Top businessman was born in desert

The first Frenchman to win EY (Ernst & Young)’s World Entrepreneur of the Year has lived an extraordinary rags-to-riches tale. 

1 July 2015
By Oliver Rowland

Born in the Syrian desert about 65 years ago (he does not know exactly) to a mother who was raped by a tribal leader and who died in her teens, Mohed Altrad was rejected by his father and not encouraged to go to school. He went anyway, eventually anding lycée in Raqqa where, in the former French mandate, it was still possible to take the Bac, which he studied for in Arabic. 

He obtained the highest mark in the area and won a scholarship to study in France where he gained a computer science PhD, despite arriving knowing no French. 

After around a decade working for big firms, he co-founded a business with friends in 1984, making then ground-breaking ‘portable’ computers (weighing 20kg) which he then sold to buy a struggling scaffolding firm. 

Today Altrad is a world leader in scaffolding, cement mixers and wheelbarrows, with 17,000 employees and a turnover of €1.8billion. Mr Altrad, who took French nationality in his youth, was made an officer of the Légion d’honneur in 2014. He joined Forbes’ billionaires list this year. 

What does this mean to you? 

I feel all sorts of emotions. If France has won this prize for the first time, it’s something very important. To me, it’s symbolic that I’m an immigrant, a Bedouin from Syria, who is the only one to have this title in France. It’s a payback to France, proof that you can make it here, do something with your life, be integrated. 

You were pictured waving tricolores. Did you bring them? 

No, it was spontaneous. It was a dinner for 1,200, in Monaco, and there was a table per country. 
I had a dozen French people with me and members of my family. The organisers had put little flags on the table, so I spontaneously found myself with a flag in both hands to receive the prize, it wasn’t planned. It reflected my feelings about my story and France. 

It seems you were not held back by any racism? 

Racism and xenophobia exist here but no more than elsewhere. It’s a minority. There are some issues over immigration and integration, but there isn’t just one solution that fits all. Immigration issues in Montpellier are not the same as in Lille. You have to understand what’s happening in the local areas, and if you are in good faith and optimistic, then solutions can be found. 

Some claim that generally the French are not entrepreneurial 

I think that there is a cultural problem with business. 

People tend not to understand that the only place where wealth is created is in businesses. 

Bureaucracies don’t create economic wealth, they create papers and laws. And wealth created by businesses is spread around – some to the employees, some to the bureaucracies to pay salaries and to allow the government to build roads and airports. 

Business leaders who are doing this kind of thing every day, for their whole lives, deserve a bit of consideration, but to value and love someone, you have to understand them. You can’t love business if you don’t know it. 

I think there’s a feeling that creates a divide between business leaders and the rest of society. Business leaders and wealth interest people, they read about it and are fascinated. I get a lot of nice comments. In the street people congratulate me. I’m in demand by newspapers and television. But I feel there can be a bit of suspicion in people’s minds.

Suspicion towards business people and success? 

Yes, and we don’t really know how to interpret it. When people say to you: ‘you’re a billionnaire’... Well, yes, because I’ve created wealth and I’ve had the good fortune to succeed, etc. But there’s something that’s hard to define.

Something that shouldn’t be there. As far as I’m concerned my story is very well known; there’s nothing to hide. So, I think there’s this state of mind that exists, though it’s starting to change. 

I see it as a handicap. France is a rich country with great strengths, but I think we can do better. There are problems with politicians’ mentality towards businesspeople too. I’ve received thousands of texts and emails of congratulation, but very few from politicians. Not that I need them, or have specific demands to make. 

But your success suggests it is not hard to do business here? 

I’ve not said it’s easy. The problems with the mindset, especially policitians’, comes through in the heavy taxation on businesses. It’s a mistake to tax firms too much. Money to pay taxes has to come from the products we sell our customers so we’re obliged to increase our prices. 

There is a risk of becoming uncompetitive, compared to the Chinese who can produce things 1,000 times more cheaply. We could lose our market share. 

It’s a cultural thing, but I’m not pessimistic about it, things are changing, but we start off with this problem, which they don’t have in the UK. There’s no complex there about being rich, creating jobs, making money. However France only represents 20% of my turnover. Britain is my number one country in terms of export and we pay less tax there. 

Is it a country you’re fond of? 

Yes, my co-founder was English, Richard Alcock. He retired ten years ago and lives in the Middlesborogh area. A wonderful man, he helped me a lot. The father of my partner, Anne Catherine, is English - he came to France and married a Frenchwoman from the Lille area. I like Britain a lot. You have an affinity with certain cultures and in Britain I feel good, although that’s not to say I’m unhappy in France. 

What do you attribute your great business success to? 

The prize jury chose me out of around 55 people considered the best in their countries and I think there were three things that really counted for them. Firstly you’ve got to have a solid, well-established business. Then it must have real values. We make essential products that people need, so the customers are there, but that alone doesn’t explain my global success. It’s important that the 17,000 employees find fulfilment in their work, a bit of happiness and fun and that they should want to come to work in the morning. That’s the aim of our charter, which started off as notes 30 years ago and is now a book, called Pathways to the Possible. Thirdly, a firm is not isolated from society, which is why we fund around 30 charities. 

Wealth is not an objective in itself. I’ve seen a lot of people who want to become billionaires but aren’t. I think it is because I consider that becoming a billionaire is a result, not an objective. All the things I’ve mentioned come first, then perhaps you’ll become a billionaire. 

But did you deliberately aim to expand as widely as possible? 

Yes, I think, with my background, it’s my way of finding my place in French society and through that, in the world. It’s my way of doing it; you might have other ones. 

And I give a livelihood to thousands of families and I want that to continue, even after I’m gone, because if there’s one thing that’s sure it’s that we all die. A firm that’s stagnating or regressing will stop, but one that has momentum and dynamism, will go on. 

But life isn’t just about business and if you have the chance to do other things too, you should. 

I’m working on my fourth novel [his first, the mainly autobiographical Badawi, is taught in some lycées]. It takes me six years to write one. You must find ideas, sometimes you don’t feel inspired, it’s complicated. But in life, everything’s linked: busi­ness, the economy, literature, cul­ture, philosophy. Through my com­puter, I try to find something else. I also own a rugby club. In sport you find exceptional emotions and passion you don’t find anywhere else. At Montpellier Hérault, a top 14 club, we have a school that trains 1,000 young people a year, which helps give them structure. I try to do all kinds of things, to live my life in my way. 

Do you have any other advice for would-be entrepreneurs? 

Be confident, believe in yourself; also dare to do it. You’ve got to start somewhere; with something. I don’t mean start just any old how, but there’s a leap to take – go and do the paperwork and create a business. Find a product and a market and take people on. Don’t wait for the business to create itself. 

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