Survival Of A Solution Provider9:00 AM EST Mon. Nov. 06, 2006
The first bombs struck in the early morning of July 13 and didn't stop for 34 days.
From his house nestled high in a small mountainside town 10 miles away, Simon Samia had a remarkable view of the drama unfolding below. He watched helplessly as the warplanes approached and launched their deadly missiles on the land where many of his friends and customers lived.
The daily onslaught brought back childhood memories for Samia"a father's soothing voice in 1975 explaining why a 10-year-old boy should not be afraid of the great noises in the distance.
Now, 31 years later, Samia had to deliver the same message. He took his own 12-year-old twin boys by the hands and said, "Don't worry. They are not bombarding our zone. They are bombarding only that place. They are trying to get just one person."
But this time Samia wasn't so sure himself. "It was like watching a movie," he said. "Inside, I was so afraid."
War had started. Again.
This is the life of a solution provider in Beirut, Lebanon.
In a life filled with turbulent times, the last decade has been good to Simon Samia. The 41-year-old son of academics had grown up surrounded by violence: He was 10 years old when civil war broke out in Lebanon, and was well into adulthood when it ended.
But Samia carved out a nice career in telecommunications after college, and 10 years ago he co-founded a company to sell Cisco Systems solutions to commercial customers. It was a fortuitous time to start a company in Beirut. The war was slipping into memory and Lebanon was bustling. In just a few years, BMB Group became one of the few Cisco and Microsoft Gold partners in the Middle East, and business was booming. What started as a dream turned into a $10 million reality for Samia.
Then this summer, the war returned, threatening to take it all away. One July morning, Samia and BMB's other employees, along with thousands of other businesses and 3.8 million Lebanese residents, watched the skies explode over Beirut and Southern Lebanon. The militant organization Hezbollah had kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed three others. In response, Israeli Air Force jets descended on the country.
In late October, I traveled to Lebanon to visit BMB and some of its customers. I saw firsthand the natural beauty of the country's mountains and Mediterranean beaches as well as the ugly scars of wars past and present. And I learned why one solution provider's employees feel it is their duty to help rebuild the country and the economy—and how solution providers here can learn from their experience.
When word spread that Hezbollah had kidnapped the soldiers, Samia and other BMB employees feared a violent response from Israel. Nizar Ghannam, regional manager of BMB's document management division, was in the office on the afternoon of the kidnapping when he and his colleagues heard celebratory gunfire from a Hezbollah neighborhood just a few blocks away. The next morning, Ghannam awoke at 6 a.m. to the sound of warplanes and loud explosions. Unsure of what was going on, he turned on the TV. Israel, the news said, was bombarding the Beirut International Airport.
Roula Chehab, an account manager at BMB, also was awakened by the din of the airport attack. "I didn't move from my house. I live in an area where there is no Hezbollah, but the warplanes are very scary," she said.
Some BMB employees trickled into the office that day expecting the phones to ring, but they did not stay long, Ghannam said. "It was no use to be there. Nothing could be done. The office sits right across the street from an overpass bridge that could be a target, and it's a five-minute drive from an area known to support Hezbollah," he said.
Everyone rushed home and hoped for the best. Ghannam, racing through the streets in his Mercedes convertible, held his breath and looked to the skies every time he approached a bridge.
For the rest of the week, the Lebanese were essentially trapped in their homes, watching and waiting, hoping and praying that the bombs would stop. It was simply too dangerous to travel. BMB closed for a couple of days after the first attack, in part because many people thought the war would only last that long.
"At the beginning I thought it would be one bombardment and that's all," said Samia, recalling the events from a country club near his mountainside home. "When I saw it would continue, I bought food for two months, gas for at least a month."
Soon, he said, it became evident the strikes were targeted at bridges and Hezbollah-controlled areas, mainly in the southern part of Lebanon and South Beirut, and those in "safe zones" in the north tried to resume their lives.
But the war left an impact everywhere. The airport was shut down, and driving was an exercise in futility. Banks closed, then opened for just a few hours a day. ATMs, which normally spit out U.S. dollars as well as Lebanese pounds, limited withdrawals to $200 per week in the local currency only. Finally, there were reports that up to 200,000 people were leaving the country and close to a million people, one-quarter of the population, were fleeing their homes in southern Lebanon to seek shelter in the north.
The bombing lasted 34 days, ending when a U.N.-sponsored ceasefire went into effect Aug. 14. In the end, more than 1,300 people were killed and several thousand were injured. The barrage destroyed more than 200 bridges, several airport runways and other infrastructure.
For the vast majority of Lebanon's large Christian population, the kidnapping and subsequent bombing caught them entirely by surprise. "It was a shock; it was bigger than our imagination," Samia said. "We didn't want this war. We didn't get rich from it. It's not our war. We want to live, to do business, commerce. This is what we want."
But war was a part of their lives again. The solution provider's managers met to strategize and prepare multiple scenarios as the war raged on. First, Samia offered all 40 employees in Beirut jobs in BMB offices in Algeria or Egypt if they wanted to leave. That soothed concerns about job security. Second, he transferred money from Lebanon to BMB's office in Egypt to run the company from there in the event that telecommunications was knocked out. "Our competitors were beginning to tell [potential clients], 'Ahh, the poor guys at BMB, they will not be able to sustain their business in Egypt,' " Samia said.
The executives then took stock of BMB's assets, where people were—including some who were traveling out of the country—and developed a plan to best utilize them. They surmised that document management and disaster-recovery solutions would become critical to customers, so BMB solidified teams in those areas.
In some respects, BMB is a microcosm of Lebanon. Like the country—comprised of people representing up to 18 different religions all living and working together in an area the size of Long Island, N.Y.—the solution provider has employees of many different backgrounds and religions, all striving for a common goal.
"We are a picture of the country. We have different political persuasions, but it ends there. We live together. We walk together. We are together," Samia said.
Chehab said they don't discuss politics with customers during projects, which they take on regardless of someone's political or religious affiliation. She took me on a tour around Beirut, where we visited several customer sites around the city. Some of our stops included a hospital in a Hezbollah neighborhood, the money-laundering investigation commission of the Central Bank, and a small electrical utility, which she pointed to as an example of the commitment BMB continues to make to its customers.
The Alay Electrical Utility, a 40-person company that serves 10,000 residential and commercial customers, was founded in 1924. During Lebanon's Civil War in 1983 all of Alay's customer records were destroyed in a bombing. It took 10 years before the utility company could resume business.
BMB, whose document management group is focused around products from Laserfiche, had been pitching a document imaging solution to Alay for several months without any luck. The war changed that. Chehab paid another visit to the utility's IT development manager, Fadi Zaatari, one morning after a particularly ferocious night of bombing. She hadn't slept much and wasn't even sure if the roads were safe. But she felt she owed them a visit.
"Coming to Alay was not very safe because you have highways and bridges," she said. "They were more concerned about their paper documents than ever. They were afraid they would lose all their information, the history of their company."
Alay was very receptive this time.
"We made the presentation. We closed the deal. They also wanted us to scan all their subscribers' files," Chehab said.
BMB scanned 50,000 documents over the next several weeks. "By the end of the war, they had all their files archived," she said. "When the backlog was done, the licenses were there and they could start to do their own scanning."
Added Zaatari: "The [Laserfiche] software is very excellent, very friendly. But of course we can't do it without BMB's experience and support."
BMB's efforts through the war should serve as inspiration for solution providers anywhere, said Elena Bosio, director of global public relations at Laserfiche. "We're impressed at how they were able to operate, despite the violence and restrictions in terms of communications and even getting to the office," Bosio said. "They have continued to serve their customers and even develop new accounts. It says that there's no challenge that we cannot overcome. Serving customers under those conditions, can you imagine? They were able to do it."
No one knows how long the current ceasefire will continue. Just last week, Israeli Air Force jets again buzzed Hezbollah neighborhoods in South Beirut, the most aggressive action taken by either side since the ceasefire began in August. But the war has already taken a toll. BMB's Lebanese business increased 10 percent last year, Samia said, but the war is likely to curtail growth this year. For that reason, the solution provider's plans for expansion may not be one of enterprise but one of survival. In 2000, BMB expanded into Egypt and last year launched operations in Algeria. Early in 2007, BMB expects to open an office in Saudi Arabia.
"Egypt is booming," Samia added. "There is a huge boom in telecommunications there. It is a huge potential for us." The key to its expansion outside Lebanon was securing Gold partner status for Microsoft and Cisco, he said. "It was like a passport for us."
Samia would love to duplicate the success of Dimension Data, the $2.8 billion South African-based solution provider. "My idol as a company is Dimension Data. In 15 years, they are everywhere." Dimension Data even feeds BMB business in the Middle East for global clients such as HSBC and Citibank, Samia said. "We work together instead of them opening offices," he said.
Meanwhile, Egyptian operations increased 30 percent and should increase 50 percent this year. Algeria, a "virgin opportunity" according to Samia, should see similar success. He envisions a European entre after the Saudi Arabia office opens.
I spent three days in Beirut, and each day brought contrasting examples of what the city was and where it is going. For every dark, bullet-ridden shell of a building—and there are hundreds—beautiful, modern edifices rise like flowers amid the weeds of history.
In the span of a few minutes, I saw the spot where former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in February 2005 when someone rammed a truck full of TNT into his motorcade, and the construction of a modern high-rise office building to replace the former spot of the U.S. Embassy where 63 people were killed in 1983.
With billboards advertising Chili's and Starbucks along the highway into Beirut, it's clear that foreign companies continue to seed investment into Lebanon, both from the West and other Arab countries. But the nation's economic future depends on the businessmen and women determined to sow those seeds: people like Samia, Ghannam and Chehab, who represent three generations of Lebanese, all with different experiences from the decades of violence.
I asked each of them why they remained in Beirut during the bombing. They all had opportunities to leave for the duration of the war, or longer, but they chose to stay. To a person, they cited the same reason: because "they" would win. "They" could mean Israel, or Syria or Iran, or even the United States or Europe, or any one of a number of interests pressing their influence on this small country.
There is a saying that Lebanon is the place where elephants walk, Samia said. "You have to be careful. Lebanon is a place where the big powers are walking over the Lebanese people."
Lebanon, he said, needs all hands on deck to sustain economic success. Many of the reported 200,000 people who have left the country since this summer are higher-educated citizens, skilled craftsmen and businessmen tired of the violence and lured by opportunity abroad. There is fear that without them and without small businesses such as BMB—the lifeblood of the economy—Lebanon will surely struggle, they said. And there is so much work to be done.
"All Lebanese now are seriously thinking about having another nationality. They don't feel safe. Every 10 or 15 years something strong is happening," said Ghamman, while he and I were stuck in one of Beirut's constant traffic jams. "I had a lot of chances to get a [foreign] passport. I didn't do the step. I believe in this country."
Added Samia: "I am concerned, still afraid. What happened was a shock for us. It was the beginning of something. We don't know what tomorrow is hiding for us."
While the war was raging, Samia had made preparations to move his family to France and for his children to go to school there. The ceasefire was signed just before he and his family were about to leave. "Believe me, if the war continued for two more weeks, you would not find me here. I prepared everything. Fortunately, one week before leaving, everything was 'OK'," Samia said.
Samia says he will keep trying to comfort his boys, Rony and Rami, while also making them aware of what is happening around them. "I am trying as much as I can to keep them far from the problems in the country," he said, "but at the same time, I prepared them for the worst and that we may leave the country at any time if things went toward war."
But for now, Samia—and BMB's staff—are staying. The fear is ever-present, but the future holds too much promise to abandon.
Beirut is known as the city that has been rebuilt seven times. From the ancient Romans to the Ottoman Empire to the more recent battle lines, its people have learned to adapt to conditions that completely and literally change overnight. In this chaotic environment, BMB demonstrated this summer—and continues to do so—its ability to prosper by being flexible, prepared and dedicated to its goals. It's a survival lesson, said Samia, that solution providers everywhere should heed.
"I'm afraid for my engineers, for my country, yes," Samia said. "We're thinking about the future. Our dreams our bigger. We have big potential. We have knowledge. We want to use it."