The apples and oranges of building a family legacy as told by Seif Sharbatly.
Family businesses had been part of the Kingdom’s fabric since its unification days. Jeddah as a port city gave birth to merchants and traders who are now legendary sheikhs, who became patriarchs of legacy establishments. According to surveys, family businesses make up 90% of the enterprises in Saudi Arabia, making them key drivers on economic growth and employment.
Anyone who grew up in Saudi Arabia would have, at some point, in their lives eaten a fruit with the iconic sticker of a child with a red cap. This happens to be the logo of Mohammed Abdullah Sharbatly Co, one of the first local fruit and vegetable trading companies in the Saudi Arabia.
Al Sayed Abdullah Abbas Sharbatly first started the business in the 1930s, seeing an opportunity in providing fruits and vegetables as part of the family’s catering business. From there, the Sharbatly patriarch would build the foundation of the company by importing and distributing bananas. In the 1970’s the enterprise was passed on to his eldest son, Al Sayed Mohammed.
In the decades that followed, the company grew from its humble beginnings— from three stores in Jeddah, it has now expanded to 12 branches across Saudi Arabia, with agricultural operations spanning the globe. By the 1990s AlSayed Mohammed was joined by his sons, Abdallah, Seifallah, and Hashim. The family has maintained its upward trajectory, in 2004, the company was relaunched as the Mohammed Abdullah Sharbatly Company.
Wanting to gain insight into the inner workings of this household name, we spoke to Seifallah Sharbatly, current managing director of the group and CEO of Sharbatly Co. in Egypt.
Seif Sharbatly recalls his first time getting introduced in the family business; tagging along his father as a little boy. “I remember my father telling me to come with him to work, I would sit in his office, sometimes go around with him as he went through the demands of the day. Eventually, he’d put me through different job rotations in the company, learning the ropes. After getting my university degree, I trained some more, from the IT department to the warehouse, name it I went through it,” Seif said.
Even though he is the son of the founder, Seif Sharbatly worked his way up to where he is today. In fact, it took him 10 years before he was appointed the CEO of the Sharbatly’s Egypt operations. Seif shares, “Patience, it’s one of the things we learned from our father. That, and there’s no such thing as luck; luck comes with and after hardwork.”
One of the challenges faced by many family businesses is retaining ownership pass the second generation. Fortunately, it seems that the Sharbatly family is well on its way to surpassing this. Just as his father trained him, Seif and his siblings are preparing the next generation of Sharbatly leaders. His own son joins the company for 6-week job rotations during his semester breaks.
Another admirable trait of the Sharbatlys is their ability to separate business of the family from the family business. Conflicts seldom occur and they are neatly kept outside of dinner table conversations. The brothers and their father have a voting system in place to resolve issues— each one getting one vote, while the patriarch gets two.
The Sharbatly brand has been able to expand and innovate with the demands of time. Apart from providing fresh fruits and vegetables on Saudi tables across every region, they also own farms in Chile and South Africa, a citrus packaging plant in Egypt, numerous cold storage facilities across Saudi Arabia, branches in Bahrain and Dubai, as well as getting into frozen poulty and meat distribution. Just recently the company has also entered the water bottling market with its own brand: Montana.
As Seif mentioned in our conversation, “for any business to survive, you need to be able to seek opportunities, and if they are not there, just as my grandfather did, make opportunities. We learn from the wisdom of the family, from our relatives but we also need to push forward: solve problems unique to our generation; or keeping up with the fast pace of the industry. Right now for example, we have found new ways to distribute our products effectively, and soon we will be launching an app that will bring quality Sharbatly produce to your doorstep.”
Perhaps, one of the reasons behind Sharbatly’s success is the commitment of every generation to contribute to its legacy; and their ability to stay agile. One thing is for sure, every time you come across that Sharbatly seal of quality— you know it came from a Saudi family that has hardwork written in their genes.