Students—put down your pens and forget the classroom; the money-can’t-buy lessons of Mohamed Al Fayed won’t be found in the pages of a text book or teachings of a dusty academic. From schoolyard lemonade vendor in his childhood home of Alexandria, to father of one of the most famous department stores on the planet, blood, sweat and tears have earned this 84 year-old legend of the business world accomplishment of unprecedented proportions. Starting out in 1955 by creating shipping business The General Navigation Company (Genavco) alongside his brothers, the enterprising Egyptian began a journey that six decades on, is still going strong.
After relocating to the U.K. in the 1960s, Al Fayed went on to orchestrate infrastructure that would put Dubai on the map before taking the worlds of retail and hospitality by storm, acquiring Paris’ L’Hôtel Ritz and iconic London store Harrods—names which, just like his own, are now synonymous with success.
As he looks back on his illustrious career and forward to the work still to be done, Mohamed Al Fayed shares his words of wisdom with a new generation of budding entrepreneurs as they aspire to make it in a challenging world.
Forbes Middle East: What advice would you give a young Mohamed Al Fayed starting out in today’s business world?
Mohamed Al Fayed: The advice I would give to a young person starting out in business, as I did many years ago, is have the will and determination to explore the personal potential with which God had blessed you. If you are sincere, honest and driven by the wish to do things that will be of a benefit to people, then you will be able to confront and overcome life’s challenges.
From the very beginning, young people should know how important it is to help the people around you. Take that principle into your business relationships. If you do business with people and they feel that they have benefited from the transaction, then they will return to do business with you again. If not, they will never return. If you think that you can make a huge success with just one transaction or deal, you are deluded. Business is built by establishing relationships founded on trust and integrity. Through my businesses, I have created many thousands of jobs for people and opportunities for other people to establish themselves in commerce and industry. I am very proud of that.
My advice to any young person seeking long-term success is do what you love and make sure your ambitions are high enough, because you are bound to achieve them.
FME: Who were your sources of inspiration growing up in Egypt?
MAF: I learned everything I know in business by looking and learning from my grandfather. He had a warehouse in Alexandria. When I was a boy, I loved to go there in order to watch my grandfather and the trader who owned the warehouse next door. I loved to help both those men. In turn, they helped me by showing me that if you deal honestly at all times, and have a proper regard for what the other person expects to get out of the transaction, your business will grow steadily and you will derive much personal satisfaction in the process. Yes, those two men in Alexandria 70 years ago were respected people in their community, because of their integrity, but also the very nice way they had of dealing with people. If you show interest, genuine interest, in people they will appreciate it. It is important to try to pass on your knowledge and deal honestly at all times.
FME: What are the most important qualities that young people should take with them into the business world?
MAF: Loyalty is an abstract concept but fundamental to business success. I have always been blessed by having very loyal people working for me, but I never forget that loyalty is a two-way street. I have always endeavored to be loyal, in return, to the people who have worked for and with me over the decades. Three things are most important: the customer, the product and the staff. Too many firms in the retail trade forget the third side of that magic triangle.
FME: From your time at the helm of Harrods, what advice can you share with today’s generation of budding entrepreneurs?
MAF: During the quarter century that I owned Harrods, people were always complimenting me on the superlative service provided by the store. You only get superlative service with an excellent, well-motivated staff. You create such a staff by treating them well, looking after them, but also by showing them a good example. In Harrods, I knew every inch of the store, on seven floors and down in the basements, and I knew by name many of the staff. This was not “management by walking around”, as it is sometimes described. This is management by taking an interest in every aspect of your business and the people who make that business. If you do not love your firm and the people who combine to create a great enterprise, then you are in the wrong business. I think myself very lucky that I have always loved the work I have done.
FME: What have been your biggest lessons in life?
MAF: Loyalty, devotion to your family and the importance of plain dealing with an open heart and an open hand—these are the biggest lessons in my life. My family gave me the love and support to achieve my ultimate goals in my personal and business life. That is something I have been very keen to pass on to my own children and grandchildren. I came from a family of three brothers and two sisters. Our mother passed away when she was still quite young and then our father looked after us all. I am eternally grateful to my family, for their love and support. Even when things have been tough, it has been a great comfort to know that the unconditional love of my family will never waver.
I am blessed also to have my two brothers who support me and who have been instrumental in helping me achieve what I have today. I think it is most important to offer encouragement to people, particularly when they are young and trying to find their way through life. I have always taken a positive view of things, even when other people have been walking around looking worried or even desperate. I believe that God is always there. With his help, I know that I have the greatest ally and protector that any man could ever hope or dream to have.
FME: In addition to the support of your family, what other factors do you believe to be instrumental to succeeding in life?
MAF: Trying to see the best in people is similar to seeing the possibilities in a business situation. As it is possible to nurture people, by encouraging them to be the best they could ever be in any given set of circumstances, so it
is possible to see the potential in a piece of real estate, a commercial enterprise or a simple transaction, man -to-man, with honesty and goodwill on the table. Those qualities are equally as important as money when it comes to succeeding in life. The wonderful thing is that the more good things you do, the more blessed you become. Of this I have no doubt.
One final tip to a young person trying to succeed in the business world: when you meet someone, ask their name, shake their hand. Remember their name and use it whenever you meet or speak on the telephone. A person’s name is the most valuable thing he or she will ever possess. When you use their name, their opinion of you will increase. I am proud of my name and trust that you will always be proud of your own.