Sunset is sudden, as usual. It’s 6.45pm. Soaring high above Downtown Dubai is the iconic Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Standing at the base and looking upwards, it’s easy to believe that the pinnacle, stretching endlessly upwards, actually reaches its vanishing point and touches the canopy of the night sky.
From the rooms on the south-east side of the Burj Khalifa you can see the Dubai Fountain, 6,600 pulsing lights, together with fifteen hundred sweeping, cascading water jets and a thousand fog jets, creating an atmospheric mist for the lights to play on. The lake and fountain were created by the former Disney imagineers of WET Design, the California-based company responsible for the 4-hectare Bellagio Hotel Lake in Las Vegas.
Unlike the crooners of Las Vegas, though, it’s an eclectic computer-controlled programme of contemporary Arabic and world music blasted across the 13-hectare Burj Khalifa Lake. From a network of powerful but discreet loudspeakers comes Michael Jackson’s Thriller, then Ishtar Poetry by Furat Qaddouri, the renowned Iraqi musician playing the Qanoon, plucked like a harp.
Under the surface of the lake, high-pressure super-shooters – called oarsmen or water robots by the WET engineers – are building up the pressure to fire solid jets of water up to 150 metres in the air from a variety of high-tech nozzles. At the correct split-second, the jets are released, in perfect synchronisation, and a series of loud booms echoes across the lake. The sequence of booms, a surprise for the first-time visitor, parallels the sequence of jets, but always a moment or two behind.
The overall effect of this feat of pipe engineering is mesmerising. The fountains dance and sway as the choreographed columns burst upwards under pressure, then the water scatters and falls back to the lake in slow motion. After O mio babbino caro by Kiri Te Kanawa comes Ishy Bilady, the national anthem of the United Arab Emirates, and the show ends.
It’s 7pm now and the guests at the world’s first hotel designed and developed by Giorgio Armani are arriving in every possible luxury car you can imagine. Most are black or silver sedans. Rolls-Royces. Bentleys. Mercedes. But there are also Lamborghinis and Bugattis, Maseratis and Ferraris. Some are bright pink, gold or hot-rod red. The guests emerge from their cars in tuxedos and ballgowns, in brilliant white dishdashas – the full-length tunic of Arabic men in the region – and there are women floating in beautiful flowing abayas. The guests cross the hotel’s brown marble floors, imported Eramosa granite from Canada, to greet other guests in the lobby. And together the friends, colleagues and family groups make their way to the Armani ballroom for the Middle East Business Leaders Awards.
The floor show in the ballroom is stunning. Whirling dancers from head to foot in a kind of white satin, with long streamers and ringlets dangling from their headdresses, turn ultraviolet when the ballroom is plunged into darkness. But the main event is what everyone’s come for. The awards ceremony itself. After the awards made to young leaders in the region, for organisations such as HSBC Middle East and Air Asia, for women in business and for organisations in different sectors, there comes the announcement of Masterclass CEO of the Year. And for the Makhzoumi family, seated at one of the central tables in the Armani ballroom, it’s the recognition of what they have always believed, but never flaunted. That Rami Fouad Makhzoumi, son of Fouad and May Makhzoumi, and the president and CEO of Future Pipe Industries, is the best CEO in the region and very likely one of the best CEOs in the world.
As Rami steps on stage to receive the award, you can see he is probably the shortest man on the platform by a good few inches. Even so, you can tell from a distance he has great charisma. It’s not in his stylish shawl lapel tuxedo and straight black tie. Or even because he sports a (for him) conservative, almost bald hairstyle. It isn’t that he’s close but not clean shaven like a film star. The charisma is in his eyes. In his easy, warm smile. In his firm handshake with His Excellency Abdulrahim Hassan Naqi, secretary general of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce in the Gulf region and chairman of the judging panel. ‘You are a role model for the men and women of the region,’ says His Excellency.
The role model, Rami Fouad Makhzoumi, steps to the microphone and says to the 300-strong audience of the Middle East’s elite business executives: ‘It is an honour and privilege to have received this prestigious award. The roots of our group stem from this region, and the Middle East is and will always be, our main focus. The region thrives on successful entrepreneurship and strong leadership and we look to continue supporting the young entrepreneurs and leaders in this region to succeed and advance.’
Today is 17 April 2011 and Rami is at the pinnacle of his career to date, with everything to look forward to. He’s speaking of the future, as usual, and offering his support to the entrepreneurs and leaders of the region. At the centre of his life are his three young children and a wife – his ‘soul-mate’, he says – and a loving family. Beyond that is his extended family of cousins, friends, close colleagues and indeed the employees in his businesses. Rami really does believe his company is like a family.
Which makes it heart-breaking to relate that within six days of speaking those words Rami Makhzoumi dies in the Clemenceau Medical Center in Beirut. A blood vessel in his head bursts while he is working out at the gym and the internal bleeding and complications following surgery prove too much for his body. Rami is 33 years old. He dies at 1pm on Saturday afternoon.
It is 23 April 2011.
This is a book we never expected or wished to write. But there is some logic to our being its authors. Our connections with Rami began and ended with books.
We first met Rami Makhzoumi together at the launch of our first management book, Leadership Unplugged, at London Business School in 2003. Earlier that year Rami had taken an executive education programme run by Steven at London Business School – the Young Professionals Programme, since renamed the Emerging Leaders Programme.
And in 2011 we were discussing jointly writing a book with Rami.
So on the day Rami died, when Steven was writing a letter of condolence to Fouad and May Makhzoumi, Rami’s parents, it seemed logical to suggest that, when their thoughts turned to a legacy for Rami, perhaps they would consider inviting us to help produce a book, ‘in part as a biography of a wonderful man, in part as a leadership lesson for generations of young men and women to come’.
Less than three hours later, in the depths of his sorrow, Fouad found the energy to write back:
Dear Steven, thank you for kind words, Rami was an inspiration for all of us and he was one of a kind. I love your idea and I was thinking along the same lines… Saba Zreik and Omar Ashur will be in London on Wednesday 27 April and it may be a good idea to meet them. Thank you again and let’s pray for Rami where he is in a better place.
It was difficult to believe Fouad’s speed and decisiveness, but that’s very definitely a mark of the man. So a few weeks later Steven found himself sitting in the boardroom of the Future Group, in the heart of the Dubai International Financial Centre, to hear the family’s and the business’s plans to establish a number of legacy projects in Rami’s name. There would be a chair at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and a number of endowments at the International College, also in Beirut. But what of a book? ‘It shouldn’t be academic or a manual,’ says May Makhzoumi, Rami’s mother. ‘It should be a celebration,’ says Imad Makhzoumi, Rami’s uncle. ‘It’s a weighty task,’ says Matt Barton, Future’s legal counsel.
A few months later, having agreed an outline for the book with the family, Steven is invited to Beirut on what would have been Rami’s 34th birthday. It’s the formal inauguration of the Chair in Corporate Governance in Rami’s name at the AUB. In the main auditorium Steven announces the launch of the book, encouraging the invited audience to ‘tell us your stories’. The book is intended to be a collection of stories through which we can see Rami’s larger story, as it plays out across the world and through the people he most cared for.
And that’s what you’re reading now. The CEO’s Journey is our attempt to capture, in the words and stories of those who knew Rami best, Rami’s journey. He himself often described his life as a journey, and through working on this book we can appreciate that, although it was an incredibly short journey, it was very full. Many of the people we spoke to made the point that in just 33 years Rami accomplished more than most people who live a full three score years and ten.
There’s something else we want to say here, about how we’ve written this. The CEO’s Journey is unashamedly a celebration and a business biography at the same time. So we’ve done our best not to make this a dull ‘he did this, he did that’ kind of book. Instead we’ve relayed the stories we’ve gathered in a present-tense, narrative style, to convey the impression of what it was like to be in a room with Rami. In addition, because Steven occasionally appears as a character in the story, we’ve written the book from Steven’s point of view as a singular author. This just makes it easier to read, even though Jacqueline shared the interviewing and the writing duties. Finally, but purely for reasons of space, we’ve condensed and combined a few stories together and we’ve moved a few conversations in time and space. Having to craft a coherent representative narrative of just 100,000 words from almost half a million words of material makes some editing inevitable.
Of course, we haven’t been able to include everything we’ve been told about Rami, or everything that research has revealed to us. But you will be able to learn still more about the man from the RamiMakhzoumi.com website over the coming weeks and months.
Finally, in writing any book, but especially a book of this kind, we need to offer our thanks. This has not been a solitary endeavour.
To Fouad and May Makhzoumi, Rami’s parents – thank you for introducing Rami Makhzoumi to the world. Our lives have been enlarged as a result. Secondly, thank you for commissioning this book and for your support in paving the way for our interviews with family, friends, colleagues, suppliers and customers. Thanks also for the freedom to write this book as we wished, which we hope is how Rami would have wished his story told.
To May, Yasmeena and Nour Makhzoumi, Rami’s children – you only spent a little time with your father. We hope this book can be a time machine for you and that through the stories relayed here you can feel a little closer to him. We know he loved and cherished you above all else.
To the Makhzoumi family, Rami’s sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts – we honour you with this book. It can never bring him back, but we hope that it reminds you of some of the times you shared together.
To everyone we interviewed and who spared us so much time and energy – thank you. Your stories have helped us to understand Rami better and to tell his story. We hope we’ve done your stories justice in this telling.
To Dr Assem Safieddine at the American University of Beirut – thank you for crafting your Afterword and for explaining about the work of the Rami Makhzoumi Chair in Corporate Governance. We wish you and the team all the best in your important and ongoing work.
To everyone who helped along the way, who organised, or arranged, cajoled or persuaded – thank you. (You know who you are.)
To Zanjeer Salam and the FPI Corporate Communications Team – for the inspired cover design based on Rami’s last professional shoot, for the wonderful chapter spreads and how you treated them and for the typographic design and setting throughout, thank you. The Makhzoumi family logos on the cover and Rami’s personal logo used to open each chapter are amazing. Zanjeer, we know Rami meant a lot to you. But we also know that you and the team meant a lot to him.
To International Printing Press (IPP) – thank you for the work you did on this important book. It means a lot to us all that you finished it off so well in spite of our punishing schedule!
To Saif Alwan – you are perhaps Rami’s best friend and if there is one person without whom this book would not have appeared it’s you. Thank you for everything you did to make this a reality.
In trying to juggle the stories of more than 70 people it’s inevitable that inconsistencies and errors will have crept in. These mistakes are all ours. Please get in touch with any factual amendments you’d like to see and we’ll do our best to correct them at the earliest opportunity.
When ending his conversations with Steven, Rami always signed off with the words ‘Change the world’. It started out as a joke at London Business School. But it became a regular feature of calls and conversations. If this book is to do more than simply recount Rami’s life, we hope it’s this – that somehow, through your own journey ahead, you somehow ‘change the world’. We think Rami would like that.
Jacqueline Moore and Steven Sonsino