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"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."
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