Some have called him a dreamer, others a genius. He is the mogul behind the Cilantro chain, the restaurateur behind La Bodega, the tourism wunderkid behind the Red Sea resort of El Gouna and most recently, the business whiz behind Egypt’s leading property development company SODIC. Enigma’s Annelle Sheline speaks exclusively to Maher Maksoud, the man with the Midas touch.
Listening to him describe the future, it’s easy to forget he speaks of dreams rather than concrete reality. When your name is Maher Maksoud, the distinction between the two becomes blurry. Asked to reveal the secrets of his Midas-like success, Maksoud, the current Managing Director of Egypt’s leading property development company SODIC quickly deflects attention, preferring to praise his mentor Samih Sawiris, his wife, his team, his right-hand man Yousef Hammad and even his country. Maksoud’s voice crackles with excitement as he describes the post-revolution period of experimentation that made way for liberal government policies; Egyptians responded with an explosion of creativity and entrepreneurship that defies the stereotypes induced by economic suffocation. “SODIC’s success is simply part of this phenomenon,” says Maksoud. But do not be taken in by his modesty, Maksoud is not riding this wave; he is largely responsible for creating it. This entrepreneur has single-handedly brought Cairo’s thousand year-old cafe culture into the 21st century and now hopes to take the whole city, including much of it’s surrounding area, into the 22nd.
When pressed to explain his string of successes (La Bodega, Cilantro, El Gouna, SODIC and counting), he says what he does is not rocket science. He simply maintains what he calls “a mentality of openness.” Education may have helped. His alma maters include Port Said School, the British International School, the American University in Cairo and the London School of Economics. His most influential lessons were those gained at Orascom Tourism, one of Egypt’s largest tourism development companies, which Maksoud describes as a “school for pioneers.” He credits his boss and mentor, Samih Sawiris, chairman of Orascom Hotels and Development, with creating a culture of positive thinking. “I was a 22 year-old with no experience, unwilling to enter the real world. I was about to work in Saudi Arabia when Samih called and said he was starting a project on the Red Sea and wanted to bring me on board. I tried to explain that studying economic development had nothing to do with deluxe resorts on the Red Sea, but Samih wouldn’t hear of it. Within weeks I was managing huge budgets. Imagine being given the means to create a dream destination.” Sawiris’ dream became El Gouna, the crown jewel of the Red Sea’s resort paradises.
Maher then tried his hand at the restaurant business; taking advantage of the slowdown of the early millennium to focus on smaller endeavours. The result was La Bodega, now a staple of Zamalek’s nightlife scene. From there the success story turns to his most famous creation; Cilantro, the flagship Starbucks-style coffee chain that muscled its way into traditional ahwa culture. Looking back, he’s happy to laugh at how launching Cilantro nearly bankrupted him. “I was about to get married and of course my future in-laws were pressuring me about how I was going to provide for their daughter. But my wife never complained… if she gets anything out of this marriage, it will be a sainthood.”
After the first Cilantro opened in Zamalek, the next three locations failed. “The one at the World Trade Centre opened two months before Mobinil moved out and we lost all our customers,” says Maksoud. “We opened one in a Metro supermarket thinking people would get a coffee while they shopped; we even had cup holders in the shopping carts. But no one wanted coffee on the run.” The Metro experience taught Maksoud that Egyptians wanted a “destination”. If someone was going to shell out 30LE for a latte, a waiter had better bring it to their table. “Failure represents a chance to learn and success represents a chance to improve,” he says.
His ability to tune into the nuances of local market needs enabled SODIC to compete head-on with Gulf challengers, such as Dubai-based Emaar, who have entered the Egyptian real estate market in recent years. “Egypt is special. Applying a cookie-cutter approach will not work here. For example, the Gulf’s harsh weather conditions restrict developments to air-conditioned shopping malls; in Egypt you can be outdoors nearly year-round. And yet the unique characteristics of Egyptian culture have been slow to materialise into profit because there hasn’t been the necessary investment to secure a labour force that recognises quality. Thankfully this is now happening,” explains Maksoud. Inspired by his fond memories of growing up in Zamalek, the father of two also hopes to one day orchestrate a revitalisation of downtown, but in the meantime he sees 6th of October City as a place where children can play on the streets safely.
Maksoud’s words illustrate his vision; after listening, we hopped into a 4×4 and went to see SODIC’s developments firsthand. Touring the site of Allegria, SODIC’s flagship luxury residential development complex, we were transported to the future centre of Cairene society. And that society has already bought into the idea: when Allegria Phase IV launched in January, 80% of the units sold within weeks! Raking in sales of 100 million LE in the first 14 days, it appears Maksoud’s Midas touch is even immune to the credit crunch.
Because Maksoud refuses to blow his own horn, I turned to his friend Yousef Hammad, SODIC’s Chief Commercial Officer, for insight on Maksoud’s secret. The answer? “He focuses on the solution rather than the problem. For example, when Maksoud arrived at SODIC people weren’t making their payments for Beverly Hills; he simply changed the payment scheme and the problem disappeared.”
To that Maksoud simply adds, “You have to recognise that sometimes people do not know what they want, so be willing to take a risk and show them something they never imagined.” Spoken like a true dreamer…