There can be no two opinions that Raouf Ghabbour (1953 – 2022) was an exceptional figure on the Egyptian industrial and business scene. He is most famous for assembly-manufacturing Korean Hyundai cars in Egypt; yet his firm, Ghabbour Auto Group (GB Auto) is a leading automotive company in the Middle East and North Africa. It has a thriving agricultural produce business, and is a non-bank financial services provider that offers financing options in Egypt to major corporations, small and medium enterprises, and to individuals eligible for micro credit.
The date 19 December marks the arbaein of the passing away of Raouf Ghabbour on 9 November, aged 69. Arbaein is literal for ‘forty’, and denotes 40 days on the death of a person; marking it is a tradition that goes back to ancient Egypt and was related to the process of mummification. Copts still maintain the tradition through celebrating Mass in memory of the deceased.
The life of Raouf Ghabbour, a man who rose from ‘ordinary’ Egyptian to renowned industrial magnate is by no means ordinary. Its successes, setbacks, lessons learnt, and extraordinary decisions taken, make for fascinating reading.
Watani honours the memory of this great man by reviewing his autobiography, written during winter and spring 2022, his last year on earth. Muthakiraat Raouf Ghabbour, Khibraat wa Wassaaya (Memoires of Raouf Ghabbour, Experiences and Advice) was published by al-Dar al-Misriya al-Lubnaniya in Cairo, in July 2022.
The book begins with an introduction on why Dr Ghabbour decided to write his memoirs. He goes back to meetings in 2013 with two senior officials in key banks in the UK and Switzerland, together with a group of Egyptian businessmen. Attempts to assess the aftermath of the tumultuous post-Arab Spring conditions on Egypt’s economy led to a prevalent mood of pessimism. But not for Dr Ghabbour. He firmly believed Egypt would rise again; he spontaneously talked of his personal experience of turning his companies from billion-dollars debt near-bankruptcy under turbulent political conditions, to industrial and financial strongholds. Once he concluded, he was unanimously asked to write all that down for future generations. Yet he never did. That is, until October 2021 when he was flying to the US for treatment for pancreatic cancer, accompanied by his eldest son Kamal and a friend. Even though he was tense and despondent, he started telling his son about the bold efforts he had done over the years to develop his companies, which his son would need to emulate. He ranted on, egged on by questions from his son and his friend, going into details such as the time he spent in prison and the friends he made there. As the flight neared landing, he had been animatedly talking for some 12 hours. His son smiled at him and said: “Dad, I feel you’re already so much better!” His friend insisted he should write it all down. “That time,” Dr Ghabbour said, “I decided I would.”
Raouf Ghabbour belonged to what he described as a middle class Coptic family of an Egyptian-Syrian father and an Egyptian mother. His father Kamal Ghabbour and his uncle Sadeq Ghabbour were successful traders and had formed their own company, Ghabbour Brothers, which always enjoyed an excellent reputation on the market. Raouf Ghabbour believed he got his love of and genius for trading from his Syrian ancestors; “People from the Levant are famous for being excellent traders,” he wrote, “whereas Egyptians are famous as capable professionals.”
He and his two sisters grew up in the Heliopolis suburb of Cairo. He went to the prestigious Jesiut school, a school famous for its strict discipline, which the young Raouf could not conform with. The result was that his mother was summoned by the school director to listen to a long list of rule-breaking committed by her son. “She listened quietly and attentively,” he writes, “then said one sentence: ‘Raouf will promise you and me that, starting today, he will be an exemplary pupil.’ I lived up to that.” He graduated with honours then went on to study medicine at Ain Shams University in Cairo. But while in his third year in medical school he decided against practising medicine, a few unfortunate incidents made him feel he was not made to be a doctor. Instead, he went into trade which, very early on, he took to like fish in water.
When Raouf was only seven, his parents decided to give him a weekly sum of PT15 for him to learn the value of money. He went to a confectioner’s shop where a tray-sized basbousa sold for PT60, and asked to buy a quarter of the tray. The attendant refused, saying he could only buy a slice, half a tray, or the full amount. The boy went home and asked the maid to lend him PT15 and he would give her back PT20 in a few days. She agreed, he bought a half tray of the delicacy, cut it into slices, and sold them individually to other children. His profit? 100 per cent. He paid back his loan, and launched a lifetime of almost non-stop trading. By the time he graduated from university, he already possessed a wealth of half-a-million Egyptian pounds.
Following graduation, Raouf went to work with his father and uncle at Ghabbour Brothers. Even though he wished to work in the vehicle branch of the business, he was assigned to the tyre branch; the company was the Egyptian agent of Bridgestone tyres. He began by learning all the details of the work, starting with the office and store workers. Next he went on to study the market requirements for tyres, singlehandedly creating a much needed data base that indicated the market could absorb larger quantities of tyres. His father and uncle were non-believing, but he managed to prove it to them. He later got to know that the large order they then placed with Bridgestone had secured the agency for Ghabbour Brothers.
Dr Ghabbour goes on to detail difficult times of huge losses to the family business owing to harsh economic conditions following the October War in 1973, and later the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. Yet he managed, through sound but innovative moves, to overcome the losses and turn the company back to profit. There had been an enormous temptation to flee the country and turn his back on the hardship, but he said to himself: “How could you accept to live the rest of your life a fugitive with a forever damaged reputation? Never! I’ll stay here and fight.”
Raouf Ghabbour married his wife Ola in 1978. In 1980, his son Kamal was born. Raouf decided to leave the family business, where he was just a well-paid employee, and found one of his own business.
It took off with huge success, bringing in vast profits. But he also went back to work with the family business, which was then in deep debt, upon invitation from his father and uncle. His uncle later handed him over the full control of the company. Sadeq Ghabbour died in 1988, with Ghabbour Brothers a thriving business led by his nephew. Raouf Ghabbour paid him a moving tribute: “He taught me so much … he was my uncle, my father, my leader, and my mentor.”
In 1990, Raouf left Ghabbour Brothers and struck it out on his own, forming a hugely profitable business and becoming the agent of Hyundai in Egypt. He had decided to go into industry and agriculture, believing them to be a more valuable legacy to leave for his children.
Time in prison
In 1991, Raouf Ghabbour was charged with bribery and detained pending investigation. He relates in his book how that predicament came about as he was paying a public servant money for a plot of agricultural land he had bought from him. It was a private deal, and part of it was informal, meaning there were no official documents to back it, and it looked like a bribe. Raouf was told that if he admitted it was a bribe, he’d be freed and the public servant indicted for accepting the bribe. If not, he would have to be kept in police custody, in prison, till it was proved there was no corruption involved. His lawyer told him they would indeed prove that, but the prolonged procedures would cost him some six months in prison. Raouf decided he could never send an innocent man to prison; he would go himself until proved innocent.
The chapter on the prison experience makes for some of the most interesting reading in the book. Dr Ghabbour relates how his wife and son paid him a visit and brought him, among other items, a Bible. It was the first time for him to read the Bible. He writes of his prison mates, most of whom were Islamists who had been charged with terrorist activity. He says that, steering clear of all religious discussion, they became very good friends, He tells of the heartwarming relation they enjoyed, their cooperation, their advice on specific matters, and their listening to him in “lectures” they asked him to deliver to them once they found out how well informed he was.
Dr Ghabbour writes that his time in prison made him read the Bible, attain inner peace, and re-prioritise his life by resolving to give unadulterated time to his family. In six months, he was acquitted and released. It was spring 1992.
Billions in debt
The 1990s were difficult years for Raouf Ghabbour. As his business expanded, it became almost impossible for him to run it as a one-man show as he had always done. Yet he was ill prepared to institutionalise it. At the same time, Egypt was facing fierce attacks by Islamic terrorists, culminating in the 1997 attack against tourists on Luxor’s West Bank, that claimed 62 lives. This incident effectively put an end to tourism, damaged the economy, and put businesses into huge debt. Raouf Ghabbour found himself in debt to the tune of one-and-a-half billion Egyptian pounds. His clients defaulted on their payments, and his factories halted. Banks were wary of offering credit, given that five top bank officials had been arrested and were on trial for corruption. The only bank that could be persuaded to reschedule Dr Ghabbour’s debt payments was the National Bank of Egypt, and that only under extremely harsh conditions. Dr Ghabbour describes a sleepless night in 2003 when he re-read the bank’s proposal and thought about it very carefully. He says that “if I decided to reject the proposal, my companies would go bankrupt which might cost me my health or my life; if I accepted, the chances of restarting the business were no more than 50 per cent.” Again, he had been earlier advised by friends to flee the country as others did; again, he absolutely rejected the idea. At dawn, he decided to accept the bank’s proposal.
But first, he took one crucial move: he set aside the sum needed for the university fees of his three children: Kamal, Dina, and Nader who were studying at US universities.
Helping hand from Korea
In 2003, Dr Ghabbour was in negotiations with Hyundai Motors to produce the Verna model in Egypt. But they were lame talks because he knew he did not have the money required to start production. In January 2004, the new regional director of Hyundai Motors, based in Dubai, visited Raouf Ghabbour and asked where matters stood. Dr Ghabbour candidly told him every detail about the crisis he was facing, how it came about, and how he was working to overcome it, even replying to a question about how he secured his children’s education. The Korean regional director teared up and promised to do everything he could to support Dr Ghabbour. The latter later learned that a complete picture had been relayed to Hyundai in Seoul, with a strong recommendation to give Ghabbour a year to deliver.
Under conditions of extreme difficulty, the Verna was produced and launched to a rave reception. Dr Ghabbour priced it at almost cost price in return for advanced payment. It worked perfectly, and was a wild success.
Ever since, GB Auto has been on a path to success. It has been a public traded company since 2007, and has grown and diversified into financial services.
Kamal Ghabbour, the eldest son, never wished to be in the automobile business, and is handling the agriculture business of the Ghabbour Group.
Dina Ghabbour, married to Sherif Abdel-Nour and mother of two, was instrumental in the IPO of Ghabbour Auto, and in institutionalising the firm. She handles communications and marketing.
Nader Ghabbour worked in the passenger car business of Ghabbour Auto.
The book’s last chapters tell of Ola Ghabbour (1960 – 2013), who Raouf describes as tender loving wife, especially during dark times.
He writes of her charity work with children and the sick, work which culminated in her founding the Children’s Cancer Hospital 57357 in Cairo.
He also writes of his own vast work at charity, which culminated into development endeavours in the form of establishing technology schools for secondary school students, to graduate competent, confident workers skilled at modern technology. To date, there are five Ghabbour schools, and expanding.
In 2018, Raouf Ghabbour could clearly see his son Nader had over the years gathered the required expertise and sense to become CEO. In March 2021, Raouf Ghabbour resigned and made the announcement that his son Nader was qualified to take over. The General Assembly of Ghabbour Auto approved.
“We left, Nader and I, and headed home. I clicked my phone to check my email. The first in the list informed me of my pancreatic cancer diagnosis. What timing! Just as I handed over to my son!”
Life well lived
In brief, this is how Dr Ghabbour viewed his life. “I always bet that I would be able to again get up, no .. to run and race, after I’d fallen. I also firmly believed in my country; even in the darkest times I bet on Egypt, and offered her all I could. Even when advised to flee Egypt because of bleak outlooks, I never did … and it was my optimistic vision of Egypt that finally prevailed.”
The spiritual aspect of Dr Ghabbour’s life may get brief explicit mention in the book, yet it possesses an unmistakable underlying significance. He writes of going back to praying in church following a near-lifetime of being away from regular worship. The decision came in April 2021 as he lay in a New York hospital, upon receiving a traditional Palm Sunday hymn sent to him by Bishop-General Anba Ermiya. It moved him to tears, carrying him to his early childhood years in church; he hastened to the nearest Coptic church where he prayed in the fullness of his heart.
“God had never left me; in fact He engineered every detail in my life for my good. Early on, I had been sceptical of some of the commandments of Jesus; specifically ‘whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also’. But time revealed to me that what Jesus said epitomised the greatest of humanitarian values; just look at Gandhi and Mandela!
“I thank the Lord for gifting me with prison and sickness; they brought me closer to Him and to others … I know now that He was with me all through my life; He protected me as a young man; He rescued me from trouble; and He brought me nearer to Him. He aided, corrected, and guided me.”
14 December 2022
Discussion about this post