The Ascent of Knoxville Construction Magnate Raja Jubran

Raja Jubran's latter-day life story begins, as so many do these days, with September 11, 2001. It was the worst day of his adult life. The Knoxville builder was devastated by the events in a special way. "I couldn't function the rest of that day," says Jubran, the CEO and founder of a firm with tens of millions of dollars in construction projects underway. "I kept thinking, 'They look just like me,' and the more I thought it, the angrier I got."

Lebanese-born, of Palestinian extraction, a lifelong Christian and naturalized American citizen, Jubran has the dark complexion and eyes and the distinctive facial features of his Middle Eastern birthright. His abiding pride in all of those characteristics and distinctions was no shield against the knowledge that he could be confused, by strangers, with terrorists just because of his looks. He didn't know he had so many friends, though. He says the calls, the emails, the notes and memos began cascading in like kudzu. People he knew only vaguely were letting him and his family know they cared, that they were conscious of the catastrophe's likely, ugly, racial ramifications, and that they stood with him.

"I was always very proud of the way East Tennessee and Knoxville accepted our family. September 11, as horrible as it was, ended up reinforcing that pride," he says.

His family had planned a reunion in Paris, where relatives on his mother's side and friends of his from childhood live, over the Christmas holidays. He says he canceled that trip in the aftermath of September 11 because he could not put his family through the potential embarrassment of his being singled out by airport security personnel, who know nothing of him except his looks, for special attention. "At the same time," he says, "I wouldn't blame security people for singling me out, because they'd have to. Those 19 [suicide attackers] looked like me."

He understands better than most Americans can understand how, in his words, "We need to get rid of [Osama] bin Laden the person, but more than that the Arab world needs to get rid of 'bin Laden-ism,'" which he describes as the official and unofficial acceptance of the kind of religious extremism that allows terrorists to thrive there.

Always on the Move

Scroll forward to 2002. Raja Jubran, the construction magnate, keeps the staff of the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership a little off balance. As its chairman, he insists on contributing 10 hours a week to Chamber work and complains if they don't schedule him for a full 10 hours.

To the 44-year-old Jubran, who says he put off the Chamber chair for a year to assure that he could devote that kind of time to it, the explanation is simple: "For some people, that would be 25 percent of their work week. For me, it's only 7.8 percent."

Arithmetically, that would mean Jubran's work week exceeds 120 hours, or six 20-hour days. If he's exaggerating, his wife, Michelle, says it's only a mild exaggeration. "He's always on the go, Monday through Saturday, every week," she says.

He smiles as he considers his work habits, explaining that he's up every workday at 4 a.m., when he has his morning constitutional, a full cup of espresso, after which he drinks coffee, strong coffee, all day and into the evening. For a part of that day there is the company, the charities and causes and cultural endeavors he espouses, the politics he loves to play and the family, each with its own block of his time. Then he sleeps, but not much. "I don't have any hobbies," he says.

That the energetic, almost bouncy, Jubran is "driven" is a frequently heard expression from those who know or work with him. He acknowledges as much. "I enjoy it, and every minute I'm away from work and community service, I'm with my family."

His drive is unquestionably one quality that has contributed to the spectacular growth of his company, Denark Construction, Inc., whose red-and-white logo is becoming as familiar as JFG Coffee's around the Knoxville area.

It wasn't always that way. His first venture, called Denark, a contraction of design engineers & architects, was formed in 1985 with Maurice Mallia, whom he met and became friends with at UT. They enjoyed moderate success as a firm that did it all under the "design/build" principal, taking each project from inception to conclusion, but they sold off the architecture side. Mallia took the engineering side into his own new firm, Mallia Engineering, and Jubran kept the construction company and the name.

The efficiencies of design/build within one company were offset by the effect of competing with other, single-service companies, Jubran says, and splitting up the original firm "freed us to do projects with other architectural and engineering firms."

Mergers, first with the late R.M. Smith's construction company in 1986, and with Rothermel Construction in 1996, contributed to Denark's growth, allowing for ever-larger and more concurrent projects.

The continuity in the growth curve, which Jubran attributes to the people he's partnered with and hired over the past 15 years, has led to more than $300 million in construction contracts in the last five years, with $65 million worth of projects completed in 2001 alone.

It's all the more remarkable when Jubran's background is taken into account—as a Palestinian, brought up in strife-torn Lebanon, who came to the United States in 1977 to study engineering at the University of Tennessee and stayed because full-scale civil war had enveloped his beloved Beirut. His whole family eventually came here, drawn by their kinship with the Knoxville Harbs, Palestinians from the town of Ramallah, whose patriarch, W.J. Harb, settled here in the 1920s. The Harbs made their own way for themselves in a Southern Appalachian setting where they gained acceptance for their hard work. Ultimately, they came into prominence as an extended but closely knit family of business and professional people. There are more than 35 Harbs in the latest Knoxville phone directory, "and they're all related to me some way," Jubran says.

Or, maybe the fact that he's a Palestinian and an émigré is not the remarkable part. Dick Bigler, the Public Building Authority's manager on the $94 million Knoxville Convention Center, has worked with Denark and its partner, Clark Construction of Bethesda, Md., on that project for more than two years and has had all sorts of dealings with Jubran during that time. "He has one of most organized companies I've ever seen anywhere," says Bigler, whose 35 years in construction management have included work with countless builders in a half-dozen countries in North America, the Middle East and Asia.

"All that [organization] comes from Raja growing up in the industry overseas where everything is harder," Bigler says.

His reference is to Raja's father, Jubran A. Jubran, a native of Ramallah, Palestine, who graduated in engineering from the American University at Beirut. He stayed in Lebanon to forge one of the largest engineering and construction firms in the Middle East, ArkBuild, before he died of a heart attack in 1977 at the age of 57.

Raja did learn at his father's knee, but he learned more than organizational skills. He knows how business is conducted, there or here.

He turns serious when he says that he and his partners "had to fight our way through the 'ol' boy network'" to achieve his company's successes. "Now people think we're a part of the 'ol' boy network,'" he says. Asked point blank about the contention that crops up, perhaps inevitably in the industry, that he uses or even abuses his broad base of connections to further his business, he gives it criticism no credence. "It couldn't be farther from the truth," he says. "You still have to fight—still have to deliver on your promises. If you don't, no amount of networking will gain you business or develop your reputation."

Yes, true, but...

The "design/build" concept, which Raja came up in the business advocating, has builders partnering with architects and engineers from the outset of a project, even including subcontractors' representatives early in the process, to form a team approach to creating and concluding what the owner wants built. Carrying out that idea has, in itself, made Jubran and his company a part of a network. But he has also walked the more traditional networking walk: He's connected to potential clients in church, in a host of community services and in politics, where he has contributed regularly to the campaigns of candidates he identifies as supportive of "business and economic development." To most people, that activity would be described as networking—on which, as Raja says, you still have to deliver.

It's not an unusual path, here or in the region where his father succeeded, but both Raja's friends and detractors, though the latter may be few, agree that he is unusual in his dedication to success, in his competitiveness, in his basic good nature and heart, and in his ability to manage multiple responsibilities with seeming ease.

"Raja is very much like his father," says his mother, Malak, who speaks with a trace of Lebanese-French accent. "He's such a hard worker, so sincere."

The Business of Business

While that may have been a mother talking, the sentiments are echoed in most quarters where Raja has done business lately. There were rumblings that his Chamber participation and his political connections have given him inside information or favorite standing that he's used to procure contracts.

On the former, Chamber Partnership President Tom Ingram is outspoken in affirming Raja's own stated arms-length relationship to information such as might appear on new business or industrial prospect lists.

"He's got a sense of ethics that's phenomenal...I probably hear more from Raja worrying about conflicts than I do from anyone else worrying about them. He'd rather get a deal by competing than by being an insider," Ingram says.

On his political advocacy, Raja confirms the notion that he contributes to campaigns for most local, state and national offices that affect the Knoxville region. In local races, he says, he gives $100 up to $1,000 to candidates that he says he views as having integrity and being supportive of business and economic development. Most of the candidates he backs have been Republican, but he says he also contributed to "some wonderful Democrats" who he believes are aligned with business. He has given to the campaigns of Sens. Fred Thompson and Bill Frist, gave $2,500, "the max," to Gov. Don Sundquist on each of his runs and contributed to and served as a Tennessee elector for President George W. Bush. He says his wife also contributes to political candidates, but not always the same ones he does. "Michelle was for Bill Clinton in his first presidential campaign, when I was for President Bush's dad," he cites as a memorable difference of opinion.

"I like politics. I've always liked politics, and as a businessman who does not want to run for office, I feel I have to support the candidates I agree with who are willing to go through that ordeal," Raja says.

One upcoming project on which Raja's firm does have the inside track is Universe Knoxville, a potential $100-million-plus plum that appears to be steaming toward final approval, with city and county backing and the Public Building Authority issuing a required request for proposals just this week. The project is expected to be developed by Worsham Watkins International, whose principals, Earl Worsham and Ron Watkins, want Denark to take the construction lead. That's according to Raja, who is seconded by PBA chief Dale Smith, Ingram and anyone else who has talked with Worsham and Watkins lately. They didn't return Metro Pulse calls. Worsham and Watkins approached Raja to assist them in preconstruction services on the huge project, Raja says, and no one disputes that.

Most people involved in the industry are complimentary toward Denark's track record, including Bigler, who says the fact that the Convention Center is coming in under budget and on or ahead of schedule with what he lists as $161,000 in change orders out of $94 million budgeted is little short of miraculous. "I'd like to work with him again," says Bigler, whose next project ("I'd like to do one in China") could be anywhere. The ultimate Knoxville outsider, whose role as project manager and advocate for the owners can often produce contentious relationships with construction contractors, Bigler says he enjoyed the negotiating process with Raja and describes him as "one of the nicest, most interesting people I've met."

On schedules and changes, Raja points to other major contracts on which he says his company has performed as well, such as the Smokies Stadium in Sevier County, where he says there were no change orders on a $10 million project, and the Knoxville/Knox County Animal Welfare structure, whose operators say they can't believe it's meant to be only a temporary facility, and which went from concept to completion in a phenomenal six months.

His account of the last five years of Denark contracts shows a total volume of $317 million, with 1.3 percent in change orders and what he's most ready to boast of: repeat clients on more than 80 percent of all Denark business.

"You can create an image," Raja says, "but you can't create a reputation." He says the effort to do that is what makes his company what it is, regardless of any networking.

But Everyone Networks

Not even a couple of Denark's major competitors who expect the huge Universe Knoxville project to go Denark's way are complaining of any lack of "a level playing field" in seeking construction contracts.

Jim Bush, CEO of Johnson & Galyon Contractors, says his firm is "staying busy" in what he describes as "a competitive business."

Bush says he knows Raja Jubran and his partner, Denark President Frank Rothermel, "but not too well. We don't run together, don't socialize." But he adds, "They're nice guys as far as I know."

Likewise, Charlie Hays, chairman and CEO of Merit Construction, says he has no complaints about the competition. With about $50 million worth of projects in progress under Merit's contracts, Hays says, "I think we can compete and do." Of Jubran, Hays says, "He's a hard worker, just like the rest of us."

That's not in question. Besides his business, Raja is currently serving on the boards of directors of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, the Knoxville Museum of Art, the United Way of Greater Knoxville, the Baptist Health System Foundation, the Knoxville Opera Company, where he is a past president of the board. He's a past chairman of Knoxville's Community Development Corp. and has served on the boards of the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Club. He's also on the board of advisors of the UT College of Engineering. Besides the Chamber chair he is vice chairman of the board of Nine Counties, One Vision. He holds memberships in other organizations as well, besides St. George's Greek Orthodox Church, including the Ramallah Club of Knoxville and Nucleus Knoxville.

If all of those positions give him contacts, they also give him responsibilities, which he shoulders well, according to those who serve with him.

Raja says he's been mentored and guided by Pilot Oil mogul "Big" Jim Haslam II, on the subject of community involvement. Haslam told him, "If you want to live in the community, you have to pay the rent," Raja says, and he took that to heart. Originally, he says, "I wanted to work with opera, a special area of interest. Whether you like [opera] or not, it raises the quality of life in Knoxville, which attracts more people and brings more business here—when they come and see that we have a museum, have a symphony, have an opera company."

It's clear that he's for community growth, and ethnic background may have worked to his advantage with the Chamber, whose leadership was striving to show some diversity beyond the "12 white guys" concept. It may not have been pure coincidence that Raja followed Sharon Miller, a woman banker, in the Chamber chair. Even so, the Chamber's Ingram says, "Raja's a great communicator; he's very efficient with his communications. He takes in a tremendous amount of information during the course of every day, and...everything's a science for him. I guess it's the engineer in him, but he's also very flexible, not a trait you find in every engineer.

"If there's a negative about Raja, it's how hard he drives himself," Ingram says.

Growing Up Too Young

Jubran's father's death was a shock to his three sons: A.J., who preceded Raja to UT engineering school by four years, Raja, who had been in this country only six months, and Nadim, who was four years younger than Raja. "We had to take up the responsibility," Raja says, "All the brothers took life a lot more seriously." A.J. became an engineer for the Tennessee Department of Transportation, then for its Georgia counterpart. Nadim, who came to live and study in Knoxville when the Jubrans' mother moved here permanently in 1981, is a West Knoxville dentist.

It's not that their studies weren't always serious business. "My father was very strict but a great mentor," says Raja. A stickler for education, the elder Jubran "worked very hard, both on the job and with his family...he was always home for lunch and a nap. It was a different lifestyle then."

Indeed it was. When Raja Jubran was a pre-teen and young teen-ager, Beirut was a center of commercial activity and banking hub for the whole Middle East. Despite its size—smaller than Connecticut—and a population never more than about 3.5 million, Lebanon had historically nurtured its international trade role.

Beirut was one the world's most cosmopolitan cities, strongly influenced by the former French protectorate, which had followed other, older and unwelcome incursions by Persians, Assyrians, Greeks and others. Through it all Lebanon, which was formerly Phoenicia, remained intact and a focal point for Eastern Mediterranean commerce.

It was in such a climate that the Jubrans prospered. They lived, Malak Jubran says, in culturally mixed West Beirut, among Christians and Muslims, French and Americans, Brits and a host of other nationalities. At first, she says, the family was relatively safe from civil strife. Raja remembers fondly the family's beach chalet on the Mediterranean, where they summered and played. "I was always competitive," he says, at soccer and volleyball and swimming, especially swimming. Besides the beach and his formal schooling at the prestigious International College, a middle and high school affiliated with the American University, Raja says that "the YMCA played a big part in my life."

The family held membership there naturally, as they were Greek Orthodox Christians. Raja says that people here often ask him, "When did you convert to Christianity?"

"I tell them my family has been Christian for more than 600 years and were for most of that time only a few miles away from Jesus' birthplace," Raja says, gleefully. He says that pretty well leaves many of his questioners speechless. Lebanon remains about 30 percent Christian, in several denominations, and 70 percent Islamic, also in differing sects of that religion. It is the effect on politics of some of the practitioners of those religious orders that has put terrible stress on the Lebanese government, to the point where open warfare broke out in Beirut's streets in 1976, when Raja was still in high school.

Civil disorder was continuous there for 15 years, prompting Syrian and Israeli invasions and ravaging Beirut and the nation's economy.

His single most lasting impression of his youth there, Raja says without hesitation, is "having to grow up too fast."

His mother recalls a day when his school was hit by bombs. "He came running. He was so scared, shouting, 'Where is Nadim?' and he went running back to the school, going through back streets, avoiding the men who were fighting, to make sure his brother was all right. It doesn't seem so long ago, but it is, of course."

Not all Middle Eastern fighting, by any means, is in the long ago, nor are the Palestinian causes that Malak Jubran's own father, Raja's grandfather, advanced as publisher of the influential Jaffa (now Haifa) newspaper, The Palestinian, before and after World War II. The paper survives, in a somewhat different form and under a different masthead, she says, in Amman, Jordan, under the direction of Malak's brother. Those causes, which Raja took up shortly after finishing up at UT in the early '80s, continue to roil in violence. Raja says he went to Washington for a year and a half to do what he could to secure Palestinian rights. He did so out of frustration at what little was being accomplished, he says, and he returned to Knoxville, always knowing that he would do so, out of frustration at what little he himself could accomplish there and the directions the Palestinian movement were taking at the time.

Engineering Redux

When he returned, he was ready to settle down, he says, even though he concedes he was still a bit of a "wild man." His wife, Michelle Mabry Jubran, a Blount County native, describes him today as "a different man from the one I married. He had long hair, long very curly hair, and he weighed maybe 130 pounds." In truth, that hardly jibes with the close-shorn, stockily built, exquisitely tailored Raja who graces his offices today.

They more or less agree how they met. It was her first day in office management at an apartment complex on Middlebrook Pike, where Raja was living. "I came in to reserve the clubhouse for a party, and she didn't know how to arrange that, so I showed her," Raja says.

"I also invited her to the party. She said 'no.'" He says he kept going back and asking her out, and she said no again and again. "Finally, a neighbor of mine whom she'd asked about me told her I was a gentleman," Raja says. "I found out about that, that she'd sounded interested, so I waited a while and asked her out again. She said 'yes,' and I was totally smitten.

"We still date," Raja says, "I mean each other."

Michelle says that's true, almost 17 years and two sons after their wedding.

She's still learning how to arrange for a party, but in a much bigger way. She has done a good bit of event-organizing for various charities and non-profits around here, but she returned last week from 10 days in New Orleans, where she worked with Susan Knapp, the wife of Denark's chief operating officer, Gordon Knapp, arranging events such as banquets, a golf tournament, a shooting clays tournament and a barbecue for NFL alumni in the run-up to the Super Bowl. Susan Knapp's firm, Innovative Marketing Services, had the assignment, Michelle says. "I learned a lot and had a great time," she says.

She jokes about how little she sees her husband, but she also says she keeps herself busy with volunteer work and the family, and she emphasizes that "he's a great husband and father and family man. We all have dinner every Sunday with his mother," she says, and "he calls his mom every day."

Michelle does say that Raja was on the verge of developing a hobby right before Christmas. "He bought two four-wheelers [those little recreational vehicles with motorcycle engines that can go practically anywhere]. One for him and one for me. On an impulse. We have friends with farmland we can ride on." She says the boys, Omar, 15, and Nadim, 13, love them.

And Raja? "I think he's been on one twice now."

© 2002 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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