In The News

Frank Kane’s working lunch: Hussein Hachem of Aramex is a man in a hurry

Towards the end of our lunch at the Little More Cafe in Dubai’s Business Central Towers, Hussein Hachem says: "If you’re working for Aramex, you’d better be fast."

He’s referring, of course, to the need for speed, which is the essence of a courier company, and also to the rapid technological changes the logistics industry currently faces. But he might also be referring to the service at the restaurant. Rapid it is not.

After some debate, we’d chosen Little More as the venue for a number of reasons. It was close to Aramex’s offices; as a walk-in establishment it avoided the need to fussily book ahead; and it seemed to offer the advantage of maximum talk-time without intrusive table service. Mr Hachem was on a tight schedule, I was told.

Little More is a "lite" version of the More Cafes that have been around the UAE for the past 14 years or so. The formula – a menu that offers virtually every kind of cuisine you could wish for in bright, "cool" surroundings – has been successful, though I never understood why the bigger branch in DIFC closed last year.

There is nothing especially "lite" about Little More, however. The menu is a bit shorter, and not attached to a clipboard by an industrial nut and bolt as in the bigger cafes, but I couldn’t see that much difference.

As I wait for my guest, I have a quick flick through, and all the old favourites seemed to be there – "healthy breakfasts, daily soups, freshly made salads, a ‘build your own’ sandwich bar, homemade pastas, selections of main dishes and an assortment of cakes and patisseries", as the promotional material has it.

The opportunity to sit down with a chief executive of Aramex should never be declined, regardless of the surroundings. The company is one of the very small number from the Middle East that can seriously be called a global brand, alongside Emirates airline, DP World and (maybe soon) Saudi Aramco, as regional firms that have a truly international footprint.

The illustrious American writer Thomas Friedman used Aramex as the epitome of globalisation in his influential book The World is Flat.

The history, too, is fascinating. Founded by Fadi Ghandour, legendary entrepreneur and investor from Jordan who has become one of the grandees of the UAE financial scene, it was the first (and so far only) Middle East company to list on an American stock exchange when it joined the Nasdaq market in 1997.

That foray into western markets was short lived, as Aramex was then taken private again by the region’s biggest private equity business, Arif Naqvi’s Abraaj Capital, before it re-emerged in the public spotlight on the Dubai Financial Market.

Recently, it gained an important new backer, when Mohamed Alabbar and other investors bought out Mr Ghandour’s remaining 10 per cent stake as part of Mr Alabbar’s strategy to develop Noon, his ambitious e-commerce business.

With a lineage and connections like that, Aramex, and Mr Hachem, are right at the centre of the Arabian business power nexus.

He is a sleek Lebanese executive, who at age 47 looks as though he works out a bit. His demeanour is friendly and open, and he is quick to a smile. But he has the kind of face that you just know could darken quickly if you don’t meet his exacting standards.

We were reaching that point now. Ordering has been easy. A bottle of still local water and halloumi salad for him and a Caesar with chicken for me. "Now I can talk," he says, once the waitress departed.

We’d been talking for some time – mainly about the dramatic effect technological change is having on business and on the logistics business in particular – when he stops. "Where is my salad," he growls. It has been taking a while, but the delay gives him the chance to elaborate on the technology theme. And elaborate he does.

"The world is changing and we can feel the impact. We have to fully embrace the digital economy and technological change. Our main strategic focus is on how we’re going to change our platform to fully exploit the growth of e-commerce. We need to upgrade our capacity through technology, for example in courier apps and crowdsourcing technology. We’re introducing that next year," he says rapidly.

I’m accustomed to hearing C-suite executives these days enthusing about the brave new world of e-commerce, apps and technology, often with all the enthusiasm of the recently converted. But how can you apply digital age technology to a simple physical process like getting a parcel from A to B?

Mr Hachem has given this issue some serious thought and when he explains it, it all begins to seem fairly obvious, but at the same time transformational.

For one thing, the whole industry can be made much more efficient through app technology, he says.

"The current business model is gone. The B2B, 9-to-5, man-in-a-van model is being challenged strongly. The future is going to be digital and flexible. Anybody can become an Aramex courier if you have the spare time," he says, holding out a vision of an "uberised" courier business where operatives are crowdsourced and outsourced, destinations are digitally identified and delivery times are dramatically reduced.

The salads finally arrive. The halloumi looks good and he tucks in with relish. I’m hungry and make a start, but the bowl is huge and unmanageable, especially while juggling a pen and notebook. The pitfalls of a working lunch.

My chicken is also smothered in something that looks like Thousand Island dressing as well as caesar, and after a couple of mouthfuls I understand why the two are not common accompaniments. But I struggle on.

Mr Hachem, on the other hand, has mastered the executive art of simultaneous eating and talking. I ask him whether the rising protectionism of the Trump and Brexit era is a danger to the Aramex business model. "If you can put the political issues on one side, what would really hurt global trade is a rise in protectionism and obstructionism in global commerce. But I don’t really see that happening and anyway, we have a model that would get round it. Our model is based on being able to adapt to circumstances as they change."

I try to get him to talk about US president Donald Trump, but he adroitly sidesteps the political question. "As long as trade keeps flowing, we’re happy," he says.

The changes are coming thick and fast in the logistics business. Mr Hachem estimates that global e-commerce will be worth US$2 trillion in three years’ time and nearly half of that will be in Asia. With only 8 per cent of global commerce currently online, that represents a massive acceleration.

But despite the apps and the digital technology, the courier business often comes down to the problem of the "last mile": after goods have been whisked by hi-tech at high speed around the world, how do they physically get to the buyer’s doorstep?

Drones, robotic delivery and 3D printing are potential solutions but Mr Hachem says it is still early days for these. Instead, he has focused on the good old postman as his preferred courier for the last mile. Last year’s tie-up with Australia Post brought the Aussies into Aramex Global Services, which includes the Royal Mail in Britain and the Brazilian postal service, among others. "The postman is a known and trusted partner for the consumer," he says.

New technology banging up against the old is a recipe for disruption, which he positively embraces. Aramex actually has its own department of disruption, which runs contrary scenarios and simulates market competition. "We’ve decided to disrupt ourselves before anybody else does it," he says.

By now his plate is clear, and he says he enjoyed the simple salad. I’ve given up on the caesar, wary that I risk pebble-dashing my shirt with a Niagara of pink sauce every time I try to eat it.

We both decline dessert and coffee. Little More is not a place where you would linger long over your meal. With a clear table and some writing room, I ask him about the changing shape of the Aramex board. Mr Ghandour has sold his shares, in what seems like a conscious decision to step further away from the company he created.

Mr Hachem has known the founder as a boss, mentor and friend for nearly three decades at Aramex. How will he get on without his wise counsel? "Fadi has always been a great inspiration to me and all the others. He is a great support and sounding board. We’re very close. But life will go on now that he’s less involved with the company. I’m on my own track now and going for the next step," he says.

He’s not entirely on his own, of course, because he has the looming presence of Mr Alabbar beside him. The Emaar boss bought Mr Ghandour’s shareholding for $142m last year and is gearing up to begin operations with Noon any day now as the Middle East’s $1bn dollar contribution to the age of e-commerce.

I wonder whether Mr Alabbar’s involvement might disrupt Aramex just a little too much, but Mr Hachem is entirely sanguine that one of the big names of Gulf business is an ally. "I think what he’s doing is great. Aramex is a platform that will service the extra demand that will come from Noon. I’m sure, as a major shareholder, he’ll be represented on the board but whether he is personally there, that’s up to him," he says.

We chat for a while about families. His wife, Mariane, has always been supportive of her husband in a business that by its nature takes him away from home for a large part of the year. He has two sons, age 11 and 13, and an elder daughter who is at university in Britain. "She is studying journalism because she wants to change the world," he says. I appreciate the nod to my profession but suggest if she really wants to leave an indelible mark – for good or bad – she should be a banker.

It’s nearly time to go but he gives me a quick tour d’horizon of the world as seen by Aramex. The company is in 70 countries, and the big project of the past few years – to build a significant presence in sub-Saharan Africa – has been largely achieved. There are further opportunities in Latin America, in Brazil, Argentina and Chile, which he would like to exploit.

And, of course, the Middle East. He believes that there is huge potential in Syria, Iraq, Sudan and Libya, but of course security and instability are big obstacles. "We have a big operation in Iran but it’s still affected by sanctions. We have trouble getting the money out."

That problem, and the wider issues of the region, seem to trouble him and it seems to be a good opportunity to ask what really bothers him, what makes him angry.

"I’m always upset about something every day – complacency, negligence, indifference. I want to go at the speed of light," he says. Little More waiting staff, please note.

business@thenational.ae