Mohamed Mansour, the billionaire who doesn't measure success in zeroes
In our series of inspiring life stories across continents, the Egyptian businessman reveals that the legacy left by his indomitable father is beyond price
Eight o’clock each evening brought with it a ritual that the young Mohamed Mansour looked forward to all day.
It was the precious time that his father, Loutfy, came to sit at the end of his hospital bed to put the world to rights while his three brothers played football outside.
Confined as he was, Mohamed’s lonely days were spent reading but at night he gained comfort from conversations about international affairs, commodities, the brokerage industry or Mansour Snr’s latest dealings in the cotton trade.
At times, a companionable silence would fall as the radio played Voice of America or the unmistakable strains of the famed Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum.
Mohamed lay there in plaster recuperating week after week from the horrific injuries inflicted by a car that hit him as a 10-year-old crossing the street.
The doctors had wanted to amputate his leg, but the headstrong boy refused. With all the tenacity and vigour of the talented athlete that he had shown himself to be at his prestigious Victoria College in Alexandria, he vowed to stick it out as long as necessary. It took three years.
Mr Mansour looks back on the episode as an educational part of his life when his father taught him how to be a good entrepreneur and an honourable man. “That’s when I developed in me that I had to do something in my life,” he tells The National.
The billionaire's rhetoric of today features those lessons garnered by the boy: the importance of a strong work ethic, determination, vision and priorities but also trust, understanding, empathy and loyalty that goes both ways.
“People who love and respect you will do anything for you, I find, and vice versa,” Mr Mansour says.
They are the qualities he credits for his successful leadership at the helm of the Mansour Group, a global family-owned conglomerate with a presence in 100 countries, 60,000 employees and revenue of more than $7.5 billion.
Today, its six subsidiary companies operate from Colombia to Papua New Guinea, in sectors ranging from automotive and consumer goods to banking and real estate, education, health care, transport and logistics, oil and gas, media and technology.
The Egyptian cotton trading company was founded in 1952 and run by Mansour Snr. The father seemed to have picked up a thing or two from his son during those many hours in the hospital as well.
“My father always told me: ‘Mohamed, you’re a very special young man because of the strength you showed when everybody was saying that we have to amputate the leg. You’re telling the doctors, ‘No.’
“I said, ‘No’,” Mr Mansour recalls, with an edge to his voice, “and I meant it.”
The fortune that Loutfy Mansour amassed as a textiles trader was lost in 1963 when the business was nationalised by the Egyptian government. Mr Mansour’s childhood home, with its 40 rooms and 30 staff was confiscated, and his father went from feted capitalist to persona non grata on a state income of $75 a month.
Loutfy would go on to become managing director of the Sudan Cotton Company. Again, however, he was left without a job after the nationalisation of the industry in 1971.
On the advice of his twentysomething son, the redoubtable Mansour Snr immediately started a third time but in Switzerland.
Two years later, Mr Mansour joined the company in 1973 and took it in a new direction, forming a strategic partnership first with the automotive multinational General Motors and then with the construction equipment manufacturer Caterpillar. Other leading brands, such as Philip Morris, Peugeot, MG and McDonald’s would follow.
In 1976, just as the company was about to receive its first shipment of cars, another unexpected blow struck. Loutfy died aged 67 after a brain haemorrhage.
It was a crushing loss, but Mr Mansour’s pride at the thousands who turned up to the funeral of his father and, later, of his mother is evident. He admits missing both beloved parents to this day.
When the three brothers took over the company, the prevailing thinking from outsiders was that they would make a “muddle of everything”.
If you get burnt from the soup, you blow on the yoghurt
They did make mistakes in another difficult chapter, but he explains how they made it through with an unusual family idiom: “If you get burnt by the soup, you blow on the yoghurt.” Prudence became the Mansours’ watchword.
“We had to man up again, and that’s when it started, the GM business, and gradually it grew,” he says.
“It wasn't easy and we were learning as we went along, but it helped that we were US-educated and so we understood the mentality of the General Motors and the Caterpillars of this world.”
It’s the second time that Mr Mansour mentions having had to “man up”. The first came not long after he moved to university in America at the tender age of 14.
After emerging from the gruelling hospital stint, he sat his final exams early and was accepted to study aerospace engineering at North Carolina State University. The night before he was due to leave Egypt, he was feeling anxious.
“My father was sitting on the balcony, and I was worried about going to another part of the world,” Mr Mansour says. “I asked him what I should learn.
“He said, ‘Son, learn how to communicate and learn how to understand the Western mentality’, and this was very important because I think it’s made us be what we are today.”
Adapting to the American way of life came easily to the young man called “Mo” by his university chums. With two of his brothers studying nearby, he quickly slotted into college life, joining a fraternity. “Life was good,” he says, recalling that his undergraduate self drove a Corvette and partied a little too much.
But Mr Mansour’s monthly allowance of $200 stopped overnight with the nationalisation.
“We got a letter from our parents saying, ‘We can't send you anything any more. You guys have to take care of yourselves.’ So that's what we did,” he says.
When things get tough we work, work, work to maintain the family name
He took on a job as a waiter in a pizza restaurant earning $1.25 an hour. It taught him the American way of communicating — and the value of money. “You always have to watch out for a rainy day because you never know,” he says.
He also switched his university major to mechanical engineering/textiles given his father’s business interests.
“I had wanted to be a big kid on the block,” Mr Mansour says.
“Engineering was a big thing. Then I realised it wasn’t for me. I mean, the kids were more like Einstein; very serious, what you call nerdy types today. I wasn’t, so I didn’t do well and almost flunked out.”
He is grateful to a Polish professor, with some understanding of the hardships that his family was facing back in Egypt, for giving him a second chance.
Since then, Mr Mansour has devoted his energy to expanding the company, only taking time out — if it can be called such — when he was appointed Egypt’s minister of transport in 2006 in Hosni Mubarak’s government.
“In Egypt, to be selected as a minister, especially coming from the private sector, is a powerful thing,” he says. “I knew if my father was watching he would be very proud for his son to be selected from 100 million people to help drive reform.”
They were, he says, the hardest four years of his life, though rewarding in that he truly came to know the country of his birth. He resigned from the ministry after a deadly train collision in 2009, deciding to move to London which he looks on as a second home.
Today, he says he is still motivated by the same thing he was as a young man — the family legacy.
“One thing I can tell you about the Mansours is that we value our name and we’re fighters,” he says. “When things get tough, we roll up our sleeves and work, work, work to maintain that family reputation and family name,” he says.
At the heart of it all is family. He is married with two grown-up children, who were given a fixed allowance, a basic car and a talking to about knuckling down when they went off to university.
“They are not spoilt; they are hardworking and down to earth. They are athletic, they are serious, not the Ferrari, Lamborghini types. Money doesn't make the man, man makes the money,” he says.
It feels like an important aphorism to him, as though he has said it many times over the years. He speaks often about the potential for leadership and power to corrupt, and would like to think that he is the same person he always was.
“I hope I am anyway,” he says. “What you see is what you get."
With his son, Loutfy, 37, now running Man Capital, the investment arm of the group, there are no plans for Mr Mansour's retirement.
“No,” he says. “My father didn't retire. It’s in our DNA, for all of us, it’s just about growth, growth, growth — build new things, see new things. And the younger generation is amazing, too.”
He has spent the latest lockdown with his family, adapting his work routine to the new way of living. As he has mellowed with age, however, Mr Mansour has also learnt to relax. The evenings are now taken up by Netflix. “You name it, I’ve watched it,” he says.
While the first lockdown was harder because of the uncertainty over when it would end, he passed that summer on his yacht, boarding in Italy for a tour of the Mediterranean.
It is a surprising revelation. In the past, he has said that he would be “as bored as hell” if he sat on a boat off the Riviera. He laughs at the reminder, admitting that he has come to enjoy the yacht more because it has everything he needs: communications, a gym, healthy food.
“It’s like you are sitting in the house but at least you have the open space in front of you,” he says. “You drop anchor and do your thing. Now I really love it. This is the place where I get my peace of mind, solace and comfort.”
No matter how clear the skies, though, it seems likely that the figure unwinding on the deck has at least one eye scanning the horizon just in case.
Updated: February 4, 2021 11:15 PM