Excerpt from Chapter 4, CEO Succession – Winning Them Over
When Fouad makes the suggestion in 2003, Rami is taken aback. If not shocked. They’re sitting in his father’s corner office at the company’s main factory in Dubai. ‘It’s time for you to consider becoming CEO,’ says his father.
But to understand the significance of Fouad’s suggestion for Rami we need to go back a couple of years, to 2001.
In 2001 Fouad has just promoted Rami to chief operating officer of Future Pipe. For the past two years he’s been in and out of Dubai, learning about pipes – how the different grades and brands are manufactured and what they can do. He’s also spent another period of time on the campaign trail with his father, meeting Jean Chrétien, the prime minister of Canada, and other world leaders.
Following his promotion to COO, Rami continues to be based in London and his new wife Mirna joins him there. But almost as soon as the two are united, Rami leaves again on an extensive tour of Future Pipe’s plants and sales offices around the world. Once that’s over he begins a wide-ranging tour of duty in almost every department in the business. He’s away from London for another extended period of time.
As well as his personal office in London, Rami has an office in Dubai – he’s there so often. And it’s in Dubai one day he decides the company website and brochures need a facelift. He calls round, finds a company he likes and brings them in. But almost immediately he sees a bigger picture. ‘I like what you do, and I want a stake in your company,’ he tells them. The partners like the bigger picture and sell him a stake in their company, 13th Studios. It’s Rami’s first entrepreneurial investment outside Future Pipe.
Rami’s vision is to build Dubai as the production centre for the media company and to open sales offices in London and beyond. So now he needs a manager for the London office. He calls best friend Saif Alwan in London, now working at consultants CAP Gemini: ‘Are you ready to move now?’
Since 1999 when he left college, Rami has constantly called Saif, saying ‘Join me in Future Pipe.’ But Saif has persistently refused. ‘Let me go and learn something first. So that I can actually bring something with me.’
But this time when Rami asks ‘Are you ready to move now?’ he’s rewarded. Saif says ‘I’m ready now.’
Years later Saif explains his thinking: ‘Rami was patient. And two years in, the time had come. The opportunity had come. There was a role for me in London to do exactly what I knew and what I had learned during my time at CAP Gemini. So I handed in my notice. I finished work one Friday and I started on Monday in the Future Pipe office in Kensington High Street.’
After a briefing in Dubai, the London start-up gets under way, securing orders. But eight months in Saif calls Dubai with difficult news. ‘Rami, the vision is good, but we’re not getting anywhere. The presence of Future Pipe as the major client is proving to be counter-productive.’ No matter how many orders the sales team brings in, the company’s main focus is to serve FPI. ‘And that’s OK. But if you want to expand then we really need to fix this.’ Rami’s instant response is ‘Are you ready to move to Dubai?’
Saif doesn’t know how to put it. But ‘Umm, I’ve met a girl,’ he eventually blurts out. ‘So give me a couple of months. I need to propose.’
In three months, now engaged to be married, Saif moves to Dubai to manage 13th Studios. And a few months later, Rami buys out the partners and rebrands the company. Saif ponders the new name, Ayam Creative. Ayam is the Arabic word for ‘days’, in the nostalgic sense of ‘days gone by’. And maybe it’s no mistake that the company’s first manager is Saif Alwan, Rami’s best friend from Hill House, the time that both of them acknowledge as the best days of their lives.
But now Saif is Rami’s employee, not just a friend. And he learns first-hand what it’s like to be led by Rami. ‘It was hard work because we were a very small team,’ says Saif. ‘But within 12 months we had gone from quite hefty losses to break even. Which was great.’
And the best thing? ‘Rami just left me to it. Which was wonderful. I knew what I was doing. I enjoyed what I was doing. And we’d have a work-based meeting once every three weeks. It was tough because I had never been in that position before – learning about budgeting and everything. Because I was responsible for everything pretty much. So the learning curve was vertical. But it was great. Rewarding.’
Saba Zreik, Future Pipe’s VP of finance and legal affairs at the time, compares the different management styles of father and son. ‘Fouad is a pusher. Rami is much more of a delegator.’
Working with Fouad means being alert 24 hours a day. ‘If you have a big assignment, be sure that he’ll remind you every day.’ Rami was different. ‘Maybe I should say he was very British. In the sense that he let you work. I’m not saying he would let you do whatever you want – he would set a timeline. He’d say “how long do you need”. But you should meet these timelines.’
In 2002, a year after their marriage, Rami and Mirna are blessed with a daughter, named May, and Rami is immediately besotted with her. ‘She’s beautiful,’ he says at their London home. He loves being a father. And in a few months’ time, early in 2003, Mirna falls pregnant again.
It’s also early in 2003 when Fouad calls his son to Dubai for the pivotal meeting.
‘I have a suggestion for you,’ he tells Rami at the company’s main factory in Dubai. ‘It’s time for you to consider becoming CEO.’
For three years now Rami has been touring company plants, across the Middle East and Europe, and he’s been talking at length with dozens of senior executives, finding out more and more about the business. But to lead it? As CEO? That’s a different thing altogether. There isn’t much that surprises Rami. He’s laid-back and cool almost all the time. But this is huge. Shocking.
There seems to be a long gap in the conversation before Fouad speaks again. Rami has worked through all the departments of the company, Fouad says. He’s the chief operating officer now and he’s done well. ‘I can see that you are maturing in your position very fast. And when you did your advanced degree the idea was that you wanted to learn more advanced techniques, how to be able to turn this business around. And now I am convinced that you have the maturity to do so, then I figure… I will pass to you my wisdom and my experience, but you know the tools of the 21st century. That combination will really get us where we want to go. I believe you can do it.’
Rami isn’t so sure. He’s just turned 25. Isn’t that too young? But Fouad is certain. ‘I was 25 when I was in charge of the family,’ he says. ‘And for you I will still be here.’
Later his mother explains to him that Fouad would not risk the firm if he did not believe Rami was capable and had the potential to lead it. ‘Fouad groomed you into it slowly. And he can see it will work. There was a time, of course, you were a wild teenager. And who would think that you would settle down to be what you have become? But you settled early.’
Rami recognises how much it would help his father if he stepped into the CEO’s role. Fouad’s attempt in 2000 to win a seat in the Lebanese parliament as an independent did not succeed. Now he has a vision to launch a new political party, the National Dialogue Party. If the day-to-day operation of the business were being looked after by his trusted son, his attention could be given wholeheartedly to creating and launching the party. Rami can see this and he can see what it means to his father. His empathy he gets from his mother. Part inherited, part learned.
Nevertheless, while he’s happy to be in the business, he isn’t ready to lead it. ‘Can you give me a little time to think about this?’ he asks, and Fouad agrees. Fouad understands the psychology that says you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
When Rami leaves his father’s office he walks around the plant in Dubai. He’s played here since he was a child. He’s walked around it many times. He looks at the machines he knows so well. ‘But all this really doesn’t interest me,’ he says to no one in particular. He can’t see the story in pipes. He can’t see how pipes will change the world.