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Unfinished projects a new market

The UAE is still an expanding market, as shown by growth in Dubai Logistics City.
The UAE is still an expanding market, as shown by growth in Dubai Logistics City.

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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.

MARK NASSEH & ANDRE TUFENKJIAN
Engineers, consultants with huge experience

Mark Nasseh has extensive experience in different aspects of engineering, such as consultancy, research and development, design and supervision, drawing and drafting, traffic and infrastructure, and office and project site management in Iraq, Lebanon, and the UAE.

“As my initial major interest was in irrigation and hydrology, I conducted several projects pertaining to water supply, wastewater, drainage and irrigation systems,” says Nasseh.

These projects includes feasibility studies, rehabilitation, design and supervision work in Lebanon.

Nasseh has also undertaken certificated courses in Geographic Information System (GIS) and AutoCAD, and has recently completed a certificate in project management.

However, his core focus remains managing overall project-to-project operations involving MEP, ducting and firefighting contracting works.

Andre Tufenkjian graduated in 1986 from Baghdad University with a BsC in civil engineering, followed by a Master’s degree in 1992 at what is now called Al Nahrain University in 1992.

He then started his own compny in Iraq called Sana, together with two partners, focusing on design and construction projects, before moving to Lebanon in 1993, where he worked in structural design and construction for Elie Zeinoun.

At the end of 1998, Tufenkjian moved to California in the US to work for JAMA, a leader in structural design and seismic consultancy, as a design engineer.

After a Master’s degree in applied mechanics from CSUN in California in 2001, Tufenkjian moved to Parsons, where he was assigned engineering manager for a major Iraq in 2004.

Two years later he moved to Dubai to start Hamdel Contracting (HAC) with four partners. In 2009, he helped set up JCB Consult in Canada and the UAE to introduce to new products and services to the region.

JCB Engineering & Consultancy
Water to consulting

Water resources and environmental engineering

  • Master planning
  • Environment impact studies
  • Irrigation
  • Flood protection
  • Waterworks

Transportation and traffic

  • Urban and subdivision roads and streets
  • Highways
  • Bridges
  • Traffic planning

Architecture and planning

  • Public and office buildings
  • Cultural centres
  • Hospitals
  • Landscaping
  • Interior design
  • Residential buildings

Infrastructure

  • Masterplanning
  • Streetplans
  • Seismic consulting
  • Seismic design
  • Assessment
  • Building rehabilitation

Consulting

  • Feasibility studies
  • Preliminary designs
  • Construction supervision
  • LEED and green buildings

PRIME HOME ELECTROMECHANICAL

  • MEP works specialist

MEP works

  • Interiors
  • Fit-out work
  • Partitions
  • False ceilings

 

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