Fathi Ben Grira is proud of the job he has made of transforming the struggling brokerage Wafa into Menacorp, a regional powerhouse. But he is also thankful for his heritage - growing up in France and appreciating Tunisian values of tolerance and kindness. Hadeel Al Sayegh writes
When Fathi Ben Grira would visit Tunis over the summer holidays as a child, people could not tell that he lived abroad.
"They would say: 'you speak French well'," he says. "They wouldn't notice that I grew up in France."
His parents, like many others from Tunisia, left the North African country for France in the mid-1960s in search of a better life. Tunisia was on the brink of an economic decline, as the government's finances teetered between a rising food import bill and the need to increase spending on infrastructure and industrial projects.
"It was a natural destination for a lot of people from North Africa," he says. "Economically, France was doing well."
His father took up a job as a cook at a restaurant in Marseille. His specialties were French cuisine and paella. He worked his way up, winning the hearts of his customers with his food, he went on from one restaurant to another on the Cote D'Azur, the French Riviera.
Almost 50 years later, his son has achieved that better life - but still Tunisia looms in the background as an opportunity lost.
It is in Abu Dhabi, that he has turned an ailing local stockbrokerage into a profitable business, earning him success and the intangible trust of his shareholders.
Mr Ben Grira is chief executive of Menacorp, which is ranked second among the brokerages by traded value on the Dubai Financial Market exchange last month. His is a success story in the brokerage world - three years ago there were 103 brokerages in the UAE, today there are only 50.
He was born in 1979 in Antibes, a little town nestled between Nice and Cannes. "Antibes is just a dream place to grow up in," he says. "You have the glamorous lifestyle enjoyed by the two adjacent cities, Nice and Cannes, but at the same time the feeling of Provence, the village by the sea," he says in his thick French accent.
As a child, Mr Ben Grira says he used to look at the stars.
"I wanted to be an astronaut. I always liked positions with responsibilities, especially ones that lead you to build things."
At university in Paris, he studied finance and law, with the support of his family.
"They were very proud of me," he says. "When I would visit my father in the restaurant, he would introduce me to his regular customers. They would say 'Oh yeah, you're the son of Gerard [his father's French nickname as his Arabic name AbdulFattah was difficult for the French to pronounce]. We hear all about you. You're doing very well in school'."
A year before the completion of his law degree in 2002, he was offered a place at Skadden Arps, a prominent American law firm. He took the job without thinking twice.
"I was hired before I graduated … it was a no-brainer," he says.
"The good thing about starting at Skadden is that this law firm, in terms of revenue, is one of the largest in the world. But in terms of people it's not number one. In the Paris office there were only 15 lawyers. So you get big exposure and work on deals that you should not work on when you are 22 years old."
At Skadden, Mr Ben Grira would often work from 9am to as late as 3am - sometimes every day of the week.
"It was tiring. But it's a way of working, commitment, the mentality of getting things done. You spend several nights not sleeping and then the day after you hear in the news that the big merger you were working on was announced to the public."
One of his biggest deals included the second phase of the privatisation of Air France-KLM, when the French government decided to sell part of its remaining stake in the company.
In 2006, Mr Ben Grira landed an investment banking job at the financial advisory firm Lazard.
At the bank's Paris unit, he worked on the restructuring of the Eurotunnel Group. "It was extremely complex to handle as the company was nearly bankrupt, listed on two markets with complex takeover and political issues," he says.
"It was also very iconic. Without the tunnel, England would have remained an island."
He also worked on several high- profile initial public offerings, as well as capital increases and rights offerings of French companies listed on the Euronext Paris exchange.
During his time there, he became acquainted with the Kuwaiti conglomerate Al Kharafi. The billion-dollar company was one of his main clients.
In early 2010, Al Kharafi lured him to work for them as an adviser amid plans to set up a regional investment bank in Abu Dhabi.
"They proposed for me to run the show," recalls Mr Ben Grira.
The Tunisian investment banker was hired by Al Kharafi to launch a financial institution that would capitalise on Abu Dhabi's economic recovery as the capital sought to shake off the effects of the global financial crisis.
The bank was going to be a joint venture between Al Kharafi and Bin Hamoodah, an Abu Dhabi family conglomerate that holds interests in a number of businesses including agency rights to Chevrolet and the beverage franchises Oasis, Lacnor and Milko.
The project would be set up through a merger of Al Kharafi's investment arm MAC and Wafa Financial Services, which was an ailing stockbrokerage company controlled by Bin Hamoodah. The entity would offer financial advisory, equity research, asset management and brokerage services.
But Mr Ben Grira was unaware that his plans would change drastically over the course of a few months. Demonstrations erupted in Tunisia while he was on a brief holiday in France.
"I was extremely surprised by the rapidity of the events," he says.
He did not believe the demonstrations would lead to a full-scale revolution and force Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from the presidency.
"I was explaining to my French friends that the protests in the south of Tunisia were serious, but that I didn't believe it will trigger a revolution. I was wrong."
The bank project collapsed, Mr Ben Grira says, after unrest in Tunisia triggered contagion across the Arab World, prompting a surge of political instability and capital flight from the region amid a wave of sanctions and asset freezes.
The events forced the Al Kharafi family to rethink the idea. They decided to pull out.
The protests also hit close to home for Mr Ben Grira, who was looking at his motherland in despair.
"When Ben Ali fled the country, I didn't know what to expect. What's next?" he says.
"Overall, things went fine at the beginning and the smooth transition made me proud. I was proud to see that Tunisians had enough maturity to vote peacefully."
Back in Abu Dhabi, he managed to encourage the Bin Hamoodeh Group to stay "with the current structure, and instead of having everything ready from the beginning, the plan changed to build the business organically".
They hired him as chief executive of Wafa. Soon after, the Abu Dhabi brokerage was rebranded as Menacorp.
Shareholders replenished the ailing company with fresh capital amid plans to return the company into profitability amid dwindling equity prices and trading volumes.
"Wafa was a stockbrokerage firm that was going nowhere, like a lot of brokerages at the time," Mr Ben Grira says. "There were more brokerage firms than listed companies. The way I worked on the transaction was I took my investment banking background and looked at it as a private equity investor. You take it, restructure it and do something good about it."
He points out that Wafa was ranked 75 by traded value on the local bourses: the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange and Dubai Financial Market. The brokerage now has a total clients' portfolio value exceeding Dh1.6 billion (US$435.6 million) and is ranked in the top three in terms of trading value on UAE markets among 49 competitors.
"When I came into Wafa, it was nothing. The shareholders didn't know me - and we delivered. I received a lot of opportunities to go back to Europe. But I would not change anything for the trust I have working with the Bin Hamoodah Group."
When he looks at the developments in Tunisia, it is a challenge for him to watch the struggle.
"Of course, to have democracy is great. Freedom of speech is great. But when I see today how it's disorganised and how all this potential is not put in the right place - I feel sad."
He hopes to pass on Tunisia's traditions to the next generation, when he and his Russian wife Maria Celina have children.
"As Arabs, you always want to do something for your country. In Tunisia, for me the most important thing is to transmit the future to my children: the language, the food, the way to behave - the kindness and tolerance. That's the most I can do for the country, to transmit the right values."