x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Lebanese have distinct version of class and caste

Do Lebanese CEOs really have a say in family run companies?

I was at a dinner the other night with a major Lebanese company’s chief executive, who spoke of the loneliness of his job. “Who can we talk to when we need to get something off our chests, professional or personal?” he asked. “I can’t confide in my subordinates and I can’t go to the board. Both might see it as a sign of weakness. But when fellow CEOs get together, we can talk freely. It really helps.”

I must admit I found all this a bit melodramatic until I told the story to an ex-banker. “You shouldn’t laugh,” he said. “That’s what corporate culture is like in Lebanon. His subordinates, as he calls them, will probably have little respect for him, and so, if they want something, they will go straight to the chairman, who in turn has probably appointed this guy because the pesky corporate governance culture means he, the chairman, shouldn’t hold both posts.

“The CEO is therefore often a puppet with no strategic power who basically just signs the cheques. Abroad, it’s a different story. The chief executives do all the work and get the glory. If Gucci were a Lebanese company, would we know about Tom Ford? The reality is that the kudos and the power remains with the owners and their children.”

One of the more unsavoury aspects of Lebanese business culture is the distinction between owner and employee, or mouwazaf, a word that means different things to different people. Looking at it from the bottom up it can mean someone with a job, a salary and a degree of security; all things most Lebanese strive to attain in a very insecure country. From the top down, however, it can symbolise those who work, get paid and who should be grateful.

It is an attitude that can seep into ranks of senior management. The banker told me of what happened when he returned to Beirut from London in the mid 90s after been extravagantly wooed by a leading Lebanese bank. “I was flattered, but after a month I realised that my contract was never going to be honoured and I was just going to be nothing more than a flunkey, albeit a well-paid flunkey, to the general manager, whose attitude was clearly ‘if I’m gong to be treated like dirt, then that’s how I’ll treat everyone else around here’.”

Even those who should be very happy with their lot still carry a nagging sense of something not being quite right, as a senior pilot with Middle East Airlines, Lebanon’s national carrier, once told me. “When I go to the beach resort in the summer, I’m treated like a king. It’s ‘welcome captain’ and ‘anything you need captain’ but I know deep down the owner [of the resort] looks at me as an employee.”

It was a remarkable admission from a man whose job by its very nature demands confidence and leadership. But living in Lebanon for more than 20 years can change one’s perspective.

I used to think my parents, both of whom also worked for Middle East Airlines, had vaguely glamorous jobs, but now I recognise the fact they weren’t “owners”. This might seem odd to the western mind but, and maybe it is my turn to be melodramatic, but they were essentially from a lower corporate caste.

Working for a foreign company, with more international cachet, higher salaries and genuine power, can override such insecurities.

Carlos Ghosn, who runs the Renault-Nissan Alliance has achieved guru status. His ideas and work habits are read by MBA students the world over. While two weeks ago an American newspaper ran an article on the clout Lebanese expatriates have in the international financial markets, naming eight senior executives of Lebanese origin at global financial houses.

Ironically, Mr Ghosn is both chairman and chief executive at the Renault-Nissan Alliance. “I guess he reports to himself,” the banker joked.

Michael Karam is a Beirut based freelance writer