Image: Russ Tudor

In this instalment of Liquid Lunch, industrial scion turned entrepreneur Omar Alghanim tells Spear’s Editor Edwin Smith about his family firm, a new venture and the romance of internal combustion engines

Omar Alghanim arrives at Defune, a Japanese restaurant in Marylebone, with his two young sons and their governess in tow. The boys have been promised teppanyaki, so they head downstairs while Alghanim and I take a seat at the main sushi bar. ‘Can we have omakase?’, he asks, referring to the Japanese practice of allowing the chef to serve what they see fit. The chef, whom he seems to know, says something I can’t hear, to which Alghanim barks an approving: ‘Hai!’ before turning to me: ‘I’m a big Japanophile.’

In his profile image on LinkedIn, Alghanim is pictured in the traditional Arab thawb. Today he wears a brown linen suit and open-necked shirt. On one wrist, a vintage Rolex. On the other, a Fitbit-like bracelet.

In much of the Middle East, the Alghanim name is famous. This is largely thanks to the family business, Alghanim Industries, which took off under his grandfather in 1930s Kuwait and grew further in the 1970s under the control of his father Kutayba – a feature of Forbes billionaire lists and recently ranked number 41 in Gulf Business magazine’s ‘100 Most Powerful Arabs’.

Alghanim, now 48, joined the company – which spans everything from the automotive industry to banking and consumer electronics, as well as oil and gas – in 2002. Having become CEO in 2005, he left in 2019.

He’s now working on a major project for the 5,000-member Family Business Network (FBN), drawing on his experience of life inside a family firm. He sits on the board of what is the largest international organisation of its kind and chairs its Gulf chapter, but he has other interests and projects too. He remains a regional board member of Injaz Al-Arab, an NGO that equips young people in the Arab world with entrepreneurial and financial skills, and has worked with 3.7 million students since Alghanim co-founded it in 2002.

Almost as soon as we’ve settled in, and without prompting, he confides that, despite holding an MBA from Harvard Business School, he feels he no longer understands the capital markets. It’s because of the amount of leverage in the system, he says. It makes valuing companies too difficult. ‘You’re either a wolf or a sheep,’ he says. ‘Wolves eating sheep is alpha.’

So… is he a wolf?

‘I am a wolf, in some very narrow areas.’ Not in the realm of equities or bonds, but when it comes to ‘operating businesses, and knowing how to operate a broad set of businesses. I think I can do that better than most.’

This brings us on to his newly formed impact investment fund, Yakoa. Based in London and named after the men in various generations of his family (his father is the ‘k’, he is the ‘o’, one of his sons the second ‘a’), it is just getting going. But Alghanim believes he has spotted ‘a nice niche’ in the world of private capital.

He’s not interested in the companies that are ‘making the rounds at [5] Hertford [Street] and getting shopped around to all the private equity guys’. He reckons they end up getting artificially inflated valuations ‘because of the lipstick’. On the other hand, ‘if you pioneer deals and don’t look to exit, then you have a USP to the seller – that you want to partner with them over the long term. And you’re not looking to pump and dump.’

Alghanim grew up in the States and speaks with a strong American accent, but joined Morgan Stanley in London as an investment banker after his undergraduate degree. ‘I really enjoyed my time at Morgan Stanley,’ he says. Then he reconsiders. ‘I enjoyed it in hindsight. They’re very soft on analysts now, but I remember when I was there, you would always hear people in the bullpen crying. My friends who are European and did military service beforehand – they said military service was much easier.’

He got to work on some interesting deals, including one with Ryanair, where he came into contact with Michael O’Leary, the airline’s controversial chief executive, whom he remembers uttering ‘tremendous profanities – words I’d never heard before!’.

The twentysomething Alghanim lived in West London but would drive to work in Canary Wharf every day in his grandfather’s 450SEL Mercedes from 1976. ‘I never appreciated how much gasoline costs here,’ he says. ‘It was £500 a week; a 6.9-litre engine. I had barely a couple of hundred pounds left for myself! So I went and bought a Smart car.’

By this point, the sushi is arriving thick and fast – piece upon piece of immaculate fish on sticky rice. The owner comes over to say hello. ‘With sushi, it’s always the thickness of the fish versus the rice,’ says Alghanim. ‘I find they cut it a bit thicker here.’ When I mention the name of a new and excellent sushi restaurant on Shepherd Market, Maru, he takes a notebook and pen from his pocket to write down the name.

After London, Alghanim returned to the US and enrolled in the MBA at Harvard. He was driving to class one morning in 2001 when news of the 9/11 attacks hit the airwaves. After that, life in America was not quite the same. He would regularly get pulled over for the apparent offence of ‘driving while brown’. The ‘weird vibe’, as he puts it, ‘maybe’ had something to do with his decision to move to Kuwait and join the family business.

Three years after joining Alghanim Industries, he became CEO and presided over a period of expansion in which he ‘grew the company sevenfold’ over the course of his 14-year tenure. It wasn’t always a bed of roses, however. In 2012 Kutayba’s brother Bassam Alghanim alleged in court papers filed in the US and UK that Kutayba and Omar had hacked into his emails amid a dispute about the running of the firm.

Alghanim himself, however, attracted plaudits for his management of the company; his successful efforts to instil a culture of meritocracy at Alghanim Industries became the subject of a Harvard Business School case study. So why did he leave the firm in 2019?

‘I decided to just go off, do my own thing,’ he says. ‘I’m really happy with what I was able to achieve during that time. But I think also at a certain point, you have to sort of realise what is it that you find gratifying. What are your priorities in the scheme of things?’

He doesn’t mention a rumoured disagreement with his father, who remains chairman of the company. But one might read into the work he is doing now that Alghanim feels family businesses are not always run in the optimum way.

With FBN, he has agreed to lead a three-year initiative that will tackle the governance of family firms. He has already begun his research and mentions one interesting finding: ‘There’s a fifth-generation family in the Gulf that has a dispute resolution panel – one from the older generation, one from the younger generation and one external party. Before any member of the family can file any lawsuit against any other member of the family, they have to first come here and try to resolve it.

‘I thought that was a really great idea. It’s not a bunch of the old people sitting there saying: “Oh, you kids should do this and that.”’ But, he adds, ‘I don’t want to waste my time and create another pamphlet.’ He hopes the initiative’s findings will be converted into something like a set of principles that FBN members will agree to adopt.

Our plentiful omakase has more or less come to a close, but Alghanim, who seems to have the appetite of a man with twice his waistline, manages to negotiate a few extra morsels from the chef. Over these, his passion for cars becomes clearer. He has a Tesla, which he – and his kids – love. ‘But it’s pretty sad,’ he adds. ‘The internal combustion engine is man’s great engineering achievement. We have his unit that operates on a flammable substance that has thousands of moving parts inside valves, then delivers it to the powertrain, that’s able to vary the ratios in such a way…’ He trails off.

He’s travelling to Switzerland soon for business and plans to take some time out to drive a couple of Porsches he has there – a 1973 Carrera RS and a 356 Carrera convertible. ‘What I really enjoy is where your driving ability is your driving ability,’ he says. ‘It’s not like the computer’s gonna save me. You can double declutch and I enjoy that: mountain roads, no tracking cameras…’ he laughs.

As we say goodbye, Alghanim explains that his plan is to make the most of a beautifully sunny afternoon with his sons. ‘We’re going to do a slip ’n’ slide,’ he says. For the youngest generation of the Alghanim family, life sounds pretty good.