This episode is brought to you by
A recent report by the International Energy Agency projects that renewable energy will become the largest global source of electricity by 2025 – that’s enough energy to power all of China in 5 years. Considering this revelation, it’s becoming increasingly hard to imagine a time when investing in renewable energy was a gamble, especially in oil-rich regions like the Middle East. Such investment is a prime example of the visionary thinking it takes to transform an unconventional solution into the best way forward.
On this episode of WiFB, Joumana Hosri, CEO of Sacotel ZNSHINE, and a “Visionary Leader of the Year” award recipient, talks about joining her family’s firm at age 24 and spearheading initiatives in a male-dominated business environment. Joumana also talks about the critical decision-making process and passion that fuelled her enterprise’s transition to sustainability, and the first-of-its-kind joint venture that made her family’s company one of Lebanon’s top solar power and green energy businesses.
- Being the daughter of the company’s owner and having such a strong impulse to create change generated friction between Joumana and the firm’s leadership early on. To prevent her siblings from facing a similar situation, Joumana led the creation of a transparent governance policy to reassure the firm’s management that family members entering the business are there to create value for the company, not to eclipse non-family members.
- Collaborating with other family businesses in Europe connected the company to the renewable energy boom happening there. Seeing the success of these European companies, Sacotel’s leadership realised the importance of adding this vertical to its portfolio.
- Rather than entering a price war with other, more established renewable energy companies in the region, Sacotel ZNSHINE first leveraged their “family-owned” status to create awareness in the group’s other businesses, eventually securing the tender to supply modules directly to the Dubai Electricity and Water utility company.
- The company’s governance is a critical tool for next-gen development, laying out a clear roadmap for entering the business. Every generation is exposed to the business and encouraged to participate. If they choose to join the business or not, young family members learn about being responsible owners, and the obligations that accompany their rights as stakeholders.
R: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Women in Family Business. It is my incredibly great pleasure to welcome Joumana Hosri today. Hello, Joumana. Welcome to the show.
J: Hi, Ramia. Thank you for having me.
R: Joumana, it is such a pleasure to have you because you combine two of our favorite topics here at Women in Family Business. You are a legitimate family business member. You are in the midst of it. You’re in the midst of the family dynamics, in the midst of running the business, you’re owner, business executive. Everything compounds in your roles. But you’re also a very, very staunch advocate for all things sustainability and renewable energy and we’re going to get into both of these topics today. What really fascinates me about family business members is that many of us don’t really think much of the fact that we are part of a family business when we grow up because it’s like it’s normal to us. So Joumana, my first question for you is: first memory that you have of realizing that you are part of a business-owning legacy. What do you think?
J: It goes very, very, very long back. I’m already in the middle of my career, let’s say, and I started extremely young because I was participating at all the board members. Starting from any family lunch or family gathering or official board members because as you know, this is how a family business goes. You grow into it and as you say, you might grow out of it in certain phases of life where you distance yourself from that until it hits you back that yes, you are part of the family business and now you in turn have to step in.
I think I had the break where I traveled to France and I went through my university graduation in Paris. This is where for four years I distanced myself from the daily talks and daily encounters, having the family business as the main topic or let’s say a side topic in every conversation held at home. After those four years, I had the choice to come back or not. This is where the first time you’re like, “What am I going to do?” By choice, I came back and the choice was coming back physically to Lebanon where our headquarter is. Our family business started in 1886 if you look at one branch of the family, and in 1976 if you look at the other branch of the family. Sorry, not ’76, ’66. From the two sides, both of them Lebanese families, my mother’s side and my father’s side. In 1996 when I graduated I had the choice and I made that one and many years later, I do not regret for a second the choice I made that year coming back to Beirut, stepping into the family business, having a minor role because that’s the way we do it or we think inside our governance. You come back, you take a position that is available, and through meritocracy, you grow into your leadership position. It is not an inherent leadership position.
R: Paris missed out on you and you joined the family business — call was too strong and you joined the family business. Were they big shocks for you when you finally joined for you were like, “Oh my God. We have to change this. We have to change that”? How did it feel for you when you finally got to get involved?
J: We have a particular governance in our family. My father, who is the founder, from my father’s side of the family business, which is the Fernand Hosri Group, is a visionary. His approach was a very practical one. At age 13, we had to do a few, let’s say, weeks of training in the company. At age 14 and onward, every summer, we had to extend that period. Coming back at 24, it wasn’t a shock to me because I knew the employees, I knew the premises, I knew the departments. I had worked in the warehouse. I had worked in marketing and accounting. Coming back and seeing and as you know in family businesses, we have a lot of, let’s say, retention in the workforce. Our managers, our seniors, even our junior employees remain years and years. Our average age of employment is 15 years. Between the newcomers and the ones that have been here 30 years, the average is really big. So when I joined, many faces were very familiar to me and people whom I already had worked with as a trainee.
The shock, of course, wasn’t huge. But if you want to take me down that memory lane, it’s worth mentioning that the shock was on a different level. It wasn’t on what I wanted to change. It was on the acceptability of our lieutenant, my father’s lieutenant. My father was the leader then with my mother. Both of them working family members, side by side, equal, very involved in the business. They had lieutenants that were, let’s say, about 10 years younger and these were my superiors when I joined. The shock came from the acceptability by that level of leadership within the group. I was the elder sibling joining. So I was the first one from the second generation, let’s say, and I had difficulties to find my place there. This was my first difficulty and it took me a year and a half to convince my parents to be more ready to accept my brother who was second in line to join the family business as my generation to be ready and to spare him the same, let’s say shock. You mentioned the shock. It was a shock to me.
First of all, they were all men and I was a woman. So they feared their positions because I was the daughter of the owner, a very strong, visionary leader, very present in terms of his, let’s say, determination to build a family business. However, very absent physically because our group was operating in various countries and my father was more traveling than actually sitting in the headquarters in Beirut. The lieutenants or the leadership with whom I had this problem were more based and stationed in Beirut. So they could, if you want, make my life miserable for the first year. I made sure that my brother and sister never had to go through the same and of course for the coming generations, which are now my brother’s daughter. So the elder from the third generation is joining soon. Everything’s ready for her because our governance is written because our employees have been educated and trained on the values and the governance and it’s out there publicly. So they know that whoever comes is not here to replace a position. Is here to create more value for the company itself, for the group as a whole, and for the family, of course. So yes.
R: Part of us talking about obviously sustainability when it comes to family enterprises and family wealth is, of course, there’s two ways of looking at it. There’s the things that families do to be sustainable as family structures. But then Sacotel and your whole family also, you’re actually very deeply embedded in sustainable services and products and actually promoting that in, quite frankly, also a region where you’re really pioneering on a lot of levels there. So first question here for you, Joumana, is what actually ignited the passion for sustainability in your family and in your family enterprise?
J: Let me go back to where really Ricardo, my brother that took over the transition between my mother who was the chairwoman and CEO of Sacotel in 2016, again, another six. 2016, Ricardo became CEO of Sacotel. This transition was very critical because it was, let’s say, a first transition within our family group. I would like to go back to the roots. My mother’s family side goes back to 1886. However, in the ’90s, my father’s side bought back the shares of my mother from her family group. So we became Fernand Hosri Group and Sacotel came under the umbrella of the Fernand Hosri Group instead of being under the umbrella of the Group from my mother’s side. It was the first transition within the Fernand Hosri Group, which was very critical. As you know, these periods are very critical.
When Ricardo joined, we were looking at the verticals. I was really by his side trying to figure out the future of our family business. We were looking at those verticals that are strong in our family group. We had the security. We had the telecom. We had the automation, which was a new branch. Automation is important. We said we cannot sustain without the renewable side because it was… 2016, if you remember, was very early in the Middle East. However, in Europe it was a big case. Our connections with European markets through various family businesses with whom we collaborate kept us exposed to that boom that was going on in Europe. That’s why in 2016, Ricardo, me, and Karina, my sister, being, let’s say, the new generation, the new leadership on the board, decided to add this vertical. Ricardo naturally appointed me as the spearhead of the sustainable arm of Fernand Hosri Group.
We were very lucky, Ramia. I can’t tell you how lucky we are because we were introduced by our Italian partner, a family business regeneration with whom we’ve been since 1978, to a Chinese family business who has been 30 years in renewable energy as a manufacturer of solar panels. When you’re introduced between family businesses, there is a very high trust factor there. We were introduced to the Wang family and they happen to be a father, a daughter, and a son. The daughter is my age and she was the CEO back then. I can tell you it was immediate attraction, immediate recognition of the same values regardless of whether they were operating in China, from China globally, and we are operating from Beirut to Middle East and Africa. Our values were so aligned.
We were not the biggest family business in the area but we had a lot of points to our favor, and they were and they still are the 10th biggest manufacturer. Definitely not the top 5, however, the top 10 or let’s say the top 9 on top of them were all corporations. Ricardo and I and Karina, my sister, we felt we’d rather go with a family business who’s top 10 with whom we can align on our long-term values rather than a create a strategic partnership with a corporation who might clash with our long-term values because as you know, the corporations look for short-term profit because they have the stock exchange to reflect.
So our choice and our alliances went with the Wang family from ZNSHINE. We created the JV Sacotel ZNSHINE and together I can tell you, we have a success story to tell because our two families succeeded to put at least our family on the map of Middle East and Africa in the renewable sphere, not as, let’s say, traders. Our history, we were traders. Most of the family businesses in Middle East are traders and come from that trading background. But here we are associated to manufacturing, purely manufacturing in the renewable, which is a sector that is reserved for the Chinese. Basically, we have this unique position as a Middle Eastern family involved in solar panels at manufacturing level because of our JV.
R: It’s fascinating, Jouaman. I love this story so much and it’s really interesting to see how the family connections really just are so powerful in these kinds of scenarios. So how did you introduce it to the market and what kind of response and reactions that you get and how did you maybe demystify some of the prejudice around solar in the MENA?
J: Well, basically, there were very various markets. GCC, Levant market. Some of them were very mature, let’s say, even in 2016. Markets like Jordan were extremely mature. But that was a pocket. Just Jordan was very advanced in the area. Other markets were starting, let’s say, UAE market, but more on the utility scale than on the, let’s say, residential or commercial and industrial level. This is where we decided to step in, on those markets that were starting. So there was a market. There was an awareness or some players. It was easier to enter those markets. Other markets were completely at a very early stage, impossible to mention even. It didn’t make sense. It didn’t make financial sense and it didn’t make even sense on the ESG level that now we look at or back then CSR level. We used to use that terminology back then. It didn’t take any work. So we stayed away from those markets until the awareness was created. It’s a collective awareness. When awareness is created in a market, we stepped in.
Let’s say we started in Beirut where is our home market. We were one of the very early players present at that level in the market, and because our family operates already with government on tender, operates with corporate on the corporate level, so it was easy for us to talk at high level. We weren’t educating a consumer. We were addressing at high level. Same with the UAE. With UAE, we had a different kind of approach where the strategy… We weren’t the first comer in UAE and we are top 10 remember. The top 5 were already on the market and people would say, “Why would we buy from you. You are only top 10, but not top 5.” They wanted to play the price sensitivity line. “We would buy from you if you were let’s say one cent less per watt.” Which obviously doesn’t make sense because all the Tier 1 is a spot market. It’s like a stock exchange. We buy at same prices. We sell at same prices.
Our approach was we won’t sell. We won’t enter this price war. We will position ZNSHINE solar, which is the brand, as the main player backed by the family. Once this is done, then the recognition will be — the awareness, recognition will spread and this is what we did. We waited a year and in 2019, we won the DEWA tender and we supplied our modules to DEWA directly. When that was done, it just put the brand on the top of the most dynamic utility company in the region. DEWA as you know is the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority. It’s the most advanced utility company in terms of solar or renewable energy exposure and commitment especially at that time.
We won that tender and after that it opened a lot of doors. It gave us, let’s say, recognition. Recognition of being a top player in the area backed by the family again. This is what makes the difference. This family business creates credibility. People come to you because they trust you. Then when you’re presenting new technologies, they’re not so sure, but the trust factor is so strong so they’re just like, “Okay. If you’re proposing that, then I’ll go for it.” Plus, Ramia, it’s important to say that renewable energy not only was new, but it was all Chinese solar panels. The supremacy is from China.
This was again another barrier for us to break through because people would say, “Is Chinese good? Shouldn’t we go for European solar panels?” In the mind of every consumer, German production is better than Chinese production. So they will say, “Why would I buy Chinese at more expensive than Europe?” That was another exercise to go through because in renewable energy, in solar in particular, while the Chinese are the leaders of the market, were and still are the leaders of the market in terms of recognition and quality and tier 1. That’s what we call the Bloomberg list for tier 1 solar panel manufacturers.
R: Talk to me a little bit about, Joumana, the difference between your parents’ leadership style, your brother’s leadership style, and how you lead, and what you see, what the differences are and why you think it has worked out for each generation in a different way.
When we started in 2016, Ricardo and I and Karina were discussing our commitment to the UN Global Compact. This is the year where we signed in as our group as part of the UN Global Compact. We were looking at the SDGs. We had a lot of our CSR compliance with the SDGs. We were looking at sustainability and we thought, exactly like you said, we don’t want to just add this as an expense or as a marketing event. We actually want to move into sustainability as also revenue generating because it will make sense and it will be as part of our activities.
So we’re very, very happy to be part of that and we feel blessed because I can tell you one thing. When I wake up every morning, I’m happy because I’m doing good by everyone. I’m doing good by myself because I love what I do and I do good by my company because every single day we earn good revenue. We do good by our clients because we sell excellent products at the right price and they’re buying renewable energy and material. We do good by the planet. It’s a win-win-win across the board, so everybody’s happy.
Last year, we were looking at this sustainability again and looking at our five-year plan and we decided to remain in the sustainable verticals. Of course, we have the solar panel, then we looked at electric vehicles as a new vertical, which we are now starting, and we are looking at the green hydrogen because green hydrogen is about a partnership between hydrogen manufacturers or producers and solar panels. We are also operating in an area that will play a major role in the green hydrogen because the Middle East and Africa will be, let’s say, the producing part of the globe of green hydrogen. Green hydrogen will be produced to be sold or the offtakers will be probably Europeans from our area.
R: What is your advice to the next generation coming after you, maybe the next generation of any family business that you see around you? What’s your piece of advice for them?
J: We said early enough, I’m talking in the late ’90s, we said, “What do we want for us and our children?” The decision is not only taken, but it’s recorded between Ricardo, Karina, and me, and we said we want to continue together, we want to have our children work together.
To do so, we looked at the education part, how to get them ready. All of that was decided before the first of the third generation was even born. We wrote the governance. It’s clear. It’s written. It has rules on how they can join, when they can join, what are the prerequisites, what would they do. First of all, that exercise is done. Second of all, since they’re very, very early age, we involve them at various opportunities and occasions in the business. When I say I have pictures of all the children in a celebration where we were inaugurating our new HQ in 2013, I think the eldest was 11. One of my nieces spoke. She was seven. She spoke in front of all our stakeholders, our bankers, our clients, our suppliers, and representing the future generation. She had a small one-minute speech that was so cute. Having them participate, having them have a role in such important events is influencing them indirectly.
I can tell you since they are kind of trained, there is a family governance and there is a family business governance. I had this family governance while Ricardo had the family business governance and we have family meetings regularly where we explain to them that they have choices. They can join as a working family member or they can choose to be a non-working family member, but they still will be family members. They will still have ownership in the family business. As a responsible owner, they had obligations and it wasn’t only about the rights. It’s about rights and obligations. We explain these very early. So of course, they have the choice to join or not and we make it very clear that we are very open to indulge their passions
R: Joumana Hosri today with us talking about all things sustainability, renewable energy, next-gen dynamics. Joumana, thank you so much for joining us on Women in Family Business.
J: Thank you, Ramia.