Jul 12 2012
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The oscars of enterprise
The world Entrepreneur of the Year Awards highlight the best of entrepreneurial activities from around the world. This year they had a new entrant from Qatar, demonstrating the country's determination to broaden and nurture SME creation.
This time for Africa," echoed Dr James Mwangi, CEO and Managing Director of Kenya's Equity Bank Limited, not entirely in tune with the popular chartbuster, as he came up to receive the World Entrepreneur of the Year 2012 (WEOY) award at a ceremony held in Monte Carlo. Dr Mwangi was picked from among 59 finalists from 51 countries vying for the title, each of whom had already been named Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year (EOY) in his or her home country.
"This is a global recognition for Africans who are embracing the power of entrepreneurship to change the economic and social state of Africa," said Dr Mwangi. He was pitted against the some of the most ingenious brains of the world in fields ranging from technological inspiration, like the inventor of Better Place the leading electrical vehicle provider from Israel or the brains behind mechatronic drive engineering from Germany, to social innovation, like the creative force behind LinkedIn, to entertainment, like the phenomenal Angry Birds - to name just some of the most prolific entrepreneurial creations.
And the reason for choosing him was his story and the scale of his success in the face of the barriers he had to surmount. Equity Bank is the largest bank by customer base in East and Central Africa, and the largest African majority-owned company in the region. The bank has more than seven million accounts, representing over half of all bank accounts in Kenya. It also has operations in Uganda, South Sudan, Rwanda and Tanzania. The chair of the judging panel, Troika Dialog, CEO Ruben Vardanian, said: "Not only has Dr Mwangi really transformed people's lives across Africa by offering them access to funding that they have never had before; Equity Bank also continues to grow quickly with a strong financial performance."
Entrepreneurs create the need
In his book The Coming Jobs War Jim Clifton, the Chairman, of Gallup, worries that America and much of the rest of the world are trying to boost innovation while entrepreneurs - living, breathing, job-creating engines - are being neglected. He emphasises the need of the moment, which is not shelter, peace or freedom but jobs - a need that entrepreneurs could meet through their enterprise creations. When Ernst & Young asked over 8,000 EOY winners from 35 countries about job creation they found that the respondents (80% of whom have their own companies) had expanded their total workforce by an average of 16% in 2011.
In the US alone, where overall job growth has been slow, survey respondents grew their headcounts by an impressive 18% in 2011. The Asia-Pacific region reported a 16% growth rate and Europe clocked in at 12%. What is even more exciting is that they anticipated creating more jobs in 2012. So while entrepreneurs create the need, they also answer it. And they expect to hire because they anticipate growth. Sixty-eight percent expected to expand their workforce in the country where they are headquartered, and 44% expected to expand outside. The countries where they anticipated creating the most jobs were the US, China, the UK and India.
Asked why they would be recruiting outside their national market in 2012, 74% of the entrepreneurs said this was in order to help them enter new markets. Only 14% said they were recruiting internationally to 'take advantage of lower labour costs' and only 8% said they wanted to benefit from 'better government incentives' in other countries. Ernst & Young, Global Vice- Chair for Strategic Growth Markets, Maria Pinelli explains: "Whether at home or abroad, in good economic times or bad, entrepreneurs are constantly looking for new opportunities to expand their businesses and services. Despite an uncertain global economy, entrepreneurs are actively looking to recruit highly-qualified and experienced staff."
The regional spark
This year, the Ernst & Young EOY awards had a new entrant. Qatar was represented for the first time in the programme's 26-year-old history, by Ashraf Abu Issa, Chairman of Abu Issa Holding . Abu Issa was named winner of the Qatar EOY 2011 Awards, held in collaboration with Enterprise Qatar under the patronage of Business and Trade Minister HE Sheikh Jassim bin Abdulaziz Al-Thani. He won the award for establishing Abu Issa Holding , one of Qatar's key retail empires, and being a unique exemplar for business in his sector. Oman had an entrepreneur with a difference.
Dr Mohammed Al Barwani left a comfortable job as a petroleum engineer at Petroleum Development Oman to found his own enterprise. Initially representing international companies and selling his own knowledge as a technical expert, he later started competing with them. "My father was a businessman and I had an early interest in business. He was a small-time businessman with just a small shop, but the values that he passed on still remain." On the virtually nonexistent climate of entrepreneurship in the country at that time, he says: "People thought I was crazy to leave a secure career to go into business. My relatives thought I was being irresponsible."
Today, three decades later, he has proved the sceptics wrong and his company, MB Holding Company , is a success story, with operations and subsidiaries spread across the globe in the Middle East, Europe, North Africa, Asia-Pacific, Australia and New Zealand, with close to 7,000 employees. "The profits are usually invested back in the company, and we grow typically at 30% a year," he says. Each day brings with it exciting opportunities, says Dr Al Barwani, and each challenge brings new lessons. "The key driver for an entrepreneur is to build a company that is well-managed and makes you personally feel good about it," he says. If there is one thing he wishes he could change it would be to have started his enterprise much earlier...
The EOY winner from the UAE was Farouk Toukan, a Palestinian-Jordanian who is the Executive Partner of CICON Building Materials. One of the first suppliers of building materials to the construction industry, CICON has been at the forefront of its field since inception and brought value to the rebar steel market. "Even though the company was affected by the financial downturn we managed to keep our heads up, even in the face of the storm, and now we are expanding into neighbouring countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia," he says.
The Jordanian edutainer
The most popular of the country winners and the only female entrepreneur among the 51 finalists was Randa S. Ayoubi, CEO of Rubicon Group Holding from Jordan. Charming and earnest, Ayoubi wins the hearts of everyone she communicates with. An advocate for educational standards, her vision is to enhance the lives of children through technology. Ayoubi started out producing educational content in a multimedia format.
Today Rubicon has grown from two to 400 employees and diversified into digital games, applications, animation, digital distribution, toys and themed entertainment parks. But her passion continues to be education. "I believe that as a region we could be having much more of a role in the world economy, and the start for that would be to raise educational levels. Education takes people from poverty to riches, from ignorance to enlightenment. I believe in the power of education to transform lives," she says. Twinning the power of education with technology seemed to Ayoubi the perfect way to touch the lives of young people effectively.
"Combining education with entertainment that is relevant, fun and high-quality, with a take-away value attached to it," is how she describes the core values of her company. And guiding her was her vision. "I always believed in my dreams. There was never a question of whether I would build my dreams; there was only a question of time, or when I would do it." There were many moments when Ayoubi thought of quitting, asking herself why she was doing it all in the face of dire challenges. But then when the next day dawned she would continue with added zeal and pursue her dreams with even more determination. "As more people are going into business, the culture of failure is reducing. And there is an advantage being a woman," she says, smiling, including me within this 'elite' group.
"Women in general have fewer ego issues. You only have to prove your might to yourself, not to anyone else." On the initial barriers she encountered, she says funding was the greatest issue. A close second was creating a foundation for the digital media industry, as at that time Jordan's ICT sector was not well developed and couldn't support her ambitious pursuits. On being the only woman in the WEOY this year, she says: "It is a good and sad feeling. Good because you get all the attention," she laughs, clearly enjoying the attention that comes her way, "and sad because you form 50% of the world's population yet you still fall behind in making a mark. I also wish there were more success stories to glorify." Ayoubi is quite the role model in Jordan, and that is a responsibility she loves. "I feel proud when women come and talk to me and ask for tips, and it feels nice when you can motivate those around you."
The power of social enterprise
There was one constant throughout the three days of the WEOY gala in Monte Carlo: Johannes Gutmann, founder of Sonnentor, the winner from Austria in his trademark costume - well-weathered leather pants, a t-shirt with a yellow shining sun, his company's trademark, red-rimmed glasses, and an unwavering grin. But one shouldn't be fooled by his comical looks, for Gutmann has an equally successful story to tell. He employs 170 people in Austria and 70 in the Czech Republic, and in its latest financial year his company achieved a turnover of approximately 25 million euros.
"I started with these old leather trousers, and here I still am with them. My red boots are traditionally handmade in my hometown. All these remind me of my people and my roots, and they need the exposure too," he says. The Sonnentor business is based on the concept of supporting small rural structures, which are a longstanding tradition in the Waldviertel district of Austria. With a 50% market share in the specialised organic trade (tea and spices, not including food trading), the company is leading the market.
In Germany, the company holds a 25% market share and ranks in the top three. "Our sun symbol is the symbol of the liberated farmers after they got their freedom from the Church in the Middle Ages," he tells us. Simple but earnest, Gutmann's talent for inspiring people makes him a leader who is propelling a multimillion- euro company into the future with sensitivity, humanity and joy. His motto: "If you give love you get it back twofold."
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