BIG ambitions lay behind the creation of Dar Al-Handasah (Shair & Partners) in Beirut in 1958. Its five founders fully expected the consultancy practice, launched with a starting capital of $12,500, to go far. Little did they know that the business would one day become the largest of its kind in the Arab world.

‘We always intended to have a regional consulting practice that would draw on Beirut’s economic, cultural and professional resources,’ says Dar Al-Handasah founder and chairman Kamal Shair. The aim was to look beyond the limits of local practices to provide multi-disciplinary professional services then only available from firms in the US and Europe.

The approach of the company founders was a natural product of the professional and political environment of the period. Beirut was the educational centre of the region, pan-Arabism was strong and the oil-driven regional development boom was just getting under way. Dar Al-Handasah grew rapidly, finding work in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan within two years of its creation.

The company’s growth has taken it well beyond those regional horizons and it is now a global enterprise. Today, it has an annual turnover of $200 million and over 40 offices worldwide, not only in the Middle East but in the UK, US, Africa and Southeast Asia as well.

In addition Dar Al-Handasah has bought three other major consultancies, two in the US and one in the UK, which operate under their own names in a strategic partnership with the mother company. In the US, Perkins & Will of Chicago specialises in healthcare, education and aviation while San Francisco-based TY Lin ranks among the top 10 US transport consultants.

Dar Al-Handasah opened its own UK office in 1975 when the crisis in Lebanon first erupted into violence. Shair says the company realised early on that it would not be able to compete against established UK consultants in its own right, so it acquired Pencol Engineering, an independent UK specialist in the transport, storage and handling of oil.

From the late 1970s onwards, the firm moved beyond the Middle East, where it had already expanded to Yemen, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Iraq and Syria, to other developing world markets. The 1980s saw the opening of offices in Morocco, and western, central and southern Africa.

In spite of the growth from a regional into a global group, Shair says that Dar Al-Handasah has remained faithful to the approach of its founders. The biggest change is in the scale and scope of the work it handles. Today, only 40 per cent of its billings are in the Middle East and the Arab World; some 30 per cent is generated in the US, 20 per cent in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, and 10 per cent in Europe.

It now maintains two major design centres. The Cairo office covers the Arab world while London deals with Europe and provides support services for the entire network. The company has a flexible management structure. It includes department directors for specialities, sectional and divisional managers, area directors plus country directors, project directors for specific projects or a series of projects, and managers for specific projects.

Partners and directors are based at different offices throughout a network which relies on a mix of hi-tech communications and regular personal contact to make it effective. Senior personnel set goals at an annual three-day planning and strategy session.

Changing partners

There have been other changes over the years. In particular, the partnership structure has evolved to reflect the realities of a large decentralised practice. Shair is now the only partner remaining from the five founders. In 1969, he brought in 10 senior staff members as partners on the understanding that from 1980 onwards the partnership would open up to admit more senior staff members as other partners retired. There are now 21 partners in a structure that guarantees that the continuity and character of the company are not dependent on any particular individual.

Dar Al-Handasah prides itself on the broad range of services it can offer. A breakdown of work in 1993 shows transport at 28 per cent, general building at 20 per cent, petroleum sector work on 17 per cent, sewerage and solid waste disposal at 13 per cent and water supply at 12 per cent. Manufacturing and power account for 5 per cent each. Shair identifies special structures, including long bridges, as one of the areas in which the firm is ‘equal to the best in the world and very definitely on the cutting edge of technology.’ Projects of which he is particularly proud include bridges in Malaysia and India and a 1,500-metre span structure in China.

Dar Al-Handasah has carried out work on numerous bridges in Saudi Arabia and Shair considers its urban planning in Mecca and Medina to rank among the best work in the corporate portfolio. Shair talks with equal enthusiasm