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Interview with Muna Al Gurg, Vice Chair and Director of Retail for the Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group
Muna Al Gurg has been instrumental in shaping innovative approaches in her family’s firm. She fondly remembers the stories her father, and company founder, Easa Saleh Al Gurg, told her about navigating the business through Dubai’s early development period in the 70s and 80s. Those experiences helped reinforce Muna’s belief that the ability to adapt in ever-shifting commercial landscapes lies at the core of most family enterprises – especially in the MENA region, with its history of frequent and swift transformations. However, she also stresses the importance of establishing a solid governance foundation to support the critical decision-making process of current and future family business leaders. Muna credits her father’s time as a post office clerk — a position he was fiercely proud of — as a grounding influence in the family business, while also showing what can be accomplished through unwavering hard work and ambition.
In this episode, Muna Al Gurg, who is now Vice Chair and Director of Retail for the Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group, one of the UAE’s leading diversified conglomerates with a portfolio of over 30 companies, talks about the innovative mindset she believes has always been essential for family businesses to thrive, the new opportunities that exist for firms willing to challenge traditional models, and the ‘three Ps’ that she believes should be the ethos of every family business: Profitability, People, and Purpose.
- The commitment to ongoing improvement and a willingness to learn has helped shape ESAG Group — again, a characteristic Muna credits to her father. This approach has enabled the Group to not only boost profitability through technology but also transform industry challenges into opportunities. Consequently, ESAG Group encourages upskilling for everyone working in the organisation.
- The Group established a next-gen committee with the purpose of preserving and strengthening the organisation’s founding values while also ensuring that innovative approaches continue to influence and shape the company’s governance framework. With an increasing number of stakeholders entering the business, there is a growing requirement to address the structure and role of family councils to prepare for future scenarios, both expected and unforeseen. The committee has proven to facilitate communication effectively, providing clarity and fresh ideas aimed at safeguarding the interests of future generations joining the business.
- Partnerships with agencies and larger companies outside of the GCC region have propelled ESAG Group’s growth over the decades. To this day, these partnerships remain a crucial aspect of the business. However, true innovation is often the result of a company pivoting toward a new objective, making it imperative for an organisation to reevaluate its long-term strategy. For ESAG Group, the decision to use its own infrastructure to develop their own brands in the region has allowed the company to embark on a productive, innovative journey.
- ESAG Group was the first family business in the UAE to sign the Gender Balance Pledge. This commitment has driven innovation in the Group, ranging from hiring processes to communication and employee education. The Group’s initiatives in this area have not only opened new potential avenues of growth for the company but also provided potentially life-changing opportunities for female members of its workforce.
Ramia: Welcome to another episode of Women in Family Business. Muna Al Gurg from the UAE is joining us today and I’m so happy to have you with us, Muna, welcome.
Muna Al Gurg: Thank you Ramia. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Ramia: Muna, mainly we are going to be talking about leadership and innovation. But because it’s family business, it is always personal. Like we like to think that it’s all professional in the end, especially when the company has reached a considerable size that yours has. So the EASAG group is, I think now you’re in the third generation, even fourth generation, is that right?
Muna Al Gurg: Third generation right now.
Ramia: Third generation right now and like growing and very promising for the fourth, I think as well. And one of the UAE’s most prominent, if not the GCC’s most prominent family businesses. And we are so proud to have you on this podcast, but it has to start with the personal story first, because we all know we cannot take the family out of the family business. And so that’s what we’re here to talk to you about. I do wonder, like, you know, you grow up and when you were growing up, like this legacy had already kind of evolved into something quite considerable.
You were part of that really big growth spurt of the country and your family saw and took so many entrepreneurial opportunities and risks to grow the group into this size. And you must have watched this unfold as a child as well growing up. Can you share with us a little bit more about what that was like and what it taught you about how leadership evolves over time?
Muna Al Gurg: Delving back into my childhood and history, I think growing up in our household, it was quite natural to hear stories from the founder of the ESAG Group, who’s my father. I lived with him, so I obviously saw the immense amount of work that he put into building this business.
But I think what we appreciate a lot more being with him is the fact that he actually started off as, you know, he was a clerk in a post office. That was his first job. And he speaks proudly of that. And that also kept us grounded because it made us realize that these are the origins of what my father went through. And it really makes us appreciate how much work and effort went into building this conglomerate of his that he spent working till the very last day, which is he passed away last year. But at age 98, he was working till the very last day. So very interesting. A lot of ambition, a lot of hard work. He started off with the ruler of Dubai at that time was Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. And he worked very closely with him.
In fact, he was his interpreter. So he would travel with him to all parts of the world.
So it was very interesting living with a man who was part of this growth in Dubai, particularly 50, 60 years ago when Dubai was at its nascent stage. And my father was part of all of that. So I think listening to those stories within, living with him in the house and listening to those stories and appreciating where we were and where we are right now. And also the sense of giving back. That’s something that really, you know, stuck with me. Ever since he, you know, started working in Dubai, right up to then building his business, he was always giving back, whether it was his time, whether it was his resources later on. But I think this is part of our DNA that we have learned and admired from my father and the founder of the company. So that’s something very interesting. But again, over time, what I find myself appreciating more in terms of leaders are the pioneer women actually, whether it be women in law or female astronauts or female fighter pilots. There are many, many names in the Arab world, but I think, with time, I find myself appreciating really those women who have been pioneers in their fields. So those are the leaders that I continuously look up to right now. And they continue to be part of our everyday stories that we hear about, you know, like I was just reading about the first Emirati astronaut who, you know, will be making her journey. So I think those leaders also very much so inspire me. But going back to the person that I was growing up with, who was my father, I think those nuggets of advice and wisdom stay with me and have continued to resonate with me.
Ramia: So I’m just interested in understanding Muna how like, you know, are the same leadership skills that he brought to bear…. Are they just as important now as they were then, or are you thinking like, you know, of course, like that you and your family are talking about how leadership has to evolve also in consideration of the size of the company, in consideration of these things. So what has remained of those lessons and what are sort of like the new leadership skills that you have to evolve into as a family?
Muna Al Gurg: I think continuous improvement has again been very much part of what we learned. And so there was always an openness from the founder to say, all right, you know, I don’t understand this. Let’s learn. Let’s innovate. And that was his way of, let’s say, using the word per se innovation at the time, you know, the openness to always learn, openness to learn from the next generation. But really like coming to this present state right now and where we’re at, and as you said, family businesses that play such a big part in the MENA region and very big part of the economy. Three things really, and it goes back to what we know, but it’s good to hear it again, which is the three Ps that really make up what we need to stand for as family businesses. Profitability, but with technology in mind. So I’ll give you a very good example of that. During the pandemic, we invested tremendously in technology and e-commerce because we knew that everyone was at home. And our team grew from being a five-member team, I’m talking about the digital team, five-member team to now being a 40-member team. And this investment has really resulted in a 200% increase in our business. So keeping profitability in mind, however, also thinking about how you innovate in that, from that perspective. And I think again, people, the pandemic really taught us how important people are. So to continuously learn what are the needs of the people right now, according to the circumstances, the economy that they live in. And that’s important for us to kind of innovate from that perspective, innovate with your people.
And last but not least, purpose. What is the purpose of your business? What are you trying to achieve? What is the add value that you are achieving with your end customer? Having that purpose in mind, understanding that customers are now conscious customers. Consumers are thinking more about impact, where their products are coming from. That’s the type of thinking now that needs to come into place when we talk about innovation. And so innovation is something that needs to be ever evolving. People need to upskill themselves. Even going back to the topic of people, I think we are very focused on upskilling our employees.
Listening to them, whether they’d like to pursue an MBA or whether it is an executive education course, or even within their niche sectors, whether it’s a digital, putting them through really good courses that helps them. And then there’s the, you know, the softer skills that we continuously, we have programs within the group that help people with their softer skills, but then also that increases the, you know, the way of the way they innovate in their day-to-day lives.
Ramia: And this is so that the frameworks you put in place are very powerful and have helped you grow as well. Tell us a little bit more about how that felt when you built that brand equity yourself and what that experience was like for you and the family?
Muna Al Gurg: For decades the GCC relied on agencies and partnerships with big companies, and we continue to do so. No doubt that plays a vital role in our businesses. However, the innovation again comes into place in terms of asking yourself what your long-term strategy is. Right? What is your long-term strategy as a business? Do we want to keep relying on partners from outside the region? Or do we want to innovate within the region? Particularly because A, we have the resources to do so. We have excellent infrastructure. We have now the capabilities because people are getting educated. They’re coming with their expertise. How do we utilize these elements in order for us to create our own brands? And so with us at ESAG, we have been working with furniture brands in retail for the last six decades. And we’ve done really well. But recently we’ve started to think about our own expertise within this field of furniture. So now we know everything to do with buying, stocking, selling, designing furniture.
We also have a wood joinery within our company. So how do you capitalize on what you have and the expertise that you’ve built and then build furniture brands that are from the region that can cater to customers because we feel that we again know our customers better. And so we started our own homegrown brand called Chattels and More.
And this has been, again, a fantastic journey, building the brand from scratch, but now really selling furniture, accessories, furniture that’s even manufactured in the UAE. And people are loving it. We’re seeing the results of that. And that’s very satisfying.
And I think that that’s important in the Arab world. We need to see a lot more innovation from within, rather than relying on global brands.
Ramia: I think you’re hitting on something so important, fostering that kind of organic innovation in a region like ours is extremely important, but it takes the right people being put into the right place, talking about your own journey, how you joined the family business, did it always feel like it was the right place for you? And how did your sort of like leadership journey evolve to where you are today as the, as a vice chair?
Muna Al Gurg: It’s been interesting to be honest with you, Ramia. I started off just fresh out of university. I worked for a while in an ad agency outside, but then I came into the family business and my education was in marketing and advertising. That’s what I studied at university.
And I came in at a time where the business was evolving from that perspective. So you’re talking about 20 years ago. We were evolving and thinking about branding, thinking about what we represent and how we represent ourselves in communication.
So there was an entire department that was started. And I think that that’s where I found myself, because I was quite fortunate to work under the chief marketing officer at the time, where I learned a great deal from him.
But having then after that spent a good six, seven years in that field, I felt like I needed a refresher. And that’s where the whole element of thinking about upskilling yourself, about thinking about how you can add more value to the place that you’re at. And it’s important to reflect on what is important to you, I would say. And for me, I think it was really enrolling in an MBA, which is what happened.
I studied, I did my MBA at London Business School. It opened up a whole new world for me. I networked with different people from different fields. So it was really interesting for me to get out of that family business environment and to really mingle with others. But again, that was great from an academic point of view. And it taught me general, sort of generally about different fields, let’s say, whether it be finance, accounting, things that I was not really very much. And I came back into the business and that’s when they said they’d like me to head the retail side of the business. Dubai was going through a recession at the time, like the global world was. And so that’s when I got into the retail business in quite a full force way.
And straight after that, I was chosen to be part of the Aspen Fellowship Middle East Leadership Program. And that was less academia and more legacy work, talking about the good society. It was a group of 20 Middle Eastern Fellows. We got together twice a year in different parts of the world. And I think that really contributed to the fact that I then knew what I was very passionate about. And that was the impact on women and girls in the Middle East. So that program, which was called The Good Society, really shaped my thoughts from a philanthropy point of view. So I think it’s really important at every stage of your life to reflect on where you’re at in your career. How can you add value if you feel that you know, there is a saturation point for yourself and even the company that you’re in, in your family business, it’s important to reassess and rethink of your own goals, your own values. And that’s what I’ve done at every stage of my life, where I’ve now reached the point where I’m working on governance, I’m the vice chair of the company. So it has been quite a journey, but it’s been a wonderful journey so far.
Ramia: There is of course, something that we don’t really talk about that much either generally is that there can be innovation in governance as well. So you are currently setting up your next gen committee, trying to shape that next generation of the family into that innovation culture that you’ve been able to maintain over the last three generations. So can you share with us a little bit like what that experience is like and what you’re hoping to achieve with like, adding another governance body and how you’re hoping that will help the family continue to prosper?
Muna Al Gurg: Well, you know, going back to the founder of the business, it’s important to keep reiterating what his values are. And this is what we’ve been doing, particularly after the passing of the founder. But I think coming in as the second gen, but now with the third generation in, and we all know about the stats, we all know about how many businesses continue over the decades and generations to come.
We need to ensure that we keep innovating, as you rightly said, even in governance. And that means that the more people come into the business, the more you need to protect the business, the more you need to understand the nuances and challenges of those people. And so communication is key to this. It’s not enough to just talk about values that are from the past. We need to be relevant to now. And so we decided that it’s very important as a family at the ESAG Group to set up this governance committee to discuss these matters, to talk about family councils, to talk about structures that help us in the future in any case scenario, to hash out those ideas. And this is what we have been doing. We have the third generation with myself chairing this committee.
And it’s been very, very interesting because of the fact that there’s so much more communication happening. And it’s this clarity. And so we are now in the midst of kind of looking at various processes and trying to introduce new ways of thinking from a governance perspective. We want it to be a tight governance structure that hopefully protects the fourth and fifth generation when they come in.
Ramia: We might not live to see the results or like we might see the results much, much later. How do you deal with that delayed gratification sometimes, Muna? Like what keeps you motivated to still like put these systems in place that are hard to do? They’re not, it’s not easy to do.
Muna Al Gurg: There has to be that one person that always reminds you of, you know, what went into this business, the hard work that went into building this business. And I think when you remember that and you remind others of that, then they start to understand that it would be a complete shame to see this all disintegrate. Even if we are not around on this planet and it’s the fifth generation or whatever it may be, there’s been a great deal of work that’s gone into building this business. And I think reminding people, that’s what keeps me going, reminding myself and reminding people. And it’s interesting, you know, one of the things they tell you is if there’s any kind of let’s say legacy book, like my father wrote a book called The Wells of Memory, an autobiography. If there’s something like that or anything else, photographs, you know, anything historical that reminds you of how this started, share that with family members. Share it because then it makes the entire story relevant. So that’s what keeps me going, reminding myself of that very, you know, the hard work that went into building this family business.
Ramia: I just think it’s the ideal scenario when you’re able to do that. But then we also see very often that having that reverence and placing that importance on the tradition… Sometimes families seem to put that in contrast to innovation. It’s almost like it keeps them stuck. It keeps them wondering what the founder would have done. It keeps them in that past mindset. And it almost like they feel like it’s a trade-off between traditions and innovation. So how do you master that? How do you build that bridge to make sure that everyone feels our identity is not being lost, but at the same time, we know how to remain competitive with a market that is changing at lightning speed right now?
Muna Al Gurg: From my personal perspective, the way I see it is that in my case, from an age perspective, I’m in between, so I am the second generation, but from an age perspective, I’m in between the other board members who are my sisters and the third generation who are younger.
And so I’m almost like this in-between person who is the diplomat. And I feel that you need to find that person within your family business that can listen to the next generation, but translate it back to the older, you know, people part of the business. Because the people who fall into that category have lived enough to see the past, but also are young enough to understand the importance of the next generation. And I was recently reading up on how sometimes it’s important to get mentored by someone younger than you. And I thought that was quite interesting. Listening to someone who’s younger than you, give you advice because that’s where you get to be still relevant.
But no, but as you said, it’s important to keep trying to convince people who are not understanding that, but there probably is one person in the business.
Ramia: I think another thing that your family of course has done, which was quite exceptional, even at the time, you were, you were definitely one of the first to so visibly be all about female leadership empowerment. If you look at your sisters and yourself, like I think, uh, your father was one of those unique men who did not hesitate about, uh, who we wanted to put in chart. And you’ve been a role model for everybody in the region, I think, in that respect, when it comes to female leadership at a time, if we’re being honest, where that representation was not there, like, and I think that it’s, it’s fair to say that has changed enormously in the last few years, but still that you were in a pioneering role, which must not have been easy at the time. Um, uh, so you, if you can talk to us a little bit to that point, like how you and your sisters see this now and you’ve also established the Al Gorg Women’s Empowerment Forum. And I wanted to ask you about how those kinds of initiatives help you share the benefits of your lessons with your wider community. So reflecting on that, what, what would you say have been sort of the highlights if you look back at that?
Muna Al Gurg: Yeah, 100% agree with you. I think we really learned a lot from, you know, the legacy that, again, my father put in place by trusting, you know, three women to take his business forward, to lead the way. So I think that that’s something, again, that we learned from him, you know, his constant guidance sitting with us all the time, but then knowing that these are the three women who in the future will be board members and taking the business forward. So that certainly played a role in shaping our thoughts, you know, at a time as you said when a man of his age did really invest in something like this and believe in it, believe in women, believe in female empowerment, although he never probably called it that, but it is exactly what it is. But I think then, again, going back to what I learned at Aspen with the Good Society, the Aspe Fellowship Programme, I think something that’s always been on my mind is how do we take these learnings and how do we impact the people within our company? We have 3,000 employees of which currently 17% are women. There is a lot we can do. We are responsible business owners. So let’s think about what we care about and what we represent as three women on the board.
So it really started with myself taking the conversation about extending maternity leave. That’s how this all started. And extending the maternity leave to be three months paid leave, whereas we’re not obliged to do so as a country. We only have to give 45 days. But I think I took that conversation to the board and it was very well received and we implemented that four years ago. And I think that was a very big milestone for me personally, that I was able to help a lot more women stay. So we have 17% of our employees are women. And so again, we started to reflect on what more can we do? How can we improve the number of women working within the group?
How do we set aside policies to help more women and mothers come back into work? So as I mentioned, the first was extending the maternity leave. That was so welcomed and people have been so motivated to come back into work, whereas before we saw quite a few women leave work. So that’s one thing. I think also after the maternity leave, we started to think about the programs that we can put in place for women.
You know, reflect from an HR perspective and from a marketing perspective and communications perspective, how, you know, we can improve as a group in order for us to bridge that gender parity gap and think about things increasing the female participation in the group. So yes, so we did a lot of things with the 30% Club Toolkit, which helped us a lot. And we assessed our HR, whether it’s unconscious biases during hiring, we trained our HRs to think differently. We then did a survey that brought us a lot of data that told us about what women do require in order for them to, you know, that translates into their career. And so we started a program called Scaling Heights, which is for mid-level female managers. Then we started another program called Accelerate Your Career, which was for junior female employees. We also enrolled some women in the Women in Business at London Business School program. So this helped again shape, we’ve had 80 women so far really come and tell me that it’s changed their lives. And so again, one of our core goals is to increase the number from 17% to 30% by 2025. And we’re doing great. I recently got the results of the number of women that have come in this year. So yes, I think that these are the, platforms that you can use from within your scope to influence the people around you and the women around you. And I think I really did accelerate that conversation to have us think that way.
We were also the first family business in the UAE to sign the Gender Balance Pledge, which kind of holds you accountable, which is great. And then I continue to hold our heads of entities accountable, whether it’s HR or whether it’s the managers or communications. And so, yeah, it’s important. And I think assessing every touch point, so whether it’s your website, if you go to our website, there’s an entire section on women at ESAG. And these are small wins and we can do them. And it makes a big difference to the way people perceive this organization. But more than that, obviously, more than the communication is the actual day-to-day processes that you put in place, culture that you build with your managers. And that is a continuous process and a continuous improvement that needs to happen all the time.
Ramia: In terms of when you think about the kinds of leaders we will need in future in sort of like, you know, family enterprises, the private sector in our region, what kind of skills do you feel we need to foster in leaders in the future to make sure that, you know, they can both innovate on the governance and the cultural level on the inside of their organizations, but also make sure they have the right social, environmental and, you know, a profitable impact, obviously?
Muna Al Gurg: I think leaders of the future need to listen and learn a lot more from the next generation and foster, as you said, this culture of innovation. Be open to it. And if you feel that it’s difficult for you, well, there are so many case studies that you can learn from. So I think values are important also in terms of thinking about the values of the company, bu then translating that into you as a person. What is important to you? Maybe one company is very much focused on the environment and another company is focused on gender. But bringing together those values, listening to the next generation, having this open policy way of fostering that kind of culture, and also, again, allowing for people to have the freedom to bring new ideas to you is so important. And I think really learning from each other, you know, I’d like to see more people talk to each other about, you know, what are their challenges? What are their needs of the future? How can I learn from, you know, Muna or Ramia or whoever it may be? And this is why I’m happy to have these conversations when you approach me because this is the way we can all learn from each other. So educating ourselves by networking with each other and learning and sharing. This is the way we will always continuously grow as an economy, as a region, and as family businesses. And I think doing the opposite of that will only hinder our growth to be honest. And I feel that we can always really honestly learn from each other.
Ramia: Muna, thank you so much for joining us on Women in Family Business today.
Muna Al Gurg: Thank you, Ramia.
This interview is part of the special series “Leadership and Innovation in the Family Enterprise” in collaboration with FAB Private Banking.
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