Episode 198 – Rising Talent: A Project Managers’ Resilience in Beirut’s Rebuild

Original Air Date

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40 Minutes
Home Manage This Podcast Episode 198 – Rising Talent: A Project Managers’ Resilience in Beirut’s Rebuild

About This Episode

Kevin Gemayel

“I would advise every project manager …to focus on how they should lead themselves before going out there and leading projects, people, and teams,” these are the words of Project Director and PMI 2023 Future 50 honoree, Kevin Gemayel, PMP. In our next two podcast episodes, we would like to showcase emerging talent in the project management community through a series we have called “Rising Talent.” In this episode, Kevin, a second-generation project leader at a building façade firm, shares his story about rebuilding Beirut’s historical and cultural landmarks after a catastrophic explosion.

On August 4th, 2020, Beirut’s port was devastated by a catastrophic explosion, resulting in over 200 fatalities, 6,000 injuries, leaving 300,000 people homeless, and countless structures in ruins. The aftermath of this calamity laid the foundation for an extensive rebuilding endeavor. Kevin faced personal and professional challenges head-on, driven by a deep commitment to restoring the city’s cultural heritage. Join us as he shares his personal experiences during the blast, how he prioritized tasks, managed stakeholders and budgets, motivated his team, and strategized time management as he managed his response teams. Additionally, Kevin reflects on lessons learned and his personal growth throughout the rebuilding process. Be inspired as we hear about Kevin’s extraordinary project and his journey of resilience.

Favorite Quotes from Episode

"… in leadership, they say you should become a leader and personally lead yourself before leading anyone else. And I would advise every project manager to learn and to focus on how they should lead themselves before going out there and leading projects and people and teams because, when they do things right themselves, … they will be able to influence the people they are working with. … So don’t just focus on books and numbers and theoretical things. Focus on yourself, as well."

Kevin Gemayel

"it wasn’t me who was motivating my team. The results were motivational. "

Kevin Gemayel

"The key in that place and the key in project management for me in such a situation is communication, and efficient communication, not just talking over the phone. It was how I was talking to people, how I was getting the information, and how I was filtering it, as well."

Kevin Gemayel

The podcast by project managers for project managers. Following the 2020 devastating explosion in Beirut, project manager Kevin Gemayel’s journey is nothing short of inspiring as he tackled challenges head-on. Hear firsthand accounts of his experiences during the blast, his strategies for managing tasks, stakeholders, budgets, and time, and the invaluable lessons learned. We discover Kevin’s extraordinary project and the power of resilience in the face of adversity.

Table of Contents

04:27 … Meet Kevin
05:30 … Kevin’s Story of the Tragedy
07:25 … Gathering a Team
08:18 … The Family Façade Business
09:44 … Deciding How to Prioritize
13:34 … An Emergency Response
15:33 … Resources and Supplies
16:47 … An Economic Crisis
20:08 … Personal Impact
21:36 … Keeping a Team Motivated
22:38 … Ren Love’s Projects from the Past
25:00 … Planning Time Management and Strategy
28:21 … Creative Problem-Solving
29:31 … Kevin’s Lessons Learned
31:08 … Personal Growth Through Tragedy
34:57 … Looking Back
36:37 … Advice to Younger PMs
38:46 … Contact Kevin
39:59 … Closing

KEVIN GEMAYEL: in leadership, they say you should become a leader and personally lead yourself before leading anyone else.  And I would advise every project manager to learn and to focus on how they should lead themselves before going out there and leading projects and people and teams because, when they do things right themselves, … they will be able to influence the people they are working with.  …  So don’t just focus on books and numbers and theoretical things.  Focus on yourself, as well.

WENDY GROUNDS:  You’re listening to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  My name is Wendy Grounds, and with me in the studio is Bill Yates. 

We want to feature some younger talent in the project management community.  We’re calling it our Rising Talent series.  So for the next two episodes we’re going to be sharing the stories of two young project managers who are not only inspirational, but they’re also making waves with their incredible contributions to the field.  Now, we have spoken to some young project managers in the past.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, Episode 165 we had a great conversation with Kat Shane.  You may recall she had a startup company that she began at the University of Georgia, and it was working on a solution to help people, governments, and businesses figure out what products or packaging are locally recyclable.  So, can I recycle this?  And how to get them where they needed to go.

WENDY GROUNDS:  We also spoke to Christelle Kwizera.  That was Episode 146.  At the age of 20, Christelle founded Water Access Rwanda, which was in response to the dangerous conditions Rwandans would face when collecting water from rivers and dams.  She was quite an incredible young lady.

BILL YATES:  What a story.  So inspirational and so young.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yes, yes.  She was also a PMI Future 50 2021 honoree.  And the folk that we’re talking to in these two episodes are also Future 50 2023 honorees from PMI.  We are really enjoying featuring younger talent in the project management community.  The first one is our guest, Kevin.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, this is a heavy story, this conversation we’ll have with Kevin.  It’s heavy.  It’s about the blast in Beirut.  And many people lost their lives, and many people who survived it will be dealing with it for a lifetime.  So, we wanted to recognize that.  But there are so many powerful lessons for us to learn from that, and to hear from Kevin.

And we’ve tackled these kinds of topics before.  We spoke with Matthew Harper about the attack on the USS Cole and the lessons learned from that.  Peter Baines joined us from Australia.  He led international identification teams after tsunamis or terrorist attacks.  So, he’s talked with us about that.  And of course, Chuck Casto, that story was so engaging, looking at the Fukushima disaster and the 11 months that he spent onsite after the accident, and all the lessons learned he had from that after that earthquake and tsunami.  So, this is a topic we’ve been down before in terms of, okay, how do you lead through a tragedy?  And Kevin’s perspective is going to really be insightful.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Right.  Today we embark on a story of resilience, determination, and the unwavering spirit to rebuild.  Just to give you a little more background, in 2020, Beirut’s port was engulfed in a catastrophic explosion, leaving behind a wake of devastation.  There were over 200 lives lost, 6,000 injured, and 300,000 people were homeless, with countless structures in ruins.  The aftermath of this tragedy was what set the stage for this immense rebuilding process.

This was what Kevin Gemayel got involved with.  Kevin is a second-generation leader at a prominent building façade firm, and he found himself at the forefront of restoring Beirut’s shattered historical and cultural landmarks following the blast.  His tenure in the family business, marked by innovative project management and quality control methods since 2014, laid the groundwork for impactful change.  Today Kevin and his dedicated team navigate the profound personal and professional challenges posed by this tragedy, and he’s driven by a deep commitment to revitalize the city’s cherished landmarks.  So, join us today as we delve into Kevin’s journey and hear about his incredible project.

Meet Kevin

Hi, Kevin.  Welcome to Manage This.  Thank you so much for joining us today.

KEVIN GEMAYEL:  Thank you.  Thank you.

WENDY GROUNDS:  I must congratulate you on being a PMI Future 50 honoree.  That is really quite an accomplishment.

BILL YATES:  That’s phenomenal.

WENDY GROUNDS:  And we have been so excited to find your story and to learn more about you.  So, we’re looking forward to talking about your projects today.  The first thing is I just want to know what motivated your career in project management.  How did all of this get started for you?

KEVIN GEMAYEL:  During my university years, we got some courses on project managers, as all engineers do.  And I found out that it’s quite an interesting subject.  I actually chose mechanical engineering to keep my options open.  And when I found out what’s the scope of work of project manager usually, it was very interesting for me because I didn’t really like to go into technical details.  I preferred understanding them, but not working on them on a daily basis.  So managing them was the best combination for me.

Kevin’s Story of the Tragedy

WENDY GROUNDS:  Today we’re talking about a pivotal project that has shaped your career that was really a big impact in 2020.  What was your experience, your personal experience of that time when the tragic blast happened in Beirut?  Were you living there at the time?

KEVIN GEMAYEL:  I was in a city a bit far from Beirut.  But because of the scale of the explosion, we could hear the sound of it, and the house was shaken even at a very distant location.  We knew that something wrong happened, but we didn’t know the size of the damage.  Everyone in Beirut thought that the explosion happened right next to them because the sound was so loud.  It was around 6:00 p.m., and there was no more light here at 6:00 p.m.  It’s already nighttime.  So, we started making our phone calls, and we knew what happened.  We understood the size of the damage.

So, I decided to go down to Beirut to witness it in my own eyes.  And that was honestly a disaster.  It’s like in the movies when a meteorite strikes, and all the roads are blocked.  It was exactly the same thing here.  And we found a way of walking there into the city.  Everyone was going there to see and to help because it was an unprecedented situation, honestly.  So when we got there this night, I had a house right next to the port.  First, I went to my house to see what happened to it.  It was a disaster. 

And then the second day, in the morning, we also went down to help other people on the streets with our own hands.  That was the work of all the Lebanese, not just me.  Like I was on the ground with millions of people who were there pro bono, if you want, just to help because they didn’t care about work anymore, about anything.  For them, their city was struck.  And this day I realized that it was useless for me to stay on the grounds personally because I could have done so much more impact.

Gathering a Team

And that’s how I decided to gather a small team and to manage them in a way to start working on the imminent threat because we work in glass.  That’s our main specialty.  And there was so much glass that was going to fall on people, on people walking around the streets.  So that was the first threat after the explosion, other than the people who needed the first aid.

So, I gathered a team because no one dared to carry glass with their hands.  It’s very dangerous.  We gathered a specialized team to do that.  And we started getting phone calls and categorizing the most important and the most critical places.  And that’s how the work started.  At the day of the explosion, we were a team of around 90 people, and this number kept on growing.  I don’t like to give precise numbers, but we were in the hundreds a few days later working together for us to rebuild our city.

The Family Façade Business

BILL YATES:  That’s amazing.  So help me understand, Kevin, was your background as a mechanical engineer, your background happened to be you knew a lot about glass and glass construction.  So when the explosion occurred, glass was blown out for miles, and it was glass all over the street.  And then, as you said, there’s glass just hanging, too; right?  It’s perilous for the efforts to recover people and start the cleanup.  So that happened to be some of the engineering knowledge that you had going into this?

KEVIN GEMAYEL:  Not just that.  Actually, we have a family business, which is façade contracting.  Our daily work was windows and glass.  And from a very young age, I used to go to work with my father, like all family members do.  And I graduated four months before the explosion.  So, I went to work starting to build a new team.  You know, you go in there to change, to improve.  And after four months that happened, and all the team that I already started building was there next to me, helping me grow my team even bigger to help those people.

So, our specialty and our know-how came from our best experience in façades. Technically we were the right people in the right place at the right time.  It’s like when you’re sick, you go to the doctor.  And when this happens, you have to go to a façade contractor because the concrete wasn’t affected.  It was actually just glass, aluminum, and steel damages, which was our work.

Deciding How to Prioritize

BILL YATES:  Huh.  Yeah.  Help us get a sense, Kevin, about the timeframe.  So this is in August, and fortunately you already have a team in place.  But now there’s overwhelming demand, and you’ve got more and more people that are joining your team.  How did you prioritize, and how did you get into the reconstruction and help people determine, okay, you’re next; and then you’re coming, you know, a few weeks later, and then a few weeks later.  How did you manage that?

KEVIN GEMAYEL:  Honestly, it was a very, very hard way of dealing with things because we had to go back every night knowing that some people don’t have homes.  Some people don’t have beds to sleep on, the basic needs, you know.  Here before the explosion, at school they used to tell us that we had to thank God every day that we have a bed to sleep on.  Some people don’t.  And now half of the city don’t here, you know, that’s a disaster.

So, when that happened, I also had six years of experience in the Red Cross.  I was an EMT for six years, and we take disaster management trainings.  So, I took so many ideas from that, and so much information of how they manage emergencies usually, and I tried to implement them in the way we work.  We did a dispatch room, the same way when you call 911.  Here it’s 114.  We made a line specialized for that, for us to be able to receive this large number of phone calls.  And we drafted a procedure on how to answer people, how to take the information – their name, their location, what type of damages.

And it was not just homes.  There were also businesses; there were hospitals; there were schools.  So, to categorize the type of building and then the type of damage to the building, the size of damage to the building, and we prioritized them.  It was like phases.  It started the first week, it was a phase of removing glass that’s going to fall on people.  That was the first thing we had to do.  And then the second phase, which was the next couple of weeks, was to temporarily close all the window openings with glass or polycarbonate or nylon paper sheets just to close the house, even with this temporary fix, which were readily available and very fast to install.

And then there were two types of projects.  Let’s say people decided either to repair what was left because we were also at the time there was COVID and there was an economic crisis.  So we had to manage all that together.  I remember like two or three weeks after the explosion, we were so many people here in the office worried about getting COVID other than, you know, we had to come to work because we had to help people in the same way we were risking our lives.

The next two weeks after closing with temporary fixes, there were two kinds of projects, either repair or complete renovation.  Some people said, because our houses were completely devastated, let’s renew the whole house, change all the windows and bring it back as new.  And other than us, there were also the carpenters and the people who worked with interior architecture who were working along with us because when the glass explodes in your house, it will go in and break everything in the room.

Whatever it was, the fridge, the TV, the bed, the walls even, the glass would go and penetrate the walls, the masonry walls.  So much interior work was done right after we intervened, and we replaced the windows.  The homes and bedrooms were the first priority, and then living areas and salons and the kitchens in terms of rooms.  And in terms of types of buildings, it was houses first, and then office and commercial centers because people can wait before they work.  But people should sleep in houses first, you know.

An Emergency Response

BILL YATES:  Right, right.  I think about some of the videos that we’ve seen.  Wendy did a good bit of research and shared with me just the impact that the explosion had.  And there are just so many cameras in place today.  So some of the live shots I saw were even of a hospital where windows were being blown out.  Yeah, so I’m just thinking of the prioritization that you guys had to do and just the incredible mental and emotional strain of having to prioritize and tell people, look, we have to have a temporary closure for this hospital first.  They’ve got to get online.  So that has to come before we can get to your home or to your business.  And that must have been incredibly stressful.

You know, it occurred to me right off the bat, it’s like you had way too many people that were needing things immediately.  So, the idea of having an emergency response, the way you set that up was a brilliant idea, yeah.

KEVIN GEMAYEL:  And then some people started doing applications right after the explosion for when you go down to the ground, you take a tablet with you, and you take a picture of the window.  You put the width and height, the location, some information to categorize this large amount of data that was coming in.  We were unprepared for that.  And moreover, the limited resource wasn’t just people, it was also glass.  We didn’t have enough hands on.  No one knew that the glass of the whole city was going to break in a split of a second.  So, we had to use the glass that we had in stock at the right place, or we would have used them in the wrong way at the wrong timeline.  The way it was used was very critical.

And about the hospital, one of the largest hospitals in Lebanon was right next to the port.  And the glass in that hospital wasn’t tempered.  So it led to a large number of casualties because of that.  And this was one of the biggest damages of the explosion because people were already in the hospital.  And then they got that, you know, they had to take them out.

Resources and Supplies

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah, they had to find another hospital.  Just unbelievable.  So, tell us a little bit about that, about the resources.  How did you get glass?  If there wasn’t enough, where did you go for more glass?

KEVIN GEMAYEL:  There were so many sources.  Usually in Lebanon, they buy glass from the GCC or from Egypt and rarely from Europe.  Many big glass manufacturers, Europeans, sent some donations immediately, but they need around a month or a couple of months to arrive here.  And the logistics on the ports were also not very well because the port was there, the place of it.

BILL YATES:  The site of the explosion.

KEVIN GEMAYEL:  It took a bit more time to arrive.  And there were also in the port so many glass containers and stocks that were damaged there.  So that was an additional, you know, loss because usually there are large warehouses around the port that stores those things because Lebanon is a very small country.  And when such an explosion happens in such a small country, the impact is much greater because this city is very dense.  The people per square meter is one of the highest in the world.

An Economic Crisis

BILL YATES:  One question I want to ask related to this is, of course, Wendy and I are here in the United States.  I think when we have a tragedy or an event like this, insurance companies come into play immediately.  And a lot of times construction and people like you that are trying to provide solutions have to wait and coordinate, okay, who’s going to pay for this?  You know, what’s allowed?  What quality is allowed?  That kind of thing.  How did you manage that?  Did that come into play in Lebanon, as well?

KEVIN GEMAYEL:  Yeah, that was also one of the disasters.  It was a huge one.  You know why?  Because when the explosion happened, I’m not sure if you know about the economic crisis in Lebanon and what happened, but we had the currency, which was the Lebanese pound, and it was pegged against the U.S. dollar.  So, for 20 years, one U.S. dollar was around 1,500 Lebanese pounds.  And when the explosion happened, the banking system crashed before the explosion, like a year before the explosion.  And there was a currency crisis here.  People didn’t know how to change the rate because we were not used to a fluctuating market.  It was pegged.

At the time the explosion happened, the dollar was around maybe 10,000 instead of 1,000.  It was depreciated 10 times.  And today it’s depreciated a hundred times.  So, if you had a $100 bill in 2018, today it’s worth $1.  Your money was divided into a hundred just because of the economic crisis.  And people paid the insurance companies here in Lebanese pounds.  So, your insurance policy, if you had a policy for your car for $60,000, today it’s worth $6,000.  That was one of the major problems, the currency.  And getting approvals from reinsurances.  Most of the insurance companies in Lebanon are reinsured against European or American companies.

So, yeah, it was a hassle.  But from our side, personally, this wasn’t our trouble because for us, when we wanted to renew a building, we have to get paid for it.  The client was responsible for getting that money.  There are some good insurances who paid.  But there are very few, honestly, like 10% maybe.

Other than that, the works are still continuing three years later. Some of the major buildings, large commercial buildings or towers are being reconstructed right now because of that.  They were postponed and stayed damaged with temporary fixes until the insurances covered. 

I wanted to mention one thing about that, as well.  Usually in towers, it’s your private apartment, and there is the common area. And usually, the common area is managed by the property management.  Usually also the property management insures the common area.

And these areas took so much time to get resolutions.  Why?  Because you had to get all the people in the building to pay, or the insurances to pay.  So, these areas stayed damaged for almost more than two years for the whole building to be able to take a decision and pay the money to rebuild the common area of the building.  Privately it was your decision, what you’re going to do in your house.

Personal Impact

WENDY GROUNDS:  You know, you don’t think about these things.  A disaster happens, everybody wants to get in there and fix up and help and so on, but somebody’s got to be paid.  The resources have got to be paid for.  So, it just makes it really complicated.  As you say, it just seems to go on and on.  How did this all impact you personally?  I’m sure at times you must have felt completely overwhelmed.

KEVIN GEMAYEL:  Honestly, it was very, very hard.  On me, on my team, on my friends and family.  There was no escape from mental strain.  And, you know, usually construction itself is tough without an explosion.  And when we go to construct new buildings, people here aren’t happy to pay because there is an economic crisis.  So, when we talk to clients in normal situations, they are not very happy.  What if an explosion happened?  You’re not dealing with someone who’s building a new house to get married and get kids.  These people haven’t planned for these things.  They were just living there, and that happened.  And now they’re obliged to pay us and to talk to us in order to just be able to sleep in their homes.

So, imagine how much they hate us.  And we didn’t do the explosion; but trust me, they weren’t happy at all doing that.  And Lebanon is so small.  All the houses, all the people here, we know them.  They’re our friends, they’re our previous clients, they are our family.  So, we had to take money from those people that we know and love just to fix their homes.  That was a disaster itself.

Keeping a Team Motivated

WENDY GROUNDS:  How did you motivate your team?

KEVIN GEMAYEL:  Honestly, it wasn’t me who was motivating my team.  The results were motivationalLike everyone here said, after a couple of months, we don’t know how Beirut is running now.  If you walk down the streets, you would see shops are open, reopened.  And bars are open.  Like in a tragedy, usually it takes more time for a bar to open.  The nightlife and the restaurants were back on at a very fast time.  And that was very rewarding for us.  We were always sad for the people who lost their life or who were injured.  But at the same time, we were seeing results because we were doing immediate work.

It’s like EMTs when they go out on emergencies, and they are going into a house of someone having a heart attack, God forbid.  At the time, it’s very stressful.  But if they were able to revive that person, for them, the satisfaction is so high, it will cover up all the stress that they pass through.  That’s why they do it.  And that’s why we did it.

WENDY GROUNDS: Yeah, it just keeps you going, yeah. 

Ren Love’s Projects from the Past

REN LOVE: Ren Love here with a glimpse into Projects of the Past; where we take a look at historical projects through the modern lens.

Today’s project focus has been on my travel bucket list for years: Machu Picchu in the mountains of Southern Peru. ‘Machu Picchu’ translates directly to ‘old peak’ – which is appropriate for this city that’s been sitting on top of mountain in Peru since around 1450 AD. 

Who builds a city on the top of a mountain, you ask? The Inca, do. Because their emperor told them to. Lots of the details of this project have been lost to history, so we can’t even begin to estimate the cost OR the schedule, but we do have a fairly good idea of the scope. Machu Picchu has LOTS of buildings and structures – like gardening terraces, fountains, temples, and even the home of the emperor himself.

When the Western World discovered Machu Picchu in the early 1900s, researchers found that the infrastructure and planning that went into the building of Machu Picchu was extensive – including clearly planned drainage, intricate slope stabilization measures, and canals that could carry an estimated 25 gallons of water a minute.

It’d be a huge challenge to build something like Machu Picchu today. Why? Well, remember when I said it was built on top of a mountain? It’s more complicated than that. The Andes Mountain range gets around 80 inches of rain a year, has steep slopes that are prone to landslides, and sits on an active fault line.

Here’s the most impressive part: The Inca built Machu Picchu without the use of major tools; no iron, no steel, no wheels, no mortar, and no written language. They built using the technique called Ashlar – carving stones to fit so close together that mortar wasn’t needed – and famously, to this day, you can’t slide a piece of paper between those stones.

So – was this project a success? Absolutely. It was in use for approx. 100 years until the Spanish invasion of South America & it is still visited by approx. 1 million tourists per year as one the new seven wonders of the world. 

Thanks for joining me for a look into Projects of the Past. See ya next time.

Planning Time Management and Strategy

WENDY GROUNDS:  Kevin, can you give us a little bit of insight into how, as a project manager, you planned your time management and your allocation of strategies going into these projects?

KEVIN GEMAYEL:  That was a bit complex way of doing it.  First day, it was on pen and papers because we had so much data that we didn’t know how to handle.  People were calling, like I previously said, it was like a hotline, and so many incoming calls.  We had some people who were sorting out this information.  And then I did the process to see where the most critical things were happening.  The key in that place and the key in project management for me in such a situation is communication, and efficient communication, not just talking over the phone.  It was how I was talking to people, how I was getting the information, and how I was filtering it, as well, because I couldn’t answer everyone and everything at the same time, especially the first few weeks.

So usually in project management, project managers in normal situations, they manage time, money, and quality.  Quality the first month wasn’t the issue.  We just wanted to close the house.  But time and money, which is resources, was the major issue.  The clocks were ticking, and there was the crisis. 

So, we were trying to find the most affordable ways.  We even invented like small machines that can bend back the aluminum in place just for us to reuse the same window instead of throwing the aluminum and buying new ones.  We were bending it back in place.  And we were reversing the damage because it’s not like steel.  Aluminum can be welded, but they don’t do it here in Lebanon.  So, we were bending it back in place, and we had to be very creative in the way of repairing because repair is much different than doing a new item.  And a repaired product is never like a new product because it’s not being done from scratch.

And also logistically, like going into a new building and counting 10 windows and going back to your computer and programming a way of doing it is different than going into a building and looking at every window and checking what’s wrong with that window.  Like this window needs a handle and a wheel.  This window needs – the right part is broken.  This window has the top part and the right part broken.  And we’re working with this kind of data, which is very messy.  No one was used to that.  No one does that.  There were no softwares for that.  There’s no books for that.  We had to be very creative immediately to find ways to sort this large amount of data out; you know?  And it was done sometimes on Excel, sometimes on forms.

And then we got some programmers.  They started developing apps to be able to sort this kind of complex or new kind of data for us to give the right orders and buy the right material, manufacture the right part, take it down onsite, and install it in the right place for the right person; you know.  And usually, the window is the most critical part.  It’s the barrier between you and the sound, you and the water, you and insulation, you and the thief, you and fire, you and everything.  So, you had to do it properly.

Creative Problem-Solving

BILL YATES:  Just hearing about the creative solutions that you and your team came up with is so inspiring.  I think it’s – many times it’s in stressful situations, whether it’s a tragedy or a lack of resources or there’s a time element that’s ticking.  That’s when we’re forced to get really creative.  Okay, we can’t replace the aluminum.  That’s going to take too long.  Let’s take it.  It’s usable.  Let’s figure out a way.  Let’s create a machine that will bend it.  So, then we just replace the glass or come up with a quicker solution.  That’s tremendous.

KEVIN GEMAYEL:  That idea also came up with large buildings, large commercial buildings.  Why?  Because when a building is 30 stories tall, and they call it curtain wall, and the whole elevation is made of glass, if an element on the first floor was broken, usually you have to dismantle all the floors above it.  If the first floor was broken, you had to dismantle the 20 floors above it in order to fix that part and then reinstall back the whole building, which made of offices or the hospital or anything.  So, finding the solution to fix it back in place locally helped us tackle this logistical hassle.

Kevin’s Lessons Learned

BILL YATES:  I was just thinking about lessons learned.  Are there others that you look back on that had a significant impact on the work that you and your team did that you want to share with us?

KEVIN GEMAYEL:  There are a few cases.  There’s one of the stories that people usually ask me about.  It was about a person who was coming back to Lebanon after the explosion.  He had a terminal illness.  He had cancer.  And he wanted to die at his house because he loved his country and his house.  He was a young man in his 20s.  A few weeks after the explosion, he wanted to come back for the last of his days to spend them in his house.  And his house wasn’t there anymore.  And his parents didn’t want to tell him how bad the damage was.

So, they called us, and they told us about the situation.  And they told us, our kid wants to go back home, and he wants to stay there until a few weeks maybe he had to live.  So that story, honestly, like, we were already devastated.  And then that happened.  It was two or three months after the explosion.  And I didn’t know what to do.  I had all that work to do with systematic work.  But I had to create that exception for this person to stop the usual processes and to put the special team just to take care of that special house.  And then successfully finishing it also impacted me.  I was very happy that we were able to do that. 

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  There’s so much dignity for the team to be able to provide that special request and the dignity of life.  You know, it’s just so meaningful.  Yeah.  Yeah.

Personal Growth Through Tragedy

WENDY GROUNDS:  You know, these tragedies are just horrendous, and this one is awful.  I can’t imagine what you’ve all gone through.  But those stories that come out of it are what inspire people.  The success stories or the way that you all came together and helped your community, helped people is a beautiful story and just such a testament to your work.  How do you feel that you have grown personally?  I mean, before that you were out of college, you’d just finished, you’d just started working in the family business, and then you were thrown into this.  So, what has changed for you?

KEVIN GEMAYEL:  Honestly, it definitely has changed me on so many levels, on the personal and professional and emotional.  Like, emotionally, I think I can handle so much more than I could have handled before.  And at work, today the explosion is three years past us.  I feel very comfortable working with what I’m doing right now because it’s much easier than what we had.  It’s like you had a very hard exam, and now you have a very easy one after that.  We are very much more trained for complex situations.  And if you want to put things a bit into numbers for you to imagine what was happening, before the explosion, we have constructed around 40% of the city.  So, we had around 40% market share.

And then in three seconds, all the city was gone.  And they say around 15,000 buildings were totally lost in terms of glass.  Uusually there are very high-rise buildings in Beirut.  So imagine, let’s say the buildings are five stories tall, and in each building there were two homes.  So let’s say there were 10 apartments per building, 10 times 15,000, so that 150,000 apartments.  That was equivalent to 150,000 phone calls a day because everyone in every apartment had to call us.  And not once because usually when we build a building, there’s a contractor, and we contact a project manager to finish that work.  Imagine that in the same house, the wife is going to call you, and then the husband’s going to call.


KEVIN GEMAYEL:  Maybe the kids are going to…

BILL YATES:  300,000 immediately.

KEVIN GEMAYEL:  So, the number and the volume of calls that were coming in.  And also because of the crisis, very big companies closed or moved out of the country.  So we were one of the few ones who were still here, and we still decided to stay and expand.  Before the explosion, we were expanding the factory, putting all our efforts in the country.  We were very resilient before the explosion, deciding that we don’t want to go out because it was an easier choice.  You know, some countries around us are, economically are much better, a very strategic decision to go out and try something abroad.  And when the explosion happened, so many companies like us decided to close down because for them it’s a disaster.  They won’t go into this kind of work.  It’s terrible.

Having a very big market share here before the explosion, it even grew.  So, before the explosion, we’ve done 40%.  After the explosion, we’ve done even more than 40% of 150,000 apartments.  So, I never imagined that I could have done this large amount of work in that short period of time.  If you want to do 150,000 apartments, it would take you more than 30, 40 years.  We did that in two years, so that’s an experience of 30 years just in a couple of years.  It’s like a crash course.

BILL YATES:  That’s amazing.  So Kevin, you’re retiring next week; is that right?

KEVIN GEMAYEL:  I wanted to go for a year to stay in Tuscany, in the village home, you know, anything just to clear out my brain after all that.

Looking Back

BILL YATES:  Ah, I understand that, yeah.  It is amazing to think of all the lessons learned, all that you and your team have had to figure out.  And yeah, it’s like you were put in a professional microwave.  You guys had to go through so much so quickly.  That’s amazing.  Looking back at the project, what brings you the most pride?  What makes you the happiest about it?

KEVIN GEMAYEL:  Honestly the team.  Things come and go, but the team stayed.  And the team today is much better the team than all before the explosion. It’s like we’ve all been through the same thing, and we’re here together today working out some new things, some nicer things, you know, new building, new project.  And we have accomplished things together.  So, the nicest thing that came out of this was the city, which is functional today, and the team.

BILL YATES:  You know, you’ve got that many people that are just demanding.  You know, in times of stress, people don’t always behave well.  So I cannot imagine the emotions that you guys, your team had to take on and then go, okay, given all of this noise, let’s prioritize our work and do it in a way that we can show up every day and be healthy, you know, so we can keep doing this.

KEVIN GEMAYEL:  We had to take this decision.  It was either not doing anything or doing everything.  There was no way to be in between.  You had to let go of so many personal things like duties, just to focus on work for a period of time to be able to do what we did, or it would have been impossible.  We were working day and night.  Like we go back from work to bed, not to the restaurant, not to…

BILL YATES:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.


KEVIN GEMAYEL:  It was a full dedication, yeah.

Advice to Younger PMs

WENDY GROUNDS:  I would love to know what you as a young project manager, what advice would you give to even younger project managers who are starting out in their careers, who are about to get into project management?  How would you advise them?

KEVIN GEMAYEL:  I would advise them to focus not just on the technical part of project management, but on the human part and on the personal part.  Because I was taking leadership courses.  Even when the explosion happened, I didn’t stop them.  When you’re a project manager, you’re leading a project.  So, you don’t just have to know how to do a schedule.  You should know how to implement it.  And 90% of the work is people.  It’s not things.  So, and it’s not numbers, and it’s not Excel sheets.  It’s how you talk with people, how you think, how you communicate, how you work on yourself, how you develop yourself.

So usually in leadership, they say you should become a leader and personally lead yourself before leading anyone else.  And I would advise every project manager to learn and to focus on how they should lead themselves before going out there and leading projects and people and teams because, when they do things right themselves, they wake up in the morning, they do their bed, they do the right thing, they follow a specific positive and good routine, they will be able to influence the people they are working with.  And at work, if they are positive, if they are committed, if they are enthusiastic and passionate about what they’re doing, their team’s going to become passionate.  The people around them will be influenced in how they are working and they’re doing things.  So don’t just focus on books and numbers and theoretical things.  Focus on yourself, as well.

BILL YATES:  Kevin, that is so powerful.  And just to our listeners, I want to remind them, this is from Kevin who is a mechanical engineer.  He went to university to learn mechanical engineering, and he’s talking about the emphasis on communications, on healthy teams, on communicating with people efficiently and leading them from the right place.  And your point about, you know, I have to learn how to lead myself first, that is so solid.  It’s so powerful to hear that lesson from you, and that wisdom.  So, thank you for sharing that advice.

Contact Kevin

WENDY GROUNDS:  If our audience wants to find out more, or if they want to reach out to you, is there somewhere they could go?

KEVIN GEMAYEL:  Usually, I am very active on LinkedIn.  I answer all my messages.  It’s just my name and family name, K-E-V-I-N G-E-M-A-Y-E-L.  Or by email it’s also my name, family name at gmail.com.  I’ll be happy to answer any questions, definitely.

BILL YATES:  Kevin, thank you so much for your time.  I know, you know, there’s a big-time difference.  You’re in Beirut.  We’re here in Atlanta, Georgia.  So, thank you for carving out time for us.  It’s just amazing to reflect back on the projects that you’ve undertaken.  And coming into this conversation, I hadn’t thought about just how many lives you’ve impacted.  150,000 apartments, those are homes for people.  And you and your team have helped restore things and restore the safety and sanity of home for these people.  And there’s such a huge impact.

So, thank you for that lesson to us project managers that we’re not just moving numbers in a spreadsheet.  We’re not just allocating resources.  We’re changing lives.  So, thank you for your efforts in that and sharing that with us.

KEVIN GEMAYEL:  Exactly.  Thank you.  It’s a pleasure.  And thank you for having me tonight.  It’s honestly a pleasure meeting you and talking to you.


WENDY GROUNDS:  That’s it for us here on Manage This.  Thank you for joining us.  You can visit us at Velociteach.com, where you can subscribe to this podcast and see a complete transcript of the show.  You’ve earned your free PDUs by listening to this podcast.  To claim them, go to Velociteach.com, choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page, click the button that says Claim PDUs, and click through the steps.  Until next time, keep calm and Manage This.


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