Syrian-born Mohed Altrad arrived in Montpellier, France from Syria in 1969 during an outpouring of anti-Arab sentiment. A few years earlier, Algeria had won its independence from France in a bloody war, provoking a backlash towards anyone Algerian or Arab.
“It was hostile,” remembers Altrad, now 69. He came to study on a scholarship at the University of Montpellier, leaving behind his own bitter memories of Syria, where his father, a bedouin tribesman, abandoned him as an infant following his mother’s death.
Altrad endured prejudice in France, but he proved his worth—and then some. He became a citizen, wrote a prize-winning novel, married a Frenchwoman, purchased a rugby team, had a stadium named after him and bought a bankrupt French scaffolding business.
The Montpellier-based Altrad Group is now one of the world’s leading manufacturers of scaffolding and cement mixers, earning $144 million in net profit on $2.4 billion in revenue in fiscal 2016. Altrad, who owns 80% of the company, has amassed a fortune FORBES estimates at $1.6 billion.
More than four decades after arriving in France, Altrad is a shining example of what an immigrant can bring to a new country. But even after receiving the Legion of Honor in 2005 for his accomplishments, he sometimes feels he might never be able to be French enough.
Always simmering beneath the surface, anti-Arab sentiment flared up again in France following a series of deadly terrorist attacks by French and Belgian citizens of North African descent. Campaigning on an anti-immigration platform and regularly invoking Islamophobic rhetoric, right-wing politician Marine Le Pen has become a serious contender in France’s upcoming presidential election in May.
But what’s happening in France isn’t isolated. With Islamic State terrorism and masses of Syrian refugees arriving on European shores, xenophobic attitudes are taking root throughout the continent and across the Atlantic, in the U.S. as well. Altrad sees President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and his executive order banning travelers from six Muslim-majority countries as troubling developments. “It’s emanating from the most powerful man in the world, so it’s horrifying,” says Altrad. “It’s something new.”
Against this backdrop, Altrad is diverting some of his attention away from his scaffolding business. In 2015, President François Hollande asked Altrad to lead the newly-formed Agence France Entrepreneur, a government organization promoting entrepreneurship in the country’s most impoverished communities that typically rim the outskirts of cities. Altrad admits he was surprised. “I didn’t know anything about it [the agency],” he says. Nevertheless, he accepted.
The agency began operations in April 2016. It focuses on 12.8 million French citizens living in 1,500 low-income communities. Altrad estimates 90% of this population are first, second or third generation immigrants of Arab origin—beurs, in French slang. The government already sets aside nearly $3 billion annually to help with economic development and financial assistance, but a recent audit by the agency revealed that only 4% of allocated funds reached target communities.
“It’s far from being paradise to be an immigrant in France,” says Altrad.
He ticks off statistics: these families are three times poorer than France’s national average and the unemployment rate is nearly three times higher at 26%. However, these communities also produce new businesses at a rate three times higher than the national average. “The problem is these companies die three times quicker,” he says.
Whether Agence France Entrepreneur can make a dent remains to be seen. A page on its website, for example, helps an applicant get in touch with one of three banks for a loan and upload a business plan. Questions include “have you done market research?” and “what is the legal status of your enterprise?” Elsewhere, a slew of administrative papers are available for download to register and run a business. Besides a handful of French banks, the only major corporate partner so far is Microsoft.
“Obviously, alone we can’t tackle the whole problem,” says Altrad. He doesn’t know if a right-wing government will affect the agency.
He devotes two days a week to the initiative, overseeing a team of 35. They host meetings and offer courses on entrepreneurship to students, business owners and budding entrepreneurs.
Altrad is doing his part to give back to the country he calls home. Over the years his links to Syria have faded. He hasn’t visited in decades. “What I did in France, I couldn’t do it in my own country,” he says—and that’s before the bloody conflict ripping Syria apart began six years ago.
These days he gets all his information about his native country through the news. Last year, after seeing a report on tens of thousands of Syrian refugees trapped on the border with Jordan, Altrad made a donation to the French humanitarian aid organization Doctors Without Borders, which provides help in refugee camps. He gave on the condition that his money goes directly to those stuck at the border.
If the fighting in Syria abates, he’s not sure yet how he will take part in reconstruction. He estimates it will take at least 25 years for the country to rebuild, and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. “Who is going to finance it? Yes I can contribute,” he says.
Until then, as refugees continue to flee, he’s unsure what future will greet them in Europe. Asked whether he could succeed today as a Syrian immigrant in France, he pauses. “Difficult to answer. Yes in absolute terms, yes you can succeed,” he says. “There are always opportunities.”
It didn’t always appear that way for Altrad.
He was born in 1948, he thinks, after his father, a tribal leader in rural Syria, raped his mother, then a teenager. Altrad’s only brother died from abuse at the hands of their father, while his mother died from illness when he was a toddler. His father disowned him.
His grandmother then cared for Altrad, but she forbade him from going to school. He had to tend to goats, sheep and camels. It was a nomadic existence as the tribe moved with the seasons.
Eventually, a distant relative, a man with no children of his own, adopted Altrad. He went to live with him near Raqqa, now occupied by the Islamic State. Although it was still a meager existence, he was able to attend school.
He graduated first in all of Raqqa on nationwide exams, and received a scholarship from the Syrian government to study abroad. “I was lucky. I was the first one,” says Altrad. He chose to study in France, although he did not speak one word of French.
In Montpellier, locals were suspicious of the foreigner. When French colonials were expelled from Algeria during the war, many settled in the country’s south, around Montpellier. They did not care to distinguish between Arabs. “I tried to explain that I’m not Algerian,” says Altrad. “They said ‘Arab is Algerian.’”
Although he was isolated, Altrad had nothing to go back to in Syria. It took him more than a year to become fluent enough to have meaningful conversations, beyond asking for the bus route or a baguette.
But then, how to fit in? “They expect you to love their culture,” says Altrad. “You can’t love something you don’t understand.”
The only jobs available to an Arab immigrant were generally low-paying ones, like cleaning streets or manning factory assembly lines—jobs that most natives refused to do. During summer breaks from college, Altrad worked in the vineyards around Montpellier picking grapes for $15 a day.
After finishing his undergraduate degree, he immediately enrolled in a PhD program in computer science, moving to Paris for his studies. He was able to work part-time while studying, and secured a job as an entry-level engineer with La Compagnie Générale d’Electricité. After one year, he left to take a similar position with the aerospace and defense contractor Thomson, and was able to qualify for citizenship. He also met a Frenchwoman, who became his wife.
In 1980, shortly after finishing his PhD, he saw a job posting in Le Monde by the government of Abu Dhabi. He was intrigued by the prospect of returning to the Middle East, and got hired to work in the IT department of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.
The emirate was not the glittering metropolis it is today. There were few restaurants and cinemas only played Bollywood movies. He soon realized how France had changed him, and looked forward to his yearly trip back.
In 1984, his contract was up. He chose not to renew; Altrad’s wife wanted their son schooled in France. Back in Paris, he became an entrepreneur. With the help of Richard Alcock, a British colleague he met in Abu Dhabi, and two former classmates, he developed a portable computer. At nearly 60 pounds, it was cutting-edge at the time (that year Apple released the first Macintosh). Because they didn’t have the capital to further develop the technology, the partners sold their company. Altrad made nearly $600,000 from the sale.
A year later, he embarked on a path that would make him a billionaire. In 1985, while vacationing at his in-laws, in the village of Florensac, a neighbor told him about a debt-ridden scaffolding manufacturer that was up for sale. He didn’t know the French word for scaffolding, but was interested. He partnered with Alcock again, and the pair bought the company for next to nothing and assumed all liabilities.
Altrad cut costs and revamped operations. Within a year, the company was on its way to profitability, but there were always reminders that, as an Arab, the odds were stacked up against him. “You have to prove yourself several times more than ordinary businessmen,” he says. “To be honest, Arabs in France don’t succeed.”
The barriers are higher. When he wanted to open a company bank account, banks turned him down. Altrad suspects his name had something to do with it. Years later, when France’s economy was recovering from a recession, some banks refused to give him a loan even though his company was profitable. Difficulty accessing finance held him back in the early years.
At the end of each fiscal year, the Banque de France required companies to provide a copy of their audited balance sheet. The bank always seemed to take a longer look at Altrad’s financials. He felt singled out. “I saw that they really watched it, sometimes more than any other companies,” he says.
He forged ahead, mainly by acquiring smaller competitors and expanded beyond France, into Italy and Spain. In 2003, he bought German competitor Plettac. More recently, Altrad completed the takeover of the Dutch industrial services company Hertel Group and French oil and gas contractor Prezioso-Linjebygg.
The company hired public relations strategists to build brand awareness. In a counterintuitive move, they encouraged Altrad to highlight his distinct background, because they believed it could help his company differentiate itself from competitors. So, Altrad never shied away from publicity. “Mohed became well known both as himself and as an entrepreneur,” says Alcock, who retired in 2008 and sold Altrad his shares.
In 2015, Altrad won Ernst & Young’s global entrepreneur of the year award. It netted him an invite from then President Barack Obama to speak at a political summit in Nairobi, Kenya. Both events attracted widespread media coverage in France, and a phone call from Hollande who invited him to the Elysée Palace.
More than 20 years ago, Altrad published Badawi (Bedouin in Arabic), a semi-autobiographical novel about his childhood in Syria and the struggle to assimilate in France. He’s currently writing his fourth novel, which he hopes to publish next year. The subject? Identity.