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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Kanoo Group's rebel in residence

Profile: Mishal Kanoo comes from a traditional Gulf background. But his approach to his stewardship of his family's conglomerate is anything but traditional.
Illustration by Chris Burke for The National
Illustration by Chris Burke for The National

A large painting of Che Guevara hangs across from Mishal Kanoo's desk in his downtown Dubai office.

Most visitors assume he likes it because the subject is smoking a cigar, as that also happens to be one of Mr Kanoo's favourite pursuits.

But Mr Kanoo, 42, sees something different. For him, the Argentinian freedom fighter represents rebellion against authority, a quality prized by a man who has no shortage of opinions on controversial topics and describes himself as an "agent provocateur".

"That has got to be my job, and I think it has to be the job of everyone. But we have a lot of complacent people who are very happy with the status quo," he says with a slight American twang that he picked up while studying in the US.

Such a provocative stance may surprise some. After all, as deputy chairman of the Kanoo Group, he oversees one of the largest family-owned groups in the Gulf. These conglomerates tend to be conservative and bound by tradition, but Mr Kanoo is determined to shake up the established order.

"Tradition means you haven't thought it through," he says.

Walid Chiniara, who runs The Family Business Advisory Group in Dubai, says Mr Kanoo represents a new breed of family business leaders.

"He's one of the few people who although he remains politically correct he says what others don't dare say, which is brilliant, because we need people like him," Mr Chiniara says. "Most families in this part of the world are sandwiched basically between the traditional way of doing things … and the global world that they have to face. It's a major challenge for them to be able to manoeuvre, survive and thrive, because people like Mishal are basically entrusted with the family jewels."

Indeed, it is a responsibility Mr Kanoo does not take lightly.

"Entering into a family business, carrying the family name, is always a daunting task. You don't want to screw up. You try to live up to the past. You have a social responsibility, a financial responsibility," he says.

Mr Kanoo joined the family firm in 1991, fresh out of university in the US, where he completed an undergraduate degree and an MBA.

He started as assistant shipping manager, although he says that the title "manager" granted him nothing more than social status.

"My family has a policy of making sure that you suffer in order to understand what's happening, so hopefully no one can pull a fast one on you. It's not good for a 20-year-old boy who thinks the world revolves around him and has got his degree and wonders why he's going through the rigmarole of this whole thing," he says. "But retrospectively I understand it. The idea was to be able to understand what it is like not just as the owner but also as the employee."

Mr Kanoo left the business for a time to earn a second MBA, at the American University of Sharjah. He then worked at Arthur Andersen as an auditor before returning to the Kanoo Group as deputy chairman in 1997 after his father passed away. The group operates more than 20 companies across a range of industries, including travel, shipping, engineering, and oil and gas. He oversees strategy for the group's UAE operations and the chief executive reports to him. His uncle, Mubarak Kanoo, is chairman of the holding company.

Coming into the job, he knew it was important he establish quickly that he was his own man. He began making changes immediately.

"The first thing I started to do was to see where people were living off the fat, if you want, because I felt that there were some people who were comfortable and I started to try to get rid as many of them as I could," he says. "Changing the mentality was very hard. I remember that the results dipped, and at that point I was 26 or 27 and panic set in, I was thinking 'am I doing the right thing?' And the year after that it picked up."

He says that from 1997 to 2008, the company's profit increased more than tenfold, a run of success that he attributes to the overall growth in the Gulf economy as well as the group's 3,000-plus employees.

"If they didn't believe what I was promoting, they wouldn't have done it. So it's down to them," he adds.

While still actively engaged in the business, Mr Kanoo has also extended his influence outside the boardroom. He teaches a course on family business at the American University of Sharjah and has been a frequent commentator on social affairs.

Mr Kanoo has watched the "Arab Spring" uprisings closely and has strong views on what reforms should be enacted. He is a critic of representative democracy in part because he thinks having to campaign for votes forces leaders to do and say things they do not truly believe.

"I still don't think democracy is the best system," he says. "I am not for democracy because I think it is a popularity contest.

"You have seen the result of what type of leaders we have had in most democracies."

However, he strongly believes that citizens should be able to speak their minds.

"Freedom of speech doesn't necessarily mean freedom of speech in terms of everything, in terms of being able to insult and be able to be derogative.

"I don't believe in that. I think you have the right to say your opinion," he says. "It's having that opportunity to voice an opinion that also allows a lot of steam from any society to be released."

Outside of his wife and three young children, Mr Kanoo's abiding passion is his art collection. In addition to the Guevara portrait, he owns hundreds of other pieces including by European masters and modern Arab artists. And he continues to add to the collection.

"I got two significant pieces from the French designer for Christian Dior 10 days ago," he says, referring to the late fashion illustrator Rene Gruau. "They were made specifically for the Lido."

As with many family-owned companies in the Gulf, the Kanoo Group was started at a fortuitous time before the economic boom that lasted decades.

The way forward is trickier, but Mr Kanoo is not afraid to chart his own path.

Mr Chiniara says family businesses in the region "are at a kind of crossroads; either they move forward or basically something happens and they dismantle. And we need them. We need them badly in this part of the world.

"We need to preserve, support and help people like Mishal move forward."

business@thenational.ae