Forging steel from ash

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Toufic Dalal had spent 20 years building his firm into one of the largest steel manufacturers in the region, specializing in pre-engineered buildings and pre-fabricated houses. He had become a rare success story in Lebanon’s heavy industry sector.

Then on 23 July, 2006, Israeli fighter jets left his factory a smoldering wreck of ash and twisted metal.     

When Dalal heard his steel works factory in the Bekaa had been bombed he rushed straight to the site. Where he had stood the day before in a 22,000 square meter (sqm) factory full of heavy industrial equipment he found nothing but ruin. 

While most people would have been enraged, panic stricken or crushed, Dalal said without a hint of false modesty, “It bothered me some.”

“On the ground in the factory we had eight holes, 30 meters in diameter by 15 meters deep,” he said, calmly recounting the first scenes he saw. “So imagine what was left:  Nothing. All of the machinery was destroyed.”

The value of the damage came to a total of around $25million. 

At the bombed-out site, groups of employees had also gathered, many in tears. Unlike Dalal, they believed their livelihoods were ruined with the factory.

Surveying the damage, Dalal said he was struck by a simple wisdom that determined his next steps: “You know in this life it doesn’t matter if you have $20 or $100, or $20 million or $100 million. You come to a point where you are just playing with numbers.” 

Emboldened by this philosophy, it was clear to him that he had to rebuild. “I said to myself I want to start a new factory now as if I didn’t have anything before. It is much easier to build it now than when I did it 20 years ago. I have the money; I don’t have debt; I know the business; I have the experience, and I have a market.”

And build he did.

The next day he was on a United States Navy ferry to Cyprus from where he flew direct to Chicago. He immediately bought the machinery he needed to get back in operation and flew it to Lebanon. And so it was that within three days of being bombed that Dalal was rebuilding the foundations of his new factory.

Free from any debt burdens, he was able to make an initial investment in the range of $3 million dollars from his own savings. Once he was back up and running, the orders began to flood in, providing the finance for the full redevelopment of the factory; within three months he was back at pre-war production capacity.   

Fruits of war

Ironically, Dalal’s biggest client would emerge from the political settlement to the very same war that had leveled his facility. When a ceasefire was finally reached under the auspices of United Nations Resolution1701, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon’s (UNIFIL) troops in the south mushroomed from some 2,000 peacekeepers to nearly 13,000. “We ended up selling to UNIFIL in the south so many prefabs and so many buildings. We were earning between $3million and $5 million per year, and that actually compensated most of our losses,” he said.         

In no small part due to Dalal’s ingenuity, boldness and creativity, the bombing actually boosted the Dalal Steel business. The rapid turnaround from demolition to production won a lot of customer loyalty and trust, not to mention prestige.

“People liked to work with us, perhaps to help us out, or perhaps they felt more secure working with us, because even though our factory was bombed we were still there so they knew we could guarantee our work whatever happens,” he said, before adding with a wry smile, “It was like marketing for us. People know who Dalal is now.”

The plan was never just to return the company to where it had been before. With business thriving and a blank canvas to work with, Dalal built a far superior factory to take Dalal Steel Industries forward.  

It was expanded from 22,000 sqm to 32,000 sqm and it will soon be expanded to 50,000 sqm. Furthermore, the machinery has been upgraded and is now fully computerized with a much more efficient production system.

The economic crisis in America has graced Dalal with a golden opportunity to recapitalize his factory at discount rates. With many fabricator firms in the US going bankrupt, Dalal Steel is snapping up at auction virtually brand new top-of-the-line equipment “for peanuts”. Reflecting on life and work, he said, “It makes you feel happy that at least you have work while other people are closing down.”

Five years on and Dalal is boasting a substantially more successful business than the one that was leveled to the ground in the war. He said his assets are at least twice what they were in 2006, and his turnover is perhaps 10 times what it was before the war. What is more, he continues to be a significant employer in the Bekaa region, with his workforce having expanded from around 220 to approximately 350. Dalal said his team was “essential” to the resuscitation of the business in 2006.

The past five years have also made Dalal a rejuvenated captain at the helm of his new and improved vessel. “When I rebuilt my factory it gave me so much power, and I’m much more dedicated to the work and I… love it so much more than before,” he said.

In the drive to expand the company he has been developing new production lines while tapping into new markets and developing existing ones. On home turf he continues to win large contracts.

“Lebanon has been good until now,” said Dalal, before rolling off a list of contracts his company recently won, including an 84,000sqm shopping center in the Bekaa, 44,000 sqm of steel construction in a shopping center in Beirut and 600 prefab houses for the Lebanese army.

The US army used to be their principal client, but the scaling back of its presence in the Middle East means there is now less business coming from that corner of the world. Nonetheless, Iraq remains an important country for the company, with three large projects in Erbil currently underway. Dalal also anticipates good business developing in southern Iraq as investment in the oil industry picks up pace. It is with an eye on this market that he will be courting new clients at a trade fair in Basra in two months time. 

African prospects

However, the real growth area for Dalal Steel Industries lies to the south.

“Our replacement market is Africa now. We sell a lot of goods to Nigeria, to Angola, to Kinshasa,” said Dalal. The continent now comprises around half of the company’s business and they are months away frombuilding a new factory in Nigeria.

With sights set on these expanding horizons, Dalal’s children have joined him to play central roles in the firm. Three of his children have followed in their father’s footsteps and are now engineers, with his daughter running the engineering department in the office, one son running the big projects and operations in Africa, while another son is in his second year of studies in the US. Another daughter is a business graduate and takes care of the firm’s accounts. But he is quick to clarify, “You know I still get involved in everything.”

With the steel business going from strength to strength, the Dalal family are diversifying into the real estate game. After all, “It’s easy,” said Dalal. They have been buying land since 2004 and intend to start building a 24-story tower in Hamra in three months. The real estate projects are within a different company but one that is still very much a family affair.   

Looking back to 1987, a young Toufic Dalal decided to leave his job of four years with Proctor and Gamble because “an employee’s life was not the one for me.” He risked his lot to buy a machine and go solo before he even had a workshop or any land to use it in. 

Twenty years later, this audacious spirit served him well; after rebuilding his pulverized factory, in 2011 his entrepreneurial thirst remains unquenched. 

“In 10 years I suspect we shall be twice as big,” he concluded confidently.  

 

Zak Brophy was Executive's Economics and Policy Editor from 2011 until 2013.

2 Comments

  1. Sandra Dalal Berryhill said:

    Great article. Do you know how I might reach Toufic I am an old friend of his from his college days in the US and would love to speak with him. Thank you and I truly loved the article.

    • Susan WilsonSusan Wilson said:

      Hi Sandra, thank you for the comment. I’m afraid since the article is from 2011 its author is no longer at the magazine, so I’m not able to put you in touch. Best of luck reaching out to Toufic.

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