Careers in Focus

REWRITING HIS DESTINY: How Entrepreneur Mohed Altrad Reshaped his Destiny as a Nomadic Shepherd to an Empire- Building Visionary

This very special Careers in Focus was written and compiled by Brian Trota.

“I had no special dream at the time. Only the ambition not to accept my initial destiny.” – Mohed Altrad

At 71, Mohed Altrad has truly become the editor of his own destiny by rewriting his life narrarive many times over as testament to his eternal drive to evolve becoming a visionary entrepreneur, a lauded novelist and a noted philanthropist.

His story is one fraught with pitfalls and how cruel life can truly be. However, Altrad has taken tragedy and loss which could easily have crushed an average man, instead fueled his burning desire to forge a destiny he was satisfied with.

Altrad was born in 1948 into a Bedouin tribe in Syria. His destiny was already written in the stars. “My destiny was written. I was meant to become a shepherd.” Says Altrad. “My dream was to become other than a shepherd otherwise that would have been the end for me.”

The young man’s early life was always in constant upheaval. It was something that Altrad took as steps onto a more acceptable path for his life. “I was in a perpetual survival mode, which helped me tremendonously in my life. The initial living conditions were extremely difficult and affected me a lot,” notes Altrad, “My mother was raped twice at the age of 12-13 and gave birth to my older brother who was murdered by my father shortly after, My mother then passed away after being abandoned by my father.”

“It was unacceptable to see a Bedouin being the best student in class. So they took me to the desert, dug a hole and tried to bury me alive.”

To further complicate matters the precocious boy demonstrated flashes of pedagogical brilliance at an early age which didn’t bode well for his classmates. He relates about his early school days, “It is important to mention that a Bedouin in Syria is regarded inferior. It was unacceptable to see a Bedouin being the best student in class. So they took me to the desert, dug a hole and tried to bury me alive. Thanks to my survival instinct I managed to escape.”

Mohed Altrad’s debut novel Badawi originally released in 1994.

And with that the young Altrad knew he needed to make something of himself and a good education was the key. “My dream was then to go to school. One needs to work towards ones dreams. Life does not unfold during our sleep at night when dreams usually remain incomplete. One needs to shape a dream and plan for it. This is called life path forecasts. Yes, I do have dreams and they are unlimited.”

Altrad’s academic excellence was finally rewarded when he received a scholarship from a University of Montpellier in France. When he arrived in France in 1969 he quickly realized things were not going to be easy. “When I came to France it was an shock because things were totally different than they were in Syria.” Altrad says, “And I struggled to learn French. It was hard because it was a new country and a new culture for me. But I worked hard to succeed.”

Altrad barely understood his professors because of the language barrier. He continued to make in-roads but it was very difficult. He had to make do with the equivalent of 20 Euro (from his scholarship) per month to survive. He barely ate and found himself keeping his head above water by relying on his finely honed Bedouin survival instinct.

“One needs to shape a dream and plan for it. This is called life path forecasts. Yes, I do have dreams and they are unlimited.”

As the 1970s drew on Altrad got married to his first wife, earned his PhD in computer sciences in 1976 and took on various computer engineering positions in order to make ends meet.

With the emergence of a new decade –1980–Altrad decided to make the second major move in his life. “I decided to go to Abu Dubai between 1980 – 1984. I participated in the creation of the Abu Dubai National Gas Company.” Altrad says, “At that time Abu Dubai was very small. I stayed there for 4 years and then came back to France…I worked hard in Abu Dubai because there wasn’t really anything else to do there. Also, I managed to save much of the money I earned. I ended with a good amount of money because there was no taxes on salary and I was provided with a car and house.”

Mohed Altrad in 2018.

With both savings on his side as well as more life experience, Altrad jumped with both feet first into his next project. “When I came back to France I decided to start a computer company….What I did was buy keys on the market to make keyboards. I bought electronic cards and built computers. I placed them in suitcases which made them portable.”

Altrad’s ingenius portable computer proved to be very popular, yet in order to further the company’s expansion he needed to finance it. He decided against it and sold the company for a neat profit.

Altrad was now financially stable yet there was a desire in him to relentlessly search for his next destiny-defining opportunity. However, in a chance meeting with his in-laws’ neigbour he found out about a failing scaffolding company which he decided to buy along with a partner.

“I discovered you can’t do anything without scaffolding–so the market was there and it was huge.”

“This was the first time I heard the word scaffolding.” Despite his limited knowledge of the product he was intrigued by the unique opportunity and went to examine the company up close. “It was an intuitive thing. I saw that the product was very useful, since you need scaffolding in every sector: construction, refineries, airports.” Reminisces Altrad about the product that drastically changed his life. “[I ended buying] this company. I discovered you can’t do anything without scaffolding–so the market was there and it was huge. It soon made a profit and that was used to buy another company.”

He invested all of his money into the company and led by example: it motivated the French employees to buy into his business method. “You have to prove yourself several times more than ordinary businessmen.” Altrad continues, “I told people that I was putting in all the money I’d earned in five years. They thought: ‘He believes in us.'”

What followed were quick expansions to additional European countries which included Italy and Spain. Success was finally coming to Altrad. Then in 1989 the fledgling scaffolding magnate decided to dip into the inner reaches of his creativity. So every morning before dawn he started to write. Those quiet writing sessions gave fruition to a book which turned into his first novel Badawi. The novel was first published in 1994 to great acclaimed. The novel was a thinly disguised autobiography of Altrad’s life. “Sometimes life is difficult. Some people do sports, make love or drink. I need to write.” Says the billionaire novelist. The novel won several awards throughout the years including one in a literary award in 2003. This novel resonated with the public to the point where in 2012 the Academy of Montpellier recommended the novel to be added in its curriculum. Since the publication of Badawi, Altrad has authored several more novels to positive reviews.

The 1990s saw Altrad continue to guide his growing company with a deft hand. He even prepared for a recession which was whethered without a hitch. In 2003 Altrad steered Groupe Altrad into further expansion and made the bold move in acquiring a German competitor. A unique thing about the billionaire is that when he acquires subsidiaries he gives them time to grow and develop fully into the Groupe Altrad fold. As Altrad notes, “[It is] a way for the entrepeneur to stand out and differentiate himself from his competitors.”

Altrad taking in a rugby match from the sidelines.

In 2011 Altrad entered the sports fray when he purchased the Montpellier Rugby squad. “Here in France, when you are owner of a rugby club, it is a political weapon. Most of the politicians see you as an adversary. I’m not. I try to help the city since I’m here.” Explains Altrad, “I have to prove maybe more than anyone else that what I’m doing and saying is correct. Apparently, this is the rule of the game for me. But I am progressing. My business is doing well — my club is progress.”

“…the objective of life is to help humanity. My story should tell anyone that you can change your destiny.”

In 2014 Altrad won the French entrepeneur of the year award and in 2015 he won the Ernest and Young’s World Entrepeneur of the Year Award. At the ceremonies Altrad stated: “I’m so honoured to receive this prestigious award, especially as there was strong competition from such outstanding entrepeneurs around the world. I want to dedicate this award to everyone, as the objective of life is to help humanity. My story should tell anyone that you can change your destiny.”

Altrad holding his 2015 Entrepreneur of the Year award

And that’s what defines Altrad as a entrepreneurial visionary–he has always taken into account the human factor of the company. With over 42,000 employees in dozens of countries and major expansions between 2015 and 2017 (effectively tripling the size of the Groupe Altrad) it is as important than ever to remember the human element. “A company like the Altrad Group is not disconnected from one’s personal life–it is part of one’s life. Coming to the office in the morning does not make one’s personal problems at home fade away. So one has to find a balance between one’s career and family.” Notes Altrad who holds a 80% stake in the company.”

Key Numbers – Groupe Altrad

  • Founded: 1985
  • Employees: 42,000+
  • Countries: 50+
  • Revenue: 3.400m Euro
  • Subsidiaries: 200+

“If your employees come to work happy because their needs are met and they can feel part of this journey because they earn a decent salary with a bonus.”

“A company like the Altrad Group is not disconnected from one’s personal life–it is part of one’s life.”

The Groupe Altrad is still growing and continually carving a name for itself in many key sectors including nuclear power.

“When I acquired my first company in 1985 I had no plans in mind to build it into a group with an international dimension.” Altrad reflects, “I wanted above all to allow the company to develop. But over the years, many steps have been taken and the Altrad group is now extremely solid. it is true that nothing can be taken for granted, but I think we can all be confident for the future.”

Images courtesy of:

Groupe Altrad & Limex Altrad corporate sites and Altrad Public Relations

Information courtesy of:

Mohed Altrad interview conducted by Brian Trota. Additional information from Altrad Corporate blog, and ‘Arab Excellence’ video interview and Altrad Group Data compiled from 2018 Annual Report.

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