x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Fadi Ghandour: Aramex lion will keep on running

Profile: Fadi Ghandour stepped down this week as chief executive of Aramex, having founded the logistics and delivery company 30 years ago. He is now set to develop the next delivery of young entrepreneurs throughout the Middle East.

Illustraton by Christopher Burke for The National
Illustraton by Christopher Burke for The National

There is a famous fable about a lion and a gazelle, both sleeping in the African savannah.

The story goes that the gazelle wakes up in the morning knowing it must outrun the fastest lion or eventually be eaten.

Meanwhile, the lion rises knowing it must outrun the slowest gazelle or starve.

Either way, both creatures must awake and start running.

This week, after 30 years of running, Fadi Ghandour, 53, stepped down as chief executive of Aramex, having founded the delivery and logistics business as a wide-eyed university graduate.

On Monday morning, the day after the announcement of his departure had been made, Mr Ghandour logged on to Twitter to offer his 13,500 followers some advice.

"If you wake up the morning after & still feel like the Gazelle running from the lion,or Lion running for the Gazelle then everything is ok", he tweeted.

Aramex is still the first and only Middle East company to be listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange in New York, and the company is one of the biggest examples of Arab entrepreneurial success.

M Ghandour will move to the role of vice-chairman, examining strategy, investments and sustainability. Outside Aramex, it is not yet fully clear what Mr Ghandour's next steps will be, but many of his biggest fans and those around him expect him to continue to working to create a legacy of helping other budding entrepreneurs.

"His passion is to make a difference in the world, make a difference in the community and to empower," says Hussein Hachem, Mr Ghandour's successor as the chief executive at Aramex. "He will focus his energies to do good in the community."

Already, Mr Ghandour has done a great deal to empower entrepreneurs and youngsters across the Middle East.

He is the founder of Ruwwad for Development, which helps disadvantaged youths in Jordan. He serves on the board of Endeavor Global, which helps entrepreneurs, and is on the advisory board of the School of Business at the American University of Beirut.

"When you think of entrepreneurs in the Arab world, the first name that comes up is Fadi Ghandour," says Sulaf Al Zu'bi, the chief executive of Injaz-UAE, a member of Junior Achievement Worldwide, an organisation that educates schoolchildren on the practicalities of business and leadership in the working world.

Mr Ghandour was one of the founding board members of Injaz and works with the organisation to build young people's confidence about approaching the working world.

During a search for information on the former Aramex chief executive, no one had a bad word to say about Mr Ghandour.

Instead, descriptions such as "inspiration", "risk-taker", "visionary" and "approachable" are delivered about as often as his company delivers parcels.

"If you have seen him talk to youth, he is fantastic. He gets to their level," says Ms Al Zu'bi. "Every year, we get volunteers from Aramex. They are so committed. When a company says they support us, it does not necessarily mean the people at the lower level support it. But they are all very passionate about giving back to the community. That kind of culture is because of him."

But Mr Ghandour does more than just support entrepreneurs and good causes. He also puts hard-earned money where his mouth is.

Maktoob, the Arab internet portal which was acquired by Yahoo for US$165 million (Dh606m) in 2010, might be his flagship investment that struck gold, but Mr Ghandour has stakes in several smaller companies that he also mentors on a regular basis.

"He's great because it's nice to have an investor or mentor who you can call on for experience but is not someone who is breathing down your throat," explains Ravi Bhusari, the co-founder and director of business development at Duplays, which Mr Ghandour invested in about two years ago, using money from his own angel investment fund. "He has a much longer time approach to the companies that he invests in."

Mr Ghandour is known for his big-picture approach to investing and taking a personal interest in the business idea.

Duplays is a community of sports and events leagues in the UAE and Mr Ghandour is widely known to be a regular swimmer and basketball player.

Despite his focus on the big picture, Mr Ghandour is also known to examine the details of a project and will get to know an entrepreneur before he dives in.

Mr Bhusari sat in Mr Ghandour's "unassuming office" and pitched his idea to the "empathetic" investor, and six months later he had received financing.

"In Mena's [Middle East and North Africa's] entrepreneurial community you hear his name everywhere. It's always with great respect and admiration and it's always with a sense of pride of association," says Rony El Nashar, the founder of SeedStartup, an angel investment platform.

"Fadi is very highly respected both for his own incredible success as an entrepreneur spanning a 30-year career and for his constant financial and moral support for entrepreneurs in the region - not to mention his humility and accessibility."

Mr Ghandour's own career started when he met William Kingson, the former chairman of Aramex International. They decided to replicate the logistics and delivery success of US businesses Fedex and Airborne and founded Aramex in both Jordan and New York in 1982.

Mr Ghandour came from strong entrepreneurial stock, as his father had created Royal Jordanian Airlines in the early 1960s.

Aramex began by being the courier company for those courier companies that did not want to venture into the Middle East.

It eventually grew its operations and created its own retail and commercial logistics divisions, breaking from its US partners and mentors.

In January 1997, Aramex became the first Middle East-based international company to trade its shares on Nasdaq, and after five years of trading, it was bought out by Abraaj Capital, the private equity fund based in Dubai.

It was listed again in June 2005 on the Dubai Financial Market and today employs more than 12,300 people in 353 locations in 60 countries. The company grew profits 4 per cent last year from the same period a year earlier to more than Dh200m.

Mr Ghandour has helped lead the company throughout the long journey.

"I was six months in at the company, we were playing basketball and at that time the [First ] Gulf War had finished and Kuwait got liberated," explains Mr Hachem. "At that time, [Mr Ghandour] said, 'This is an opportunity to go to Kuwait.' So I went to Kuwait on my own. He put the charge and trust with a new guy to go and open up a station. That meant a lot - that trust he put in me, the responsibility."

The new chief executive says he is not scared about life without his mentor, who he describes as a "big brother", because a robust corporate culture has been in place for some time.

"We understand our market well. I'm confident we will achieve whatever we are saying in every chosen market," says Mr Hachem.

As for Mr Ghandour himself, he is predicted to keep running like both the lion and the gazelle.

Or as Mr El Nashar puts it: "Fadi is a man who has embraced risk and has in turn reaped the rewards for doing so. He is someone who is not afraid to fail and not afraid for his investments to fail either. He accepts that many will fail before one succeeds. But that success will make it all worth it and more."

rjones@thenational.ae

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