Building with Brotherhood

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He was standing in the line for SNAP benefits, otherwise known as food stamps.  Standing next to mothers with young kids, he kept his 6’ 5” frame straight as trained by the Naval Academy and kept going. With two children and a wife to support, he felt the strain of responsibility as his company faced a crisis. That was two years ago, today Tajuddin Sabree, owner of Sabree Construction based in Columbia, MD, is a government contractor providing Engineering, Construction, Environmental, Custodial, and Professional services to the federal government with over 75 employees. He is also working on a masters in engineering management.

The secret of his success: he fasted every other day for a whole year, works hard every day, believes in Allah's promise, was given contracts by other Muslim businesses and now is looking for Muslim sub-contractors.

On October 26, 2013, Sabree, Omar Karim of Banneker Ventures and the partners of HEP Construction held the first meeting of Muslim Businesses in Construction in the DC Metro area at the Montgomery County Executive Office Building.

Imam Johari Abdul Malik made the suggestion to the men to set up some type of financial program for Muslims to make money by working together: not being afraid to share a customer, to network, to help a fellow Muslim. A place where a millionaire can be eating on the same table as a poor man and each can still do business with the other.

After a round of introductions from the attendees, Omar Karim of Banneker Ventures described their vision and promise a day of learning and brotherhood.  Since 2005, Banneker has managed the construction of more than two million square feet of government and commercial projects with another $100M in projects under way.

Sabree and Banneker aim to compile a database of Muslim construction-related companies.

According to the Census Bureau, $915M are spent in the United States per month on new structures or improvements to existing structures for private and public sectors.

Ayad Bazlamit of Ace Engineering, a civil engineering firm from Virginia attended after a Muslim brother emailed him informing him of the event. Several heard of the event from their local Muslim newspaper.

Many have faced racism and bigotry, with contracts pulled at the last minute and they want to set a system where Muslims work together. “We can not depend on others,” said attendee, Tariq Lang.

Architects Mohammad Shamim and Atif Sharieff attended to network and learn. As they sat down on the tables set up conference style, they found subcontracting forms, HUBZone Program certification applications with the seminar’s program. Architect Mushfiq Rahman of Shirley Gate Masjid in Virginia also attended and was pleased with this initiative.

There was one woman in the room in the room of 40 men, ecologist Ghazala Yasmeen. Yasmeen is the current contracts manager with Sabree Construction, where she ensures compliance of regulations amongst other duties.

Thirty years ago, as he was painting offices in the Pentagon, Muhammad Abdul Malik was approached by a general to paint his back porch.” How much will you charge me?”

He had been painting since he was 17 when one of the Muslim men in his D.C. neighborhood, Br. Idrees, rounded up the boys and had them paint all the neighbors’ houses. His first job as a painter was in the D.C government. He has painted the White House, the World Bank and many other government buildings.

“I was young; I quickly guessed the price and said $250. He told me to drive over to his home way out in Virginia.” Abdul Malik strapped his young boys and wife in the car, pulled out a map and drove out in his beat-up truck. When he got to the general’s house it was a huge farm house with a double storied porch. “I almost cried,” says Abdul Malik. He told his wife, ‘Honey, you all better get to work with me. “We painted that man’s porch and all he gave me was $250.” He learned the hard lesson that day to never give an estimate without looking at the project.

Abdul Malik’s painting business has been rebranded and revamped by his son, Sharif,  into Peppermint Painting. “We want to grow, that’s why we are here.“

Morals, ethics, honesty and professionalism in business were discussed. “Change the world, not take over the world- that is what this event is about,” said Karim. The energy in the room was infectious. Through leadership and brotherhood, the organizers hope to share the blessings by helping other Muslim businesses.

Karim shared several stories of how the Muslims businesses have each other’s back. “Without HEP Construction there would be no Banneker- we are grateful to have found these brothers.”  Anu B. Kemet of the law firm Kemat & Hunt LLC was a great impetus for getting the brothers together; he is the deputy amir of the business group that meets monthly to network and build Islamic brotherhood. “He saved me from being sued, he is a great corporate attorney and a brother.”

Imam Johari Abdul Malik, a prominent Islamic leader, was a motivational speaker for the event. He said that one gets to know a man ”when you travel and do business with them.” He said that if one is in business, he or she needs to study the acumen of Prophet Muhammad; how he operated, how he got things done.

Attorney Kemet led a session on the importance of having a lawyer. Contracts are often vague and unenforceable, often overreaching the limits set by the law. He advised that many contracts often don’t have attorney fees added in case a contractor get sued. “Don’t write your own contracts.” said Kemet.

Organizers and attendees felt that a lot of time has been lost and the group needs to make up for lost time.”We need to model ourselves after the hardest working brother,” said Karim.

‘We have come a long way, I am looking at Muslim contractors – there were not a lot of contractors 30 years ago, This is our day and our time. I am blessed to be here, and I am fired up. Alhamdulillah,” said Abdul Malik of Peppermint Painting.

There are generally three parties involved in a construction bond – the party or parties building the project, the investor/eventual owners, and the surety company that backs the bond. “Getting that first bond will open so many opportunities,” said Omar Karim.  A surety bond is a centuries old tradition. It is a document signed by the contractor and the surety company that assures the project owner the contract will be completed. Contractors obtain surety bonds from surety companies or agents representing surety companies.

Most public construction contracts and many private contracts require one.  SBA guarantees bid, performance and payment bonds issued by surety companies. This Federal guarantee encourages surety companies to bond small businesses who are having difficulty obtaining bonding on their own.

“Bonding company will ask you [details] about you as an individual and they ask about your wife, your children. A lot of this is relationships. They get into intricate details.” shared Karim.

“If you are slimy and grimy or you don't have strong ethics, if you say one thing and then do another [you might lose the deal],” said Karim. He gave the example of telling the bonding company that you are Muslim but you are at the bar drinking. “They will consider that,” Karim said.

“Character, cash, capital, collateral are the four Cs of bonding,” interjected Sabree.

They recommended as a resource. Sabree told the men gathered to get the SBA certification, “I was a nuclear warfare officer with top clearance, but they rejected me three times,” he said. “Today, I have a six million dollar bond. My sadaqa jahriya is getting you bonded and getting you contracts.”

Sabree and Banneker do not deal with interest. They say that it has been a tough road but with the support of other Muslim businesses they have remained interest free.

Sabree and Karim envision a network of high performing, quality Muslim companies working together in the DC Metro. “You don’t think we would have the muscle to go against major construction companies?” challenged Sabri.

“We are Muslim and we don’t apologize. A three star admiral is my vice- President but he knows that regardless of what contract needs to be signed,  if it is Jummah I will not be available.” Sabree says he does what he does because he wants to be a part of the Ummah of the Prophet.

Sabree encouraged the brothers to compete with each other in good deeds. “When we compete with each other, we are men sharpening men, like steel sharpens steel. He said that Islam came to lead not to follow.  “Muslims were made to do business, we get up for Fajr, we are businessmen by nature. Just because we are Muslim we cannot lower our standards, we need to push each to excellence.” His booming voice pumped up the audience, leaving them empowered.

Farooq A. Mitha, Special Assistant to the Director of the Department of Defense (DoD) Office of Small Business Programs said that of the $250 billion a year more than twenty percent goes to small businesses. He speaks to small businesses all over the country and addressed the seminar.  “It is rare for me to see successful Muslim brothers; the dollars and opportunity is out there to grow the economy, and protect the country.” His office oversees 23 agencies that make up the DOD. These agencies are bigger than some federal government agencies and his office ensures that small business has a seat at the table. Small businesses were urged to follow up with him, if they are trustworthy, thorough, and hardworking. “Less than ten percent people will follow up. Please follow up, they are looking for people who can make their lives easy,” said Karim.

Karim aims to host monthly meetings and hold attendees accountable. “If you succeed, we better see you giving back to the Muslim community.”

Sohail Ahmad owns a small residential finishing and demolition company in Maryland. He thought the meeting was very informative; he learned things that he had never known before.

”The legality that is in the construction business is news to me, some of the things they pointed out I didn’t have any idea about.” Now Ahmad is seriously thinking of hiring a lawyer and an accountant.

A residential builder, trying to get into government contracting, Kashif Khan is certified as a minority business and plans to get bonded. He owns KG General Contractors in Ellicott City, MD. ”We have misconceptions about government contracts; we create the obstacles for ourselves; we live in a country where if you work hard for it, you will get rewarded with the help of Allah,” said Khan. He valued the mentoring and insider advice-”not a lot of people will give you that information.” Khan’s expectations were exceeded.“Very few Muslim organizations actually arrange forums like this; they are sincere and are doing it for Allah; this is rare.”

As for Tajuddin Sabree, he still carries his last food stamp with him in his wallet as a reminder.