Catering to the future
Nabil Chartouni is a Lebanese American businessman who ventured into the hospitality industry at a young age. With numerous successful ventures under his belt, he still lives by the motto, ‘Opportunities are omnipresent to all, one just has to know how to seize them'.
A self-made entrepreneur of humble origins, Chartouni was one of the first youngsters from his hometown of Zahle to be offered a one-year high school scholarship to study in the US, and then return to Lebanon. While completing his studies in hotel administration at Cornell University, he financed his college education by working nights and weekends across every field of the hospitality industry, from dining and guest services to maintenance. That early start, coupled with his flair for business, propelled him forward in his career.
At the age of 28, Chartouni became the youngest vice-president of the Holiday Inn Corporation, going on to successfully establish a chain of hotels for the company in the Middle East. At the age of 35, he set up his own international property development business. Together with partners, he built a 4-star hotel in
England, an upscale development of 200 waterfront homes in Florida and an internationally renowned resort comprising 2,000 homes and apartments in the Canary Islands. Through hard work and business acumen, he also established a portfolio of commercial buildings in the US with over 1 million square feet of space for rent. However, Chartouni never forgot his modest roots in Lebanon and has made significant investments in his country of birth over the years. His companies own a portfolio of land in Achrafieh in Beirut and have just completed the construction of AVA Venue ballroom there. He also set up Faqra Catering in 2004, which has grown to become a leading catering company, providing services for weddings and events in Lebanon, as well as industrial catering operations.
Why did you return to Lebanon after finding success in the US?
I came back because I was born here and I love Lebanon. The young generation today want to leave and seek a better future because the country is not giving them opportunities, which is why I try my best to send them on educational courses. I usually send my chefs all over the world. My recommendation for Lebanon’s younger generation is don’t expect much and do a lot. In other words, build your own future and try to do so without wanting too many nonessential comforts. I grew up in poverty, but I was determined to succeed and I think anyone with determination can achieve success anywhere. You have to climb the ladder slowly, but surely. I have had days when I didn’t have enough money to eat and I was still confident that I was going to make it and I did. When I was at university, I used to work 60 hours a week. It’s about asking yourself what you want and what are you willing to sacrifice to get there. And that’s what I say to the Lebanese – don’t run overseas because it will take you five years to get established there. That’s five years wasted. Granted, you learn a lot, but then you live an average life. Here, you can take off, be successful and live well if you’re creative and a hard worker, because not many people are willing to do that.
What’s the game plan for your businesses in Lebanon?
There are several risks in Lebanon that don’t exist in the West. Economic risk is present everywhere in the world, but then here, there’s the political risk and the risk of conflict so that complicates the picture when you’re doing business in the country. That means two or three risks instead of one, with the result that you can do a good job and still fail. The formula for success is to keep plugging away, keep doing a good job and hope for the best. You can’t fight everyone. I’ve tried to undertake a mission or two to help remedy some of the challenges. You hope the system will reform itself. The biggest problem in Lebanon is ego. I had a hard time getting rid of my ego in America when I first went there, saying ‘I can do this and I can do it that’, but then America says ‘Show me!’ and you learn that bravado doesn’t work. You learn to become humble and go do what you said you could do. It took me a long time to get rid of that ‘I’. Sure, you can do it, but everyone needs help so then comes the ‘we’. Imagine you’re playing a game for which everyone knows the rules. All of a sudden somebody pulls the ‘I’ on you, takes the ball and goes home with it.
Can you address the rumors that were circulating about the closure of Faqra Catering?
In the past year, there were rumors that Faqra Catering faced bankruptcy or was being bought by someone else. I want to put these rumors to rest by giving a reassurance that Faqra Catering is still owned and managed by me and is doing great. Recently, I reinjected several million dollars into the company to reequip the kitchen and for organizational restructuring, while also establishing a new website and corporate identity, with the objective of expanding to neighboring countries.
What are your current plans for the Middle East?
For Faqra Catering and AVA Venue, I have a plan, which is to get Faqra Catering to the next level. That’s happening already. We’re gaining market share again and we’re killing the rumors with action, not just words. We’re demonstrating that we’re still here and we can do not only a good job, but a better one than before. Faqra Catering displays the characteristics of doing business in Lebanon, which tends to be unstructured. We intend to build on our legacy and expand throughout the Middle East where the money is and possibly Europe as well. Competition is stiff in Europe and excellence is not easy. Now there’s demand for us to develop another AVA Venue abroad, but I move cautiously and slowly. I’m not enamored of making money because money comes and goes. Succeed and make the money.
What advice would you give to Lebanon’s younger generation?
I am planning on opening an institute for entrepreneurs for the young people of this country to teach them about entrepreneurship and how they can succeed while remaining in Lebanon. If we give them the opportunity, our youth will not leave. What we’re trying to do is create the right environment for them so they can decide what they want to do in their lives and propel them into the future. This is part of my goal. I’m here to give much more than take. I donate large sums of money to charities; for example, in Zahle, where I was born, I have a restaurant that feeds the elderly.
I also spend a great deal of money on education, whether it’s in Zahle or Tripoli. I sponsor students at AUB and NDU so they can continue with their education. However, unfortunately, kids today want a lot without expecting to put in much effort. Are you willing to do anything? I learnt by working hard, dedicating time, being humble and doing whatever it takes. That’s how I made it. It takes humility and hard work - and working as a team, which unfortunately doesn’t always happen in this country. But if we apply ourselves, we can get there.
We’re a proud people, but in the wrong places. However, we’re planning for a better future. We’re not going to pack up our bags and leave. We’re here to stay and succeed, and we’re here to help Lebanon’s youth.