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French Version

Lebanese businesses set on expansion despite crisis

'One has to position oneself in times of relative crisis' to reap the benefits from stability later, one owner says

A bomb tears through the bustling Chevrolet area on the outskirts of Beirut. Bad news travels fast: Captain Wissam Eid from the Internal Security Forces has been killed in the blast.

This is a typical day for Lebanese citizens. The past year has already been grim for most Lebanese businesses. Crisis after crisis has weighed down heavily on the land of the cedars. A permanent protest movement, security problems, a summer war in a Palestinian refugee camp, and sporadic bombings have brought Lebanon to its knees.

But as the political situation tips further in the direction of widespread insecurity, Lebanese businesses around the country are clinging to the motto, "the show must go on." Expansion seems to be the word on the street in Beirut, no matter what the uncertain future may hold.

Retailer ABC, a major department store and mall with seven outlets, two main flagship stores and a staff of over 1,000 is currently revamping one of its main branches in Dbayyeh.

"In March, we are also launching a new section extending over an entire floor of 8,000 square meters dedicated to children, dubbed Kidsville. It will also include a 500 square-meter playground, an array of kids' accessories and a coffee shop, La Mie Doree," says Robert Fadel, ABC's general manager. A second big store in the Achrafieh suburb of Beirut is adding an 800 square-meter extension for a playground.

The Johnny R. Saade group is also jumping on the expansion bandwagon. Its travel and tourism arm, Wild Discovery, will be setting up shop in Kaslik in a few months.

"We decided to push forward with the opening of new branches in Lebanon despite the prevailing situation, following the simple strategy that one has to invest and position oneself in times of relative crisis to prepare for the inevitable economic and political recovery that can be foreseen," says Sandro Saade, one of the company's owners. "This opening is also justified by a strategic objective to cover the northern Beirut area, where there is a demand for high quality travel services."

The company's real estate arm boasts a $30 million residential project sprawling over 18,000 square meters in one of Beirut's posh suburbs. In addition, the group is developing a winery in Bekaa Valley, near the village of Kefraya, covering a 50-hectare swath of land. The project is estimated at $25 million, and will employ 50 people, excluding seasonal workers.

"The Lebanon venture will also integrate two other complementary projects, namely a wine museum and a boutique hotel, or 'hotel de charme', comprised of 30 to 35 rooms," says Karim Saade, another company owner.

It is not just big names taking a leap of faith into the murky Lebanese waters. Nehme Lebbos, founder of Iloubnan, a news portal for Lebanon, left his home country in 1991 and worked as an IT consultant for 12 years in France. "I wanted to come back ever since I left. I started IIoubnan in March 2005 with the help of my wife, a French journalist. It is a web magazine dovetailed with an e-commerce wing," says Lebbos.

The young entrepreneur has poured all his savings into this venture along with a bank loan. The company's recent success has allowed for an increase in operations, with four journalists employed on a fulltime basis and a network of 20 freelance journalists around the world.

A shared vision of Lebanon seems to cement together the diverse business figures. "Lebanon is our homeland and we believe in our country," says Fadel.

On the other hand, Lebbos is conscious of the risks he might incur, but is nonetheless determined to promote change in his home country.

Although most companies are investing in Lebanon, many have also looked to taking their business abroad. ABC will be opening in Jordan in March. "The company will bring to the Jordanian market a spirit of Lebanon, and aims at becoming a leading and trendy shopping destination," says Fadel.

Similarly, the Saade brothers are relying on an international network of agencies for their tourism activity as well as launching a new winery in neighbouring Syria. The group is trying to counter the negative business environment by highlighting the quality of its services. And so Wild Discovery is investing in an in-house sales training program expected to enhance its team's knowledge and technical skills.

For most entrepreneurs, the essential rationale linking their projects is endorsing Lebanon as a brand in the region. Lebbos believes that this cannot be done without the help of young Lebanese. "They need to travel, study abroad, graduate and experience foreign countries," he says, "then come back and invest in Lebanon."

Beirut 07-02-2008
The Daily Star

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