West Hartford businessman Sami Abunasra learned the value of hard work at the side of his father, a Palestinian refugee who fled to Dubai in the late 1960s and built a comfortable middle-class life for his family.
When Juma Abunasra wasn’t teaching English at a local university, he was operating a freight brokerage business or building small multifamily residential developments. He arrived in Dubai before the United Arab Emirates’ oil wealth propelled the city into the cosmopolitan and luxurious center it is today.
“My dad instilled a traditional upbringing,” Sami Abunasra said. “No complaints, just get it done. Don’t blame anybody but yourself. Don’t wait for opportunities, create them yourself.”
That’s precisely what Abunasra and his brother and business partner, Dr. Nazeeh Abunasra, have done.
Together they operate three Ashley furniture stores in Newington, Manchester and Waterbury, and have been increasingly involved in commercial real estate investment and development.
The two are advancing a major 150-unit, transit-oriented apartment development in West Hartford, one of the region’s hottest markets for new multifamily investment.
In July, they paid $3.3 million for a 161,744-square-foot vacant section of Waterbury’s Brass Mill Center mall, where they recently opened a new Ashley furniture store as part of a broader redevelopment plan.
Separately, Sami Abunasra, 50, is seeking permits for a 12-lot subdivision in Southington.
Despite a general slowdown in real estate activity, Abunasra said he plans to open a fourth Ashley store in the Springfield area, while he considers several additional real estate investments.
“There are always opportunities,” Abunasra said. “When it slows down, it’s the best time to buy. You just have to get the right deals and the right location, which is essential. You can see my residential deals — Southington, West Hartford. You can never go wrong. Even if there is a market crash, there is no crash in West Hartford or Southington.”
Nazeeh Abunasra, 51, is a busy oral surgeon for Aspen Dental. He keeps informed about business dealings, provides investment capital and takes part in big-picture decision-making, but leaves day-to-day management of joint ventures to his brother.
“So far, it’s been growing,” Nazeeh Abunasra said of their business ventures and real estate portfolio. “Even with the bumps and difficulties in the economy, so far it’s doing OK. I think the fact we combined the real estate (ownership) with the active business has helped us.”
Nazeeh Abunasra said he doesn’t have time to actively manage investments. That left him with two options: traditional passive investments in stocks and bonds, or partnering with his brother to create a more active, direct and hopefully profitable avenue.
Building the portfolio
Sami Abunasra finished an electrical engineering degree in Canada and then moved to New Jersey at age 24 in 1997. He worked IT jobs for AT&T, Merrill Lynch, a healthcare startup and then the American Arbitration Association.
He opened small businesses on the side, including a storefront IT training school and a medical transport company. Seventy- to 80-hour workweeks were standard.
An IT career provided a good living, but Abunasra thought he could do better. He said he became restless.
“I wanted to do a business,” Abunasra said. “I wanted to do real estate. I wanted the sky to be the limit.”
HBJ PHOTO | MICHAEL PUFFER
Sami Abunasra at the former Macy’s property in Waterbury, at 575 Union St., which he and his brother purchased in July for $3.3 million.
He completed an executive MBA program at Columbia University in 2011, and took a business consulting job with Dell Technologies for nearly three years. Searching for business opportunities, Abunasra came across a contact who suggested opening an Ashley store, he said.
It would require a regular fee for joint marketing efforts, but no further obligation, other than to sell exclusively from the Ashley furniture lines, Abunasra said.
The company had a licensing opportunity in the Hartford area.
Sami Abunasra enlisted his brother as a partner, and together they opened their first store in Manchester in November 2013. It was a roughly $1 million investment to lease the site, buy inventory and set up the store, Sami Abunasra said.
The brothers followed up with a $2.91 million purchase of a closed Newington bowling alley in early 2017. They refurbished the 42,586-square-foot building at 56 Costello Road and opened their second Ashley store.
In August 2020, Sami and Nazeeh Abunasra paid $1.12 million for adjacent commercial properties totaling nearly 3 acres in West Hartford’s Elmwood neighborhood. The property at 1061 New Britain Ave. includes a 156,114-square-foot complex of three commercial buildings.
The property at 1051 New Britain Ave. hosts a 13,648-square-foot retail building.
The brothers opened an Ashley store at 1061 New Britain Ave., but closed it in 2022. Ashley had approved the location on an interim basis, but would have required costly upgrades to maintain it long term, Sami Abunasra said.
That sort of expenditure was off the table after the brothers decided they wanted to flatten the site and build a 150-unit multifamily housing development within West Hartford’s newly adopted transit-oriented development zone.
Sami Abunasra said he plans to break ground on that estimated $34 million mixed-use redevelopment, located across from a CTfastrak bus stop, this year. He is working with West Hartford planning staff to finalize project details.
‘Rough and tough’
The Abunasra brothers prefer to own the buildings that house their stores. That prompted their January 2022 purchase of a 92,400-square-foot Manchester retail plaza, at 200 Hale Road, where they opened their first Ashley furniture location.
They paid $4.75 million for the property, and currently lease surplus space to an Urban Air trampoline park.
The steady stream of investments, financed through debt and equity, continued in July 2023, when they bought the vacant 161,744-square-foot building and 11.45 acres that are part of the struggling Brass Mill Center mall in Waterbury. The site was formerly home to a Macy’s department store.
In December, the brothers opened an Ashley Outlet in a roughly 30,000-square-foot section of the Waterbury property.
That leaves about 130,000 square feet of available space on the top and bottom floors of the building. Sami Abunasra said he’s working to recruit one or two more retailers for the top floor, which has the best exposure. He is contemplating uses for the bottom floor, which opens to the rear of the property.
Abunasra said he hopes to add a restaurant and is considering retail pad sites in the extensive parking area of the former Macy’s site.
He said he is also considering hiring a development team to oversee projects in his fast-growing portfolio. He does not expect to pursue any investment under $5 million going forward, he said.
And he doesn’t expect to slow the pace any time soon.
“I love it,” Abunasra said. “I love the challenge. I would encourage anybody thinking about this to take those first steps into the future. The first four or five years were rough and tough, but I enjoyed every day. Every day there is a challenge, but you dictate what you want to do and how you want to do it.”