When Enigma’s Travis Randall met with one of the region’s biggest businessmen, Aramex President Fadi Ghandour, he thought he’d be discussing dividends not development. But it turns out this is a man with far greater things on his mind than just parcels and paperwork.
He talks fast, snatching your attention and selling ideas like they’re on special. And you trust him because this Lebanese born, Jordanian businessman has the clout to back up his claims. Ghandour speaks about success with merited confidence but an honest humility, claiming, “Entrepreneurs stumble upon things.” His stumbling upon a multi-billion dollar business was the result of a weak postal service in the region and the lack of much competition at the time. Now the company best known for its couriers is offering a range of services, employing 7,000 workers in 45 countries and grossing hundreds of millions in revenue. “I never planned that, but a few years in I knew we’d found a niche.”
Aramex was the first and only Arab company to go public on NASDAQ and that experience “changed the way we view the world and how the world views us,” he says. “We were much more respected when we went public. The Arab world is known for non-governance, non-transparency and non-compliance, so we really stepped into the lion’s den.” The process included tough discipline and led to a corporate code of conduct that distinguished them in the region. Even after going private again and before going back on the Dubai stock exchange, as Ghandour explains Aramex “continued to conduct itself with the same level of transparency as public companies from mature western markets.”
And he’s doing more than just leading by example on corporate responsibility, business transparency, development and women’s rights – he’s spearheading ideas and a mentality that he knows to be both good for business and good for goodness sake. What’s striking is how much he sounds like a humanitarian talking up sustainability and raising people out of poverty. Flourishing business took back seat in our conversation to the topic truly on his mind. Ghandour has more to say about development than dividends.
“Corporate social responsibility is turning into a way for a lot of companies to advertise the good they’re doing,” he says, “but it’s not about showing off, it’s about elevating those in need.” The new fad of corporate social responsibility is more than just a fleeting phase or a casual ‘going with the corporate flow’ for Ghandour. You can tell by his impassioned voice and animated head nodding that he believes what he’s telling you. But, he’s not pointing any fingers at failed government policy or international trade. “The private sector has to realise that it does not exist merely for profits. It exists to make a difference. We are powerful and capable people and if we don’t bring our capabilities to the societies we live in, then we are not really conducting ourselves in our full citizenship.”
Taking responsibility has meant voluntary accountability for his own company. Aramex wasn’t just the first on the Wall Street block, they’re also leading the way with the first sustainability report in the region. In a region where most elections end in impossible landslides and companies are known for nepotism and non-compliance to international norms, Ghandour has set a refreshingly realistic set of commitments and goals for his company. “We’re shooting for a B+ grade,” he says proudly. “The nature of our business means a lot of cars and trucks, but we’ve committed to limit the amount of greenhouse gases with hybrid cars and developing better routing structures, so our cars are driven less.” But it’s more about people than going green for Ghandour, so his company is also making big commitments to more women in leadership and stock options for workers.
His passion for empowering people to stand on their own has led to the establishment of Ruwwad (entrepreneurs). The community adoption project has targeted a marginalized community in Jordan to fix school infrastructure, train teachers, build clinics and a post office – all of which help create or grow local employment. “Aramex started the initiative but we really want to see it spread in the Levant. I’m not Egyptian but I’ve gotten involved in a project in Egypt, Stable Antar, because I care as much about that community as I do about my own.”
“The problem,” he says with the tone of a professor trying to drive home his point, “is that in the Arab world we see philanthropy and activism from a purely charitable angle. We give so we can sleep at night, or because religion tells us we need to do Zakat. Do Zakat, but it’s not just about giving food to the poor during Ramadan so that you feel closer to God. You need to ensure that next Ramadan people don’t need your food.” And to his private sector peers his message is that, “Even from a pure financial standpoint, the investment in communities and education creates consumers with discretionary income. Even if you want to take the “good” angle out of the equation, there are benefits for you.”
Ghandour is adamant that the private sector is part of the solution and those at the top need only to look out their own window to see that the region is not all “Four Seasons” comfort. “The private sector can’t just sit on the sidelines and think the government is the only institution responsible for providing jobs to the millions of Arab youth who are graduating with no where to go” he exclaimed. Growing solemn, he warns against the extremism bred by disenfranchised youth. “40% of the population is under 25. If we don’t reach out to these people, they’ll lose all hope. We need to bridge that hope gap but that does not mean handouts. You need to empower them so that they become full citizens. When an individual has ownership, he is the first one to create security. When he feels that he has nothing to lose, then I am worried.”
Ghandour also has some ideas on the traditional norms holding Arab society back. “I think Arab men are chauvinistic. They hide behind religion claiming that religion does not allow their women to do things. Islam has nothing to do with that. These are habits and traditions. Our governments and leaders need to be much more forceful in creating an educational environment in schools to teach men that women are equal. Then we need to teach women that they are equal and able to do things, so they don’t grow up feeling inferior.” Considering it men’s responsibility to right the wrongs against women, he adamantly claims that women are his most reliable workers and they should be empowered since they are the role models for our children. “In Jordan, 51% of graduates are women but only 15% get employed,” he points out. “We’ve been closing the doors on women for too long.” In his business and community work, Ghandour says, women often far outperform the men. “We have debates in one of the communities we work in and the women always eat the men alive” he laughs.
Coming full circle in his passion for empowerment, responsibility and the role of women, he shares with a sense of amazement the story of a woman who received a micro loan of 2,000 LE (about £200). She started a small foul and tameya stand. The extra income has enabled her to marry off her four daughters. “This is what happens,” says a man with one of the region’s largest businesses. “She barely has an address, but with a little help she has a sustainable business.”
With a successful business ‘in the bag’ Ghandour has turned much of his attention to the social climate of the region. As a champion of his company and community he also sets an example of enlightened living in his own family. “Entrepreneurship is in the family. My wife has a thriving hip pottery business where she employs dozens of workers.” With a sharp eye for the future he expresses his dreams for the coming decades. “My hope is that more business leaders begin to see the potential all around us and use their resources for more than personal gain so that growth at the top elevates people out of poverty and contributes to a better society.”