Mohed Altrad, used with permission
Source: Mohed Altrad, used with permission

The name Mohed Altrad may not ring a bell, but he is without a doubt the most fascinating “rags to riches” story I have ever heard. The French billionaire, owner of the Altrad Group, and 2015 Winner of the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year Award started his life in the Syrian desert as part of a nomadic tribe. At the age of four his father gave him away to his grandmother who forbade him to attend school. However, his tenacity was far more powerful than the rules of his guardians and his curiosity was far stronger than the confines of the nomadic life.   

I had the opportunity to sit down for a private one-on-one with Altrad in Monte Carlo this past June. The following is an edited excerpt from that conversation:

Michael Woodward: When you were growing up in the Syrian desert when did you realize you wanted to leave to find something more?

Mohed Altrad: It was probably at the age of four or five. I honestly don’t know my age. When I emigrated to France I didn’t even know what birthdates to put on my passport, so they chose dates for me. When you are born in the desert there is no office where you declare children. You just keep moving. There is no electricity and no buildings. It’s a primitive life. 

At age five you don’t really have plans. It was just intuition. My intuition was that I am in a tough situation. My mother has died, my father is harsh with me and he killed my brother. I didn’t want to admit the situation, but I refused to accept it. It became a mindset  

Slowly I tried to build up myself and establish a base. That’s really what I’ve been doing all my life.

MW: What made you believe education was the right opportunity to find your way out? 

MA: It was by exception. I had nothing else. There was no window, no door, no light. You have your back against the wall. You have nothing and all of a sudden you see a light and you go to it. Education was that light for me.

When you wake up and you have nothing to eat the whole day it’s tough. It’s emotionally difficult to accept. This gives you a very strong base to face any situation. When I moved to France I was able to get a scholarship of 20 euro a month. It doesn’t sound like much but I accepted that was enough. I could live with this because I lived with less than this in the desert. 

I went through this difficult path. I have this determination. The easy thing would have been to drop out and give up but I didn’t. Now I am here with you.

MW: How is your company a reflection of you, your experiences and your values?

MA: We have a 300-page charter that started out on a napkin. One of the elements is whenever something is not needed it’s not needed. That’s optimization. When you walk through the desert and you have a cup of water, believe me you will be very careful to keep it. That’s economics. You can do a lot with a little if you have to.

I have no assistant for example. I don’t need one. If someone wants to reach me they can send me an email personally. If someone is writing me it’s because they have something to say.

The whole organization is flat. I have just 20 people in management (for a 22,000-person organization). We have so few because I trust people. Our role is to establish budget, coordinate, and set targets. Our people manage themselves. 30% of our profits go back to our people.  

MW: How did you find the right leaders to fit with your style and philosophy

MA: First there is not a lot of turnover. We have a strong base. Like in football you have 11 players. If you replace one you have to make sure to get the new player included in the philosophy.

To start we ask them to read carefully our charter. We ask them to sign that they have read it and accept it. In the first six months they have to provide an update to the charter. We have a discussion about this so as to avoid any misunderstanding and interpretation. This is how we grow.     

We also want to avoid any conflicts of interest. They have to understand solidarity. Solidarity is different from generosity. Generosity is different because you are helping me, but don’t expect anything. I have solidarity with you because I have interests with you. If we work good together this will reflect on both of us. If we work badly together this will reflect on us both negatively.

MW: How do you deal with conflict?  

MA: I have no enemies in life. When someone behaves badly with me, which happens, I have to be strong. When someone behaves a certain way they have their reasons. You have to understand this. They may be wrong, but you still must listen. You hope one day that person will look back and understand the way they behave doesn’t help.  

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