Business Voice May 2012
Building a life from the ground up
Person of the Year: Wadih Fares, WM Fares Group
By Laura MacKenzie
Looking back on a life that has spanned continents, languages and big chal- lenges, Wadih Fares says he has no regrets about the way he has lived and the decisions he’s made.
“You can never give up,” he says. “Life is full of difficulties; if you’re gonna give up at the first difficulty you face, you never get anywhere. One should always focus, think of solutions and go for it. That’s what differentiates you from the other person.”
Fares, the president of the W.M Fares Group and one of Halifax’s leading develop- ers, is the Chamber’s 2011 Person of the Year for his company’s contributions to Halifax’s growth, including the $41 million Trillium condo building on South Park Street.
Fares is passionate about Halifax, but he grew up in Diman, a small village in the mountainous northern region of Lebanon. He says his desire to become an engineer came from watching his father Maurice, a road con- tractor and respected village leader.
“My father was a great man and he had something about him that people really appreciated. I wanted to be like him, so I decided from an early age to become an engineer. Believe it or not, I never thought of anything else,” he says.
Fares grew up in a modest home – middle class in Lebanon, he says, but rather less than middle class here. He and his twin sister were the eldest of four and it was a happy child- hood, running around the village with the other kids, eating lunch at whichever house was closest. Diman was a small, tight-knit community.
Fares and his siblings attended the strict, but effective local private school, run by Carmelite monks.
“My father couldn’t afford that school,” he says. “I know, because the principal would come to me in grade three and four, and say ‘You didn’t pay your tuition yet.’ From that time, I had it in my mind how much my father was really suffering and going the extra mile to put us in the school.”
In Lebanon, Fares says private schools were the only option if you wanted a good education for your children. His father went into debt to get his children in and that education made all the difference.
“I beat the odds,” Fares says. “That foundation is probably the most important thing I ever had.”
In 1975 Fares graduated with solid marks from Grade 13, which prepared students to enter university. He intended to begin his engineering studies in Beirut, but that very year civil war broke out in Lebanon, closing the universities and pitting Christians, like the people of Diman, against Muslims. One healthy man from each family was required to fight on the front lines. Fares remembers clearly the day the village decided to form two teams to fight on a rotation and came to his father.
“I said to my father, ‘I’m going to go.’ He said, ‘No no, you can’t go, you’re just a young kid. You’re not going. I’m going.’ I said, ‘No, listen, you have a young family. I’m going in your place.’ And I did.”
Fares fought in the war for three months.
“I never wanted to leave Lebanon,” he says. “One night it was really bad. You have the valleys between the villages, so you have the echo of the gunfights and you could hear it everywhere. One night it was so bad, we got home at 7:00 o’clock in the morning and my mother hadn’t slept all night. She said, ‘You can’t do this. You’re leaving. I’m calling my brother and I’m getting you out of here.’”
Fares got permission to leave the army and, after scrambling to get the right documents, left Lebanon in the spring of 1976 with $200 in his pocket to live with his grandmother in Halifax.
Fares says Halifax was the obvious choice when he had to leave Lebanon; it had a large Lebanese community, including several of his relatives. The possibility of a language barrier never occurred to him.
“Arabic is my mother tongue and my education was mainly in French. I didn’t think
twice of the language. I thought, ‘Canada’s bilingual, where English and French are the same.’ To my surprise, I came here and French is not a (common) language here,” he laughs.
Fares applied to Dalhousie’s engineering program when he arrived. He met with the dean and, with a cousin translating, learned that Dalhousie was offering a new four-year program rather than the usual five.
“I said, are you kidding? I don’t even know if I can do it in five. I mean, here I am, I can- not even speak the language. He said, ‘Look, why don’t you try it. If you don’t make it in four, you’ll end up with five anyway.’”
Accepted to the program, Fares spent the summer saving for his tuition. He had never held a job in Lebanon – he says most teenagers there don’t work – and he got his first job here as a night labourer on a construction site for three dollars an hour. He worked two other jobs over the summer, employed by members of the Lebanese com- munity. After a summer of carrying lumber and pounding nails, Fares saved enough to pay for school.
Fares says that first experience of work was empowering and made him feel like he was building a new future for himself.
“All of a sudden, you feel like you’re a man, even though I was only 18 years old. You’re making money, you’re spending money,” he says. “That’s a great feeling; I wish that would happen to every person.”
As a child, Fares often struggled to carry his many schoolbooks home, but the exhaustive curriculum of his private school was a life- saver in his first year of university. It was there that he faced the challenge of learning English, which proved harder than he imagined.
“I’ll be honest, I’d come home at night sometimes and think, ‘What the hell am I doing? How can I become an engineer? I don’t even understand the professors.’”
In one chemistry test, he knew the material, but not the English terms for things, so he wrote it in French.
“I got back my test with a big red X on it and the note said, ‘It’s time to learn English.’ So the first three months were very, very hard. But, you know, you manage. My personality is that I believe nothing is impossible. If you work hard at something, you get it done.”
The support of the Lebanese community was important as he settled into Halifax, but Fares says he still relied on the friendliness and support of other Haligonians.
“I say we have the best people in the coun- try, and I’m not saying this because I live in Nova Scotia. I’ve been across Canada and we have great people here,” he says. “Without other people you cannot survive the difficul- ties, no matter how many relatives you have. You live with your grandmother – so what? What about during the day, at school?”
Fares’ enthusiasm for sports, especially soccer, helped him connect with other students when his cousin told the captain of the engineers’ inter-university soccer team that he was a good player.
“I got really excited about this, right? I think I scored in the first game I played and they loved it. This really helped and they were really friendly.”
Near the end of his first year, one of his uncles died in an accident when Fares was about to write his final exams. Fares remembers the understanding of his professors, who allowed him to write the exams when he was ready.
“Once I got through all that, it’s a beautiful place,” he says. In 1980 he graduated from Dalhousie, having completed the engineering program in four years.
Fares knew he didn’t want to leave the city he’d only just gotten to know. Engineering jobs were thin on the ground, but he found a position as a quality control engineer at an Irving plant in Bedford before graduation, even negotiating his first salary. He says he enjoyed the work, but his entrepreneurial spirit led him to leave after only a year.
“The thing is, I didn’t see any future there. I said to myself, ‘What is the best I’m going to do here? Run the plant? That’s not something I want to be.’”
Fares left that job when his wife Cathy was pregnant with the first of their three children and they had an expensive mortgage to pay.
“I remember an older fellow came to my house for a visit and he said to me, ‘You are probably very upset right now and I don’t blame you. But listen to me: one day, you’re gonna look back and say this was the best thing you ever did in your life.’ And obviously it was very easy for him to say that, at that point.”
But Fares himself was sure he could succeed in business on his own, once he set his mind to it. His wife returned to work, still pregnant and he resolved to open his own engineering practice. Like that first job at the construction site, his next opportunity came from the Lebanese community. A friend asked him to draw the plans for a house he wanted to build and sell and, soon after, plans for a small apartment building. Word spread.
“I am very fortunate that I live in a com- munity where they were all in the construction industry and they all gave me their work,” he says. “Finally I realized I had a niche; these people needed somebody who understood them, someone they can trust. More than that, someone they could under- stand if they couldn’t speak the right English.”
He began doing plans at his kitchen table. Soon he moved to an office on Oxford Street and began hiring staff. W.M Fares & Associates was born. He attracted customers by doing the legwork for them – wrangling with surveyors, architects and city permits so they wouldn’t have to.
The firm was busy and Fares saw an opportunity to expand.
“The time came that I said, ‘I do everything for these developers. Everything. They make the money, I don’t. There’s something wrong with that,’” he says.
He found a good property and went to his uncle for $100,000 capital. Fares made his uncle a partner and the cheque was signed. In 1989 he completed his first development of seven townhouses. Another early project was the Diman Lebanese Centre in Bedford, one of the many ways Fares has helped foster his community. Years of partnership with First Mortgage Services proved a turning point, resulting in a 1,000 sq.ft. commercial space, larger than Fares had dreamed of, and the only thing in Bayers Lake at the time, apart from CostCo. Fares later gained a national reputation developing the Sheraton Suites Hotel in Calgary.
“We were the first crane in Calgary in 15 years and from Nova Scotia, too,” he says. “They waited for us to fail, but we didn’t.”
W.M Fares still has a busy design department, but development has become a huge part of the business. When Fares was in- ducted into Nova Scotia’s Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame in 2008, he was asked to put a dollar amount on the projects he had done so far. It came to about $1.3 billion. Suffice it to say, the friend who counseled Fares after he left his job was right.
Fares’ success has come from careful management in a difficult business; he points out that lots of people have lost money in construction and some might underestimate what it takes to do this work successfully, keeping your projects in the black and on time.
“People might look at Wadih Fares and say, ‘You know, he drives a Range Rover, he wears a suit every day. What does he do?’ But no- body knows what you go through, because with every project, you put everything you’ve worked for on the line.”
Though proud of all his work, Fares says the Trillium, with its 19 storeys of condos and commercial space, is the development he is proudest of. The building is now substantially complete, with people living in it.
“To date, the Trillium project is by far the signature project for us. We’re very happy about the outcome, really excited,” he says. “I feel this building will go down in history as one of the best projects in Halifax.”
When Fares isn’t overseeing multi-million dollar projects, he can be found at meetings for one of the many organizations he serves with, including the Dalhousie University Board of Governors, the Halifax International Airport Authority and the Minister’s Immigration Advisory Committee. He says giving back to his community is a priority and a pleasure for him, and the meetings refresh him, allowing him to take a break from the everyday concerns of his own business.
In addition to being lauded for his business achievements, Fares has been given many awards over the years recognizing his charitable work, including the Order of St. Gregory, the highest honour a layman can receive from the Catholic Church, from Pope Benedict XVI. Fares speaks humbly of his efforts, but says that kind of recognition is valuable, not only to show what you do is truly appreciated, but to set a positive example for the younger generation. Fares has also served as Honourary Consul of Lebanon for the Maritime Provinces since 1997, when the consulate reopened after the end of the civil war that brought him to Halifax.
“I was honoured that I was appointed to serve my community and represent my country,” he says.
Fares, who has two of his children working with him, says one of the best parts of his job is the feeling he’s leaving a legacy – making real changes to the world around him.
“Five years down the road, you can say, ‘I did that. That’s my building.’ You tell your children, your grandchildren,” he says. “It’s a great feeling to be someone who is building a city. Not by yourself, but you’re contributing. From a community point of view and a business point of view, I want to be remembered as a developer and an engineer who really made a difference in the skylines of Halifax.”
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