x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Saad Abdul-Latif gets on, pays back

Saad Abdul-Latif, PepsiCo's regional chief executive, knows the pain of struggling to find success in early life, and he has not forgotten that young people across the Arab world are struggling as he once did.

Saad Abdul-Latif, PepsiCo's regional chief executive.
Saad Abdul-Latif, PepsiCo's regional chief executive.

Saad Abdul-Latif wanted to graduate from university like anyone else, wearing a smart robe and cap, and cheered by family and friends.

Instead, he had to flee Beirut with his mother as civil war erupted around them in 1975.

Having spent his early life in occupied East Jerusalem, and then in Lebanon, Mr Abdul-Latif, now chief executive of PepsiCo for Africa, the Middle East and Asia, is familiar with the instability accompanying the current political unrest in parts of the Arab world.

"People could not travel from East Beirut to West Beirut, where the American University is, because there were skirmishes and fighting on the touchlines," Mr Abdul-Latif, 57, recalls of his graduation day. "We were advised that the ceremony was cancelled, and I then had the problem of getting my mother out because things were really starting to heat up."

After his father, Issam, died in 1960 when he was just seven years old, Mr Abdul-Latif's mother became his compass, guiding him towards a life built on academia and hard work. That hard work has certainly paid off in his career, as he now oversees a brand that is one of the most recognisable in more than 100 countries, home to half the world's population.

Sitting on a big, welcoming chair in a comfortable but not grandiose office in Dubai's Emaar Square, Mr Abdul-Latif is quick to offer his wares - Pepsi, 7-Up and Mountain Dew - before describing his tumultuous life.

"My mother was a very smart woman, and I could see that in the way she raised us," he explains.

Family duty summoned Mr Abdul-Latif's mother, Adla, when she was just 15. Her mother gave birth to a boy after complications, and Adla had to leave school to help care for her new brother.

"Her mother became stronger, but my mother never went back to school … That's why I think education is important," Mr Abdul-Latif says.

He uses his position at PepsiCo to be an active supporter of educational causes. That includes sitting on the board of PlaNet Finance, an organisation that fights poverty through the development of microfinance. He is also a former chairman of World Links Arab Region, which uses technology to educate youths in Arab countries.

"If we can empower people through education, then we can help them out," he says. "A person who feels like somebody has given them an opportunity to do good in life will do the same."

PepsiCo sponsors the Tomooh Education Programme, which empowers youths in the Middle East by offering university-level scholarships in Lebanon and Jordan.

In Egypt, the programme is called Food for Education, and in partnership with the UN World Food Programme, it combats hunger and reduces school drop-out rates. The Tomooh programme has helped 13,000 families, including 4,500 students, in the region.

Nadia al Shadhir, the private-partnership manager for PlaNet Finance in Dubai, says Mr Abdul-Latif has played a major role in her organisation.

"He possesses a natural energy of always wanting to give," she says. "Mr Abdul-Latif's passion lies within women's development, education and youth entrepreneurship, which sits hand in hand with [our] strategy."

On the business side, PepsiCo announced first-quarter results last month, with global snacks and beverage performance boosted by strong growth in Mr Abdul-Latif's region.

"Multinationals don't operate in a different planet," he says. "Multinationals operate in the countries that they are in, and so if we want to have a healthy operating environment and healthy talent base, we have to provide [support to education]."

After a difficult start to life, Mr Abdul-Latif is clearly keen to help others.

He says the death of his father was one of two things that most marked his life.

"My mother was determined, and our grandfather took us in and supported us, because, for my mother, schooling was very important from that moment on," Mr Abdul-Latif says.

While his mother made sure he had an education, his grandfather made sure he went to the right school: St George's, an Anglican school in East Jerusalem. "My grandfather ran a transportation company … He was not rich, but not poor either. He was OK," Mr Abdul-Latif says.

Seven years after his father's death, a second moment marked the chief executive's early life - the outbreak of the Six-Day War between Israel and Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

East Jerusalem was among the territory seized by Israel during that conflict, and living in occupied East Jerusalem later, and having to navigate checkpoints as he walked to school, made Mr Abdul-Latif more resilient and determined to further his education.

"Occupation is occupation. It's never an easy thing," he says. "You can easily sit at home and say: I'm not going to school today because of occupation."

But Mr Abdul-Latif did go to school, and eventually went on to study at the American University of Beirut.

His grandfather gave him a budget to manage and when he graduated in 1975 and got his first job, his first priority was to help pay for his brother, Fouad, to go through university.

"My first job was US$350 (Dh1,285) a month in Kuwait and from that $350, I had to make sure I sent money to my mother and my brother in Jerusalem," he says.

Mr Abdul-Latif's mother died recently at the age of 81, but he and his brothers all still look out for each other.

"My second brother, Fouad, is in Oman and is married with kids, while my third brother, Wael, is in Jerusalem where life is not that easy for him and his family. I'm quite well-to-do now, and I can afford to help."

Mr Abdul-Latif says he spent his early postgraduate years in a professional wilderness, without a real career calling. His first job was selling watches.

"It was an odd job, I just went to Kuwait because my uncle was there. I could have gone back to Jerusalem, but the opportunities under occupation were limited," he says.

Many Palestinians headed to the Gulf in search of work at that time, and Mr Abdul-Latif was among them. He bounced between three jobs in five years, including at Kuwait National Petroleum Company and the National Industries Group in Kuwait.

And it was at this point he decided he wanted to lead companies and manage people. So he began saving money, which he was used to, and at 26 he enrolled for an MBA course at the American Graduate School of International Management in Arizona.

Having lived only in the Middle East, Mr Abdul-Latif says his time in Arizona was when he developed a truly open mind. Previously, he had grown up hearing about how his parents were displaced from West Jerusalem, and he had met many supporters of the Palestinian cause in his travels.

"When I went to the US, people didn't really care about Palestine. It didn't impact them," Mr Abdul-Latif says. "It wasn't good or bad, they just didn't care. It was the first shocking thing for me. How can you not care? Then I realised: why should they?

"I started learning the power of diversity and winning arguments by rationalising and talking. Not everybody has to support the cause that you do, because they might not be on the same page or have the emotional attachments."

Three months after completing his MBA and beginning a job search, Mr Abdul-Latif was walking into his New York apartment reading another rejection letter - this time from PepsiCo.

But the phone rang, and on the line was Joe Moran, a human resources director at PepsiCo. He said a job had just come up in HR in the Middle East and suggested Mr Abdul-Latif apply for it. He had an interview the next day with Bob Walker, the head of PepsiCo in the Middle East at the time.

Mr Walker was in the US, and after three hours discussing the position, he offered Mr Abdul-Latif a job in general executive management, rather than in HR.

Mr Abdul-Latif will celebrate 30 years at the company in February.

rjones@thenational.ae