x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Moustapha Sarhank: The leather-clad philanthropist

Profile: Striking out on his own, one young Egyptian endured a tough few years before the lure of the family company proved irresistible. Today the Harley-Davidson devotee can be found, dressed in biker gear, at the mosque - or at the helm of the billion-dollar group.

Illustration by Christopher Burke for The National
Illustration by Christopher Burke for The National

It is easy to spot Moustapha Sarhank among his fellow worshippers on Fridays at Cairo's El Sayeda Nafisa mosque.

Sporting motorcycle leathers, black boots and skull motif, the Harley-Davidson rider doesn't quite fit the devout image one would expect.

"The people praying next to me look at me as if I'm from Mars," he says.

But this doesn't bother the businessman, 48, who made his fortune in technology and defence. Rather, he seems to revel in the varied, and sometimes contradictory, aspects of his character.

"I am a man of controversy," he says. "Have you seen before a man on a Harley, with leather apparel, going down to the mosque with his helmet on, and cry fervently when he heard the call to prayer?"

The soft-spoken Egyptian was born in 1963, and despite his Muslim faith, was sent to a French Jesuit school in Egypt, and completed his studies in economics at the American University in Cairo. He grew up in awe of his grandfather, who 65 years ago founded the family business, the Sarhank Group for Investment.

Despite his admiration for his grandfather, the young Moustapha was reluctant to join the family firm, and decided to strike out on his own.

"I was always convinced that I should not be labelled a child with a [silver] spoon in his month," he says.

"During my last three years at college, I stopped taking an allowance from my father. I worked at the school; I used to sell T-shirts."

After university, Mr Sarhank got a job as a sales administrator, a post that lasted just six months.

"I felt I was not born to become an employee. I wanted always to become an entrepreneur, to struggle on my own," he says.

Unemployed and in the wilderness, in 1987 he managed to sign a software-distribution deal with Microsoft, just a few years after the launch of Windows.

It was by no means plain sailing. He ran out of money three times and with a young wife to support was forced to sell his possessions.

"All of the money I made, I lost. So I had to start [from] scratch," he says. "I couldn't go to my parents asking them for money. That would be an insult to me, and an insult to my marriage."

He continued to struggle for two years. But the lure of the family business eventually proved too strong. And when he was chosen by his grandfather as the heir to the group, he felt couldn't say no.

In his official profile, Moustapha describes himself as the "custodian of the group's nine commandments", which include "divine reverence" and "familial awe".

Another, almost cult-like aspect, is the family ring, which is marked with the Sarhank crest and worn by male members of the family.

"My grandfather decided he was going to give me the family ring. He passed this on to me ... and it meant I was going to be the heir of the family."

Mr Sarhank supported the Arab Spring, of which he says he was "very much pro"."We had our own way of doing business in Egypt," he says.

"That's why we are not behind bars. Everything was above the table, clear and transparent."

The Sarhank Group today has 5,800 employees, and reported revenues of US$3.2 billion (Dh11.75bn) in 2010. Mr Sarhank says about a third of this was from the group's defence division, about which he says little.

"Our line of expertise is in war gaming - command and control communication and intelligence," he says.

The company does not sell arms but specialises in battlefield communication systems that work in both Arabic and English, says Mr Sarhank. He declines to name customers, but says they are all "allies to Egypt".

Other business lines include agriculture, energy and portfolio management. Mr Sarhank launched a technology wing when he joined, bringing the Microsoft distribution deal into the fold.

In 2007 the US technology giant IBM acquired Sarhank Group's stake in an IT firm called Internet Security Systems Middle East.

That deal proved highly lucrative.

"All of a sudden I found myself with millions of dollars that I did not budget for, simply because the company was sold at a pretty high price," he says.

He chose to give much of the money away to an Egypt-based charity rather than keep it.

"Coffins don't have pockets," he says. "I will not be wearing two suits at the same time, and I do not eat dinner twice."

He will not disclose the name of the charity and his outlook is every bit that of the super-rich philanthropist. "Money is toilet paper at the end of the day. Money does not make a person - the person makes the money," he says.

"I hate money, because by giving me more money, you are putting on my shoulders more obligation to help out."

The family business is now run by Moustapha's brother but the Sarhanks plan to withdraw from the management of the group.

"This is going to be the last of the Mohicans. 2015 is when officially we will put a very thick firewall between family ownership and management," says Moustapha, who is now the honorary chairman of Sarhank.

He is now embarking on an acquisition drive for Middle East media companies, having already purchased Egypt Today and Business Todaymagazines.

He also gives lectures to MBA students at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia in the US, and with his silvery beard, glasses blue jersey with corduroy trousers, he looks every bit the academic for this interview in Dubai.

Looks are, of course, deceptive. "I'm very calm, very docile, but very lethal, and very aggressive at the same time," he says.

"I am your mirror - I only reflect what the person in front of me is. I can become a different animal altogether."


twitter: Follow our breaking business news and retweet to your followers. Follow us