Outside the box

To Lebanon’s older generation, Carosserie Abillama is a household name, with ‘Abillama’ stenciled on the back of nearly every truck, tipper, tanker or ambulance in the country. The company, which has been around since 1933, is still at the forefront of trailer manufacturing and other automotive add-ons, although its name does not stand out as much as it used to amid the surge in vehicles and trucks on Lebanese roads over the past few decades.

Lebanon is also no longer the company’s major sales market, selling to 27 countries and approved for its high international standards by leading European companies Scania, MAN, Renault and Volvo. Abillama has even built trailers for Formula 3 racing cars, “which is at a very high level as it’s so image orientated,” said general manager Daniel Abboud.

Last year, however, Lebanon was a significant market, at 50 percent of sales, then dropping to 15 percent in 2012. “In terms of sales, Lebanon has not dropped that much, but exports have risen,” said  Abboud. “This year our biggest market is West Africa, at 45 percent, followed by the Gulf at 25 percent and institutional buyers 15 percent.”

The surge in exports to West Africa was a deliberate strategy by Abillama to anticipate a potential drop in sales due to the crisis in Syria and its spillover to the Lebanese economy. Abboud put a dedicated sales team on the West African market, and “it worked.”

“I think we’re going to have a good year and next year even better. We have a nice order book,” he said, projecting annual revenues at $16.5 million, up from $14.5 million in 2011.

Part of the company’s success over the past 80 years has stemmed from predicting downturns and keeping sales diversified. “For a while, 90 percent of our market was Iraq before the Americans came [in 2003],” said Abboud. “We saw the dangers so stopped taking orders. It was a good approach, as if we’d  stayed we’d have been in bad shape.”

A further key to success is Abillama’s research and development, and bringing out new products to stay ahead of the competition, such as a new cement mixer developed with an American company for whom Abillama manufactures to order, primarily for the Saudi Arabian market. “There is a lot more research and development in Lebanon than elsewhere in the region. In Saudi Arabia, Syria, the Emirates, they just copy others. The ‘Abillama tipper’ has been a generic term in Saudi Arabia for the past 40 years,” said Abboud.

In terms of competition, in West Africa Abillama vies for business with European firms, while in the Middle East, Iraq in particular, the company is facing stiffer competition from Turkey. “High quality Turkish producers were focusing on the European market, but they have lost it due to the economic downturn there so are turning to other markets where quality is important,” said Abboud.

 

Universal Metal Products

While Turkey poses a competitive threat to Abillama, aluminum tube manufacturer Universal Metal Products (UMP) sees the closure of Syria as a market and transport route for Turkish products to much of the Middle East as a boon for the company. “We are picking up slack not because of Syria so much, but due to Turkish suppliers being out of the market. They are now being restricted due to logistics and political reasons, and that trade link has been broken,” said general manager Nizar Raad.

UMP has experienced a major up-tick in sales to Saudi Arabia this year for the collapsible aluminum tubes it manufactures for the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. The situation in Syria, however, is causing logistical problems and heightened transport costs, deriving from export for which overland transport is the most cost effective method.

“We’ve made contingency plans for sea as there is the possibility of Syria blocking the route to Jordan,” said Raad. “We got the cost by sea freight, to Jeddah, and that is okay but the problem is the delays in offloading. Then the goods have to be driven to Riyadh, the main pharmaceutical hub. These time factors and delays are a problem.”

UMP’s exports are not totally dependent on the Middle East though. “We do export indirectly to Europe and the United States, so the lower euro is helping. We also export to Pakistan for special clients,” said Raad. He expects business to be similar to last year, neither growing nor contracting.

Resource Group Holding

Resource Group Holding – soon to be called just RGH – are an investment group that manages a diversified portfolio of businesses in the Middle East, West Africa and Asia. The company expects to have similar revenues this year as 2011, at over $100 million. But this is not down to less business in the Middle East and Africa, its core markets, or any loss in trade to Syria. Indeed, RGH’s telecommunications infrastructure arm Serta was granted permission by the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which oversees sanctions, to sell equipment sourced from the US to Syria this year.

Revenues are expected to hover around the $100 million mark because the group is going through a period of consolidation as well as significant investment, with Chief Operating Officer Dany Eid expecting to see returns next year and for RGH’s revenues over the next five years to grow by more than 100 percent to exceed $200 million.

In Lebanon, RGH is expanding its 4,000 square meter Inkript facility, which handles high-security printing, from checkbooks to lottery tickets, electoral voting cards and bonds, to bank cards and electronic-passports, by a further 16,000 square meters, financed through a subsidized loan from the central bank and the Investment Development Authority of Lebanon. The expanded facility is slated to open by end 2013, and will create further employment, adding to the current 500 working at the plant in South Beirut. Elsewhere, RGH has 200 employees in lottery business Intersektion’s brand Afrijeux in Chad, and 300 other employees in Lebanon and abroad.

In further expansion, RGH bought a factory in Saudi Arabia last year to make mobile phone SIM cards and scratch cards. “We bought the facility to cater to the sizable Saudi market and have proximity to our customer base,” said Eid. “The plant is still in the restructuring phase, so we expect this investment to yield results as of next year.” The group is also involved in the smart phone gaming business through investing in a startup called Game Cooks, which co-produced the hit game Birdy Nam Nam. “With the Arab world as the primary target, games like Run for Peace and Déjà Vu have witnessed over 1 million downloads so far in less than a year,” said Eid.

Eid sees Lebanon’s strength as being able to not only manufacture goods at a high quality, but also to combine development with value-added and follow up solutions. “The future is in value-added and solutions. At a group level, our products are already highly technical, such as printing, and through products that provide solutions, like software for SIM cards. What makes our products hard to compete with is that they are relatively unique, as clients for printing, for instance, are mainly governments and banking sectors, and competition at that level is lower.”
 

 


Vresso

For Vresso, a manufacturer of customized stainless steel kitchens and exclusive distributor for 50 food service equipment and laundry brands, the dampened economic climate in the Middle East has slowed sales this year, most evident in Syria with hotel and tourism-related projects on hold. But with exports accounting for 60 to 65 percent of business and selling to over 30 countries, Vresso is weathering an economic downturn in one area and focusing on others. “We are optimistic about the future, especially emerging markets opening up, but I won’t say where because our competitors would be on a plane tomorrow,” said Carl Sabounjian, Sales and Marketing manager at Vresso.

Sales have been surprisingly good for the company, even for stainless steel kitchen units that have a price tag anywhere from $10,000 to more than $200,000. To bolster sales of such expensive items, Vresso has been offering more credit facilities. The tactic has worked. “Business has been very good, quite great in fact, especially for restaurants, super markets and coffee shops, as well as with private villas and wine cellars,” said Sabounjian.

Vresso has 120 employees within the group, and 40 employed in manufacturing stainless steel cabinets, tops and refrigeration units. Steel sheets are bought from local importers, then cut, bent and welded at Vresso facilities, with products manufactured from scratch to customer specifications.

“Next year a lot of new models are coming out, and a lot of foreign franchises — especially internationally renowned restaurants — are coming to Lebanon so we see a good market ahead,” said Sabounjian, forecasting that once the conflict in Syria is over there will be significant business opportunities.

Paul Cochrane

Paul Cochrane is the Middle East Correspondent for International News Services. He has lived in Beirut since 2002, and has written for some 70 publications worldwide, covering business, media, politics and culture in the Middle East, East Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

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