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Marco Abdi has Friends in High Places

Abdi dishes on honesty, his relationship with the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi and great bruschetta

Nov 26, 2013

by Max Fawcett

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Abdi International founder Marco Abdi
Photograph A.J. Valadka

The converted house in Calgary’s Bridgeland neighbourhood that houses Marco Abdi’s La Brezza Ristorante is drab and underwhelming. But while Abdi has become renowned for his positive personality and Hollywood-calibre smile, he’s a shrewd businessman. In addition to owning and operating his Italian restaurant, Abdi is the founder of Abdi International, a firm that helps Canadian companies to do business in the United Arab Emirates.

It’s the relationships he’s built in the Middle East (where he lived, off and on, before settling in Calgary in 1980) that he’s most excited about. Alberta Venture’s Max Fawcett sat down for lunch and talked with him about what it’s like to do business in the Middle East, what he likes – and doesn’t – about Canada and why greed really isn’t good.

MF: What’s in this bruschetta? It’s so good.
MA:
Everything’s fresh. Most people use dried ingredients and spices, but here, everything’s fresh.

MF: Actually, everything I’ve had so far is good. Why haven’t you opened another location?
MA:
The number one killer isn’t cancer. It’s greed. I’m happy with what I have. So many people, they don’t enjoy what they have, and by the time they wake up they’re in the hospital.

MF: Tell me more about the Middle East. You’re the exclusive representative for Sheikh Al Hassan Bin Ali Al Nuaimi, one of the most powerful men in the United Arab Emirates. What should Alberta companies who want to do business over there know?
MA:
It’s about relationships. If they like you and you’re a good person, you’re set for life. Even if you don’t see them for 10 years, they’re there for you. Now, some people come with an agenda, but they can tell. People here think if you have money you
can do anything. No – not down there.

MF: What’s one piece of advice for companies trying to do business there?
MA:
Go there. See everything. They’re interested in know-how and knowledge. They have the money, and they need the expertise we have here. And you should expect to go three or four times before you sign a deal. You have to show that you’re real.

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MF: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from doing business in the Middle East?
MA:
I’ll never forget my friend, the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi – he says, “Freedom is very expensive.” And he’s right. I have so many people who are looking to make money and take shortcuts, and I say “No, thank you.”
I want to be free.

MF: In other words, you’re willing to pass on a deal if it doesn’t feel right?
MA:
If I worshipped the dollar, I’d bring in thousands of [dollars in] business. But because we want to do it the right way, it takes time. If you start right, you finish right. If
you start wrong, you can’t finish right.

MF: OK, so you’re not greedy. What matters to you, then? What’s important?
MA:
Honesty. I always say, just because something shines doesn’t mean it’s a diamond, and there are lots of people who aren’t real. There are only a few people who are. But I always say if you’ve never been to hell, you don’t appreciate heaven. Sometimes it’s
good to see bad people to appreciate the good ones.

MF: You immigrated to Canada in 1980 without much more than the clothes on your back and a few bucks in your wallet. What advice would you give to someone in that position today?
MA:
If someone says “I’ve got a good deal for you,” phone 911. Nobody’s going to give you anything. If you want something, you have to work for it.

MF: Speaking of which, I’ve heard you had to work pretty hard to convince your wife’s family to accept you. Is that right?
MA:
I love my wife, but Italians [her family is from Naples], you know, they have a south and a north, and they don’t like each other. Imagine a black guy wanting to marry in – are you crazy? It was so tough, and they put me through hell. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and I’m a better person because I went through all of this. Today, nothing can bother me.

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