|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
3 - 9 January 2002
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Behind the polished public image stands a very private man
Profile by Fayza Hassan
Writing someone's profile is a voyage of discovery. It is a challenging incursion into a stranger's private domain; an investigation that is infinitely rewarding if a climate of mutual trust can first be established. Often a little awkward at first, the subject eventually warms to the discussion and reveals more or less of himself, sometimes stopping to indicate that such or such a trait or incident should be emphasised, or, on the contrary, kept off the record. To encourage him, the interviewer meanwhile asks relevant questions, hints at an unmentioned prowess or a charming weakness, always intent on helping the flow of words along. Soon an agreeable complicity allows the exchange to become more spontaneous and the writer can confidently guess at what has remained unsaid, filling in the blanks, and eventually presenting an accurate image of the subject's life and personality.
This is the general blueprint and, for the past decade or so, I have laboured under the assumption that genuine sympathy and an ounce of skill would go a long way toward producing a pleasing narrative. So far, applying this method faithfully, I had never drawn a blank. And then it happened: I met the exception to the rule. I should have known, I told myself later, as I glanced back at the building on my way out. All steel and glass, it houses the offices of EFG-Hermes. The mirror-like façade accurately reflected the apartment blocks across the street, but offered no inkling of what was going on behind the looking glass. I had penetrated the arcane world of high finance but, like Alice, had come out with precious little to show for my troubles.
EFG-Hermes is situated on the busiest and noisiest street in Giza; yet once the visitor has passed through the heavy entrance of this investment bank, the silence inside is stunning. The foyer is cool and shiny, the inevitable security officer extremely courteous. The elevator glides smoothly to the fifth floor, the preserve of Mohamed Taymour, chairman of this inner sanctuary of the world of finance. Another stretch of amazingly glossy marble floors leads to a comfortable and tastefully decorated salon into which we are ushered by an amiable secretary. Before we have had time to examine the room for good lighting, an attendant materialises to ask how we would like our coffee, which arrives scalding hot within minutes.
Photographer Ayman Ibrahim is worried about the diffuse light that filters through the elegant dark green blinds. Having slightly lifted a slat, he discovers that the full-length tinted windowpanes will be of no help. As he busies himself with different lenses, Mohamed Taymour strolls in. With his medium built, young allure, very short hair and clear eyes, he is world away from my stereotype of the typical financial wizard. Physically, he conforms much more to what my grandmother used to refer to as a bon vivant . Yet after the first few words have been exchanged, Taymour appears to be exactly the opposite. He is sober in his speech and demeanour, unquestionably shy and unusually modest -- something of a surprise, really, considering that this is one of Egypt's most brilliant venture capitalists. In fact, he never points out that, although born to one of Egypt's most prominent families (the Taymour mangoes, named after the dynasty, have been among the very best for many years now), he owes his success only to his own business acumen.
I had met him previously on several occasions, always at social functions. More often than not he stood alone, or, silent in a group, showed imperceptible signs of impatience. His behaviour had clearly indicated a keen desire to be elsewhere. Apparently Taymour's inability to endure large social gatherings for long is well known. I remembered seeing him trying to drag his wife, Maissa, away from a party; she, on the other hand, seemed to be having great fun. When first meeting Mohamed and Maissa together, one is struck by how different in character they are. She is always ready to laugh and has a great sense of humour as well as keen artistic talent. A highly appreciated interior decorator, she owns one of the most exclusive antique shops in Cairo. Mohamed, on the other hand, always looks preoccupied -- sulky, even. He is a man of few words. Yet despite these divergences, or maybe because of them, they are in total harmony with each other.
As Ayman begins focusing his lens I reflect that Taymour is a busy man and attempting small talk will be an error, which, I suspect, will get me nowhere. Furthermore, I soon discover that he is under the impression that I have come to talk only about the performance of EFG-Hermes. He begins at once to describe the main activities of the firm and its affiliation with international bodies such as Citibank, which owns 20 per cent of EFG. He even offers to show me EFG- Hermes's annual report. This is undeniably a bad start. I am more interested in the chairman's personality than in the mechanics of his profession, although early last year the firm was at the centre of a heated controversy related to the purchase of the negatives of 800 Egyptian films made since 1935, together with the exclusive rights to these films. The press campaign led by the weekly magazine Rose El-Youssef against the venture had not been kind to EFG-Hermes and its acknowledged partners. Interesting as the arguments presented by both parties had been, it was not my aim to revive the debate. On the contrary: I needed to steer him in a different direction.
photos: Ayman Ibrahim
"No," I said, placing the report on the elegant coffee table, "I'd rather you told me about your childhood..." Taymour appears a little taken aback, but he is nevertheless kind enough to oblige with a gentle laugh. "There is not much to tell," he says. "I had a very normal and happy childhood. I was born and raised in Heliopolis, and I still live there. We were two brothers and four sisters and it was fun to have such a large family." He does not say it, but in view of his academic achievements, as I am to find out later, it must have been a serious and studious childhood as well, not because of the strictness of his doting parents, but rather because of his own earnest character.
He went to El-Nuqrashi Modern School ("an advanced school, where they experimented with new methods of teaching") and on to Cairo University to study mechanical engineering. He then worked for a few years in Cairo before heading for the United States, where he acquired a doctoral degree at Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school. Once again he went to work, in the States this time, where he stayed an extra couple of years to acquire overseas experience before returning to Egypt in the early 1970s. A year and a half later, he began doing consulting work for an American company in Sudan. He soon moved to the Arab Fund, situated in Kuwait, where he stayed for a little over four years. He was finally back in Egypt for good in 1980, to found EFG-Hermes, an investment bank, "in the American and European sense," he explains. It started as a financial consulting firm, then developed into a full-fledged investment bank as the situation in Egypt opened new avenues and new regulations were issued. The Capital Market Law of 1992 allowed the formation of companies specialised in security brokerage, asset management, corporate finance and privatisation. "All of these operations are now carried out under this roof," says Taymour, who adds that the activities of the bank also extend outside Egypt, in Jordan, Ethiopia and Algeria, for example. "We have also been involved in several regional deals," he comments; "we grew very fast, and the firm is generally very active."
A random glance at EFG-Hermes "Business Principles" manual informs the reader:
"Leading by example is about exceeding and excelling: setting high standards and surpassing them -- every time.
"Opportunities do not present themselves. They are created. As an investment bank, we have the courage and the vision to step beyond the boundaries of the conventional, and to seize opportunities in areas others have not explored, enabling us to generate growth opportunities in even the toughest markets.
"The success of our business depends on our continuing ability to add value to our customers -- this means being in the right place at the right time. Having the vision to identify a need and the knowledge and the resources to meet this need effectively." This is not only for the staff and customers' consumption. Taymour firmly believes in these principles.
So far, however, he has confined himself to the bare facts, feeding me data almost as if he was storing items in a databank, giving a brief outline of his, or rather his firm's, CV. I can't tell him, lest I offend such an achiever, that what I really want to know is whether he used to catch butterflies as a little boy, collected stamps or dreamed of building a tree house. These are not proper questions to ask an investment banker.
He used to play tennis, he discloses, however, and liked skiing but had to give it up when he badly injured his leg. He enjoys hiking, especially in summer. He is exhilarated by the mountains, the peace surrounding them, their stunting grandeur. And then, to my surprise, he admits to reading poetry. For sheer pleasure. Arabic poetry in particular touches him deeply, although he does not dislike the English and French poets. Needless to say, he is fluent in the three languages. He is also fascinated by history, with a marked preference for the period stretching from the Crusades to the Napoleonic years. Listening to music brings him great satisfaction. "But," says Taymour, "most people either like Oriental or Western music. I like both."
Later, some detective work allows me to add to this list: Taymour loves food and is an excellent cook, whose Sharkasiya has no equal. He is also a very good dancer with a marked preference for rock n' roll. His sister waxes lyrical about his academic successes and describes him as a devoted son, especially to his mother. When they were little, the children's greatest pleasure was to cuddle, all six of them, with their father and mother in the parents' big bed.
Nowadays, Taymour has a new overpowering passion in his life: his two baby grandsons. He has real fun with the older one, giving him piggyback rides and playing soccer with him. On the day of the interview, his second grandson has just been born. "He is now 12 hours old," Taymour, looking at his watch, proudly announces. Maybe this is why he was talking so enthusiastically a moment ago about the joys of retirement. I was puzzled at first by this rather young workaholic ("my life is my work," he had asserted at the start of our conversation) who was now claiming he was eagerly looking forward to learning how to play golf and sharing his time between his apartment in Heliopolis and his mansion in Mansouriya. Now I realise that the secret is his desire to be closer to his grandchildren. "We have to make room for the younger generations," Taymour says keenly. "They have the stamina, the ideas, they know how to use the new technology to their advantage and they can do great things given the opportunity. Older people should give the young a chance." His two sons occupy positions in the bank, but it is not a family affair, Taymour hasten to say. "We have duties towards our shareholders and we only employ and promote people according to a strict merit system."
For the time being, he is looking forward to passing on the reins to the youngsters who have been formed at his school, when the time has come to retire. He intends to do it sooner rather than later. There will be time then to concentrate his attention on other fields. He heads a number of NGOs already and is deeply interested in extending this type of activity. "We need to revitalise our civil society," he says. He would also like to be more involved in charity work. There are many things he would like to do, he repeats, like becoming a good bridge player. He thinks he can master the game. One of his sisters is on the national team and he believes that he may do just as well. He wants to have the time to fulfil all these projects. He has always loved travelling, and he will be able to indulge himself, travelling not for business, as he has been doing, but as a leisurely tourist who has all the time to enjoy new sights. But more than all these activities, perhaps he wants, above all, to become a full- time grandfather.
As we emerge once more and the busy street engulfs us, I can see our reflections dwindling among the cars that flash by in the mirrored walls of the EFG-Hermes building. Has Taymour revealed more than he wanted to? Or have my time-tested tactics met their match at last? In my utter inability to answer the question, perhaps, lies the secret to this particular personality.
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