Amal Suhail Bahwan
Sky’s the limit for Amal Suhail Bahwan
Muscat, May 5, 2014
By Frankie Fernandez
As the managing director and board member of the Suhail Bahwan Group Holding Company, Amal Suhail Bahwan is very much at the sharp end of one of Oman’s largest business houses, whose turnover runs into billions of dollars.
Over the last 15 years, she has put her heart and soul into the family business and helped transform its fortunes and successfully steer it into the 21st century through best management practices and innovative ways of doing business, says a special feature in Arabian Knight, our sister publication.
She has been the driving force behind restructuring the group’s businesses into seven sectors – lifestyle, engineering and infrastructure, energy and power, IT and telecommunications, healthcare, fertilisers and chemicals, and logistics – and 18 companies.
Eleven of these are today directly under her command. These include Bahwan Electronics, Bahwan Furnishings and Trading, Bahwan Building Materials, Bahwan Travel Agencies (Omani Travel and Tourism Bureau, SixT Rent a Car and Sur Travels), Bahwan Electronics Furnishings and Trading (Bahwan Home Design and Bahwan Mart), Bahwan Healthcare Centre, Bahwan International Properties, Bahwan IT, Bahwan Projects and Telecoms, Delta, and Middle East Shipping & Transport.
In addition, she is the chairperson of Oman Ceramics Company and sits on the boards of Oman Oil Marketing Company, National Pharmaceutical Industries (NPI), Oman Dental College and Bahwan-DHL – in all of which the holding company has stakes.
But though she’s the daughter of the group’s founder and entrepreneur extraordinaire Sheikh Suhail Salim Bahwan, Amal’s success was not handed to her on a silver platter. Rather, it was her drive to “reach for the sky” and defy the stereotype that inspired her to seize the moment and create her own destiny in a male-dominated corporate world.
As Amal puts it: “I started from the bottom and worked my way up to the top”.
Born and bred in Muscat, Amal comes from a well-known Omani merchant family of traders who were based in Sur and who sailed the seas between the Gulf, India and Africa. Her father Sheikh Suhail and his late brother started their Muscat trading firm in the sixties which prospered over the decades to become Oman’s leading trading house – before they parted ways and established their own groups at the turn of the century.
Today, the Suhail Bahwan Group has interests in construction, automobile, engineering, IT and telecommunications, manufacturing, chemicals, and oil and gas across the Middle East and into North Africa with revenues running into several billions of dollars.
As a child, Amal grew up closely watching her father run his empire, never dreaming that she would one day be shaping the group’s future. “I was very attached to my father and used to follow him everywhere. I would play with my toys on the floor of his office while he went about his work,” she recalls. “I never ever thought I would become a businesswoman. It was never planned and all happened so suddenly.”
Amal went to school and college in Oman, graduating from the Sultan Qaboos University’s College of Education in 1993, and at the time it seemed she was destined to become a teacher under pressure from her family. “I did not really have a choice,” she laughs. “I wanted to study agriculture but found I had been enrolled in home science and education classes,” she adds, pointing out that at the time there were not many other jobs or careers perceived to be socially permissible for Omani women who wanted to work.
Her bid to change courses mid-stream and study overseas was flatly vetoed, though Amal admits that her father eventually “opened up” and allowed her younger sisters to study abroad. “Change takes time,” she says with a smile.
On graduating, Amal worked as a teacher for a year but dissatisfaction soon crept in, prompting her to join the Vocational Training Authority – now part of the Ministry of Manpower – as a training instructor for two years.
Amal, however, was determined to break free from the Arab women’s stereotypical role of a teacher and despite being a mother by then, decided to go back to college and earn her master’s degree in administration, also from Sultan Qaboos University.
And when opportunity finally knocked in the summer of 1998, she seized the initiative. “I played my cards well,” she says with a twinkle in her eye.
A little over a year in college, her second son fell ill, forcing her to quit classes and stay at home to nurse him but the boredom almost drove her to distraction.
“I spoke to my father, the chairman, and asked him if I could come to the office for a few hours just as an observer and he agreed,” she says, adding that at the time she had no idea of how the business was being run.
Amal chose to start at ‘Services’, which combined credit collection, administration and human resources (HR) in one department. As she watched and listened and observed over the next four weeks, her innate business sense told her the department was in need of an overhaul.
Knowing that things were not right was one thing; telling her father was another!
After the summer break, Amal went back to college for a month or so, and then one day over breakfast, casually steered the conversation towards what she had observed while on the job, making her father sit up and realise that “something was not right”.
“My father asked me to come back to the office,” says Amal, who was delighted that her observations had got her father’s attention. “I told him that I had my studies, but he said ‘bring your books and study from there’.”
And so Amal’s career was born at Suhail Bahwan, in the Services department. The doors were finally being opened, but the battles had just begun.
Amal’s debut into the world of business came at a time when the group was going through “a bit of a crisis. My father asked me to help him restructure the department, but I had never done this type of work before and it was like a 180-degree turn”.
Despite being a babe in the woods, Amal immersed herself in her task, drawing on everything she had learnt during her days in college. “I believe that education opens doors,” she says.
Refusing to be intimidated, Amal questioned every single number thrown up by the general managers who had been asked to report to her.
“I would then go home and try to understand how the numbers added up. I never entered any meeting without doing my homework and would always get facts and figures from Finance and Audit to back me up.”
“In short, I had to train myself,” she says, pointing out that there is no shame in asking for help as long as one is willing to learn. Also, her love for books – “I read a lot and have a huge library” – helped getting to grips with how to run a business.
More importantly, her initial successes gave her the confidence that she could make a difference in her family’s business.
After shaking up the Services Department, Amal faced her next big test in 2006 when she decided to change the entire structure of the group. “We needed more control over every department to make sure they performed to our expectations, we needed new policies in place,” she says. “We needed a dedicated Human Resources department which would grade and train our employees.”
“Here, I met a fair degree of resistance,” she admits. “But I was stubborn. I told my father that I was not leaving and I was staying put.”
Eventually the dust settled down. Soon employees embraced the new corporate culture, and Amal felt particularly vindicated. “My father came up to me and told me: ‘I was mistaken and I didn’t believe you, but you were right’.”
But despite their boardroom battles, Amal has always been the favourite daughter in the eyes of her father. “My father always tells me that I am his lucky star,” says Amal, recalling that Sheikh Suhail named her Amal – which means hope in Arabic – when she was born because at the time he was hoping and praying to God that they would win the agency for Toyota.
“He secured the agency and it turned the company’s fortunes,” she recalls.
LABOUR OF LOVE
Among her accomplishments, one that is most dear to Amal’s heart is Suhail Bahwan Group’s stunning new headquarters in Muscat. Located at a prime area in Qurum, the six-floor office is a showcase of the group’s prowess with its cutting-edge technology and beautifully detailed interiors, all conceived and executed with in-house expertise.
“It reflects our image well,” says Amal, who was the driving force behind the new headquarters and is immensely proud that all her employees joined hands together in this labour of love.
The building boasts open-plan offices, smart features like fingerprint-recognition technology, state-of-the-art telecommunications, a corporate lounge, and a conference and events area for workers. Brown, beige and white themes create a sense of warmth and calm, and the interiors are a fusion of French-influenced contemporary designs with Islamic and Arab art.
The main boardroom seats 27 and is fitted with sophisticated video and teleconferencing facilities. A 3-m-long piece of the Kiswah – the embroidered black cloth covering the Kaaba, which lies at the heart of Makkah, Saudi Arabia – hangs on one of the walls, while two huge intricately crafted models of Omani dhows – the Al Ghanjah and Al Boum – proudly recall the company’s roots.
“We wanted to show that we are an Omani company,” says Amal, highlighting the wealth of Omani artefacts across the Executive Floor offices, corporate lounge, VIP room and boardrooms.
Other detailed touches include a traditional mandoos (treasure box) juxtaposed with a modern glass table, traditional Omani firearms and daggers, and several Omani paintings that again depict their proud seafaring tradition.
In the chairman’s office hangs a 1995 painting commemorating 25 years of Sultan Qaboos’ rule in Oman. “It was his favourite painting so we made sure we had it there,” says Amal.
Commenting on how Gulf family businesses are keeping up with a fast-changing world, Amal says they are waking up to the demands of the 21st century. “The times are asking us to change,” she says, “and the younger generations will have to respond.”
Meanwhile, in terms of corporate social responsibility (CSR), Amal’s brother Saad is the public face of the Suhail Bahwan Charitable Organization but both Amal and her father also work silently to support several initiatives including donating blood to hospitals through Bahwan Healthcare in addition to dealing with a steady stream of requests for aid as well as one to set up a children’s hospital.
Looking ahead, Amal sees great potential in manufacturing both in Oman and abroad. “Profit margins for traders are shrinking,” she says, pointing out to steel and medicine as areas of interest. However, overseas ventures are not without their risks, she adds, highlighting Suhail Bahwan’s fertiliser project in Algeria which has been beset by delays. “It’s safer to invest in your own country,” she says.
Away from work, Amal’s life revolves around her home and family. “I don’t have many friends,” she confesses, pointing out that with 15 sisters and brothers, three children and several relatives in Sur, “my family are my friends”.
Amal believes in the dictum ‘early to bed, early to rise’. “I respect time with military precision and that’s one of the reasons for my success,” she says. “Planning and punctuality is key; I learned that from my father.”
She is awake by 5 am and at work before 8 am. After work, she spends the evenings with her three children – Amna who is 18, Ali who is 16, and Suhail who is 11 – before retiring for the night by 10 pm. Amna, who is named after Amal’s mother, is in college and is keen on becoming a businesswoman as well. “However, I tell my children that nothing in life is easy. You have to work for it,” says Amal.
Amal is a true role model for women in the Gulf seeking to break through the glass ceiling and make a name for themselves in the workplace. But while women in the Gulf are stepping up and showing they are capable, she says they still face challenges that can range from gaining access to people in power to dealing with businessmen who might feel uncomfortable “doing business with a woman”.
While admitting that “it’s not been easy” being a mother and a businesswoman, her advice to aspiring women entrepreneurs is simple: “If you plan you will succeed, but you have to be selective. You can’t have it all.”
As for her dreams, Amal firmly believes that “the sky’s the limit”. One must just have the passion, fire and the will to succeed, she says, adding that her father, who built his empire without any formal education, remains her strongest inspiration.
And what if she had that one magic wish to make a difference in this world?
“As a woman, I would wish for respect,” is her emphatic reply. “Women should be treated with respect, whatever their stature,” she says. “Give me that, no more no less.” - TradeArabia News Service
* The above article appears in the Spring issue of Arabian Knight.