In 1970, when Mona Bawarshi made her way down to the Port of Beirut for her first day of work, she was in a minority of one.
“I think I must have been the only woman in an administrative position in the whole of that building,” she says. “My looks were unfamiliar, and my gender was completely out of context.”
However, Bawarshi was nothing if not well-prepared. She was, after all, joining the family firm run by her father, Abdul Salam Bou Azza El Gezairi. He set up the company, Gezairi Transport, back in 1945, and it quickly grew to become the Levant’s best-known shipping, logistics and freight forwarding outfit.
As her father’s only child, Bawarshi knew all along — in fact from elementary school upwards — that she was destined to work at Gezairi Transport. After completing her MBA she found herself working at the port, but in very different circumstances to which the industry now finds itself in. There were no computers, no warehouses, no containers and certainly no training manuals, meaning that she had to learn on the job, just like everyone else.
“I was nervous about the location, about the kind of work, but not nervous about the company — climbing up the ladder was the obvious solution, but I had to earn it,” Bawarshi says. “Back then, there was no way you could go to the internet and find out about the size of containers — how much you could put inside, and how to stack — it was all trial and error.
“Now you can learn in universities — they have degrees that specialise in this area. And after 43 years, I’m still there — I’m stuck with them and they are stuck with me.”
The genial chairwoman and CEO of Gezairi Transport may be “stuck” with the company, but it looks like she has done a pretty good job over the course of the last four decades or so. The privately owned company is headquartered in Beirut, but also has five offices in Syria, three in Iraq, two in Jordan, two in Turkey and a further site in Limassol, Cyprus.
It has expanded its services from shipping, air freight and freight forwarding to include activities such as projects and heavy lift work, packing and moving, and warehousing and distribution. Altogether, there are eleven companies now operating under the Gezairi brand. As a result of her work, Bawarshi was named in 81st position on the 100 most influential women in the Arab world by this magazine earlier this year.
But it wasn’t always easy. One of the firm’s key attributes was the fact that it was based in Beirut, a key transshipment hub for cargo that came into the port and was then off-loaded onto trucks that carried the freight from Lebanon to other areas of the Levant, plus Iraq and even the Gulf. As Gezairi Transport expanded, it quickly took the lion’s share of business.
“We became the authority in the Middle East,” Bawarshi recalls. “We had competitors in each individual country, but as a group we had no competitors.”
As a result, Gezairi was able to pick up significant business from the likes of the old USSR, where companies preferred to deal with a unified logistics provider, instead of signing up contracts with a raft of different outfits.
“I gained so much trust in myself that I used to tell clients when they first came to be interviewed that ‘you will be back’ [after speaking to Gezairi’s competitors],” Bawarshi says. “And they did. But things change, the market isn’t like it was when we were kings. You have to continue having a competitive edge.”
Bawarshi was also instrumental in bringing in new technologies to Gezairi’s operations.
“The first computer came in as an accounting system,” she says. “Another programme that I bought — which was during my father’s era — taught us how to properly stack trucks. You’d feed in the sizes of the boxes that you have, and it would give you the optimum loading. That was something. This was impressive at the time, but now it’s our bread and butter — it’s common.”
But other changes at Gezairi were brought about as a result of the long history of civil unrest in Lebanon. At one point in the 1970s, Beirut’s port was taken over by militias, forcing companies present at the facility to operate under their terms.
“We relocated,” says Bawarshi. “We didn’t want to work in this situation, and the port area was very, very dangerous. So we stopped working there, and moved our shipping agency over to Latakia, in Syria, where we have offices.”
Gezairi also routed much of its Iraqi cargo through the Jordanian port city of Aqaba, as well as opening a branch in Cyprus to handle Lebanese freight. It also launched an office in Switzerland to cope with clients in Europe, since communications in Lebanon had been disrupted.
“At one point, we had to leave, and you could operate from anywhere [within the Gezairi network] because in Beirut we had no business whatsoever,” Bawarshi adds.
As the years have passed, Gezairi has had to cope with other pockets of instability across its network, including as a result of the two Gulf wars, the Arab Spring, and — most recently — the current civil war in Syria.
“We’re still working in Latakia, we’re still working in Tartous, and during the war, life goes on,” Bawarshi says. “People still have to bathe and people still need to eat. Even if it becomes more dangerous, you still have to find ways of bringing in cargo, especially consumer goods.
“Through the years, I got to know many industrialists; each one found a niche and started working. Life continues. Now we’re suffering in Syria and we have suffered in Iraq. We’ve managed to go through another channel in Iraq, via Erbil — that’s the rich area now. Our Baghdad office is still there, but it’s doing minor business. You can’t do the same things each time, you have to adapt,” she adds.
As trade has become more globalised, and as international giants have expanded into more non-traditional markets, Gezairi’s position of dominance in the Levant has been marginally eroded over the years, but Bawarshi says the firm has gradually changed to meet the new reality.
“The era of sitting there and having people come to us — that’s over, and it’s been over for some time now,” she continues. “But we didn’t adapt very quickly — big companies, they take their time. The timing of the children joining was excellent in this regard.”
If Gezairi was a family firm when Bawarshi joined up, it is doubly so now. Her husband joined the company after she got married, and her three children and a son-in-law all sit on the board.
“My eldest daughter is taking care of HR, my son is in development, and my youngest daughter is looking after a shipping line that comes from Turkey, while my son in law is head of forwarding,” Bawarshi smiles. “And we’ve taken leaps since they joined — they’ve been growing with the company and making a lot of difference and change. I like to call this era the courageous era; they are certainly heading for new horizons.”
Most recently, the firm has focused on switching its headquarters away from its old building located on Sadat Street in Hamra. In keeping with the Gezairi founder’s philanthropic activities with regard to education, the firm sold the building to Lebanese American University, while simultaneously donating a school that was also on the premises to the institute.
For the future, Bawarshi says that she is satisfied with Gezairi’s current footprint, and has no plans for geographical expansion. “Maybe it’s on the mind of my kids, but I haven’t thought about it yet,” she adds.
And when asked whether it’s easier now for women in her industry to succeed, she smiles.
“They have different challenges,” she says. “I had a banner on my door which said general manager before I was promoted to chairman. People would come to the office, visit my room, open the door, apologise and then close it again. I would have to get up from my desk, open the door and say ‘yes, please, what do you want?’ The look on their face told me that they thought they had interfered with something personal.”
That may have been the case back in the 1970s, but as Gezairi Transport heads towards the third generation, the future certainly looks in good hands.
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