INTERVIEW: Nadia Abu Sarah: the ambitious woman in charge of Aramex finances

Nadia Abu Sarah
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Updated 12 January 2020

INTERVIEW: Nadia Abu Sarah: the ambitious woman in charge of Aramex finances

  • Nadia Abu Sarah, who wants to go all the way to the top in finance, explains why women are good for business

DUBAI: Not many women make it to the rank of chief financial officer (CFO) in the Middle East. There are only three working in that role at the 85 companies listed on the Dubai Financial Market and Nasdaq Dubai, for example. Nadia Abu Sarah of Aramex is one of them.
But she admits that by her own high standards, she has fallen short of her childhood ambition growing up in Jordan.
“My expectation was beyond this. I wanted to be head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in New York,” she told Arab News.
That big ambition makes her a perfect role model for aspiring women in the Middle East business scene, long dominated by men to an even greater extent than elsewhere in the world. The fact that she got where she has at Aramex is a sign that times are changing at last.
It is also an indication of the powerful effect an encouraging family environment, and an inclusive corporate culture, can have on a young woman’s career. “I was lucky to be born into a family where my mother and father were open-minded and had traveled all over the world, and encouraged me and my sisters to follow our ambitions,” she said.
She has been with Aramex — one of the few Middle East companies to have made it in a global context — for all of her career, and has benefited from its commitment to international standards. Founded and built up by renowned Jordanian entrepreneur Fadi Ghandour, Aramex has a policy of continuity in its executive selection.
“Most of my colleagues, including the senior leadership team, have also been with the company for a long time. We have a tight corporate culture at Aramex — the company feels very much like a family,” Abu Sarah said.
She began as a financial analyst in Jordan, moving to the UAE head office in Dubai in 2010. She was made acting CFO in 2017, and rewarded with the permanent post last summer. “Fadi called me and told me I’d got the job. I saw it as a result of all the steady steps I’d been taking toward achieving my dreams, with the full support of my family and with my work colleagues around me,” she said.
Since she has been at Aramex, the company has undergone a dramatic expansion, clocking up more “firsts” than most see in their history: First delivery firm to offer express, domestic and freight forwarding services under one roof; first company from the Middle East to get a listing in New York; and a record-breaking initial public offering in Dubai after it decided to “come home” from the US in 2005.
Perhaps the comparatively enlightened policy Aramex displays toward its female employees is a contributor to that corporate success. As Abu Sarah points out, a recent Harvard Business Review study found that women outperformed men in 84 percent of the competencies that differentiate excellent leaders from average or poor ones, such as taking initiatives, acting with resilience, practicing self-development, driving for results, and displaying high integrity and honesty.
She believes that there is a sound business case for gender equality in the corporate world. “Business-critical challenges require problem-solving capabilities and creativity that can only be found through diverse leadership. Gender-diverse leadership has been proven to help companies benefit from a broader mix of perspectives and skills, leading to richer debates and more creative problem-solving, as well as clear business advantages,” she said.
Perhaps it is this diversity of decision-making that has kept Aramex profitable over the years, allowing it to weather the global financial crisis and the slowdown in regional business activity after the oil price collapse in 2014.
Financial results at the third-quarter stage last year were impacted by pricing pressure in the increasingly competitive international courier industry, where the shift toward e-commerce has led to huge opportunities, but also attracted a lot of new entrants to the business. The company is awaiting results from its all-important festive season before it publishes figures for the full year.
Abu Sarah knows the history of the company by heart, and catalogued its development from a US wholesale delivery business into a truly global operation with product offerings across the full logistics range.
“We’ve seen success in maintaining an agile, low-cost, high-margin business, and our investments in technology and innovation have placed us in good standing to compete in the competitive e-commerce space and strengthen our last-mile delivery capabilities,” she said.
The rise of e-commerce has dramatically altered the landscape of the courier industry. “The opportunities are immense — more and more e-commerce companies are emerging from all around the world, notably from Asian markets, and more people are choosing to switch to online channels to shop,” she said.
“This is also forcing several traditional retailers to tap online delivery as a key channel to sell goods to their customers. Aramex is offering warehousing and logistics solutions to help companies tap the online shopping industry.”
Aramex has an ally in the shape of Mohamed Al-Abbar, the founder of Emaar and a big advocate of the benefits of an indigenous e-commerce industry via his Noon platform. Al-Abbar is a significant shareholder in Aramex.
The firm’s operations, Abu Sarah believes, “are more efficient than ever before,” but continued efficiency is more dependent than ever on getting deliveries through the final leg of the process, where delay and confusion can undo all the good work higher up the chain.

BIO

NAME: Nadia Abu Sarah

DATE OF BIRTH: 1972, Lebanon

EDUCATION: Degree in economics and business administration, University of Jordan

• Executive development program, Oxford University, UK

• Leadership executive program, American University of Beirut

CAREER: Aramex — senior financial analyst •Executive corporate financial controller •Interim CFO •CFO

“We have a common saying in Aramex that ‘battle is won and lost in the last mile.’ Over the last several years, and undoubtedly in the years to come, the largest portion of our capital expenditure will be focused on upgrading our last-mile capabilities in the markets in which we operate, not least through our digital transformation strategy,” she said.
Much has been made of the potential presented by drones to enhance this stage of the business. She recognizes that drones and autonomous vehicles (AV) could be the next big game-changer in the courier business, but there are regulatory and political challenges to overcome before they can be introduced on a permanent basis. “Drones and AV are firmly on our technology map, and we’ll take it to the next stage as soon as it’s permitted,” she said.
Saudi Arabia has been a big focus of recent expansion. Aramex has grown in the Kingdom through the establishment of three new facilities, in response to increasing shipment volumes into and within the country.
Just over a year ago, it introduced Aramex Fleet, a crowd-sourced facility designed to speed the last-mile stage of the delivery process. The service is only available to Saudi nationals, who can enjoy the benefits of flexible working hours and earn money based on successful delivery rates. “We’re expanding massively in Saudi Arabia. The culture is changing, and we see the Fleet service as a way of increasing Saudization in the Kingdom,” Abu Sarah said.
Some 1,000 Saudi “Fleeters” have signed up since the project was launched, including a large number of women. The operator holding the record for the most successful deliveries is a woman, Abu Sarah proudly pointed out. The Fleet operation model is being rolled out across the region.
Meanwhile, Abu Sarah is determined to continue providing an example to women in business. “I find that the business environment in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) is very supportive of women, both from a government and private sector perspective,” she said.
“Women remain largely outnumbered in the logistics and supply chain sector, but have steadily advanced over the past few decades. There’s room for improvement, but I’m happy to say Aramex has created an enabling environment for female employees.”
She thinks that women still have a lot to prove in business, but they are finally being given the chance. Some 27 percent of Aramex executives are women, which is high in comparison to other companies and industries, and there are plans to increase that dramatically.
“The aspiration is to increase it to the fullest extent possible,” she said. “Women are held to higher standards than male peers, and are more likely to hold other colleagues accountable. They’re also less likely to be clouded by over-confidence.”
Self-confidence is a different matter, and her career path is a template for how young ambitious women can succeed in traditionally male-dominated businesses. And who knows? The IMF has just appointed a new (female) managing director, but maybe in a few years’ time the job will become vacant again. Abu Sarah has time, and a proven track record, on her side.

 


Automechanika Riyadh opens, featuring leading global suppliers

Updated 25 February 2020

Automechanika Riyadh opens, featuring leading global suppliers

  • Saudi auto deals grew 40 percent last year with influx of female buyers

RIYADH: Leading names in the global auto services industry are out in force at Automechanika Riyadh — which opened on Monday at Al Faisaliah Hotel — vying to increase their share of a growing market expected to reach a value of $10.15 billion by 2023.

Automechanika Riyadh is the regional arm of the world’s largest trade fair, congress and event organizer, Messe Frankfurt, which has licensed the Automechanika brand to event organizer Al Harithy Company for Exhibitions (ACE) Group.

Mansour Abdullah Al-Shathri, vice chairman of the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce, inaugurated the trade event, which will run from Feb. 24-26.

It was revealed that Saudi auto deals grew approximately 40 percent last year, with female buyers accounting for between 10-15 percent of sales after the landmark decision to allow women to drive in the Kingdom for the first time.  

“International suppliers are stepping up their marketing for the resurgence in Saudi’s market, and this impacts the entire supply chain,” said Mahmut Gazi Bilikozen, show director for Automechanika Riyadh.

“While there is growth potential in the market, it is becoming a more competitive landscape and one which will also have to contend with evolving customer preferences. The conditions are ripe for new business relationships for those wishing to succeed in this transformative environment,” he added.

Zahoor Siddique, vice president of ACE, said: “Future vehicles will become more complex and challenging for the aftermarket industry. It is therefore imperative for manufacturers, local garages, technicians and mechanics to upskill and remain above the curve. 

 “Automechanika Riyadh is one such platform that can enable us to share and learn what the industry needs to unleash its potential.”

Two major US players — disc pad producer Giant Manufacturing and United Motors Mopar, the Kingdom’s sole distributor of Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Fiat cars — forecast a bullish market over the next few years.

Giant’s vice president, Eli Youssian, said he believed car sales in the Kingdom would grow by 9 percent annually until 2025, while United Motors District CEO Hassan Elshamarani expected another three million female drivers to be on the Kingdom’s roads by the end of the year.

Both Giant and United Motors launched new products at the show, with the former rolling out its new German-engineered Euro Premium Metallic Disc brake pads, and the latter introducing its Magneti Marelli spare parts.

The high potential of the new-look Saudi automotive landscape has also struck a major chord with South Korean suppliers.

The show’s Korean pavilion is hosting new-to-market entrants and existing suppliers all looking for business partners. With products from wiper blades to filters and air-conditioning parts to brake pads, the Korean contingent was positive about the Kingdom’s prospects.

One exhibitor, D Only Automotive, is looking to ring fence 10 percent of the Saudi brake market. “With more vehicles on the road, demand for brakes will increase, (so) we believe this is possible,” said President Jeon JaeWon.

Global research and analytics firm Aranca — Automechanika’s knowledge partner — has forecast that Saudi Arabia’s automotive spare parts and service market will grow at approximately 6 percent over the next five years to reach a value of $10.15 billion by 2023.

“The spare parts and service market for passenger cars alone is expected to eclipse $6.9 billion by 2023,” said Vishal Sanghavi, Aranca’s automotive practice head.