LONDON // There is something pleasingly old fashioned about Mohamed Mansour.
Maybe it is his impeccably tailored suits or the gentle timbered cadence of his voice. Or the aura of courtesy that surrounds him, pointing to a time when gentility and civility was part and parcel of doing business.
Or perhaps it is his innate worldliness, the net result of having lived such an enjoyably peripatetic lifestyle. Born and raised in Egypt, sent to college in North Carolina at the tender age of 15, Mr Mansour now considers London to be his home. From here, he and his brothers Youssef and Yaseen – a fourth sibling, Ismail, passed away in 1996 – direct, corral and oversee the global operations of one of the world’s great privately run family firms, Mansour Group.
If that name does not immediately ring a bell, do not be surprised. Mansour Group is a tremendous exponent of what might be termed, in today’s parlance, “patient capital”. Some might even consider the conglomerate, with assets in 120 countries spanning six continents, an anachronism in a fast-paced world.
Sitting comfortably in his surprisingly simple office on Grosvenor Place, a stone’s throw from Hyde Park, Mr Mansour’s face lights up as he describes the firm’s financial solidity. “We are very prudent with leverage,” he tells The National.
After growing nervous about rising debt levels in the 1980s, “we reined ourselves in and learned from our mistakes, to avoid getting caught out in down-cycles”, he adds.
Behind Mr Mansour’s desk hangs a map of the world festooned with bright red plastic pins, each planted firmly in a jurisdiction in which the Mansour Group operates. “We have 60,000 people from 80 nationalities working for us,” he says. “I would like to believe that these are people who will stay here, working with us, for years to come.”
Yet caution and an old-fashioned sense of duty, of care about his employees, should not be confused with a lack of ruthlessness. Spend enough time with the Egyptian businessman and you begin to see the steel in his eyes, the hard-nosed edge to his decision-making. When Mr Mansour’s father Loutfy passed away in 1976, the group, while highly profitable, had barely changed in decades, its roots embedded in cotton trading and the fortunes of the thin ribbon of land that accompanies the Nile River as it flows north from Khartoum to Cairo.
The next few years started the process of transforming Mansour Group from a parochial commodity trader into a bona-fide global powerhouse. A deal was struck with the US carmaker General Motors, handing the group control of thousands of dealerships and distribution centres across Africa. “When we started in the auto business in the early 1970s, my father said that with a bit of luck, the sector would guarantee us annual revenues of US$100,000 a year,” says Mr Mansour. “Now look at us – we are the world’s largest distributor of GM vehicles.”
Two years later, Mantrac, a heavy equipment division, was formed, securing the right to sell and distribute Caterpillar digging equipment: first across Egypt and the Maghreb; later, across Sub-Saharan Africa, Russia and Iraq.
That word “luck” is regularly borrowed by Mr Mansour to describe both his and the firm’s great fortune.
“I believe in luck very much,” he says. “It’s a very important commodity. With Africa, we had a lot of luck. We needed to grow beyond northern Africa, and it so happened that we found great partners in Caterpillar and GM, both of which had deep wells of excellent managers and engineers. We were doubly fortunate to operate in profitable markets where we didn’t – and still don’t – have much competition.”
Yet this is also the natural misdirection one should expect from a canny operator. Like many overachievers, Mr Mansour works on many levels. He is humble yet highly successful, devoted to growth (“It’s in our DNA,” he says) but patient enough to let an asset grow into its own skin, and committed to the profit principle, yet equally dedicated to charity. (The family has given hundreds of millions of dollars to needy causes over the years.)
Finally, he is a super-effective private-sector investor who once spent three years as Egypt’s transport minister, labouring to improve the country’s antiquated infrastructure.
Few of the group’s long-term investments have failed to pay off. A decision to take up an offer to run Caterpillar’s operations east of the Ural Mountains was seen by some as a step too far.
“This was Russia in the late 1990s, with [former president] Boris Yeltsin in charge,” he says.
“Everyone said Russia was unsafe. We were told we would lose $5 million a year. Imagine Egyptians clad in winter coats and boots and working in minus 40°C temperatures in eastern Siberia.
“But we were profitable from year one and many of our earliest managerial hires are still working there, very happily.”
If the past reads like a case study from an MBA programme – how to balance risk and reward and always come out ahead – the future, bright though it seems, remains unwritten.
Having taken annual revenues from $300m in 1992 to $6 billion last year, Mr Mansour says he would like turnover to grow by “around 10 per cent” for several years to come. Big investments have been made in sectors ranging from logistics – thanks to its purchase of the freight services provider Vanguard, which operates across Asia, Europe and the Americas – to education, property and mobile telecommunications. A London-based family office-cum-investment bank, Man Capital, formed expressly to preserve, protect and reinvest the family’s wealth, has profited handsomely from early investments in a host of technology majors, ranging from Facebook and Twitter to Uber and Airbnb.
Mr Mansour says the group will continue to plough “between $100m and $125m a year into new investments” for the foreseeable future, “depending on the market, and our own appetites”.
As for the long term, the 67-year-old is keen to outline his palpable desire to take the company his father founded, and which he and his brothers love, to the next level.
“The Mansour Group is well respected, but we aren’t widely known,” he says.
“Over the next 10 years, I would like to correct that, and to transform the Mansour brand into a global name.”
Yet he also adds a telling postscript, again pointing to the contradictory dichotomy of cool humility and burning ambition that lurks within. “I always try to think beyond – to my kids and to my grandkids, and so on. To determine how I can help them. I’d like to imagine what the Mansour Group will be like in 10 years’ time.
“But by then,” he adds with a mischievous smile, “I will probably be six feet under.”
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