Ayman Ismail is Chairman of DMG, one of Egypt’s most prominent investment companies. With over three decades of experience in leadership roles with large multinationals and a pivotal role in the founding of Egypt’s New Administrative Capital, and in formulating Egypt’s Vision 2030, he is a major player in Egypt’s economy. He is also a member of several boards of directors, including the boards of the School of Business at the American University in Cairo, the Investment Holding Company for Cinema and Cultural Events, Oriental Weavers, NI Consulting, and Solarize Holding. Ismail is also a dedicated mentor to high-impact entrepreneurs, first through “Endeavor Egypt,” where he served on the board, and now through the UN Global Compact. His dedication to empowering others, formulating new initiatives, and giving back to the community have made him a true inspiration to entrepreneurs and executives. eniGma’s Founder and CEO, Yasmine Shihata, sat down with the enigmatic entrepreneur to learn more about his impressive track record in the business world and his commitment to making a positive impact on society.
Here are some excerpts from the fascinating interview.
Your career journey is widely recognised as one of Egypt’s impressive success stories. Tell us about your journey and how it all began.
I began my career in sales, carrying a bag of products from store to store.This experience shaped my personality and career. It allowed me to meet many people and learn about different types of traders.
After five years in sales, I joined Proctor & Gamble (P&G) and started as an assistant brand manager in Marketing. I was then moved to Geneva before relocating to Brussels, where I worked in new business development. I worked on new brands, in new territory where not many people knew about the company and that gave me much freedom.
P&G then asked me to move to the U.S. to become the head of marketing for Crest, the company’s oral care brand, which is one of its most important brands. I was suddenly working on a big brand which everyone knew inside out and had an emotional connection with. My main task was to regain our market leadership which we had lost to Colgate. This was a challenge, especially since we were competing against a company whose focus was oral care. We decided on an innovative approach, namely, to reposition Crest, from a healthcare brand to a beauty care brand. So, we launched a new product called Crest White Strips, which focused on teeth whitening that was almost equivalent to what you could get from a dentist. It was the most expensive P&G product on the shelf. Nothing beats an amazing smile, and fortunately, it worked, and we were able to regain our leadership. Colgate sued our company, but we won the case. It was an enlightening and amazing learning experience for me.
Next, I was promoted to lead Gillette’s global merger and acquisition and integration with P&G for which I received the Distinguished Leadership Award. Then I joined Pepsi as President of North Africa and Chairman & CEO of Pepsico Egypt. Then, I was promoted to Regional Vice President of South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
How would you describe your experience transitioning from P&G to PepsiCo?
PepsiCo and P&G are very distinct companies with different organisational cultures. P&G is known for promoting from within and has a strong values-based approach, resembling a school-like environment. On the other hand, PepsiCo operates in a fast-paced environment and has a more cowboy-type culture, with many employees coming from diverse backgrounds, which can sometimes be a challenge to the company’s values. PepsiCo’s business is simpler and relies more on packaging innovation rather than complex chemistry and product innovation. Despite these differences, my transition to PepsiCo was an amazing experience that enriched my career and perspective.
How about your experience transitioning to the family business you joined after that?
As VP for South Asia, Middle East, and Africa I had to relocate to Dubai. It was an intriguing opportunity, but it did not align well with my situation at the time, and I had to leave my family behind. Eventually, my younger brother founded our family business. The business grew and my brother urged me to join the company. It was a difficult decision for me to make.
Do you prefer the corporate world to the family business?
No, I don’t. The corporate world has its own advantages and is the best place to learn. However, a family business provides the opportunity to pursue your own dreams and to shape the business according to your preferences. But it also comes with its own set of challenges. Mixing family relationships with business can be difficult.
When I decided to leave PepsiCo to join my family’s business, the chairman of PepsiCo helped me prepare for the transition by introducing me to a couple in Florida who went through the same transition. They told me that I was used to working in a well-organised multinational company where all the puzzle pieces fit together but that was not true for a family business, and they advised me to keep busy with something besides the family business. So, I served as the team leader for Egypt’s Vision 2030, working alongside the Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, Dr. Ashraf al Araby. This experience was a valuable learning opportunity and allowed me to create a balance between my work with the government and my family business.
Tell us a bit about your family business. Is it mainly focused on real estate and developing the impressive Mountain View project?
When I joined our family business, it consisted of companies in real estate, landscaping, furniture, construction, and architecture. They all operated together as if they were a group of friends. It was initially challenging to bring everyone together, but fortunately, our team was exceptional, and some of them are now leading the business.
What I am most proud of at DMG is our focus on the human aspect, not just the business side, making us pioneers in this area. DMG is known as an appealing workplace, and we were the first local company to be recognised as a top employer. Our unique value is the family bond, which sets us apart from multinational or corporate cultures. We combine this with values such as integrity, innovation, and passion for growth, creating a truly unique environment. We also focus on building trust. We were among the first companies to implement a trust meter. All our managers are measured on a trust meter, which helps us maintain our family bonds as we expand and face new challenges.
What are the metrics of the trust meter?
The trust meter is primarily based on the levels of trust that your boss, subordinates, and peers have in you, with the latter being particularly crucial. We introduced a manager quality component to the trust meter, based on my belief that people don’t leave organisations, they leave managers. We allowed subordinates to evaluate their managers based on four key questions: whether their manager gives them clear goals and objectives, cares about their personal development, has helped them grow, and knows them and their interests. Next, we incorporated happiness into the equation, seeking guidance from Zappos, a well-known US company renowned for their ability to engage customers and employees and achieve happiness. Having happy employees is vital for having satisfied customers. This was a key driver when we applied for the top employer recognition.
You were Chairman of Mountain View until earlier this year. What is your view on the real estate industry in Egypt today? Is supply keeping up with demand, or exceeding it?
The government’s initiative to construct new cities is a critical driver of Egypt’s economy, aligning with the country’s vision for 2030. We must expand our urbanisation efforts and make the most of our land, which we have not yet fully utilised. The aim is to increase our urbanisation from 7% to 14%, then to the mid-20%.
The industry’s supply-demand situation depends on the category in question. Insufficient land development and housing construction in the 1970s and 1980s created a significant supply-demand gap. Land became available in the early 2000s, but only a few developers had access to it until major developers entered the market. Demand has been steadily increasing, and supply has been ramping up very quickly, resulting in a balance point, currently.
The government’s efforts to address low-income housing have bridged the gap on the lower end, but a supply-demand gap still exists in this segment. Cost dynamics and issues of affordability make it difficult for developers to enter these lower-end segments, since they acquire land at a premium price and cannot price them suitably to the lower end of the market.
Is it your view that real estate is a better investment than buying bank certificates of deposit?
Real estate’s reputation as a value haven, coupled with the unique real estate model in Egypt, makes it a lucrative investment option. Unlike in other markets, banks do not not play a significant role in the real estate industry in Egypt. In other markets, the developer borrows money from the bank to finance a project and the end-user borrows money from the bank to finance the purchase, paying interest in the process. However, in Egypt, the developer uses the end-user as a source of funding, borrowing from him instead of from the bank, resulting in significant savings. For end-users, it enables them to purchase a product at a fixed price, protecting them against inflation, exchange rate fluctuations, and crises.
This system has allowed the Egyptian market to be more efficient than others, particularly with high-interest rates. Overall, the unique real estate model, where the developer borrows from the end-user, has contributed to the perception that real estate is a safer investment option than depositing money in a bank. However, it is not as easy to resell the unit as it was five years ago. Despite this, end-users can still expect to receive a decent return on their investment, that is higher than the return from depositing their money in a bank. For developers, the difficult economic situation is challenging, due to inflation and other pressures that have resulted in longer payment terms.
Can smaller developers survive in the current real estate market?
The answer is not straightforward. The success of developers depends on their ability to manage money, procurement, and to lock in prices quickly. Managing projects is more challenging than before. In my opinion, well-managed developers with a strong finance and investment team, who effectively manage the money process, are the ones to trust and bet on. These developers are more likely to be sustainable in the long run.
Are real estate developers targeting foreign investors now?
The current drive to attract foreign investors in real estate is a country-wide initiative. Bringing in foreign currency helps mitigate the risks and costs associated with a project. While we have seen some success in this area, I believe we still have a long way to go.
You and your family have started an investment fund. Can you tell us about some of its exciting projects?
The idea behind starting the fund was to support startups and entrepreneurs and to diversify our business. It’s exhilarating to work with entrepreneurs and to see them develop new business models that create value in ways previously unseen. I have seen numerous startups and entrepreneurs at different stages, and I can tell you that we have many amazing entrepreneurs in Egypt. Their ideas and passion ignite my own enthusiasm. Endeavour was my source of recharge. I think this is where we can make a difference in Egypt and the world.
You are also associated with the UN Global Compact. What does that involve?
The UN Global Compact focuses on larger companies. It is the UN arm that guides and trains the private sector in adhering to 22 basic principles, including gender equality and poverty reduction. The Compact helps companies achieve these goals. Joining the Compact was a natural development for me after leaving Endeavour Egypt’s board. We work with companies to understand their positions on the sustainability agenda and create a set of objectives for them and monitor their progress. We also provide training programs to enable them to advance towards these objectives. We also take critical industry sectors as a whole and work with them. For example, during COP 27, we worked with the real estate sector to promote sustainable buildings and materials. Now, they are working together, and we sponsor, mentor, and advocate for them. We bring in lessons from other countries and provide capability-building to advance the UN Global Compact’s sustainability agenda.
Describe yourself in five words.
I would say that I am courageous and impatient, and I prefer big ideas to small ones. Additionally, I am a people person. I enjoy working and engaging with others.
Who is your role model?
Sayedna Umar Ibn El Khattab. He was a unique leader, and I admire his management style. I appreciate how decisive and logical he was, and how he was respected by his followers.
If a book was written about you, what title would you choose for it?
Never Give Up!
What is your proudest moment?
The moment when I made the decision to leave the US and come back to Egypt. It was the right move.
What makes you laugh?
I laugh easily. All the Egyptian movies make me laugh.
What is one thing you wish people would know about you?
I wish people knew that I am a very emotional person.
What do you do in your free time?
I love music, and I enjoy creating my own playlists. I have a playlist for every situation and mood.
LOCATION: Mountain View I New Cairo