Leading by example: Tharawat interview

 

 

 

Farida-El-Agamy_Tharawat

 

Starting and growing a business with family members can be a great yet challenging experience.

One can benefit from the close relationships and trust between family members, relying on them during hard times. But it can sometimes be difficult to preserve a harmonious relationship.

This is something Farida El Agamy, general manager of the Dubai-based knowledge resource and networking hub for Arab family-owned business, Tharawat Family Business Forum, knows all too well.

“That’s why the topic of family businesses is definitely a very interesting and complex one,” she says.

“I’ve discovered it to be very honest. I didn’t know much about it, but I discovered my family business at the same time as I discovered the topic,” she adds as we talk at her office in Dubai Media City.

“In a region like the Arab world, where there is an increasingly important need for sustainable job creation and economic stability, family-owned businesses play a crucial role.

“We are looking at Arab family businesses who have headquarters in North Africa, the Levant and the Gulf. It’s very important to us that they have a vested interest in supporting the regional economy,” says El Agamy about the association’s mission.

Born to a Dutch mother and an Egyptian father and raised in Switzerland, the student El Agamy obtained the highest law degrees in Switzerland and the UK before working in Swiss government agencies, law firms as well as at the UN in Geneva.

However, her multinational upbringing shaped her global understanding so strongly that she has eventually embarked on the path of social entrepreneurship, determined to bring value to Arab family businesses.

The Tharawat Family Business Forum was founded in 2006 by a number of major Middle Eastern family businesses and her father, Dr. Hischam El Agamy, who is now Tharawat’s executive director.

The Forum was launched with the aim of creating a strong community of committed family businesses throughout the region.

Dr El Agamy’s own story is noteworthy. As an 18-year old Egyptian landing in Switzerland to study a masters and doctorate degrees in applied geophysics, he went on to start many entrepreneurial ventures and was consequently apppointed executive director of the Switzerland-based business school IMD.

By launching the Forum in Dubai, he wanted to create an Arab family business network and further the interests of these businesses by offering them education opportunities, research insights and a peer networking platform.

“It’s really from family businesses, and supported by them to serve the family business community of the region,” his daughter explains.

Starting and growing a business with family members can be a great yet challenging experience.

One can benefit from the close relationships and trust between family members, relying on them during hard times. But it can sometimes be difficult to preserve a harmonious relationship.

This is something Farida El Agamy, general manager of the Dubai-based knowledge resource and networking hub for Arab family-owned business, Tharawat Family Business Forum, knows all too well.

“That’s why the topic of family businesses is definitely a very interesting and complex one,” she says.

“I’ve discovered it to be very honest. I didn’t know much about it, but I discovered my family business at the same time as I discovered the topic,” she adds as we talk at her office in Dubai Media City.

“In a region like the Arab world, where there is an increasingly important need for sustainable job creation and economic stability, family-owned businesses play a crucial role.

“We are looking at Arab family businesses who have headquarters in North Africa, the Levant and the Gulf. It’s very important to us that they have a vested interest in supporting the regional economy,” says El Agamy about the association’s mission.

Born to a Dutch mother and an Egyptian father and raised in Switzerland, the student El Agamy obtained the highest law degrees in Switzerland and the UK before working in Swiss government agencies, law firms as well as at the UN in Geneva.

However, her multinational upbringing shaped her global understanding so strongly that she has eventually embarked on the path of social entrepreneurship, determined to bring value to Arab family businesses.

The Tharawat Family Business Forum was founded in 2006 by a number of major Middle Eastern family businesses and her father, Dr. Hischam El Agamy, who is now Tharawat’s executive director.

The Forum was launched with the aim of creating a strong community of committed family businesses throughout the region.

Dr El Agamy’s own story is noteworthy. As an 18-year old Egyptian landing in Switzerland to study a masters and doctorate degrees in applied geophysics, he went on to start many entrepreneurial ventures and was consequently apppointed executive director of the Switzerland-based business school IMD.

By launching the Forum in Dubai, he wanted to create an Arab family business network and further the interests of these businesses by offering them education opportunities, research insights and a peer networking platform.

“It’s really from family businesses, and supported by them to serve the family business community of the region,” his daughter explains.

“The only issue is that because their roles have been less visible than the male roles, they haven’t always had access to exchange with their peers.”

For that reason, in 2013 the forum established a committee for women in family businesses, and she praises her father for empowering the women in his family and thus leading by example one more time.

“In that sense, I really see my father as a great example because he has never made any difference. It’s always been about what you are able to deliver and whether you are the best person for the job.

“And I think that is a great principle. Because, otherwise, you start putting people in positions they shouldn’t be in.

“That’s one of the arty sides in a family business – you have to be sure that you manage the talent and the political landscape of the family at the same time.”

Being a family business as well as supporting family business, also brings with it an increased sense of responsibility, says El Agamy.

“Working for the sustainability of family businesses, as we do, I believe it is crucial for us to fully understand all the challenges as well as the opportunities that lay within the family business model,” she says.

“Anyone who has ever started a business will confirm that it can be very stressful at times, and when working with family members you have to be even more careful.

“You have to make a clear distinction between business issues and personal challenges or disagreements in order to continue collaborating successfully.

“For us as a family, it’s fantastic that we’ve gone through the family business experience ourselves.

“As a family in business you have to have a working relationship with your family [members] where you have the right to carefully but certainly tell the truth,” she says.

“You have to be able to address problems. If you cannot address problems, you have a conflict without having a conflict. It’s under the table, but it’s boiling and one day it will blow off.”

In line with this, El Agamy is a keen advocate of running a business professionally, which in their case means a very flat hierarchy that allows employees to come to work motivated to do their best.

She says: “I think that’s what we need, especially when you do something that doesn’t have a straightforward business model that everybody recognises.

“We continuously create content so we need to have a team that understands that and can carry the mission of the association [forward].”

That content derives from their constant research aimed at increasing public awareness about the importance of family businesses and supporting them as pillars of the economy.

She explains that their insights into the particularities of family-owned businesses from the three Arab regions – North Africa, the Levant and the Gulf – prove that there is a silver-lining in their differences.

She says: “Mainly that’s because of the DNA of the economy. The way that the economy grows has or hasn’t given opportunities to family businesses.

“Typically, we see slightly older, maybe a little more established and specialised family businesses in North Africa and the Levant, whereas in the Gulf countries is quite typical to see rapid growth and high diversification very early on with families still being very tightly-knit.

“To find a family that only does, for example, steel production in the Gulf is less likely than in North Africa where you have families who have been in the steel industry for 80 years, and haven’t diversified to 30, 40 companies.

“This [rapid growth and high diversification in the Gulf countries] has a great impact on ownership and business management structures. It means that strong systems have to be put in place to ensure that the family can effectively run the business over several generations.

“I think this is what makes it interesting – they can learn from each other.

“In the Arab world we are very quick to look to Europe or North America for input, and we forget that we actually have the wealth of know-how in the region.

“For example, how do you sustain specialty or how do you sustain through diversification?

“So look to your neighbour, especially because we have family businesses in the region that have been through economic and political struggles and have sustained. How have they sustained?

“I think that’s very interesting and we’re trying to be that bridge.”

With the competitive landscape changing rapidly, she opines that the next generation of family business leaders will have many opportunities to build on and expand their families’ legacies, combining the region’s assets and particularities with know-how and international exposure.

However, she adds: “One challenge they will face is to sustain the past growth in a far more competitive and internationalised market.

“Also, the right use of new technologies will have a great impact on how business is done and, paired with increasingly short product life cycles, business leaders will need to be ahead of the changes in their markets.

“On the family side, with added generations, there will be more family and ownership complexities to deal with, which will have to be addressed through the appropriate governance systems and effective management measures.”

That said, she is confident that regional family businesses will remain job creators and drivers of the economy, and will reach a high level of sophisticated governance and ownership systems.

For that reason, the forum has established the Arabian NextGen platform – dedicated to young family business members – and there are plans to establish sister offices in the Levant and North Africa in the near future.

When asked whether she has noticed a new trend among the latest generation of family business members, she says: “I think that the next generation is asking themselves the same question. I really feel that we live in very opaque times, things are not clear.

“If you want to grow, you obviously need to understand where the market is going, and that for our generation is very hard.

“We have an overflow of information, in my opinion. We cannot digest everything we get.

“And at the same time, you know, [there are] a lot of opportunities. If you are a bit clever, a bit fast, you can open new markets. But the problem is this uncertainty, and it affects our generation very closely.

“So I have a lot of respect for young family business leaders, and in this region especially.

“For me personally the most inspiring aspect is to see that as an entrepreneur, you keep on going.

“And obviously having the responsibility for the family, motivates you even more.

“Having the legacy of, let’s say, 40 years of your [family] name – you will try to push through everything.”

However, five years into their journey, there are many reasons to celebrate and El Agamy also stresses the importance of celebration: “Every entrepreneur has experienced that sometimes you are so absorbed that you forget to tell yourself how great it actually is.

“If you find that joy, you’re going to overcome challenges that will come anyways.”

 

 

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