PARIS: Syrian-born French billionaire Mohed Altrad was in the news recently for having stood for the office of mayor in Montpellier, a southern French city popular with artists and tourists. Though he lost the election, his story is literally one of rags to riches. He emerged from the most humble, and distressing, of origins to achieve levels of success most people only dream of.
He made the bulk of his fortune while living in Montpellier. The tale of how a former Syrian became involved in the local politics of Montpellier is a genuine success story.
Despite his wealth and success in business, this 72-year-old self-made man — the founder and owner of the Altrad Group, who was named World Entrepreneur in 2015 by Ernst and Young — continues to walk among the citizens of the city with no bodyguards.
Altrad was born in 1948 into a Bedouin tribe in the desert area of Raqqa in Syria. His mother was very young, only about 14 years old. He describes the tragic circumstances of his birth in a matter-of-fact way.
“My mother, who was about 13, was raped twice by my father, who was much older and the chief of the tribe,” he said. “The first rape resulted in my brother, Mayouf, who died very young because of mistreatment by my father. I was the result of the second rape.
“My father was the chief of a bedouin tribe and he had all the power. The tribe used to move from place to place with its herds of goats and camels so I was unable to go to school.”
Fortune nonetheless smiled on the youngster when a distant cousin of his father’s, who lived a less nomadic lifestyle in a village but had no children of his own, offered to take him in and send him to elementary school.
“My father did not want me to go to school but I went anyway, without the means to buy pencils, books or clothes,” said Altrad. “I loved school and was a good student.”
The fates were once again in his favor and he was able to remain in education through high school, from which he graduated with a baccalaureate, with the help of another man of limited means.
“I stayed in his house for three years and passed all my exams,” he said. “That year the Syrian government decided to give a scholarship to the best student in each region to study abroad and I was first in Raqqa.
“That is how I arrived in Montpellier in France in 1970, where I studied French at university. Then I earned a degree at the Scientific University of Montpellier, and from there I went on to Paris where I obtained a Ph.D. in Information Technology.”
While studying for his doctorate in 1975, Altrad worked at Thompson-CSF which specialized in military electronics. Then he joined the telecoms company Alcatel, before moving to the UAE where he spent four years working for the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.
“I left (Abu Dhabi) because my wife, who is French, wanted our son to be educated in France so we came back in 1980,” said Altrad. “I founded a company which made one of the first portable computers. I sold that business very quickly because it was growing rapidly and I wanted money."
At that time, he owned a country house in a village called Florensac, between Montpellier and Beziers, and while staying there, one of his neighbors asked if he would be interested in buying his scaffolding company.
“That was the first time I had heard of scaffolding but I bought the company and liked the work very much,” said Altrad. “It was very different from IT, and I enjoyed the construction business and public works.
“The company was in deficit but I managed to correct that and began making profits, which enabled me to buy other companies. At present I have 200 subsidiaries all over the world, with 42,000 employees and a turnover of 400 million euros.
“Only a quarter of the companies are in France because I wanted to build an international group and I have plenty of business in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia in the oil and gas construction sector.”
He has written three books on management and three novels. His first novel, “Badawi,” published in 1994, was well received and chosen by the French Ministry of Education to be studied in schools. It is largely based on his life story, with a hero named Mayouf after the brother he lost. There are many messages and life lessons in the pages of the book, but perhaps the main one is the notion that time passes all-too quickly and so it is important to do good for other people and one’s country.
Altrad is immensely grateful to France, and Montpellier in particular, for enabling him “to achieve all that I, regretfully, could not have achieved in my country.”
As for how he feels about the current situation in Syria, he said he has only distant memories of the country and no longer feels connected to it. His mother died at a young age and he no longer has any family or other links to the land of his birth. Instead, he focuses on showing his gratitude to his adopted country by donating to a number of charitable and medical associations in France.