UNSUNG BUSINESS HEROES
Imagine how different your life would be if you were bold enough to follow that dream you had as a child. There would be more firemen in the world, more Cinderellas and more Darth Vaders.
In the case of Michael Dakhoul, there would be more movie directors.
“It was my dream as a young boy, growing upon in Lebanon, to be a director; to be Clint Eastwood. Have a successful acting career then move into directing.”
Instead of being recognised as one of the country’s leading Quantity Surveyors, Michael could have been collecting Academy Awards as a leading director in Hollywood.
The quantum leap from the life he’d imagined began when reality struck in his late teens.
Looking back, Michael remembers, “I did drama when I was in high school and I wanted to be a theatre actor. I was still pursuing that when I went to university.
“I had enrolled to study architecture, but spent all my days next door at the theatre classes. So I guess you could say I was pretty serious about it.”
For much of the early years of his life, Michael was growing up in a country torn apart by war, “but we still managed to study, we still went to school and we still had dreams.”
As Michael frankly recalls, “it was dangerous at times, but we survived. A lot of people didn’t. It was a dirty war. Nobody really knows the reason for it. A lot of people say it was religion-based, but it wasn’t; if anything it was more stupidity.”
Most of Michael’s family had already left Lebanon and migrated to Australia. Once his grandparents left, only Michael, his brother and mother remained in Lebanon.
Michael was a year into his architectural degree when the remaining family decided to come to Australia. “I arrived with $10 in my pocket.”
A new life in a new country, and a new dream; or more to the point in Michael’s case, a reality check. Any thoughts of being a movie director were left behind in Lebanon as Michael tried to pick up his architectural studies in Australia.
It was a difficult transition, as one university after another refused to accept him. “I wasn’t accepted because I couldn’t pass the English exam.”
Arabic is the national language of Lebanon, but there’s a strong presence of French and English, depending on which school you attended. Historically, Lebanon was a French colony and there are many references to that heritage, particularly in the school system.
The situation there had been “either choose a school that teaches you Arabic as a language but everything else is in English, or you go to an Arabic school which teaches you everything in French.
“So Arabic literature was a subject, but maths, physics, science, everything else was taught in either French or English.”
Michael had attended a ‘French’ school. They still learnt some English, and while “I could communicate well enough in English, it wasn’t good enough for universities here.”
Fortunately Michael enrolled at St George TAFE and they accepted him on the basis that he also took English classes. That also led to Michael changing his career direction.
Michael did an architectural drafting course, and after graduating, worked as a draftsman for a couple of years.
Initially, Michael worked with an architect and then “moved to the building side of it. I did another TAFE course and worked with a building company. Then, because my English was much better, I went to university and got a degree in construction.
“I got a job working with a quantity surveying firm and about 8 years ago I went out on my own, created Construction Consultants and haven’t looked back.”
The childhood dream was to work in the film industry, after a few life lessons and a change of country, the script for Michael Dakhoul’s life had led him into the building industry, although Michael still likes to think there’s a bit of Clint Eastwood in what he does at Construction Consultants.
“We offer services to the development and construction industry from inception to completion. We can create projects for our clients or we can come into a project at different phases.
By way of explanation, Michael expands by noting that, “as Quantity Surveyors we’re the professionals in the building industry who look after the financial side.
We look at all elements involved in construction and we look at time factors as well as risks involved in the job and then our report is submitted to the bank.”
On the other hand, Michael’s team can be engaged as project managers where people engage the company to develop a sketch plan and hire architects. They can then continue to hire other consultants, submit development applications, follow up on approvals and then eventually get to tender stages in construction and completion of projects.
In essence, this is analogous to film directing and keeps the spark of those early dreams alive in that, “we’re bringing a lot of people together with a common goal; to achieve a finished product which is successful for all parties. Really, it’s not that dissimilar to what Eastwood does on a movie set – it’s a nice way to look at it.”
There are several keywords which drive the Construction Consultants business. One is knowledge; the knowledge Michael’s gained over 30 years of being in the industry.
We look at the economics of a project. Our knowledge is unequalled in the industry.”
Another important aspect is service and that’s an area Michael has developed through a process of self-learning through books he’s read and advice from mentors.
Michael recalls, “the first book I read was ‘How To Win Friends and Influence People’ by Dale Carnegie.
It made me realise I needed to improve my skills with people if I was to be successful in business. Prior to that I never saw myself as a people person, and I needed to understand what service meant and how to apply it.”
Through reading and attending self-development seminars, Michael learnt the value of having a mentor, and he didn’t have to look too far.
On arriving in Australia, “my brother and I were helping our uncles, filling up petrol in a service station. This was before self-service, and our hands would be black from handling the pumps, the money and all the dirty jobs. But, this guy would stop his car and come and shake our hands; he would be interested in us.
I loved his humility and his approach – he treated us as human beings, as people, and I never forgot that.
“His name was George Shad. He’s now my lawyer and a friend. He taught me the value of humility, never thinking you are better than anybody else.”
Further lessons were gained by Michael’s interactions with “a person younger than me, Norman Sarraf. He taught me the value of passion. Again, extremely humble and he’s also very passionate about what he does.
“I tell my staff when you answer the phone I don’t want you to sound like you’re dying on me; be excited, be passionate about what we are doing here.”
Norman also taught Michael the lesson of “being abundant with what you have. He would hire us to do a report for example, and pay us before we’d done the job. He believes in rewarding people quickly and that’s extremely honourable.”
One of life’s most valuable lessons though came from Michael’s grandfather.
“I learnt honesty from him, extreme honesty. There’s no way you can build a business, or a life for that matter, without honesty. My grandfather was very particular about that, he’s been a very important figure in my life.”
Communication is also a driving factor behind both Michael’s success and that of his business – a legacy of being forced to master English when he arrived in Australia. He now values communication as a key ingredient in business.
Mastering the language is critical according to Michael as “the basis for what we do is correspondence and it is so important to know how to correspond with people correctly.
“I instil the importance of it in all of my staff. Anything that comes out of our office has to be in perfect English; reviewed and vetted by another. It’s too easy these days for people to misunderstand or misinterpret what you say, so you have to be clear and concise.”
Michael’s now fluent in English, French and Arabic and can also get by in Portuguese, “because it’s fairly close to French.” He quickly adds that, “if I was in France I would definitely do the same in their language, it’s just so important.”
But Michael is concerned the art of communication is deteriorating. He fears its importance isn’t emphasised enough, and believes standards have dropped markedly.
Sadly, he comments, “we receive material from engineers and other professionals which is really below standard, it has become an unimportant issue.”
So the obvious question to follow this is, how does Michael handle texting? It takes a while for him to stop laughing, before finally admitting it’s an art form that is taking over and conceding it’s an important form of communication in today’s world.
However, don’t expect Michael to do any deals via text. “It’s too easy to get things wrong. It can be fun way to book a meeting or a coffee, but you have to be more professional when finalising a deal.”
Michael makes no apologies for being a little old-fashioned; it was the platform for his success.
In the early days “working with an architect, I did a lot of drafting so I designed a lot of things. That was before computers and we did everything manually; we measured buildings, we drew everything, it was the old way of designing things. That’s where I attained a lot of experience of reading and understanding plans.”
The knowledge, the work ethic and the principles that have guided him through life have led Michael to grow his business substantially.
He started with a staff of two, in one small office in Parramatta. He now has 26 people working for him, spread over two offices in Parramatta, offices in Sydney and Melbourne and a small presence in Perth.
Michael candidly admits that, “I never planned for it to be this big, but I’m not surprised because the industry has grown and we’ve got a very good name.
“It makes me proud to get to this level. We’ve got a beautiful team of people, a really superb team that has stayed with us. We rarely lose anyone, once here they tend to stay. So that must be sign that we’re doing something right.”
The next phase for Michael is ensuring the business continues to prosper, but relying less on him and more on those he’s been training.
A long time believer in the catchphrase that ‘life is too short’, Michael feels strongly that “for me to keep working in my business forever is not smart, because nobody is going to guarantee what is going to happen tomorrow.
His brother is back from the Gulf and “has joined our business, my nephew has been in the business for a while and there are a couple of key people in my business who are really like family.
“So my goal is to eventually pass on a big chunk of that business to them, and then I’ll focus more on public relations, getting the work and business development.”
Although that may seem like semi-retirement to some, for Michael “it’s more like moving myself into another level where I can take a month’s holiday, which I haven’t done in forever.”
That next phase will also offer the opportunity to play more golf, “I haven’t played in ages”; to travel with his family, “they’ll have their own kids soon”; and of course see more plays and movies, “if I can’t direct at least I can be a critic”. These are all important things to Michael, and are many of the reasons he started his business in the first place.
Although “that’s the goal” Michael states,“ right now I am focused on building the business and keeping it where it is.”
Apart from what we’ve already learnt from Michael about his success principles, there are a few other key areas of advice he’d offer for anyone starting their own business, especially in today’s environment.
One of the critical elements is having the right people around you.
“Having the right people in your camp gives you a degree of confidence which can keep you on track. You can’t let people down, so you have to be happy with your home base, which is you and your team.”
From there “it’s about reinforcing those qualities of trust, honesty and service. You have to come from an angle that everybody is your equal and you’re there to provide a service.”
Creating friendships in business is another area Michael believes has been a reason for his success and encourages those starting up a business to follow that example.
“Being able to love those you’re dealing with can make life a whole lot easier.
We’ve created a lot of good friendships from our business – really good friendships – and we keep building on them.
If you start looking at your client as a close friend, or friend and more than just an acquaintance, you can’t go wrong. You can’t lose.”
One of the hardest things budding entrepreneurs struggle with is the ability to keep getting up when things get tough. That’s when Michael believes it’s important to truly believe in yourself and what you’re offering.
He strongly recommends investing time in “building yourself, building your personality, building your people skills. People will look for that in every business.
“Clients come to you for work because they like you. They will rarely look at what degrees you have; they will look at you, they will trust you and then they will use you. It is very important to build yourself as a person.”
The importance of giving back to the community was another lesson instilled in Michael by his grandfather.
The valuable lesson there was “the more you make, the more you’re expected to give, and it’s a philosophy I follow both personally and professionally. We don’t have one major cause we support, we tend to support a wide variety.”
Michael proudly recounts that “we’re very active with the Children’s Cancer Council, church groups and through one of our colleagues we actively support bike rides overseas to raise funds and awareness for children in Cambodia.”
One of the company’s directors, Bruce Burrows, is heavily involved in the PCYC and through him the business has have a significant role there.
While donating money is an important part the business plays, “we also use our connections and expertise in the building industry to provide support in kind. Getting involved in small development and construction works can make a big difference for the organisations which we partner.”
Michael summarises by adding that this “is an extremely important part of what we do, and to be involved in a wide range of community projects is very fulfilling.”
- “He taught me the value of humility, of never thinking you are better than anybody else.”
- “When you answer the phone I don’t want you to sound like you’re dying on me; be excited, be passionate about what we are doing here.”
- “Being abundant with what you have.”
- “There’s no way you can build a business, or a life for that matter, without honesty.”
- “Having the right people in your camp gives you a degree of confidence which can keep you on track. You can’t let people down, so you have to be happy with your home base, which is you and your team.”
- “Clients come to you for work because they like you. They will rarely look at what degrees you have; they will look at you, they will trust you and then they will use you. It is very important to build yourself as a person.”
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