, but it is a competitive market, and it has been there for a long
time. But there are things needed that are not here, and we are trying to bring
them into the market through JCB.”

The design consultancy has also gained a lot of business in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike contracting
work, where often high volumes of workers and materials need to be mobilised
and ‘on-site’ for the project’s duration, as a consultant you can act remotely,
explains Tukenkjiad. This means that it may be only him travelling to sites
intermittently.

Closer to home, JCB spied an opportunity in affordable
housing by marketing a special pre-cast system called Platform from the US that reduces
the time and cost associated with creating slabs and columns.

The saved time derives from the fact that the steel and bar
detailing can be worked on as a separate line simultaneously with the concrete.
“You do not have to put the steel in a mould, pretension and prepare it, then
cast the concrete and cut the rebar,” explains Tufenkjian. “Instead, you have
two lines, one for the steel and one for the concrete; they work together.
Instead of doing everything in series, we are doing it in parallel. So you
prepare the steel outside, then you put it in the mould and cast the concrete.
That makes it faster.

“In other systems, you cannoyt do it parallel; you have to
do it inside the same mould; you have to put the steel in, pretension it and
then pour the concrete.”

The slabs are produced on-site using portable machinery,
which slashes the usual cost of factory-produced pre-tensioned steel that must
then be transported – ideal for lower-margin business such as low-cost housing.
Further, they add, the company can send the machinery to any site around the
Gulf, without needing a permanent presence in the country. “We can always add
more and can go anywhere from 100 to 500 m2 a day,” says Tufenkjian.

The company is marketing Platform in UAE, Iraq – where it has a Baghdad
office – and Qatar.
An office in Kabul in Afghanistan
is being renovated and will be opened in mid February, and the company is
negotiating with a firm in Egypt
that is asking for representation.

The second product that aims to fill a gap in the Gulf
market is blast-proof structures, which they have successfully sold in the US to chemical
companies where the chance of an internal explosion in one part of a building
necessitates the protection of all the other structures, or only the
surrounding buildings. “If an explosion
occurs you have the suppression system for fire, but no explosion-containing
system,” says Tufenmkjian. “Our base is in the UAE, but for this product there
is a market in Qatar
because of the new high-profile buildings going up there. If there is a
high-profile event they are willing to spend that little bit more money. Iraq is another
[potential] market because it is a [recovering] war zone.”

With increasing scope of services across the two companies,
and new products to distribute around the region, how often do the two
companies work together?

“Our secret is the following: I do my thing; he does his
thing,” says Tufenkjian. “We help each other, but we have two different
responsibilities.

“So far we are doing much better than last year, and last
year was better than the year before. My analysis, or way of explaining this
phenomenon, is that we are in a situation where we are not small, and we are
not big. We are in a situation where we are efficient, we are flexible, and we
can change and adapt.”

The two acknowledge that they have not been untouched by the
difficulties in securing payments, as the freeze in cash flow over the last year
gradually thaws. Tufenkjian says it is a question of being persistent, and
ensure no undue risk is taken on from clients that might have suffered in the
real-estate downturn and seek to reduce the pre-agreed payment.

Nasseh adds that, if you continue to execute tasks
perfectly, the client will want to retain your services on future projects, and
is also likely to refer the company to other clients. “Referrals are extremely
important,” concurs Tufenkjiad.

“We did some fit-out projects, and the clients referred us
to their friends and other designers. Your best advertisement is your customer;
though that does not mean we should stay there and wait. We should also be
aggressive and approach new clients and sectors.” The public sector, in
particular, has been a fertile area of business,  which has been unexpected by the two men.

They credit the Abu
Dhabi Municipality
for its encouragement of Dubai-based firms seeking work in the capital. This is
perhaps just as well for companies like JCB and Prime Home Electromechnical
toughing it out in Dubai
as other companies took flight.

But though the number of new projects launched in the
emirate has tumbled, there are still many half-finished structures just waiting
for MEP work. With the continued strength of Dubai as a global attraction for business,
there is a degree of inevitability that the projects will be finished, leaving
the company well-placed to pick up the next phase right up to finishing.

“There are a lot of unfinished projects that need to be
finished and done properly, as they need to be inhabited and rendered viable.
This is why we are still in work. I think Dubai
is still very attractive.”

“We have increased the number  of labourers, and we have increased our
engineers,” adds Nasseh, referring to last year’s recruitment initiatives.

“We never went out of Dubai,”
resumes Tukenkjian. “Yes, we have [JCB] products that we are marketing [outside
the country], but we have never thought about going outside UAE.” He remains
confident that the company will continute to thrive in its chosen market.

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