Arab American Entrepreneur Extraordinaire Applies Arab Social Values in His Business and His Life
By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
As Arab America entered the headquarters of Michael & Son, they were greeted cheerfully by several employees who were passing by. Then the president, Basim Mansour, warmly greeted them with running gear and proudly gave Arab America personnel a tour of the company which ended at his office. It wasn’t a typical office you would expect to see, in fact, his desk was built on a treadmill!
Basim Mansour, the president of Michael & Son (M&S), a Mid-Atlantic electric, plumbing, heating/ventilation/air conditioning (HVAC) company, identified himself as “Proud Son” of Mousa (or “Mike”). Dad, a 1968 immigrant from Ramallah, Palestine, founded what was then a “Ma & Pa” firm in 1976. Basim describes himself as tagging along with his father as early as age 6, learning electrical skills that became a piece of his own profession, many years later. Basem was also grateful to his Palestinian mom who provided him with much support and business acumen.
At the time Basim was tagging with his father, he learned from him at an early age not only many work skills, but also key Arab social values regarding the respectful treatment of all the people in his nexus: family, employees, customers, and the larger community.
Basim experienced a catastrophe when his dad died suddenly in 1990 at age 47. Basim, the son had to leave college at age 19 to support his mom and sister. The father didn’t only leave for Basim a family to support but also the many Arab values that would guide him through a journey full of struggles and challenges. This situation led Basim back to the electrical business started by his Dad. He worked out of the family garage with a truck or two.
Michael & Son—A Cutting Edge Company
From the family garage, the company Michael & Son (M&S) expanded to a small Alexandria-based firm and recently, to a regional, mid-Atlantic provider. Basim and his staff realized that there weren’t enough employees in the pipeline. In response, the company launched its own technical academy in Richmond, housed in an old building called Wyeth Tower. It provided for 32 employees two-bedroom apartments, along the lines of a typical college dorm. Especially for participants coming from some distance, this configuration gave them a sense of investment in the enterprise. According to a trade article, “Fixing the Employee Pipeline,” M&S developed classrooms and trade-specific labs: sinks, dishwashers, and toilets for plumbing lessons; furnaces and boilers for HVAC hands-on training; and fuse boxes for electrical work. Participants are paid to train during an 8-12 week period, with a mix of classwork, hands-on tutorials, and service worksite visits with regular employees.
A senior M&S staffer noted, according to the trade article, “We can teach the trades, but it’s not just about having people that understand what they’re doing…You also need the right people, people with a hunger and love for the work and who want to serve others.” This approach fits with Basim’s approach that the best way to face the challenge of keeping up with growth and finding employees was to “create our own employees.”
The academy has so far generated more than 200 technicians in plumbing, electrical, and HVAC trades. A majority of these graduates have remained with M&S. In addition to new academy trainees, the company provides existing employees with advanced training of apprentices who want to move up to journeymen and from that position to masters. Thus, each employee has “a road map to success and a stake in the company’s future.”
Currently, M&S has acquired over 500 trucks and expanded from Alexandria to Baltimore, the District of Columbia, Richmond, Charlottesville, and Norfolk, Virginia. The company also expanded to Charlotte, Wilmington, and Raleigh, North Carolina. A recent M&S report of its annual revenue was in the range of $40 million a year.
Innovative marketing is another hallmark of M&S, including an advertising arrangement with boxer Mike Tyson for a locally-broadcast pre-Super Bowl ad in 2016 and with Washington Capitals Hockey team’s Mike Green. M&S also supports SportsPlexes in Sterling, Virginia and Rockville, Maryland.
Family and Community Focus
Beyond Michael & Son’s concentration on service quality to its clients, the company has a distinct family focus. Even with its rapid expansion, it has a family feel about it, especially given Basim’s pride in his Dad’s Palestinian Arab heritage. This is a cultural sense of who his Dad was and who Basim continues to be. This is fitting with Basim’s generosity to different community charities.
One such target of Basim’s community giving is the Helping Hands charity. Through M&S’ pro bono program, families with sick children and no running water or no air conditioning are served at no cost. Small businesses and not-for-profits in underprivileged communities are also served at reduced rates. Given his Mom’s death of breast cancer, Basim gives significantly to a local Breast Cancer House. He also supports Palestinian West Bank charities through the so-called Ramallah Convention. Basim is a Christian Arab and in this context, he has taken his two boys to the West Bank to be baptized in Jordan River.
A ‘Proud Son’ of an Arab Father—A Lesson in Arab Society
Arab tribes are known for their strong, often paternalistic leaders. In this sense, paternalism means a tribal shaikh or chief taking care of the tribe’s members. Basim is a better-than-average shaikh; however, since his leadership technique is to lead from the front but at the same time, had empowered his staff to lead from behind. This is perhaps better said in Basim’s own words, in the context of advancing his company’s goals, as follows:
“One of the reasons for this amazing growth is that I’ve been extremely fortunate to have surrounded myself with good managers and a staff of team players. We all believe in what my father taught me, which is – the customer comes first and takes pride in your work. I strongly believe that we are the best service company out there. We work hard every day to improve ourselves and to exceed our customer’s expectations. Together we can set a new standard for customer service in new markets – just like we have done in each of the markets we operate in today.”
Basim recalls that his qualities of persistence, very hard work, focus, and delayed gratification have driven the company to the top.
Finally, when Basim was asked how did his Arab background contribute to his success, he answered, “If I were not of Arab background, there wouldn’t be Michael & son.”
Mousa (Michael) would have been a PROUD FATHER!
–Executive Profiles, “Executive spotlight on Basim Mansour of Michael and Son Inc.” by Vandana Sinha – Associate Editor, Jan 14, 2011
–Elias Moussa – Michael & Son Services, Fixing the employee pipeline,” by Jim Cavan, September 6, 2019–Telephone Interview (by author) with Christoper Thompson, M&S, October 29, 2019
John Mason, who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017.
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