How many of us could walk through the desert to sit outside of school because we had such a thirst for knowledge? Gaze through a hole in a mud schoolhouse with a tin roof? Stare at a chalk board covered in symbols, seeing letters for the first time? Walk home for several hours? And then be beaten upon arrival for resisting a predetermined destiny to be a shepherd?
The man who did all of this and more is Mohed Altrad, the son of a Bedouin girl in Syria who was either 12 or 13 when she was first raped by his father, the leader of their nomadic tribe. Into these horrific circumstances Mohed and his elder brother were born. Altrad says he does not remember his mother’s name, but he does know that she died giving birth to him.
His elder brother was eventually murdered by his father, leaving Mohed to be raised by his maternal grandmother just outside Raqqa, which like many towns and cities in Syria is now controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS). Back then it was the place he called home.
His family members were Bedouin tribesmen wandering the deserts of Syria, keeping no record of births or deaths. Altrad has no idea of his true age. He surmises that he may be as old as 65, but this figure is not as important to him as all that he has achieved in remembrance of his mother. The pursuit of his promise to honor her has culminated in his becoming a billionaire, but the prize that allowed him the visibility to publicly bestow that honor was being chosen the 2014 French Entrepreneur of the Year. As a result, he was nominated to represent France in the Ernst and Young World Entrepreneur of the Year competition, winning the coveted 2015 award.
His ascent was not immediate, but his success was a consequence of his thirst for knowledge, his persistence, and his triumph over the limitations set for him by his grandmother. Once she died he was free to fully engage in the pursuit of his academic studies.
He was just 17 when he was awarded a scholarship by a Syrian foundation which granted him admission to the University of Kiev in Ukraine. He packed what little possessions he had and traveled to Ukraine where he knew no one and didn’t speak the language. Upon his arrival he was told that the course was full, so he traveled to France. He arrived during the coldest of winter days in France, unable to speak French, with little means to support himself. He sometimes ate only one meal a day but this did not deter him. Life in the Syrian desert prepared him to face any type of difficulty, and gave him the fortitude to withstand hardship.
Altrad became fluent in French and matriculated into one of the oldest universities in Europe, located in Montpellier, eventually receiving his PhD in Computer Science. He began looking for a business venture. As if destined, he picked up a newspaper in a café and noticed an advertisement from the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. They were seeking engineers to help design the infrastructure for their burgeoning oil and gas industry.
He took the job, hoping it would provide him with the opportunity to save money and perhaps buy a business. Like other foreign nationals working in the Middle East, he was paid an astronomical salary with nothing to spend the money on. Completing his contract, he returned to France in search of a business venture. He and his partner worked on and brought to market one of the first laptop computers.
These laptops were large and clunky, “about the size of a suitcase.” They were initially used as airport computers to announce flight arrivals and departures. The partners sold the company and continued to save money, considering ventures for investment. One day Mohed was approached by a man trying to sell his bankrupt scaffolding business. He and his partner bought the faltering operation in 1985. They branched out from scaffolding into buying and selling everything of benefit to builders: tools, machinery, and cement et al. They also invested in the workforce by providing excellent employee benefits, making them happier and more productive. Aktrad’s philosophy incentivized his employees to take ownership of their work product and feel they were valuable to the company.
In the past thirty years, the Altrad Group has grown to 17,000 employees, with customers in 100 countries, and 170 subsidiary companies. According to their website the company “sells and hires out equipment for building and public works and for industry (mixers, scaffolding, tubular equipment).” An amazing feat for an enterprise birthed from such meager beginnings. It now has $2 billion (£1.3bn) in turnover and $200 million annual profit.
In a BBC interview Altrad said he sleeps less than four hours a night. This drive and creativity has made him a successful businessman and a prolific writer with two books in publication, one an autobiography, which have sold millions of copies.
Mohed Altrad is a shining example of what it means to be an immigrant from a closed society into an open one. A citizen who uses his culture and history to enrich the society into which he assimilates, making the country stronger and better because of his tenacity, vision, and drive to succeed against all odds.