Onward and Upward

Solidere Jumps Headfirst Into the Next Phase of Its Master Plan

While most Lebanese were transfixed by the final pullout of Syrian troops and a lively confidence vote in Parliament, for Mounir Douaidy, Solidere’s General Manager, April 26 was little different than most of his days – these days, that is – at his office in the heart of Beirut’s Central District (BCD). He was signing contracts.

Ever guarded about revealing too much in the way of exactly how many items awaited his signature in the adjacent conference room, Douaidy was nonetheless both detailed and specific in outlining to Executive why Solidere had finally met its tipping point.

“ 2004, in my opinion, was a turning point in the life of the company,” said Douaidy. “Despite all the obstacles and the difficulties, [the last ten years were crowned] with big achievements that have led to a much stronger financial situation. 2005 is Phase Two in the life of the company. It will allow the company to grow on a much stronger basis because the fundamentals that were strong in the beginning remain strong and are now even stronger.” Indeed, by most accounts, Douaidy’s estimation is correct.

Solid performance

Although Solidere’s 2004 annual report is still to be released later this month, the audited financial results for 2004 made public at the beginning of April provide exactly the kind of performance data points that Solidere always said it could generate – if it was just given the time and the good graces of geopolitical events. At least for the moment it seems, geopolitical events are in fact cooperating. And Solidere has certainly put in the time over the past decade. As Douaidy (the trained accountant and pitch man) is quick to point out, 2004 saw the country’s largest single company post its best after tax profit gain in the last five years – $54.1 million or an amount nearly triple that of 2003.

Most significantly, however, the underlying dynamics were strong. Solidere said it generated its highest sales level in a decade in 2004 – $180 million in all or nearly $100 million better than last year. Rental revenues from leased properties also came in strong at $18.6 million, up from $15.4 million in 2003. And the company’s borrowing level dropped substantially – from $320 million in 2003 to $234 million at the end of 2004 – leaving a reduced debt to equity ratio of 13.9%.

“Our plans are to continue with sustained increases in sales, not necessarily at these levels [158,000 square meters in 2004] but not less than 100,000 to 120,000 square meters of built up space,” Douaidy explained. Of course, even though the sales numbers provided the most fodder for celebration, the performance of the company’s share price – especially in the aftermath of the Hariri assassination – have also played a crucial role in supporting Douaidy’s claim that Solidere is moving inexorably forward with a sustainable, winning formula. Indeed, as was widely noted in both the international business and political pages, the company’s stock registered only a temporary hit after Hariri – Solidere’s founder and most visible backer – was killed in the BCD he helped to build.

The quick rebound of the stock price to just below its pre-February 14 level provided strong evidence for some observers that investors both believed in Solidere and, more importantly, believed in the long-term viability of the entire country.

“We are even now having regional investors coming to Beirut,” Douaidy added proudly. “Even during the last two months, those who were negotiating with us did not stop negotiating with us and in fact a certain number of deals have emerged from these negations and some of them are being signed presently.”

Thus freed, somewhat, from the political situation that gripped the rest of the country, Solidere registered a daily average of 216,388 shares traded on the Beirut Stock Exchange during the tumultuous first quarter of 2005 – up a robust 515% from the same quarter last year. What’s more, the stock price ended up closing out 8.36%percent higher for Class A shares and 9.87% higher for Class B shares compared to fourth quarter 2004. In London too, where Solidere’s global depository receipts are traded, the receipt price rose to its highest level in six years by the end of March 2005.

Of course, a key reason for the rise in both the stock price and the overall trading activity lies in last June’s successful initiation of a land-stock swap program that raised $73 million in 2004.

But another very visible indication of public confidence in Solidere – and Solidere’s own confidence in both itself and Lebanon – came when the company decided to go ahead with its plan to list on the Kuwait Stock Exchange March 8.

“We thought [these actions] would give us a much wider investor base,” said Douaidy. “Last year when we did [the land swap program] we felt as though the share price was trading at a severe undervalue….both this and the listing on the Kuwait Stock Exchange have achieved their objective by increasing our sales and requiring investors who are using the program to go and buy shares on the market,” which has also raised the stock price, he noted.

On with the Souks

Although plagued by prior delays, Douaidy said the much anticipated Souks project, which envisions a large pedestrian area filled with shops and restaurants, was finally ready to go forward immediately. The permits have been secured and all underground facilities, including the parking, have been completed. As a result, even though the January start date was not met recently, Solidere is still aiming for the Souks to come online in 2006. And when this happens, rental revenue, already rising, is expected to double with the 100,000 square meters of floor space that will be available.

Adding to the positive growth outlook over time, Solidere is also set to ramp up its land preparation and infrastructure efforts in the massive reclamation area situated near the Beirut Port and Marina.

“In the next three to four years we will start selling land on the reclamation space because today [this area] is not ready yet,” said Douaidy. “There are still waste treatment [facilities] that need to be finished. Subsequently we will do the infrastructure for the reclaimed land. Then we can start with the marketing of the reclaimed land.”

Noting that the price for built up space had increased from $950 per square meter to as high as $1,400 per square meters over the past several years, Douaidy was quick to point out that the 1.5 million square meters of land reclamation would likely be a crucial component ensuring Solidere’s profitability well into the second half of Phase Two.

During this time though, he added, Solidere intends to pursue somewhat of a different approach than during the last Phase.

Laying down foundations

“We prepare the land, we prepare the design. This is what is happening…[It allows] developers to practically start within a short period of time. This is the kind of thing we really want to do: develop the concept and sell the idea rather than do the development ourselves. We will continue to do one or two developments here and there but we would like to encourage third party developers to do it.”

Of course, despite the recent positive balance sheet, growing investor interest and the much-anticipated movement on several development fronts, risks remain – as is true for the entire Lebanese economy.

Most significantly for Solidere, when Hariri was assassinated, the company didn’t only lose its largest single shareholder, it also lost its most powerful proponent in government circles. Of course, in Lebanon, such influence goes a long way towards solving the routine, and sometimes not so routine problems of bureaucracy and competing private interests that may not just vanish with Syria’s withdrawal. As one recent report noted, before Hariri left office last year he prevailed on the Cabinet to pass a number of critical resolutions that freed Solidere to act in a more expeditious, and profitable manner. In the end, a total of 24 projects with a total value of more than $500 received the necessary permits to move forward.

Douaidy is confident that Hariri left Solidere in “safe waters.” But even though his political stature will be sorely missed, April 26 and the events that led up to it, should be well for Lebanon and Solidere.