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I was about five years old and living in Beirut, Lebanon. My mother took me and my four older siblings to a wedding up in the mountains. A friend warned us to be careful coming home – there was fighting in the city. The warning was well-founded: as we came down out of the hills, my mother was forced to tell us to duck down as bullets hit our car.
AT that moment, Lebanon’s descent into armed civil conflict was etched into my mind for the first time. In the years that followed, I would watch my father establish and lead construction companies and take care of all of us. I learned from him as he struggled and trusted the wrong people. The admiration and empathy I developed for him from my youth continue to influence how I do business today.
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Hard work and creativity make up for little formal education
As the oldest son, my father had to leave school at just nine years old to help make money for his family. He never had the chance to go to college or have a formal education, so dedication to plain hard work meant everything.
What my father did have, though, was an exceptional amount of creativity. When he paired that with his understanding that you couldn’t just give up, marvelous things happened. He worked his way up from being the laborer who just did the texturing on the walls to drawing and designing the buildings. He eventually founded his own construction companies.
But war does not care about the businesses you’re running or who you are. As he tried to keep things going, the conflict and its effects on the economy and everything around us became harder to avoid. Bombs would fall near our home, and my mother would take us down to the warehouse below so we’d be safe. My father would always tell us the bombs were too far away to worry about, but I was still terrified.
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Instability demands pivots
With so much hardship and danger around us, my father decided the best path forward was to try his luck in construction in the United Arab Emirates. He went on ahead of us to Abu Dhabi, starting yet another construction company and eventually building a payroll of about 4,000 people there. When I was seven years old, we followed him and enjoyed the success – while it lasted.
However, this probably wasn’t a decision based only on our immediate and dire situation. When I was just two years old, my father lived in Libya for a while. He’d started a company locally, and it was just starting to find some success. When Muammar Gaddafi came to power, officials threw my father in jail because his business partner was against what Gaddafi was doing. My father knew he wouldn’t be safe or free to work if he stayed in Libya, so he cut his losses and headed back to Lebanon. Perhaps it was this previous experience that gave him the confidence that he could pivot again, as he’d done before. The move to the UAE was the second time he was forced to literally and figuratively rebuild.
As my father got his new company going in Abu Dhabi, we lived in the same building where he had his office. I’d sit in his office and admire all the wood walls and his desk – everything was impressive to me. Even though I was a child, all of his employees treated me like royalty. I went with my father to his construction sites. It was clear to me as I followed him around that he had people on his team who’d stick with him no matter what. The way he treated his employees and the way they responded stayed with me into adulthood. It became the foundation for how I have worked with my own team.
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Too much trust, poor laws and worthless money
Part of what made my father so successful in business was his attention to relationships. He even brought many family members into his company. He thought that, because they were relatives, they would be loyal and always behave in his best interests.
That wasn’t reality. He found out that his cousin, who he’d paid to take care of paying other employees, was pocketing money meant for the workers. My father simply trusted too much. He hadn’t set up an adequate system of checks and balances to protect himself internally in the company. To make it worse, a local business partner also owed him money. This would make it even more difficult for my father to win his case since native residents held a heavy advantage in the courts. He was forced to end his UAE business ventures.
So we moved back to Lebanon despite the war still flaring up on occasion. My father took the last of the money he had and put it into one more apartment building. He financed the loans himself. Those loans unfortunately were in Lebanese lira. When the bottom fell out of the currency, he lost everything. Lebanon’s economy has only gotten worse since.
My father decided to retire, but he didn’t lose his optimism or his passion. He fell into telling the same stories over and over, but he told them with an excitement that made me love to hear them. His stories were so vivid that his personality was tangible and I could strongly perceive his approach in everything he said.
Be kind, but cautious
Even though I didn’t stay in Lebanon, my father’s successes taught me how important it is to work hard with what you have and to honor the people around you. He also showed me the stress that comes with being at the top only to lose it all.
Thus, his struggles have made me realistically apprehensive. I made sure to have a system of checks and balances in my business that he should have had in his. I personally sign all of my company’s checks. The silver lining from all of my father’s business struggles is that they helped the dream of every parent come true – that I was able to learn from his mistakes instead of having to make my own.
Ultimately, my father’s valiant efforts were not in vain. He did the absolute best he could for our family during a prolonged period of hostile conflict. His legacy and spirit lives on in the success of my business endeavors. Always lead with kindness, but be careful who you trust.