As part of the series of interviews dedicated to “Family Businesses in Times of Crisis”, we are pleased to share a conversation of Rania Labaki, Associate professor and Director of EDHEC Family Business Centre, with Raméz A. Baassiri, a fourth-generation board member of AHB Group Investments (AHBGI). AHBGI is a privately held family business with family entrepreneurial roots stemming as far back as a century, with equities in diversified businesses in the fields of real estate, construction, manufacturing, trading, health care, food and beverage and telecommunications.

 

The COVID-19 pandemic had a ripple effect on the world economies and societies. How have the family and the business been particularly impacted?

The impact of the pandemic on the business varies across the industries in our portfolio.
This question mainly brings me back to a realization I had when writing my book ‘Interrupted Entrepreneurship’. What counts most and foremost in the family business is the safety of our people and organization.
When the borders started to close, 40 % of our board, composed by family and non-family members, were abroad on business trips and were therefore stuck away from their families. So early on, before the social distancing was in place, we had to adapt by using technology to connect and communicate. This separation has helped us view the challenges we are facing a bit more from inside the glass than from the outside, in a more personal perspective. We were for example able to reflect on the ‘personal’ price each member has to pay, whether psychologically or technically, to navigate this crisis.
What was most touching though was the fact that many of those who were operating in the shadows of our business processes stepped up and took a lead. This was a bright light during an ever-gloomy situation.

How did these changes translate into initiatives (or strategies)?

On the business sides, we followed a series of steps:
1. Facing reality quickly.
2.Setting up realistic and achievable goals
3. Working towards these goals but on a more frequent review as the situation is very fluid
4. Taking both a defensive and offensive approach, that is trying to survive yet seek new opportunities.
5. Ensuring closer ties with our clients, suppliers and associates.
6. Cash flow management
In parallel, we started by setting up a range of safety criteria and a Covid task force, selecting from each department a person in charge of ensuring the implementation of the criteria. The criteria evolved along with the situation, through extensive research and review of procedures, addressing the concerns for employees with medical conditions and those aged over 60 who were early on asked to work from home. Then we extended this procedure to all the employees and provided a more flexible work schedule from home, to account for those having to support their children studying online. In a way we ended up having round the clock teams working based on what set of circumstances they were faced with.
Among the other initiatives, we organized clubbing groups of 6-8 members, ensuring that no face to face interaction with other groups, so as to curtail any potential spread, as well as clubbing of some operations to help create a leaner operation.
Overall, we encouraged initiatives to be initiated, managed by the members themselves.
Last but not least, we are tapping into the co government- private business forums and meetings that help define a more cohesive action plan.

Family businesses are known for their values of social responsibility, acting as ambassadors of the territories in which they are rooted. How did these manifest themselves in the current context?

Covid-19 has coincided to overlap with the month of Ramadan, where giving is part of this month tradition. Quoting M. Gandhi, “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”. I had the opportunity to delve into the power of giving and the strength of communities in my book. I realized that giving is a pillar in many of the family businesses that carry on from one generation to the next, as they underpin ties with the communities those businesses engage in. Today’s pandemic has only highlighted how we are all on one boat and that our actions collectively is a must to survive. Giving comes in many forms, my late father’s approach to giving was to give away from the spotlight. So I would be remiss to speak of our own contributions, but the target of zero gap mindset – no one left behind – is at the core of our mindset.

How are your preparing for the post-crisis phase, in line with medium or long-term challenges the family business will be facing?

Pre- covid the key question on our mind was: what is the next big thing? That stems from the fact that multigenerational family businesses such as ours are confronted by some tough statistics; e.g., 4th generation family businesses have 2% chance of surviving only.
So, the need to be agile is key. When we look back at our family history, we can see that it spanned other pandemics, wars, economic depressions and much more. We have always come out from such challenges with a new direction and new businesses.
In the short to medium term, we must weather the abrupt nature this pandemic has had on the business environment.
From the medium to long term, we need to consider how we will define the workspace, the work from home concept, better connectivity and ability to be able to shed the weight of a large corporation into a more agile SME’s mindset with the resources of a corporation.

In the past few weeks we had a good opportunity to stop and listen to ourselves. With a positive attitude, is it possible to see this crisis as an opportunity to improve our personal lives and businesses? If yes, how?

I am taking intentional time to engage my multiple forums on a weekly basis to get a local, regional and plank view on the ongoing.
After each conversion I take the time to introspect. It is not always positive. I would subscribe that every crisis there is an opportunity. At this moment I am looking for ours.