Learning the Hard Way Surviving adversity, Raja ‘AMY’ Marhaba has not only played a big part in building martec construction but also a foundation helping learning-disabled children By JEFF WEISS Contributing Reporter Imagine if your spouse suffered a potentially life threatening electrical accident that resulted in second or third degree burns covering 20 percent of their body. Then, without a moment to spare, you were pressed to take over a business that you had previously known little about. To further compound that adversity, you have to care for two learning disabled children and you end up suing the local school district. Finally, in order to pay for the spiraling legal costs, you are forced to trade in your spacious home for a cramped apartment nearly one third the size. This has been the plight of Raja (Amy) Marhaba, co-owner of Granada Hills-based Martec Construction. Yet rather than dwell on the innumerable obstacles placed before her, Marhaba has managed to foster her business’ development, establish the Jonathan Foundation to help learning disabled children, and maintain her sanity through it all. “You can’t stop. You have to keep going and avoid feeling sorry for yourself. My husband and I were brought up from families that never give up. We are determined people,” Marhaba said. “When I was growing up my father always taught us that tomorrow is always a new day. You can never look back. You can’t change the past. I always try to have a vision and look forward.” But optimism alone couldn’t save the business when Marhaba’s husband and Martec co-owner, Omar, suffered a severe electrical accident in 1992. Though Raja had been involved with the business since its inception in 1988, she had primarily worked with corporations, having served as the administrative assistant to the CEO of Kerr Glass Manufacturing. Martec specializes in tenant improvement on commercial projects for the federal government, public works agencies, and the private sector. “When everything happened, we had to charge all of our merchandise onto credit cards. We had one supplier who waited to get paid $20,000 for an entire year. It took several months for Omar to finally get rehabilitated. It took one year of hard work but we were able to save the business.” The business saved from ruin, Marhaba went back to her previous career until 1998, when her husband asked if she would rejoin the company. Marhaba balked at first, thinking that her husband’s traditional views might limit her authority within the office. “We’re Middle Eastern and my husband is old school. I said I would only join the company if I had a voice. Not only did I get a voice but Omar offered me 51 percent of the company. Our strengths are opposites and they complement each other well,” Raja Marhaba said. “My strength is in the corporate arena such as running contracts and negotiations, while my husband can bid really well, produce clean and timely work. He has great vision and is a great negotiator in the field.” Rising revenues Martec has prospered under the aegis of both Marhabas, with revenues climbing from just $815,000 in 2002 to projected revenues of $1.5 million in 2004. Jack Brittain Sr., president of Mount Aire, a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning firm that regularly deals with Martec, attests to the company’s reputation. “I’ve known Omar and Amy forever and done a lot of work with them. They get the job done and they’re pleasant to work with. They’ve got an excellent reputation. I’ve never heard any complaints, nor have I ever heard anyone say anything derogatory about them. They are both upstanding citizens and workers,” Brittain said. Despite the success she’s had in the business arena, Marhaba’s greatest passion is the well-being of her two children, 12-year-old Jonathan, and 14-year-old Omar. When Jonathan was in the first grade, teachers noticed he had a great deal of trouble learning the alphabet. Despite a high IQ, he struggled immensely at learning to read. Tests discovered that he was dyslexic and had ADHD. Yet despite Marhaba’s efforts, the Los Angeles Unified School District resisted her attempts to classify Jonathan as being eligible for special education. With no options left, the Marhabas decided to sue the LAUSD. “The LAUSD settled the first lawsuit with us, but the second one went to full blown out litigation. We won the case but the district appealed and that’s where the case is now. The entire process has been ongoing for eight years,” Marhaba said. Foundation established Using the knowledge she obtained through the years of litigation and acrimony, Marhaba decided to establish the non-profit Jonathan Foundation to help parents avoid difficulties that her own children had faced in getting special help. “I wanted to take my personal experience and knowledge and give it to whomever wants it. We have found that there is a way to get learning disabled children the help they need and deserve. Unfortunately, for many school districts today, it’s all about money. The more students they have in special education, the less money available overall,” Marhaba said. Through the Jonathan Foundation Marhaba has succeeded in her goal. Granada Hills resident Jamie Kenehan has two learning disabled children and has received help from the Jonathan Foundation. “Amy is very tenacious. I have two learning disabled children and I’ve been fighting for them for 10 years at least. Her children and the foundation are her life. She’s there to help whoever needs the help. She’s willing to show the school district that there’s somebody out there who cares and she’s out there to help people. She has a heart of gold,” Kenehan said. SPOTLIGHT: Martec Construction Year Founded: 1978 Year Founded: 1988 (Raja Marhaba came on full time in 1998) Revenues in 2002: $815,000 Revenues in 2004 (projected): $1.5 million Employees in 2002: 8 Employees in 2004: 4 Goal: Grow Martec to be a very good structural and well-run company, so that if the Marhaba children want to take it over, they can. To be more aggressive and to continue going after private work. Driving Force: Diversion of funds from the United States government’s General Services Administration to the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. This causes less funds to be available for projects, causing Martec to increasingly turn to the private sector for construction projects.