Hani Farsi is a man of many passions. He has a passion for entrepreneurship, the hospitality business, the theatre world, the film industry, and so much more. Yet his most important passion is philanthropy; how he can use his success and fortune to give back to projects that support the greater good. Farsi is also a man with a strong creative and artistic side, which allows him to choose his business projects based on the overall impact they will have rather than just their net profit. He cares about each and every investment he is involved in and what it will add to the world.
Today, London is Farsi’s business base and home, though this Saudi-Egyptian entrepreneur was born and raised in Jeddah, where his father, Dr. Mohamed S. Farsi, was the mayor from 1972 to 1986. Farsi moved to the United States when he was 15 to attend the South Kent boarding school in Connecticut. He went on to study for his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in International Studies at The American University in Washington D.C.
Farsi’s passion for “changing the world” was ignited when he worked at the Washington office of Amnesty International after university. Following that experience, Farsi moved to London in 1993 to be closer to his home country and to establish his own business. He worked on organising the investments and holdings of the family and used London as a platform to explore further opportunities. At age 25 he created his first hospitality company in London called Reservoir Managements Services, opening restaurants like Che and Cecconi’s; and went on to have significant involvement with the internationally renowned Soho House members’ club. In addition to his business, he served on the board of the Donmar Warehouse and was its chief benefactor, ensuring the theatre’s survival until public funding was found. Later, in 2007, Farsi opened The Corniche Company, which is involved in a wide variety of fields, including real estate, urban development, hospitality, IT, theatre, and film.
Yet what makes Farsi most proud is the foundation he created to honour his father’s life: the Mohamed S. Farsi Foundation. Farsi chairs the foundation and is personally involved to make sure the funds they allocate go directly to helping those in need around the world. That’s what makes Farsi’s true nature come to life. Farsi has never forgotten his roots, his background, and his ultimate inspiration: his father.
Today, Farsi is a family man with ongoing social and business commitments. Yet having been an only son, Farsi also has a very private side and sees himself as a loner. This interesting contrast has played a part in how Farsi used his experiences in developing a successful, dynamic business involved in the industries he is most passionate about. Along the way he became a role model for what Arab entrepreneurs should be: hardworking, visionary, inspiring, passionate, modest, and generous.
Read on to discover what Farsi told Editor-in-Chief Yasmine Shihata about his success story…
How did your background shape your career path and your business today?
I’m from Jeddah, with family roots in both Egypt and Saudi Arabia. My father attended the University of Alexandria in Egypt where he met my mother. He was an architect and city planner, who went on to become the Mayor of Jeddah from 1972 to 1986. When I was 15, he decided to send me to school outside of Saudi. The dynamics of being an only child and son in my family’s position were complex, leading my father to fear that the teachers in Saudi would be too easy on me, as I was the mayor’s son. He found a boarding school for me to attend in Connecticut in the US and enrolled me immediately. It was quite a challenging experience, as I was the only Arab boy there. The initial isolation and loneliness I felt after being dropped off in such an unfamiliar world significantly influenced the person I am today.
Was it a military school?
It wasn’t military, but it was strict in an interesting way. Unlike the fancier schools, we had no chefs and were required to work in the kitchen, as well as many other jobs including shovelling snow and mopping floors. The principle was to teach us that there is value in work. There is value in putting your heart into every job you do without cutting corners. That experience taught me a sense of discipline and independence. The privileged life I had in Saudi Arabia disappeared very quickly, there I was not the mayor’s son – I was just Hani. I had to adapt quickly, especially as my English wasn’t at the high school level when I arrived. I went from always being first in my class in Saudi to being at the bottom, which was a very difficult adjustment. Yet the sense of accomplishment I attained from my three years at that school went on to define me. It was the hardest experience of my life.
Back in the early 80’s, you can imagine the culture shock I went through going from Jeddah to Connecticut. In Connecticut, the weather was 30 below zero in the winter, and I was completely isolated. There were no phones, and no mail. I was so cut off that I never even saw an Arabic newspaper; I was cut off from everything that I knew. As I was able to make sense of my new life, make friends, and find beauty in that experience, I felt in a profound way that I could do anything, I could get over anything, I could be dropped off anywhere in the world and be fine. I understood that the unknown and unfamiliar did not have to be feared. It was a liberating and powerful realisation that I carry with me to this day, and for which I feel grateful.
From this, I went on to earn Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees from the American University in Washington D.C. in International Affairs.
By the time you went to university, did you feel integrated and comfortable in the US?
More integrated than before, but by 18, one of the themes that I was struggling with was in which world do I belong? I was, and am, extremely proud of my heritage, but at the same time, I had been shaped by such a different set of circumstances than my friends back home.
I found myself in an unsettling space somewhere between both of the worlds that I had lived in. After having spent so many of my formative years in the west, I was fearful of losing my identity. From a young age, that was the sort of existential conflict that formed much of my internal exploration.
I have always enjoyed reading and history, which led me to the area of school that I enjoyed most – international affairs. I loved the idea of analysing relations between nation states, how they operate, and what was behind the scenes.
Did you find that field of study useful?
It was. There was a part of me that wanted to change the world, to somehow be able to give back in one way or another, which is what led me after university to work at Amnesty International for a year in Washington D.C. My experience there was life altering.
At the end of my time in Washington D.C., I was 25 and I had a serious talk with my father. I told him I really didn’t think I could go back to Saudi, as I didn’t know what my role could be there. My father was not a businessman who had left me an enterprise to take over; he was the mayor. I explained that if I went back, I would basically be living on his name, having doors opened for me, etc. I’m very proud of his name, but I needed to achieve something by myself based on my own merit. It is because I am deeply proud of my father and what he’s accomplished that I strive to live my life in such a way that my children will eventually look back at my story and feel that kind of pride as well.
But didn’t your father ever worry that by sending you to the US so young that you may not return to live in Saudi?
He did. This was something that terrified him, but it was a risk that he was willing to take because he wanted me to be independent, strong, and self-reliant. In the end, we agreed that London made sense for me as a base, so I moved to London in 1993 when I was 25 and set up my first company, Reservoir Managements Services. I was an entrepreneur and saw my first opportunity in sports management, so my first company managed athletes.
I wanted to look after these guys, not just do the deals and endorsements for them, but also to look after their financial well-being. It was a murky world to put it mildly but it was a good business.
Why sports? What made you choose that?
As is often the case, choices seem to arrive by coincidence. My lawyer at that time was a very famous football agent who had two or three great players. I asked him to join me full time, bring those players on board, and set up my office as a platform to take on others. As an entrepreneur you look for opportunities, so I started getting involved in the restaurant business and the London theatre world. I have always had a love for the theatre. I used to go watch plays in Egypt as a young boy, and even when I was in Saudi I would get the Egyptian papers to see what was playing in Egypt. I would struggle to stay up late to go and see all of Adel Imam’s, Samir Ghanem’s, and Mohamed Sobhy’s plays. Everything that was around, I would see. When I moved to London, I went to all the plays as well, and I discovered a beautiful small theatre called Donmar Warehouse. I was told by my lawyer that they were going to shut down due to lack of funding, so I volunteered to help them by giving them the balance they needed to stay open. That started my professional relationship with the theatre.
At the time, the Donmar’s artistic director was Sam Mendes, who later went on to win an Oscar for directing the film American Beauty. We became good friends and produced a few plays in the West End, which was my first foray into the world of media, film, and theatre.
My office continued to invest in a variety of sectors, but I always kept an eye out for diverse opportunities, especially those with elements of creativity. I decided early on that for me life was sweeter and more enjoyable if I had something creative in it. And because I love cooking and design (I’m the son of an architect after all), I decided to go into the restaurant business. My first restaurant was in St. James called Che, and it also had a cigar lounge and a bar. In fact the bar was awarded the “Evening Standard bar of the year”.
The site was a 1960’s landmark and very important architecturally. It had been owned by The Economist, and I was the first person to change its function from a bank to a restaurant. I called it Che for many reasons including the fact that he was a 60’s icon. The bar succeeded, but the restaurant didn’t. But I decided to use everything that I had learned to open my second restaurant – Cecconi’s in Mayfair.
Was that an original concept or an existing one?
Cecconi’s was named after Enzo Cecconi, an Italian restaurateur who was one of the early managers of the Cipriani Hotel in Venice. He came to London in 1979 and opened his restaurant, which I used to go to as a little boy with my father. But by the mid 90’s, as Enzo put it, half his clients had either died or retired, so I was often the only person in the whole restaurant. I bought it from him in 1999 and reopened it.
In the mid 90’s, I became involved in the Soho House private members’ clubs. I was a member of the original Soho House club, and when the founder Nick Jones decided to expand and open a country house, now Babington House, I was a principal investor and director, and subsequently joined the board. Hospitality and restaurants increasingly became a bigger part of my life. We had a great plan for Soho House to expand internationally, but when the subprime mortgage crisis occurred in 2008, I realised it would be very difficult to expand with banks at that time. So when we got an amazing offer to sell the company, I thought that would be the best decision as the shareholders would be happy, everybody would have their return, and Nick would have new partners enabling him to expand his business. I also felt the time was right for me to exit and focus on other things I was pursuing, from hotels and restaurants to media and film.
How much did your input and investment influence how Soho House developed into one of the coolest and most exclusive brands in the world?
I can’t take the credit for that; that was Nick Jones’s vision. I suppose an entrepreneur sometimes has the important role of backing the right person. I was fortunate enough to support Nick from the beginning. He is a visionary, and to his credit Soho House evolved and improved over the years. In the beginning, Soho House was an alternative to the old guard clubs. It was a place where people from the theatre world could go to relax, drink, and have a good time. No one was going to ask them for autographs or take a picture of them, and there would not be any newspaper stories about what they did there. Nick then came up with the idea of doing a similar club for the film world by creating a space with a small screening room. Later on, as the club expanded, some of the clubs had rooms and others aspects, and became hospitality projects.
The vision from the beginning was to create a very cool brand, where members would have a Soho House to visit in all of their most frequented destinations – one in the country (Babington House), one by the sea (Soho House Miami) and maybe in other fun cities (London, New York, L.A., Berlin). The idea was to create clubs in which like-minded people could come together in all of these locations and have a place to call their own.
Do you ever regret cashing out?
Well, there are two sides to that answer. On one hand, I believe in the principle that one should not become too attached or fall in love with assets or investments. But on the flip side, I do have a sense of regret because I started a journey and part of me wanted to go all the way with it. We had not yet achieved all we had hoped for when I sold my shares, but I still feel nothing but pride when I see all the new Soho Houses opening up. Nick is a good friend and I’m happy he’s been able to fulfil his vision.
Private members’ clubs still seem to be extremely popular in London; do you still feel that there is opportunity in that market? Can anything else have the staying power of Soho House?
That is a difficult question to answer because opportunity exists everywhere. However, I certainly feel that Soho House is supremely unique, and I can’t imagine it being emulated in a meaningful or enduring way.
So this is something you would not invest in again?
Not likely. I’m still interested in hospitality and in luxury but not private clubs. At this point, I would prefer to focus on something for international travellers, and of course continue with hotels.
Babington House was the first hotel investment that you were involved in. Was that something you enjoyed and decided to develop further?
I don’t think it was a conscious decision. When we first did Babington House, each board member was asked to define their perfect room. I was very specific, because I travelled a lot. For me, it was a question of light, sound, blackout curtains, large bathrooms etc. I had an extremely long list, so I realised I had very specific ideas of what I liked. That sparked my interest and certainly contributed to the path I am on now. When you’re attempting to design a place where people will come to interact, it’s not just about creating somewhere sexy or glamorous or any of those things. What fundamentally motivates me are the steps beneath the surface – the question of nourishing people, creating environments for people to do business, to celebrate, to fall in love, to fall out of love – all in your space. There is something very appealing about that to me.
Because I grew up in Saudi where we didn’t have restaurants, when I travelled to the outside world going to restaurants was fundamental and exciting; it was how I saw the world. I wasn’t a foodie per se, but what the venue offered captivated me. If you could take that concept, make it better, and transform it into a space where people could sleep, drink, dine, exercise, celebrate, etc., to me that became a very exciting prospect. How can you create something that’s truly unique and memorable for people? Why would they come to you again and again when they have so many other choices? These were the underlying questions that got me excited about wanting to enter the hotel business.
Is that how you went on to develop the hotel plan?
Don’t forget there is a Soho House in New York City, as opposed to the country which was a considerable shift. City hotels are different from those in the country, as there is significant competition in very close proximity. It was from there that I began looking at developing hotels in cities.
From your investments and your vision, it seems the projects you are involved in are aimed for the very discerning, savvy traveller. Or is there an aspirational factor to all these places?
It is a bit of both. You will always have a cross section of people coming into your place, and that’s kind of fun, to see whether or not you can appeal to a wide selection of people. There are different reasons why people like certain places; some love the breakfast, some love the swimming pool, the beds, or the rooms; sometimes you can never guess what people will like about a place. But I hope most of the time it’s because of the staff, which to me is the essence of what this business is about. People forget that it’s the hospitality business; it’s a service industry. And it’s a really difficult business, involving long hours and hard work where not everyone is necessarily pleasant; but you do it because something inside of you likes the idea of looking after people. Therefore, we strive to excel in that and to look after people in the best possible way.
Tell us about your involvement in the hotel sector.
The Bulgari brand decided eleven years ago to enter the hotel business. Unlike other high-end brands that had gone into hotels with the philosophy of translating their brand’s look into their hotels’ design, Bulgari had a different idea. They did not want their hotels to look like their shops, with their products on display everywhere. In fact, their hotels don’t look anything like their shops. Instead, they went back to their heritage and the principles of what Bulgari was about in the beginning – la dolce vita and true Italian luxury.
In the major cities of interest to me, every prominent brand and operator is already there. Therefore, if we were going to enter a new city and create a hotel, we needed to set ourselves apart and create something very unique. I respect the history of the Bulgari group; I like their look, and I also appreciate the fact that they’re very selective about when and where they choose to expand. We are looking at a number of cities around the world where we can open hotels together. I’m hoping we will be rolling out at least four or five in the next three years. We’re looking mainly in Europe and one major US city. I’m really excited because it’s a pleasure to work with them, especially the architect Antonio Citterio, who is a brilliant architect and a fantastic designer. In fact, he has designed every item in the Bulgari hotels!
When did your journey into the film world start?
To date, I have produced ten films, four documentaries, and six feature films. My first film was in 2006, after getting involved in the theatre industry. I’ve done a few films that have touched subjects that I care deeply about. I’ve worked with the Palestinian director Elia Suleiman on the film The Time That Remains, a semi-biographical portrait of Palestinian’s living as minorities in their homeland between 1948 to the present day. I had the privilege of working with the Indian Director Mira Nair, exploring the issues of identity that Muslims faced post 9/11 in the film The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
I’ve also worked with an Afghani writer and director on the film The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi, based on a novella that he authored.
At present, my film company is moving from producing other people’s material to working on films that we own ourselves. We now purchase the property, be it an idea or story, develop it, and then produce and distribute it. At the moment, we have two or three projects that I’m very excited about that explore a diversified range of themes. I feel both compelled and privileged to have the opportunity to share subjects that impassion me with a broader audience.
So the focus now is on projects that you own from A-Z?
Yes, we choose the stories ourselves, then put together a team we want to work with and move forward. That’s on the production side. But, I’m also now one of the owners of one of the largest distribution companies in France, called Le Pacte, so we are involved in the entire process of a film. This year we’ve had 22 films, and I’m looking at expanding that, finding other territories in which to distribute. My goal eventually is to have as much independence as possible throughout the entire process, so that we can make a film and then be involved in the sales and distribution. At the moment, you fight to get your film on a screen, and it may only be seen for a week or two. Most cinemas prefer to promote blockbusters that make the most money, so people often wait to see independent films when they are out on Sky or something like that. This is a shame, because the audience then misses the true joy of cinema, watching a great movie on a big screen with other people, experiencing it collectively.
From what it sounds like, your future will increase in the hotel sector and film industry?
Yes, I suppose you’re right. I’m still also working in real estate development, but I’ve come to a point now that I love working on things that I understand the most and the projects that inspire me. One area that I’m interested in tackling in the future is low-income housing. There’s a growing problem in this sector, because most of it is done on a poor, cheap scale, which causes a lot of other social problems down the line. Countless people are doing developments for the wealthy (myself included!), but I am also becoming increasingly interested in exploring middle and lower income housing. At the moment, I am looking into the Middle East for these developments.
But that marks a big shift, as it’s your first investment back in the Middle East, is there any reason you are doing this now?
Maybe it’s a spiritual one, maybe it’s the fact that I’m returning home and doing something for the greater good. There are a lot of people in need, and I like to think that as much as I have an artistic, creative side, there’s another part of me, which is about giving back and philanthropy. Leaving behind something that can touch the lives of many is important; that is a legacy.
If you look back on all your experiences, how difficult was it being an Arab Muslim working abroad?
Well, it certainly was challenging in many ways; some ways negative, some ways positive. People have frequently commented, “He’s Saudi – he must be loaded or his investments must be trophy investments.” I have often been discounted straight from the beginning because of a stereotype, but fortunately I learned not to allow that to define my actions.
Being an Arab and a Muslim in London is not something that has presented me with many challenges because it is such a wonderful, multicultural city. Moreover, the fact that I am an Arab and a Muslim does not define me. I’m a human being first, before being a man or being anything else. But there have been times that I’ve encountered racism, and it was ugly. When you encounter injustice, racism, or humiliation, it has a great personal impact. You can’t escape that blow – it could harden you, make you angry or hurtful, or it could humble you. For me, I became humbled. To know that even with all that I have, I could be smacked like that made me imagine how those who have nothing would feel. I have definitely encountered profiling and racism, but it left me thinking that we need to be kinder to others and remember we are all fighting our own battles. Now more than ever, we need to embrace and to highlight the countless examples of Arabs and Muslims that contribute greatness to the world.
Whether you realise it or not, you are a positive role model for a troubled region with so many negative role models. Do you feel we need to highlight more positive role models in the Middle East?
Yes, and as I mentioned, there are countless examples of commendable citizens in the Middle East, as there are in all cultures. Greatness, kindness, generosity, tolerance, and achievement bypass cultural identities and transfer effortlessly to the simple but profound state of being human. I strive to touch as many people’s lives as I can, to give opportunity to others through education and support. If you’re fortunate enough to have financial abundance, go out and do something positive with it. Think about what inspires you; any good deed is good. Whatever you feel strongly about, go out and change it for the better.
There were a few very touching moments in Tahrir Square, where Copts and Muslims were standing side by side. When I saw people recycling in Tahrir Square, I was so proud. I thought – this is a great generation; this is fantastic. I’m not referring to the aftermath or the politics; I’m talking about how this movement revealed the deep consciousness of this generation.
You’ve talked about how important it is for successful people to give back, can you tell us about the foundation you established in your father’s name?
My father was always a philanthropist, but he didn’t do it through charities or organisations. I remember him always paying for people’s education, and if somebody became widowed, he would ensure that a stipend was provided. He built academies, health centres, and it was just part of what he did; he never talked about it or advertised it. He kept a low profile; he kept it in his heart because it was the right thing to do. This lesson stayed with me so I decided a few years ago that, as my father (Al Hamdollelah) is still around, I wanted to honour him during his lifetime, so he could know that what he taught me was still within me. And I named my foundation after him. By having a foundation, I’m able to better organise giving, to see how much impact the foundation has, and to be able to measure that. It’s been the best experience ever.
Is this a foundation that you fund or do you fundraise?
I’m not against fundraising. But for the time being, I finance the foundation and it has nothing to do with profit or loss. Through my foundation, I also give to other foundations. Last year, I went to visit the refugee camps in Jordan for a few days with ‘Save the Children’, a foundation I care deeply about. I saw the amazing work that they were doing, so when they came to London, I hosted a dinner at the Bulgari Hotel for 22 potential donors. I do this frequently for other organisations. This is the opposite of a black tie event. This is a round table of 22 people, who are interested in helping Syrian children for example, and we talk about the issues and how we can help. My role is to believe in the organisation, and I want my guests to leave knowing that the money they pledge is all going to Syria, or to a certain camp. And around the table, hopefully by the end, we would have raised a million pounds. So that’s what I do. I say I’m pledging a certain amount and I ask others to join me, match me, etc. Whatever we raise goes directly to the cause of the evening.
Next year, I’m setting up a scholarship in UCLA for Arab women filmmakers. It’s a fully paid scholarship for three students a year to go to UCLA, and afterwards they will be placed in internships and so forth. What I’m going to do next is tell my friends that I’m paying for three students to go to UCLA, but I’m going to set up the same program in USC, NYU and the London Film School, so they can each fund the programs at different schools.
So you lead by example.
I suppose so.
What’s your ultimate goal now, for yourself and for the Middle East?
My personal goal is to produce a film with a hero I have admired in filmmaking. That’s what I would love to do – make a film that can move people and be accessed in different languages and seen by many cultures.
For the Middle East, I hope that we can wake up and rediscover the dignity in our lives, without the fear of it being stripped away at any moment. Whether we are rich or poor, Christian or Muslim, we all deserve basic human rights. I want us to reclaim our pride, to remember and embrace the tremendous achievements we have contributed to history, and to summon our deepest strengths so that no one can ever smack us, drag us, or humiliate us again freely.