Mohed Altrad, a Bedouin Who Flees the Desert, Becomes Billionaire, Wins Coveted 2015 EY Award

eiffel eyeful, photo by iwc photo

eiffel eyeful, photo by iwc photo

MARSEILLE, France - How many of us could walk through the desert to sit outside of school because we had such a thirst for knowledge? Would you be motivated enough to gaze through a hole in mud and tin roof schoolhouse and stare at a chalk board covered in symbols which meant nothing to you because you have never seen writing?

What if in addition to this, you knew that everyday after a several hour walk home that you would be beaten upon your arrival because your destiny was predetermined to be a sheepherder? Well not only did he learn to write, he excelled.

The man who did all of this and more is Mohed Altrad, a Syrian son of a Bedouin girl who was either 12 or 13-years-old when she was raped for the second time by his father who was the leader of their nomadic tribe. It was into these horrific circumstances that Altrad and his elder brother were born. In interviews, Altrad says that he doesn't remember his mother's name, but he does know that she died giving birth to him.

His elder brother was eventually murdered by his father, leaving Mohed to be raised by his maternal grandmother just outside Raqqa, which like many towns and cities in Syria, it is now controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS), but back then it was the place he called home.

Because his family were Bedouin tribesmen wandering the deserts of Syria, they kept no records of births or deaths so Altrad has no idea of his true age. According to interviews, he surmises that he is perhaps as old as 65, but this figure is not as important to him as all that he has achieved in remembrance of his mother. The pursuit of this promise to honor her has culminated in his becoming a billionaire, but the prize that has allowed him the visibility to publicly honor her was in being chosen as the 2014 French Entrepreneur of the Year.

As a result of the French Entrepreneur of the Year, he was nominated to represent France in the annual Ernst and Young World Entrepreneur of the Year competition. This year, 52 national award winners were nominated, but Altrad won the coveted 2015 award. Of course his ascent wasn't immediate, but his success was a consequence of his thirst for knowledge, his persistence, and triumph over the limitations set for him by his grandmother.

Once she died he was free to fully engage in the pursuit of his academic studies. He was just 17-years-old when he was awarded a scholarship by a Syrian foundation which granted him admission to the University of Kiev in Ukraine. He packed what little possessions he had and traveled to Europe where he knew no one and didn't speak the language. Upon his arrival he was told that the course was full, so he traveled to France. He recounted how he arrived during the coldest of winter days in France, unable to speak French, and with little means to support himself. He sometimes ate only one meal a day but this did not deter him. It seemed that the hardness of life in the Syrian desert prepared him to face any type of difficulty, and gave him the fortitude to withstand hardship and persevere.

In France he became fluent in French and matriculated into one of the oldest universities in Europe located in the city of Montpellier. There he pursued his undergraduate studies, eventually receiving his PhD in Computer Science. According to interviews, upon graduation he began to look for a business venture and as if destined, while sitting in a cafe he picked up a newspaper and noticed an advertisement from the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company which was seeking engineers to help design the infrastructure for their burgeoning oil and gas industry.

He made the decision to take the job because it would provide him with the opportunity to save money and perhaps to buy a business. Like other foreign nationals who even today work in the Middle East, they are paid astronomical salaries with nothing to spend the money on. Upon the completion of his contract, he returned to France in search of a business venture into which he could invest. He and his partner worked on and brought to market one of the first laptop computers.

These laptops were large and clunky, and according to interviews "were about the size of a suitcase." They were initially used as the precursor to the airport terminal computers that announce flight arrivals and departures. At that time he and his partner lacked the resources to scale and thus sold the company and continued to save money. Always in search of opportunities, he considered and discarded ventures into which he could invest. One day he was approached by a man who had been trying to sell his bankrupt scaffolding business, thus Altrad and his partner bought the faltering business in 1985.

Despite knowing nothing about scaffolding a decidedly non-tech business, he and his partner decided to assume the risk, plus the investment was relatively small. Altrad capitalized his investments by buying and selling not only scaffolding, but also everything that might be of benefit to builders. This included the expansion into the tool market, machinery, and cement etcetera. He also invested in the workforce by providing excellent employee benefits that made them happier and thus more productive. His company philosophy incentivize his employees to take ownership of their work product and feel like they were valuable to the company.

In the past 30 years under his management the Altrad Group has grown to 17,000 employees, with customers in 100 countries, and 170 subsidiary companies. According to their website the company "sells and hires out equipment for building and public works and for industry (mixers, scaffolding, tubular equipment)." An amazing feat for a non-technical company, especially one that was birthed from such meager beginnings but now has $2bn (£1.3bn) in turnover and $200m annual profit.

In a BBC interview Altrad said that he sleeps less than 4 hours a night. He doesn't know why; however from the outside looking in, it is because of this drive and creativity that he is a prolific businessman and a successful writer who has two books in publication. One which is autobiographical and the other which is read in schools across France. Between the two he has sold millions of copies.

In a time when xenophobia is at its height both in Europe where illegal African immigrants arrive daily, or in America where people like the Republican candidate Donald Trump espouse hatred and vitriol toward Mexican immigrants and garners a large following; Mr. Altrad is a shinning example of what it truly means to be an immigrant. A citizen who uses their culture and history to enrich the society into which they assimilate, and as a consequence makes the country stronger and better because of their tenacity, vision, and drive to succeed despite all odds.

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF: @ ayannanahmias
LINKEDIN: Ayanna Nahmias