"You don’t succeed just sitting on your chair."
Antoine was number three in a family of nine children. “My dad always stressed the importance of education. I went to school in Tripoli in Lebanon, and I excelled there. I always wanted to do mechanical engineering. By the age of 13, I was starting to make cars and other get into mechanical tasks with a particular focus on mechanical engineering.
After completing school, Antoine started university in Paris studying physics, however he found it difficult being away from his family in a foreign country. “No family, no friends, nothing.” After he’d been at University for three months, his parents decide to migrate to Australia.
“They gave me the option either to stay there or come here. Thankfully I chose to come with them and finish university in Australia. Most Lebanese students would go to Paris, because visas were easy and also French is our first language, so compared to any other country it was the best option. Lebanon was in a state of civil war in 1977. I couldn’t go back there, so it was either France or Australia for me.”
Antoine’s father was originally a primary school teacher in their village, but he later worked in a large factory near Tripoli, handling asbestos, cement piping, and sheeting. “It was before we knew about asbestos. I used to work there in the summer holidays. It was very hard, doing grinding or heavy pipework.”
Education was very highly valued and according to Antoine, “with parents who weren’t rich, we weren’t going to wait for any inheritance. My parents always wanted us to succeed and get a degree so we could make a decent living later.”
Antoine is very proud of his work ethic. “Working, for the family, was always number one. My second brother finished his studies and did his Master of Business Administration in Paris. He resides in Cyprus now and works in the chicken industry. My other brother went to Macquarie University here and made a career in interpreting. He was very successful and had the biggest interpreting firm in Sydney.”
“Most of the family had a good education. My dad always put us in the best private schools in Lebanon. Based on his salary at that time it was a big sacrifice, but we appreciated what he did and we tried to achieve to return his goodwill. Personally, I was focused from day one on helping my parents, always trying to get some work during the holidays. That’s my nature.”
Settling in Australia wasn’t easy or straightforward. “When I came here the first time, I stayed for nearly five years. I thought I would never settle in Australia; just get my education and leave. After I finished my first degree in 1982, I left for 10 months and went back overseas, but found I was wondering what I was doing there.”
Antoine recalls, “It’s not easy for any migrant to settle and you’re not going to love a place in the first year. You need to give it four or five years,. You’ve left all of your memories behind you, all your friends and all your relatives. But now this is home. Where you live, where you’ve got your new friends, your family, your kids, that’s where you call home.”
Antoine went to the Institute of Technology in Sydney, now called the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). “The hardest part was when my lecturer had a worse accent than me; trying to understand or concentrate wasn’t easy. English is my third language; French, Lebanese/Arabic and English, which I’d learned back in Lebanon at school.”
Happily, language was no barrier for Antoine, even with the more technical engineering and physics terms. “The technical words, whether in French, English, Latin, they’re all the same or very similar. I didn’t have any difficulties, especially with Maths for example. I still got a distinction for first year Maths.”
Antoine tries to maintain his French skills. “Not many people speak it here. I like watching Téléfrançais. I can understand every single word. When I go to Lebanon it’s different, everybody there speaks French.”
During the time Antoine spent travelling in 1982, “I went to Greece and from there I got a job in Jordan in a cement packaging factory but I couldn’t tolerate the surroundings. I was employed as an engineer to oversee all the packaging machinery. It wasn’t a challenging job so I left after two months.” After an offer of a role in water treatment in Saudi Arabia, Antoine realised he was in the wrong place and decided to return to Australia.
In 1983 when Antoine returned to Australia, the economy was in recession and it took him five or six months to secure his first engineering job. “I worked for Streets Ice-cream doing engineering maintenance. It wasn’t that challenging either but I got lots of free ice cream!”
After a further few short term roles, Antoine took a job with the top acoustic engineering firm in Sydney which was to have a significant impact on his future “Acoustics is similar to mechanical engineering, but there was no course for acoustic engineers at university at the time.”
In layman’s terms, acoustic engineers measure and monitor noise levels in commercial situations, then come back with recommendations for solutions. Antoine defines this further; “Those engineers work on all kinds of interesting projects. For example, every new building you see on a main road must have an acoustic engineer to assess the traffic noise. Sometimes it’s aircraft acoustics or noise from a mechanical plant. There aren’t many so there’s always demand.”
In 1984, Antoine applied to join the Public Works Department, mainly because they offered additional training. He was there for nine years. “I stayed until 1993. We looked after all the engineering for government buildings including schools, TAFE, public buildings, courts, hospitals, prisons; every public building.”
Computers started coming to the fore during that period. “Before that we were using drawing boards. Soon we had to do all our work on computers using custom software. I became the leader in that area, excelling in the use of computer-based engineering software. I then started lecturing at university, mainly to postgraduate architects and other engineers who wanted to learn about building services.”
Antoine has a different view about working in the Public Service sector. “A lot of people become public servants thinking it’s a retirement village, but I wanted to learn. While I was there I finished two master’s degrees; a Masters of Engineering Science at UNSW and a Masters of Engineering Management back at UTS.
For the first 10 years in business, Antoine concentrated on only doing mechanical engineering. Now Viscona Engineering specialises in building services engineering, which means mechanical, electrical, fire and hydraulic services.
Happily for Antoine’s business, “Practically every development coming up in the market needs my services. My clients come to me to do their design and to give them the certification to start building. Once finished, I can help them with the final certification and the job is complete. So without our services, a lot of buildings cannot be completed,” Antoine explains.
Early on, when the business began, “I remember we used to stay in the office sometimes to 1am to finish a job. I started employing engineers and draftsmen on a casual basis. I started with one full-time employee then two, then three. At the moment I’ve got five full-time staff.”
In addition, the business began to broaden its offering. “Five or six years after I started on my own we started to become more diversified. I used to do only mechanical and then I started electrical. A very good engineer and a friend from Public Works, Barry Burrow, used to work with me. We took on electrical work and then we started doing fire-related work, which means hydrants, hoses, sprinklers and the like. Bill O’Shea and Mike Jones are other excellent engineer with whom I’ve been working for a very long time. Five years ago we also started taking on hydraulics work. So now we do mechanical, electrical, fire and hydraulic services.”
On reflection, “It’s hard work. You don’t succeed just sitting on your chair. It takes time to get the trust of people you’re dealing with, while also being competitive. I’m one of the lowest-cost engineers in Sydney. I don’t have any major overheads, like a receptionist or an accountant on staff. I just employ the people who can do the work. I still stay sometimes still 10 or 11 o’clock just to keep the client happy and finish his job for the next day.”
How does Antoine motivate his staff? “I’m not the boss; they’re the boss. We work in a very family-friendly atmosphere. If they need time off, I’ll tell them don’t even ring me. If you’re late don’t worry, it’s whenever you turn up, because I know you’ll make it up. We’ve got good flexibility, and they’re happy.”
Two new engineers have just joined the team. “One of them just finished uni six months ago, the other one has got five years’ experience and has been working in Dubai until recently. I’ll help to train them as long as I can. If you finish engineering at university these days you can’t do anything – you need to get some practical experience. It was the same with me when I finished my first degree. “
Antoine continues by saying, “What they teach at uni is irrelevant to the workforce later. That’s why we had a lecturer who said 95% of what you learn is junk. When I look at my old uni books now I get scared; I’ve forgotten everything, it’s all theory. I cannot help my daughter with her advanced mathematics, or the mechanics of solids or fluids at all because it’s all too complicated and I just don’t do it anymore.”
When his daughter Cynthia is mentioned, it’s easy to see Antoine is a proud dad. “Perhaps she will take over the business. This is her third year at Sydney University doing mechanical engineering. It’s taken longer because she went to Lebanon to compete for Miss Lebanon Emigrant 2015 having won the Miss Lebanon Australia for 2014 in Sydney. That involved competing against Lebanese winners from the rest of the world; Europe, America, South America. She had to compete against 14 people and she won the title!”
Antoine is very proud of Cynthia, but he hopes the win doesn’t affect her academic achievements or work choices. “Eventually I want to retire, and I want someone to take over. I’ll find out in the next few years if Cynthia’s really keen to go that way or not. She might seek a different career even if she finishes as an engineer. I’m hoping she’ll take over. If not I have to start looking at the business myself; restructure it perhaps, and consider other options; do I get partners or do I sell the business completely?
If Cynthia does take over, Antoine has a very pragmatic view. “I hope she’s not going to do what I’ve done; kill myself for the business. So I’d prefer for the next five years that it just stays as it is. If my daughter takes over she can slow it down too, it’s up to her. Financially I don’t need to work anymore. When I’m about 65 I hope to be here in the office helping her I’ll probably do some meetings for her, but I don’t want those long days anymore because it’s time for me to enjoy a little bit of travelling and relax.”
Viscona is in the enviable position of not having to advertise. The majority of Antoine’s business is repetitive. “I’ve got a good client base which has been with me for over 20 to 25 years. Some of my current clients were among my first five clients, which is very gratifying to me.”
Reputation is also key. “A lot of new clients come through referrals and I haven’t been short of clients because my reputation in the market is pretty good. People know I answer my phone, they know I have good, competitive prices and good service at the end of the day, and that’s what’s keeping my business going successfully.”
What advice can Antoine share for new businesses? “To start a new business you have to really know your market. First of all you have to know that the business you’re starting is in demand and that there’s a need for it. Once you start your business, you have to be committed to it and you have to prove you’re really good at it if, not the best. Once you establish your client base and have regular clients, you need to make sure that you keep those clients happy, because, at the end of the day, they’re the one generating the income for your business.”
When asked who he respects, Antoine nominates his father. “The most important person I respect in my life is my dad, because he dedicated his life to getting me to where not only I am, but the rest of the family also; every one of us. He worked hard in life just to make sure we succeeded. I have a lot of respect for him and that’s why I expect I’ll do the same for my kids and I expect my kids to succeed in their lives, as my dad did with us.
The reason Antione loves his work “is not because I’m a workaholic. Some people might think I do it for the sake of the money. For me, working is not just about money anymore, it’s a part of me; I love it and I find satisfaction in it. I’m achieving something. Luckily for my kids the money is there and they will enjoy it, but for me, I feel like I’m achieving and helping my clients to get their work done.”
- “It’s hard work. You don’t succeed just sitting on your chair. “
- “A lot of people become a public servant thinking it’s a retirement village, but I wanted to learn. While I was there I finished two master’s degrees.”
- “Working is not just about money anymore, it’s a part of me and I love it, and I find satisfaction in it. I’m achieving something.”
Antoine Farah grew up in Lebanon with parents insistent education was the key to success. After completing studies in Paris and Sydney, this highly-respected mechanical engineer is consistently in demand, building an incredible business based solely on word-of-mouth.