|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
28 March - 3 April 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
He's clearly in control, but who's complaining?
Profile by Fayza Hassan
The first time I went to meet Hossam Abul- Futouh, he simply did not show up. There were no messages, no apologies: he had called in the morning and informed his secretary that he would not be in. "He does that all the time," his friends told me when I expressed my surprise at the slight. "Don't take it personally," I was urged, "he doesn't mean it that way at all. He is simply so busy that he forgets his appointments." I thought to myself that Mr Abul-Futouh could stand up whom he wished, but I had learnt my lesson. He would be given pride of place in my list of famous people I had not profiled.
A few weeks later, however, he called and was so charming in making amends that I suddenly decided to forget my gripe. Cutting into his act of contrition, I urged him to reschedule our appointment.
The exterior of BMW headquarters has no grand allure, blending inconspicuously into the surrounding low-rise buildings of the Mohandessin strip mall. One is rather surprised to discover the agency's very tastefully decorated offices on the third floor of an anonymous white brick block. On the landing, a large oil by painter Farid Fadel representing a rural Egyptian scene welcomes the visitor. In the waiting room, the efficient and aesthetically pleasing secretary is working the phones, keeping track of appointments, shuffling papers expertly and ordering coffee all at once. Her functional desk is somehow in harmony with the surrounding period furniture and the sober, distinctive upholstery, giving an otherwise banal room a cachet of originality. There are some arrestingly beautiful pieces and several healthy green plants. Although it goes without saying that expenses have not been spared, there is nowhere a display of provocative prosperity. Even the up-to-the-minute hi-tech equipment is practically out of sight. Clearly, the owner of the premises was born to wealth and discernment.
Abul-Futouh's private office is a gem of elegance and good taste, with art deco undertones. In the half darkness, I make out a splendid desk, well-designed sofas and coffee tables, a few carefully chosen curios and an ancient chest on which an imposing scimitar in its elaborately engraved sheath rests on its stand. The air is redolent with a strange and exotic perfume, part incense, part pot-pourri, a reminder that my host does not smoke. Abul-Futouh strides in, seeming eager to start at once. Before I have time to enjoy the first sip of my superb coffee, he begins to deliver his curriculum.
"My name is Mohamed Hossameddin, my father is Hassan Abul-Futouh, my grandfather is Mohamed Pasha Abul-Futouh, I was born in Cairo (Zamalek) on 20 September 1948, I am now 53 years old, I am a Virgo -- what else... ?" His manner is so open and friendly that it is difficult not to be carried away at once by the enthusiasm of this rather young, driven businessman. He takes his role of interviewee seriously and is intent on providing me with all the relevant details. And strangely, he imparts the feeling that he is really enjoying it. There is no trace of embarrassment, no sentences left unfinished to suggest false modesty. I know that more will be forthcoming without constant prompting and I begin to relax; this is going to be a pleasant meeting.
'My name is Mohamed Hossameddin, my father is Hassan Abul-Futouh, my grandfather is Mohamed Pasha Abul-Futouh, I was born in Cairo (Zamalek) on 20 September 1948, I am now 53 years old, I am a Virgo -- what else... ?'
photos: Ayman Ibrahim
Abul-Futouh's eyes shine with mischief, and laughter swells beneath his voice's surface. He certainly does not belong to the breed of pompous businessmen who take themselves seriously and are anxious to advertise their achievements by aligning figures, frowning to remember every extra zero accurately. He insists on following a precise chronology, however, an idiosyncrasy he shares with those trained in exact sciences. He first went to Manor House school in Zamalek, then moved to Victoria College in Maadi, where he completed his secondary education and graduated with the Thanawiya Amma. From there, he went on to study architecture from 1968 to 1972 at Cairo University. Upon graduation he was offered the post of assistant professor and did not dislike the idea, but his father, an engineer who was then in Saudi Arabia, decided that it was time for his son to leave the academic realm and earn some hands-on architectural experience. Abul- Futouh therefore joined his father's firm in Saudi Arabia, where he worked until 1977.
There he was put in charge of the construction of a complex in Riyadh, while his father built its identical twin in Jeddah. Soon, the two men were locked in competition. "At first I lagged behind, and when my father came to inspect the work he would let me know how far ahead he was. I felt I had to create a system since the houses I was building were all exactly the same. After mulling over the problem for a while, I decided to divide the work into series of distinct operations, which would be applied to all the units at once instead of constructing the houses one by one. In no time I had caught up with my father, and when he came for his regular inspection he was so amazed that he asked me to come down to Jeddah to teach his workers my method."
Despite his success, Abul-Futouh moved back home, for personal reasons. "All my life I had suffered from the fact that our father was away, living in Saudi Arabia while we were in Cairo. Of course we had everything we could wish for, but that did not extend to the most precious gift of all: his presence. I had married Nahed, an electrical engineer, in 1973, and did not want my own children to have an absentee father. I intended to take an active part in raising my family."
One thing has become very obvious as he recounts these years: Abul-Futouh adores his wife and two children, Ghada and Hassan. He needs their closeness and basks in the warmth of their presence. As the story progresses, he digresses continually to explain how great the three of them are, how lost he would be without Nahed, who takes such good care of him and attends to his every need -- for example, choosing his suit every morning according to his schedule of appointments (I silently notice that he is impeccably dressed) -- and what a perfect relationship he has with his children.
They, in turn, gravitate around him, he says, and are intimately linked to his work. While Nahed is given a free hand in anything that requires artistic talent, such as the decoration of the offices and showrooms or the interior of the chalets in the tourist village he is in the process of building, his daughter is in charge of running the BMW agency and Hassan takes care of sales. They work in perfect harmony, having agreed long ago that any problem which arises at work must be left there when they walk out the door. Abul-Futouh delights in his home, where Nahed reigns supreme. She hired a gifted decorator to redo the interior, but has left her unmistakable mark on the final result. "It is such a pleasure to be home," says Abul-Futouh, "with such a clever and efficient wife to make my life easy. She takes care of every detail, from preparing my breakfast and watching my diet to organising large receptions, which I attend as a guest, having no clue what went into the arrangements. You know," he adds as if imparting a secret, "my mother used to do all these things for me when I was a bachelor. Then she came to live with us when we were first married and she taught Nahed well. I don't think many men get the same attention in their homes that I get in mine. What is so fantastic about my wife is that she does all that and still takes great care of her appearance, even when the two of us are alone at home. I like that. A wife should always be well groomed for her husband." Such an unabashed admission of being pampered and loving every bit of it would sound exaggerated coming from someone else. But Abul-Futouh is so candid about it that it sounds refreshing and endearing.
Thirty years on in his marriage, he affirms that he would do it all again if he had the chance. "I have so much to be grateful for," he says, "and now that I have a grandson [Ghada's son], I feel truly blessed."
Like any businessman worth his salt, Abul Futouh must have experienced some rough patches, but if this is the case he has forgotten about them completely. Only in passing does he mention that he is no longer keen on associating friends and relatives in his ventures. It only creates animosity, he says, and if there is one thing in the world he dislikes it is unhappy people around him. He puts the secret of his success down to the fact that he only hires professionals of the highest calibre and pays his staff well. "I firmly believe that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys," he says, "and this is why I offer salaries that compete with international standards, plus a system of incentives that is among the best in Egypt. I have no problems with the working force. Egyptians workers can give top-quality production provided they are well directed, well treated and well paid. This is why they are in such demand outside Egypt. I always bear that in mind. Those who work well know that they will be rewarded accordingly."
Although Abul-Futouh is mainly famous for having introduced Egyptians to the BMW ("I knew that I had succeeded in launching the BMW properly when, as I was driving through the countryside, two fellahs glanced up and one said to the other: 'See? That's a BM'," he comments), he has a finger in several other pies.
He has not forgotten that he is an architect by training. Once, on a short business trip to Italy, he stopped to watch builders laying the foundations of a large building. A few days later he observed that the construction was well underway. Entire walls were already standing and the building was taking shape. The work in progress looked like a beautiful church. At once he sensed that there was something of interest there. He approached the chief engineer, who explained that the walls were made of compressed beads of polystyrene reinforced with thin stalks of metal. The slabs thus fashioned were light and lent themselves to a variety of shapes, such as domes and arcades, with much more precision than that offered by traditional stones, cement or reinforced concrete. It was prefabrication at its best. Abul Futouh was enthusiastic. He postponed his trip back and visited the factory. This method of construction had the advantage of being fast and relatively cheap; it offered excellent insulation as well. It could be used for constructing cottages as well as 20-storey high-rises.
Conquered, Abul-Futouh asked for, and obtained, exclusive rights for Egypt. Soon he had a factory manufacturing and cutting the pre-cast sheets and he was in business. He is building an entire tourist village near Sharm Al-Sheikh, complete with a children's library and a community centre which he is donating to the governorate. But he has a more ambitious dream: that of being able to construct an entire low-cost housing complex using the new material, with four-storey blocks of flats and all the amenities necessary to a newly established community. "I would rather make a very small profit and sell a large number of units than the other way around," he says. His eyes are bright and it is obvious that, as he talks, he can see the buildings popping up out of the sand like mushrooms; he is already thinking about the paint -- much easier than on traditional walls -- that will add the finishing touch to his oeuvre. "That way, I could provide several thousand people with affordable, comfortable housing," he concludes happily. A friend of his had told me that he reveled in the sight of happy people around him. Now he declares that poverty is on his mind all the time. He is thinking of producing an all-Egyptian car, affordable to limited- income groups. The feasibility study is underway and it looks good. The car has to be large, he says, "because we Egyptians have large bodies and large packages to carry, and we generally like things to be big." With a model that is both sturdy and cheap, he hopes to conquer foreign markets and attract foreign currency into the country. "I can never tell you enough how much I love Egypt. I dream of giving her back some of the kheir (blessings) she has given me."
Another of his pet projects is converting all the country's vehicles to natural gas, "cheaper and cleaner." As he elaborates on his plan, I wonder if he ever stops to take a holiday or play bridge. He loves hunting, he tells me, and has been invited to big hunting parties in England and Scotland. I frown at the thought of the carnage, but he is prompt to notice my grimace: "I only hunt wild animals, and I always eat what I kill. This is allowed in Islam." He recounts that on a few occasions he was invited to hunt partridge in England, but then discovered that the birds had been bred for that purpose. At once, he put down his gun. "Hunting is not a game," he asserts. "It is a noble sport. The prey must have a fighting chance, and the hunter has to use all his skill, patience and cunning to shoot it down." I am still anxious to steer clear of the topic of animal killing and suggest that he must have other hobbies. "I like driving fast," he says. "I get my best ideas and solve my professional problems on long and lonely drives; but," he puts in surprisingly, "I also relish heavy traffic. I find it stimulating."
As I prepare to take my leave, I hear the unmistakable sound of a tape recorder clicking off. I had noticed the closed-circuit television and the electronic lock on the door: does he also use listening devices? "I always listen to the Qur'an as I work," he tells me, "the tape has been running, but I turned the sound down to allow you to record our conversation." As he walks me to the door, he adds that he really enjoyed the interview. I believe him, because I did too -- immensely.
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