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Summer 2008 Vol. VI, No. 4

In Our History

An Apricot Empire

Upon graduating from AUB with a bachelor's degree in business administration, Emile Cortas (CC '22, BC '25) went to work in the University's Alumni Office. Weekends, he would travel to the family home in the mountain village of Brummana. On one such weekend, his mother, who was well known for her home-made jams, gave him a couple of jars of her apricot jam for his business school professor and friend, Professor Nicoley. The professor was so impressed that he advised Emile to go into the apricot jam-making business. That summer, Emile helped his mother preserve the apricot crop, which together they packaged to present to friends and prospective customers.

Their summer experiment resulted in orders, and the business was born. Emile left his post at the University to build his own factory, as well as his knowledge of jams. In 1926, he apprenticed in Dublin with the Lambs of Ireland, famous jam-makers and old Cortas family friends. Upon his return to Lebanon, Emile imported the first of many top quality machines from Britain and started the Cortas Canning Company.

A few years later, Emile's younger brother Michel, with a degree in chemistry from AUB, joined Emile in the business. Emile managed business affairs while Michel took over factory production. As business grew, Cortas Bros., as the company became known, began distributing its products in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. The product line expanded to include tomato paste, vegetables, and fruit-based beverage syrups.

During World War II, Cortas had earned such a reputation for quality that the British Army, with a reputation of its own for being meticulous, commissioned Cortas Bros. to supply marmalade to British troops stationed in the area. The factory expanded, requiring workers to work a three-shift schedule to satisfy demand.

In the years just after the end of the war, Michel Cortas earned a master's degree in chemistry. Around the same time, the product line expanded further and Cortas opened a tin factory to manufacture its own cans.

Business continued to thrive, but not without challenges. Political uncertainty, starting in 1948, unsettled the area and limited industrial growth. A tomato paste factory that Cortas had set up in Homs, Syria, was forced to close due to the upheaval. In 1974, Emile and the company lost an innovative chemist and dedicated manager with the passing of his brother, Michel. The following year, war broke out in Lebanon. During the next 15 years, civil strife badly damaged the country's economy, as well as the Cortas factory.

The 1970s also brought the first change in management. Founder Emile, now in his seventies, became chairman, with long-time sales manager Fadlo Khauli moving into the position of general manager. Fadlo's vision included opening new markets in the United States, Canada, and Australia, where numerous war-displaced Lebanese had emigrated.

Meanwhile, war raged on. In 1978, shelling resulted in extensive damage to equipment once again. Finally, in 1989, mere months before the end of the war, the explosion of an area gas reservoir totally destroyed the Cortas plant. The rebuilding, which stretched over a period of years, took extraordinary perseverance, effort, and dedication-qualities that had been in place at Cortas since its inception.

Reprinted with permission from http://www.cortasfood.com