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Tue 9 Oct 2007 11:42 AM

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Desert harvest

Agthia CEO talks about his vision for the foodstuff and mineral water group's expansion.

Ilias Assimakopolous has recently begun to pursue an unfulfilled ambition of many years; he is learning to fly. The traits that manifest themselves in the course of learning this new hobby can be directly translated to his personal business practices. He elucidates; "When I took off, I knew that I had to bring this plane down, no matter what. It's a personal challenge and it also gives you a perspective on how you deal with life and business. You just have to do it; you have to be strong, focused, rational and come up with the solutions." His business plan for Agthia genuinely exhibits the clarity of thought and careful preparation that his airborne pastime demands.

Both Agthia and Assimakopolous are relative newcomers in their present roles. The former was incorporated in 2004 whilst the latter has headed up operations for only a year. Their youthful positions do not give adequate indication of each one's underlying experience and prowess though. Agthia has two portfolio companies which have been in operation for some time: Grand Mills produces Flour and Animal Feed and has done so since 1978; Al Ain Mineral Water has been operational since 1990 and is the second largest bottled water brand in the UAE. Assimakopolous has worked for international brands Gillette and Reckitt Benckiser over a career spanning 17 years.

I create empowerment, room for people to take initiative.

Working in large corporations has been professionally advantageous. "Development, competitiveness and integrated marketing success, exceptional sales and huge merchandising presence have been the trademarks of Gillette and key factors of success.

But these are best practices that someone can transfer to new businesses like Agthia", he tells me. Moreover, his familiarity with the global market place stands in his favour: "I've worked in five countries so I've had to take in many cultures, many people, many heritages, many economies and many diverse purchasing powers. So obviously this gives a tremendous experience in dealing with the international business environment."

A global perspective merged with his precise judgement has surely been one of the drivers of the latest development in Assimakopolous' career. Though looking to expand throughout the region, Agthia are first aiming for sizeabcompany growth in the coming months, an ambition well supported by someone with Assimakopolous' career history. I am told the main theme of this plan: "As we look forward, our goal as a board is to make Agthia a powerhouse in the food and beverage industry in the UAE and in the region by bringing in innovative and quality products to our consumers."

The strategy for this expansion has been planned with military meticulousness, with the priorities being streamlining and diversification. In the short-term, improving efficiency is key, especially if the brand is to compete with its larger competition. The intention is to secure the base business by optimising pricing opportunities and streamlining operations in order to maximise profit margins.
Long-term, money will be ploughed back into developing what he calls, "margin enhancing and synergistic product categories". This means moving upstream into processed foods and entering into arrangements with other companies to advance growth. Explaining this decision, Assimakopolous tells me that, "The bulk of our business is in commodities, flour and feed, and these historically have very low margins. Obviously we can make them generate higher profits with what we have now but clearly acquisitions or mergers are part of our menu of options." One such arrangement has already been struck with Mother Parkers', a Canadian tea and coffee company, to enhance the beverages side of the company.

The language that Assimakopolous uses throughout the interview to express his business objectives betrays his rigorous scientific approach towards growth. "We have launched a tracking study so we will be monitoring on an ongoing basis the health of the brand" he divulges, demonstrating his systematic methods. A barrage of statistics comes easily to him, matching the business theory so effortlessly espoused, the legacy of his MBA studies in Boston. This is indubitably the root of his career accomplishments: nothing is left to chance; every business move is scrupulously designed and executed.

This tallies with the approach that he takes towards corporate culture. He sees it as his role as leader to, "blend all the cultures that these employees bring from their past experiences, and to create the new culture." Within the culture now fostered within the firm, he delegates a great deal of autonomy to his upper management. Yet he insists that, "this doesn't mean that I'm not aware of what is happening. I create empowerment, room for people to take initiative but at the same time, I dedicate the time to know what is happening in the business." It is a sagacious course of action that appears to be yielding results with a 30% sales value increase recorded for Al Ain alone, according to a report published this year.

All of the profitable development is set within a context of responsibility for the community in which they operate. From the outset, Assimakopolous is determined to emphasise the onus they place on wider concerns, "We are very conscious about the environment." And by the environment, he means the entire community associated with their theatre of operations. One of the more unique ways of pursuing this goal is through developing a flour product especially for the diabetic. Odd though this choice may seem, it is again a carefully executed decision. "We are very sensitive to diabetic health requirements. A quarter of the population suffers with diabetes so we are in the process of coming up with new products", he tells me. It is not viewed just as a compassionate impulse but as a core and tactical means of staying ahead of the competition: "We plan to stand out from the competition by building a competitive organisation and culture fitting to a publicly listed company, and by being an active member of the community in which we operate." Given the importance of corporate reputation in the modern climate, it is another shrewd policy.

Directly related to this awareness of the modern climate is the task of identifying and staying ahead of market trends and dynamics. Assimakopolous professes that this is one of the most challenging aspects of the job. But it is not one that he is ill-equipped for, given his dogmatic approach to business practice. In fact, it is the challenge of the job that he enjoys the most: "The Agthia challenge for me is very big, it is exceptionally fulfilling, both professionally and personally, and clearly my ambition in terms of my team is to build the best powerhouse in the Middle East - for it to be recognised as the best food and beverage company."

And where next? "The problem is, ambitions change and you personally acquire new experiences so it's quite a dynamic process", he says. "The next challenge will happen at the right time and at the right place and for the right reasons so I don't speculate too much on the future." If his track record and thorough methods stand for anything, his confidence is well-founded.

Name:Ilias Assimakopoulos.

Age:45.

Title:CEO Agthia.

Length of time in position:1 year.

Previous role:Regional GM for Reckitt Benckiser, MENA.

Core values:integrity, commitment, hardwork, respect for people, achievement, directness.

Best piece of advice:hard work combined with intelligence always pays back.

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