Drive through adversity to success

Michel Ayat has come a long way from the war-torn streets of Beirut and an abrupt departure from Kuwait to steering Arabian Automobiles through a challenging market.

Illustration by Christopher Burke for The National
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Michel Ayat has a joyful demeanour as he strolls around the Arabian Automobiles headquarters in Bur Dubai. His easy-going manner as he talks with his staff - at one point gently pointing out to a manager a piece of chewing gum on an elevator door which needs to be removed - makes it hard to believe that the chief executive has been abruptly displaced from his home. Not once, but twice, each time by war.

How he came to be at the helm of one of the largest car companies in the region is a mixture of circumstance, risk and good fortune. He is now the chief executive of Arabian Automobiles, part of the AW Rostamani group, which sells Nissans and Infinitis. "If you ask me, did you plan? Nothing is planned," Mr Ayat says in his pristine and spacious office. "It just happened. It was [based on] the right decision at that time."

Mr Ayat grew up in a village of about 10,000 people near Beirut. He was the third-oldest child in a family of four brothers and two sisters. His father worked 12-hour days in construction, while his mother stayed at home to tend to the children. "We were not an affluent family," Mr Ayat says. "The middle class, we have to be self-made. We have to work to earn our living. The best thing that [my parents] offered us was the high value of learning and the values and the culture of the family."

His father had limited schooling, but pushed for his kids to pursue higher education. Mr Ayat was the first in his village to study as a graduate student. He graduated in 1969 with a Master's degree in political science at the Lebanese University. It was not his first choice, but the best option available at the public, and free, institution. He later saved up enough money to get a diploma in mathematics, his real passion, from the American University of Beirut.

"I was good at the subject and because of the passion for mathematics, I was a good teacher. If you have passion for what you do, passion makes people successful." Starting in secondary school, Mr Ayat used that passion to make some extra cash by working part-time as a tutor. It was a bit of a hobby until a stranger showed up at his door with an intriguing proposal. He remembers it vividly: it was 9.30 on a Sunday morning in 1972.

"One gentleman, he walked into my house saying 'I heard about you. That you are a good teacher'." That visitor owned a nearby school building, which had been used by an educational institution that had moved, he says. He asked Mr Ayat to join him and start a new private school in its place and act as headmaster. He jumped at the chance. At the age of 26, Mr Ayat began recruiting teachers and launched Friends College.There were 160 students in its first year, from kindergarten to grade 8. The following year the student population had nearly doubled to 300. And during the next two years the group grew between 20 and 30 per cent each year, as they added grades 9 through to 12. The school thrived and at one point Mr Ayat was managing 15 teachers.

The knowledge he gained from running the school has helped him with every job since, he says. "There were some mistakes and some things that were not completed," he says. "But I can say until now, from those four years, I have people who are still in touch with me and they appreciated my contribution." But Mr Ayat's tenure would be cut short. A civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1975 and it became too dangerous for students and teachers alike to venture into the streets.

"One week, it is safe and quiet and then the other week, again the roads are closed and buses cannot reach the school," Mr Ayat says. The political situation was particularly perilous for Mr Ayat. He was still living with his parents in his childhood home, which was close to the line of fire. Guns, which he had never seen before, had become a daily sight. At one point, Mr Ayat was all but confined to his house for eight months. "It was almost like I was under house arrest ? It was very risky. And finally, I decided to leave."

His oldest brother, Nain, had been working in Kuwait and asked him to stay, temporarily. "All my friends were forced to take part in the war, either on the left or right," Mr Ayat says. "We were friends and you can see that we ended up in two different camps. And so, the family were worried and me and my youngest brother, Simon, we went to Kuwait, thinking that this war will be over in a few months."

After four months, it became clear their stay would be longer. He took a job at Kuwait Automobile and Trading. He had never worked in the car industry, but his brother was a manager at the company and his family pushed him to take the work. "They wanted me to stay in Kuwait and not to go back," Mr Ayat says. "I was planning to go back. You have just to imagine that I lived my whole life in Lebanon. My friends, my personal life, so my desire was to go back. But the reality was that it was a war."

And the job was "lousy". He was working as an assistant to a sales manager who did not give Mr Ayat much training or opportunity to learn. After four months with little progress, Mr Ayat resigned. "I wrote a letter saying 'I feel that I have no right to get salary because I am doing nothing for you. And I cannot carry on like this. I want to thank you for these four months ? and now I want to pursue my career, in other places'."

The company's owner called in Mr Ayat and refused to accept his resignation. Instead, he offered him a job as the manager of their newly acquired brand Daihatsu cars. For Mr Ayat, that job clicked. As did other aspects of his life. In 1976, he met his future wife, Vicky, who was also working at the car company. She also was Lebanese and had left to avoid the conflict. They got married in 1977 and had their first child, Rania, in 1978.

He flourished in his new role and worked his way up the ranks. By 1990 he was running the firm. His personal life was moving along swimmingly, too: he was the proud father of two daughters and a son. In July 1990, Mr Ayat and his wife took their kids on a summer trip to Austria. The children had become enamoured with the musicalThe Sound of Music and wanted to visit the place where the film was set. They boarded a plane on July 23 1990. Eight days later, the Iraqi forces began to bomb Kuwait City and their tanks rolled across the country's borders.

Mr Ayat and his family were shocked. "There was no clue that the Iraq army would reach Kuwait," he says. With only their vacation clothes and a handful of personal items, they decided to wait out the invasion in Europe. Less than a week later, the Kuwaiti banking system shut down. Mr Ayat's credit cards stopped working and his bank accounts were frozen. "We were penniless," he says. "Then the decision was to go back to our home country [of Lebanon], because we want to find a place where we can stay, without paying."

Mr Ayat switched the family's plane tickets from Kuwait to Beirut. But that was not an ideal situation either. Lebanon was just starting to recover from the war. Mr Ayat's children should have been getting ready to return to school, but the country's education system was not yet back on track. Mr Ayat's friends and his brother in Dubai told him there were many good schools there. That decided it - their next stop was the Emirates.

"I came here and thought, I will send my children to school and wait one year," he says. "Kuwait will come back and I will go back to my company." In September, as the occupation continued, Mr Ayat briefly returned alone to their family home. "I went to Kuwait to see my house because I wanted their birth certificates," he says. "Many documents for my children were required by the schools here. So I risked a journey from Jordan to Baghdad, then Baghdad to Kuwait."

He filled seven suitcases with clothing and other personal items and came back to Dubai. But by November, Mr Ayat was still idle, waiting for an end to the conflict and to resume his professional life. The bills began to pile up and he needed to find a way to support his family. "I had money at that time, but my money was in the banks in Kuwait, which were closed, and there was no one to recognise or honour this money. So I started looking for a job."

He joined Arabian Automobiles as its motors manager. Three months later, he was promoted to general manager. After Kuwait was liberated in February 1991 and the dust began to settle, Mr Ayat's former bosses came to Dubai to tempt him back to Kuwait. "They offered me land, open salary," he says. "I was the head of that company and without me it was difficult for them. But the circumstances were against that decision.

We realised that we are in a country that we love, and my children, they loved Dubai." He retains fond memories of his 15 years in Kuwait, but decided that Dubai was his home. And nearly 20 years later, it still is. He has since been promoted to chief executive, and has helped to quadruple the company's sales to reach an annual turnover of more than Dh4 billion (US$1bn). Mr Ayat credits his capacity with numbers and mathematics for some of his success. It seems his brain is wired that way; in conversation he often mentions an event in passing along with the year, month, day and even time that it happened.

"If you are good with figures, you are good in analysis," he says. "And a job like mine needs to be based in mathematics." Zaher Sabbagh, the company's national sales manager of retail, says Mr Ayat's attention to detail and his rapport with people, from those who fetch coffee to sales executives, has been key. "He motivates even the smallest employee in the company," Mr Sabbagh says. "He's not locking the doors and controlling the company behind walls. He's always visible and always making a visit to each and every department in the company. He knows what each and every manager in this company and each sales guy in this company is doing."

His life now is an open motorway, but the issues that loom are simpler and less disruptive. As the chief executive of Arabian Automobiles, Mr Ayat has been steering the firm through one of the most difficult periods for the car industry. Last year, the local industry was rattled by the economic slowdown and sales tumbled by as much as 40 per cent. But he remains unfazed, having lived through much more turbulent times.

"I enjoy every minute and every hour."