Scaffolding Tycoon and World Entrepreneur of the Year: Mohed Altrad, Founder and CEO, Altrad Group
Scaffolding tycoon Mohed Altrad, head of Montpellier-based Altrad Group, has overcome humble beginnings to become a billionaire and the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year.
Mohed Altrad: “If you read articles about me, they always say, ‘He’s French of Syrian origin’. Why do they need to say that?”
Head of Montpellier-based Altrad Group, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of scaffolding and construction tools with a turnover of $1 billion (2014), Mohed Altrad is number 46 on the French rich list with a $1 billion worth. He owns a majority stake in Montpellier Hérault Rugby, and has written three acclaimed novels, including the semi-autobiographical Badawi. He is also Syrian by birth.
He comments: “If you read articles about me, they always say, ‘He’s French of Syrian origin’. Why do they need to say that?” . But in a world where so many billionaire entrepreneurs stem from relative privilege – Harvard Business School, Ivy League, or Oxbridge – (not to say they’ve had it easy), a story like his is one worth writing about.
Early academic excellence: “I knew that I was condemned, and my only chance was school”.
Altrad, who is around 65 years old but cannot be sure of his birth date, is the son of a Bedouin tribal leader and a mother who was no more than 13 years old when she died shortly after his birth, born in the Syrian Desert outside Raqqa (a city that is now the ISIS capital). He was raised by his grandmother, who “saw no need for me to go to school, since I was just going to be a shepherd”. But he was determined: “It was an instinct. I knew that I was condemned, and my only chance was school”.
He found a place in a local school and after an early career of academic excellence he won a scholarship for the best Baccalauréat results of his year, awarding him a place at university in the French city of Montpellier. He began his studies unable to understand even 10% of what was being said; just a few years later, he graduated with a degree in physics and maths, and a PhD in computer science.
Internationally in demand: “I saw that the product was very useful, since you need scaffolding in every sector”
He started his career as a technology engineer, before taking a four year position with the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. On returning to France, he and a university friend launched and then sold a computing company. With the proceeds, Altrad purchased a bankrupt scaffolding business, Méfran. The stock and debts cost him and partner, Richard Alcock, about €700,000, while the factory was sold for a single French franc.
He knew nothing about the industry but believed it was a product that would always be internationally in demand: “I saw that the product was very useful, since you need scaffolding in every sector: construction, refineries, and airports.”
Creating the Altrad Group: a world leader in scaffolding, cement mixers, and wheelbarrows
Over 30 years he has built and sustained growth, and Altrad Group now has customers in 100 countries, 110 subsidiaries worldwide, almost 7,000 employees, a turnover of $1 billion, and annual profits of around $100 million.
He has achieved this through acquisitions (averaging three per year), and natural growth, funded out of cash flow – banks wouldn’t lend to a Syrian-born entrepreneur without experience in the industry. The last five years alone have seen Altrad Group’s sales double. And this year’s acquisition of Dutch firm Hertel has seen the company’s size double.
Over the years, Altrad has also diversified the Group’s operations adding the sale and hire of other building products such as concreting and wheelbarrows, and associated services such as supply chain and logistics, and finance planning. Altrad Group is now world leader in cement mixers, and European leader in scaffolding and wheelbarrows.
World Entrepreneur of the Year: “The objective of life is to help humanity”
In recognition of his achievements, this year Altrad was named EY World Entrepreneur of the Year. Accepting the award in Monaco, he revealed a special character:
“We can help each other”, he said. “Companies are not just there to generate money year after year and then you become a billionaire — this is not the objective. The objective of life is to help humanity.” “You can ask why I am doing this. It has never been for money. I am trying to develop a humanistic venture to make the people who work for me happy.” “If they are happy, they are more efficient, better performers, they have a better life”.