Flying High: JT+Partners Founder Joe Tabet
Lessons on taking the leap into entrepreneurship- from someone who did exactly that.
Joe Tabet fidgets in his armchair as he recalls a vivid moment in his past when he was sealing envelopes –75 of them, to be precise– in front of an Emirates Post branch in Dubai. The year is 2002, and the 20-something Tabet was sending his professional bio to 75 addresses of architecture and design firms across the UAE. Having just arrived from Lebanon, he remembers having only US$500 to his name. “A local man who worked there told me, ‘Son, I see that you are searching for a job, and that you are eager to find a job, and you will, for sure, get a job with what you have in your hands,’” Tabet says. “Then, I started receiving phone calls, but I said that I didn’t leave my family and my country to get just any experience, but that I needed to get the right experience. I chose an international company with the lowest salary I had ever had, because I was able to see what I needed to start with, in order to fly later on.”
And Tabet’s career has certainly taken wing since then- today, Tabet is the founder of JT+Partners, a multidisciplinary consultancy in architecture, master planning and integrated design practices with three offices –Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Beirut– and projects around the world, from Morocco to Seychelles, from India and Sri Lanka to Portugal, from Greece to the whole of Middle East and many African countries. Tabet looks to be in good spirits when mentioning his 70-person team, who he credits as have the driving force in increasing JT & Partners’s revenue more than six times since launching the company in 2015. “All this has been created in just five years,” Tabet says, his humility allowing him to showcase only a tiny bit of the pride that he must actually feel.
As I sit with Tabet in a conference room at JT+Partners’ office in Dubai, I can only imagine the range of thoughts and emotions that might be coursing through him as he takes me through his career trajectory. His story starts with him spending 12 years at Atkins, a UK-headquartered architectural design, engineering and project management consultancy- that’s the amount of time it took for that young man with 75 envelopes climb to the position of Regional Director for the Middle East at that company. “It was a boom in Dubai [in 2002], and we were very lucky at that time because, as architects, we got to experience building a city from scratch,” Tabet remembers. “It was a blank urban fabric, an open desert, and we, architects, came with our creativity (and our ego, which you need to be careful with in case it starts affecting you and others), and got an opportunity to work on many big projects. Then the 2008 financial crisis happened, and that was another type of experience. We lived through a boom, and now we had to live through a recession. The crisis pushed us to go internationally, so we looked at Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan, which gave us an understanding of how different cultures look at architecture and design. I am thankful for experiencing these different things, going up, then down, and then up again, which means that I have learnt some valuable lessons. I believe that the recession, merged together with my personality and creativity, allowed me to reach a new level.”
During more than a decade at Atkins, Tabet demonstrated qualities that would serve him well in entrepreneurship, chief among them being his attitude to always seek new opportunities. In line with that, he today advises his employees that “if I tell them that their task is one, two, three, then they should make four, five, six by themselves.”
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Tabet also radiates an air of honesty in that he is not afraid to share insights other people selfishly keep quiet about. “One of the things that pushed me up quickly at Atkins was getting rid of my position, which simply means delegating your responsibilities to the people below you,” he says. “They will go up, and you will go up. However, in corporations, you will find the opposite. Ask senior people to give their responsibilities to the people below them, and they won’t, because they feel insecure.” It is this self-conviction and accurate perception that made him sense when a time to move on from Atkins had come. Being 41 at the time, he says, allowed him to make a deal with himself- he could try building a business for, say, four years, and if it did not work out, he would be 45, and thus still able to go back to the career he had already had. Talking about the day he decided to take the leap into entrepreneurship, Tabet says, “I woke up in the morning and felt that something was wrong. On the way to the office, I called my mum, and she told me on her own, ‘My son, anything that bothers you in life, just shut it out.” That was in November 2014. I went to the office, I was working, and at about noon, I left everything, walked out of my office straight to the CEO’s office, and told him, ‘I believe that today I’m going to resign.’ We had 10 seconds of silence. He asked me about other job offers, but I had none.”
Interestingly, Tabet does not shy away from advising his team to follow in his footsteps when it comes to following their personal goals and aspirations. “I always tell them that if you wake up in the morning and you’re not happy with where you’re going, just resign,” he says. “Even if you work for me, and I cannot change something for you, just leave. Go fly. We need to challenge ourselves, and this is the main problem that I see around the region. People live in their comfort zone financially, and only few are challenging themselves to move up, become entrepreneurs, or do something differently. Nothing will happen unless you do it yourself. You need to be ready, and you need to be convinced. All these things need to come in place for you to move on and come out of your comfort zone.”
Of course, the world of a high-profile corporate executive in the UAE, however, is rather different from that of a startup founder, and Tabet shares a joke – which is funny despite it being the actual truth– that after having an assistant, a driver, and 300 people on his team, the first thing he struggled to do when he ventured forth into the unknown was to pay his electricity bill. “That’s when you know that you have been in your comfort zone for too long,” he says, laughing. “I remember that for my first project I had to write a proposal, and I sat until four o’clock in the morning googling and researching because I had not done it before, but my team. At that moment you understand that you are useless, you are nothing, without having a strong team.”
Emerging from the very first phase of starting up a business unscathed is hardly possible for anyone, and Tabet is no exception. “We started working from the lobbies of a couple of hotels, then we got our office, and throughout all that time, I was a tea boy, a PRO, an architect, a lawyer, an accountant, and so on,” he says. “That lasted for six months. I gained a lot of weight and I looked like I hadn’t slept for ages. I was looking at the unforeseen, but there was something from the background driving all this passion and emotions. I was at the age when you can take the risk blindly.” However, it was a few crucial decisions he made that would determine his strategy and consequent business success. “When it comes to hiring, I took a decision that I wanted people who had never been in the GCC before- I brought in new blood,” Tabet says. “Then, one of the main challenges was that clients used to tell me, ‘We know you as Joe Tabet at your previous employer, but not as Joe Tabet at JT+Partners.’ So, from day one, I decided that my portfolio would not include my previous work, so, we even did some free projects, because we had to build our portfolio step by step.”
But the most important decision Tabet made was for JT+Partners to focus on international projects from the start. “I believe that’s what makes us strong until this day,” he says. “From day one, we took the UAE as a base, because having the UAE experience has made us and our clients confident, but we have served the world from here. So, our focus has been on the outside, and whatever came from within the country has been a plus.”
Today, his company’s roster of clientele includes Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Court, NCT&H, Al Ghurair, Al Marjan Island LLC, Al Hamra Real Estate, Anwa Group, Giga Group, Shalimar Group, Jumeirah Group, Marriott Group, Hilton Group, EMAAR, Aldar, Pennyroyal, and several others. Many of his clients, Tabet says, cannot believe how much JT+Partners has achieved in just a few years. “It’s all about the team, and it’s not about the number of people that you have, but their mentality, because we eliminated negative energy,” he explains. “I used to be in a corporate business, and I used to spend 60% of my time managing politics, so here, over the last four and a half years, I’ve let go of people who didn’t fit into this. We are creative people, and we get damaged by negative energy. The environment is very important. That’s why our staff turnover is very low.”
Tabet whisks me through the JT+Partners office, showing me the miniature models of their latest projects, while the staff type on their computers, most of them with earphones plugged in. “My main concern, every day and every night, is that on the 28th of every month, I will pay the salaries,” Tabet whispers. “In September last year, we felt that our business was shaking a little bit, and nobody got a salary cut except me. This means that JT+Partners does not exist without these guys. If my people grow, my business will grow too.”
The last five years have been challenging but constructive, and now, he says, it’s all about navigating the growth phase of his business carefully. “We have created a company that has gone international, and now competes with international names, and now, the whole challenge is to keep it up,” he says. “The way to do it is to continue the strategy that I have started which is, ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket.’ Unfortunately, we all know that, and people learnt it especially during the recession, that not putting all your eggs in one basket is the solution, but then, when the market picked up a little bit in 2012, everybody went to the same one basket again. Then, in 2016, people started panicking that ‘it was happening again,’ and wanted to go abroad again; however, client relationships don’t get built like that. It’s either you stick to them both in the good and the bad days, or you are out. This is why I say that architects need to change their mindset. We have to work together and share knowledge instead of competing, because very soon technology will take over us.”
Giving back to the community, Tabet tells me firmly, is a must. A moment later, he adds, “It’s not allowed to any successful entrepreneur not to give back to the community in one way or another. You’ve been given, then you have to give back. Then, you get more, and then you need to give even more.” Nothing more to add, nor to ask- I couldn’t have asked Tabet for a better conclusion to our interview than this.