By Soren Billing
The Entrepreneur of the Year Awards brought together some of the region's best and the brightest.
Last week's Ernst & Young Middle East Entrepreneur of the Year Awards brought together some of the best and the brightest business talents in the region.
Sixteen of the region's best and brightest met in Jordan last week to vie for Ernst & Young's Middle East Entrepreneur of the Year award. Previous winners include John P Mackey, co-founder of natural food retailer Whole Foods, who won the US competition in 2003; and Guy Laliberté, founder and chief executive of Canada's Cirque du Soleil, who won the global competition last year.
This year's Middle East award went to Sobhi Batterjee, president and chief executive of the Saudi German Hospitals Group (SGHG), the largest healthcare developer in the MENA region. Batterjee started the group with a capital of $15m in 1988.
Over a three-day period, he and 15 other nominees were grilled by a reality TV-style panel of judges who look at seven different criteria: global reach, financial performance, innovative thinking, giving back to society, entrepreneurial spirit, strategic direction, and their personal integrity and ability to influence people around them.
"I was honoured and flattered that I was nominated. I think it's a fantastic event," Rami Alturki, president of Saudi Readymix, said before the gala dinner where the winners were announced. There was a healthy sense of competition among the nominees, but no Apprentice-style drama, he added.
"I don't think people are going nuts about it and trying to be conniving to try to win it," he laughed. "It's a great group of people, very accomplished. They have a good sense of what they have achieved, but still everybody likes to be rewarded."
Alturki hopes his taking part will be an asset when the company is recruiting. Saudi Readymix has been expanding aggressively since he took the helm of the company in 2004 and finding the right people has not always been easy.
"The best and brightest are going to want to attach themselves to the best and brightest companies. That is why I am here. And if I win - even better," he said.
Nadia Al Dossary, chief executive and partner of Al Sale Eastern Company, a supplier of steel base scrap metal, was the only woman to be shortlisted this year. She has previously been named one of the 25 most influential businesswomen in the Middle East by the Financial Times, and this time, she bagged the Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year award.
"This time it was different. I was amazed to be selected among 15 male and prominent names in the Middle East," she said. Al Dossary is one of Saudi Arabia's most outspoken business leaders and appears regularly in the media, despite coming under criticism from conservatives.
"I personally insisted to be in the media for a very important reason, not to see my own face in the newspapers because I know that so many would never like it," she said. "But other women who are interested [in getting] here one day are not encouraged unless they see other women before them - especially if they come from a tribal family like mine."
Akram Al Agil, chief executive of Jarir Bookstores, one of the largest and most successful retailers in Saudi Arabia, admitted he found it hard to know where to start when the judges asked him a question because, as he put it, he's never before had to go to a job interview.
"I don't remember what I said. I just spoke my mind. So many things came into my head and I only had 30 minutes," he recalled with a smile.
Batterjee's SGHG now has five hospitals in Saudi Arabia and Yemen and 12 under construction or being planned in countries including the UAE, Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan and Syria. The group is developing a number of non-profit hospitals in association with Grameen Bank, Islamic Development Bank (IDB), GE and engineering firm CCC.
"Every company should have two lines of business," said Batterjee, winner on the night. "One - the main business - is the for-profit business. The other is to leverage the organisation's knowledge to come up with products and services that will serve the poor."Batterjee has also established several charities: Charity Blood Bank, Saudi Entrepreneurship Development Institute, Family Business Academy (FBA) and Health Management Research & Training Institute.
Business people are considered to be selfish and seen as only looking out for their own interests," he added. "That is not the case. Business people are good people."
Of course, the nominees are also likely to benefit directly from the recognition.
"The finalists themselves see a lot of benefits in this," said Fouad Alaeddin, managing partner of Ernst & Young in the Middle East.
"When they go for recruitment, just the fact that someone was an Entrepreneur of the Year finalist makes them more attractive. Even when they are trying to sell their services, it gives some kind of quality measure."