How I Did It: The CEO of Aramex on Turning a Failed Sale into a Huge Opportunity
by Fadi Ghandour
The Idea: Fadi Ghandour has built one of the most successful entrepreneurial enterprises to emerge from the Arab world, Aramex International, overcoming rejections, cash-flow crises, and naysayers in every country where he tried to do business. Read the Executive Summary
In 1984, two years into building the express delivery company Aramex, I was preparing for the most important meeting I’d ever had. My partner, Bill Kingson, and I were hoping to persuade the Seattle-based Airborne Express to buy 50% of Aramex for $100,000.
At the time, out of a modest office in Amman, Jordan, we had launched several other small offices in the Middle East, hoping to become the first courier company based in that region. Our operations were tiny (we hadn’t yet exceeded $1 million in revenue), I was personally playing a range of roles from chief salesman to occasional delivery guy, and the cash flow was uncomfortably tight. We were what I would describe as a guerrilla setup—a scrappy, hand-to-mouth business.
The Middle East was not yet seen as a growth opportunity for global courier companies: Skirting civil wars and complex political relationships was an enormous logistical and bureaucratic challenge. In addition, in some countries the business market wasn’t yet demanding courier services; in others those services were monopolized by companies or the postal authorities. We thought that such an investment from Airborne, along with the explicit endorsement of one of the world’s most respected logistics companies, could seal the future of our start-up.
Bill and I did get in to meet with both the CEO and the COO of Airborne Express, but they swiftly turned us down. Airborne was just starting to explore expansion outside the U.S. and wasn’t ready to invest in a small market like the Middle East, let alone in a start-up. That was a huge disappointment to Bill and me. But we left the meeting with a valuable consolation prize: the promise of some business. At that time Airborne was occasionally asked to courier packages to various Arab countries; it would use either a competitor or some small London-based company to deliver in the region. Because the Middle East was such an insignificant part of Airborne’s business, there would be little risk in giving those packages to Aramex. But to us it meant the largest and most important account for a long time. Our pitch had been that we could reliably handle whatever business Airborne acquired in the region—so it wouldn’t have to turn to a competitor. We could be a neutral partner, acting on its behalf.
I realized immediately that Airborne’s offer would give us an opportunity to learn from one of the world’s most successful courier companies—and, more crucial, to take advantage of its technology and global reach. Instead of getting a 50% owner, we would get a master class on how to grow our own business. That partnership would make the difference to our survival—and provide us with the rapid learning curve to set our own ambitions high. Nineteen years later, when Airborne was sold to its former archrival, DHL, not only had we learned everything we could from it, but we were ready to be a global leader in our own right.
“We Are Airborne Express…and Federal Express…and…”
Business from Airborne gave us enough credibility to knock on other doors. I realized that the prime competitors in the logistics and courier business feared one another more than they would fear us. So we sold our services as being provided by safe, neutral hands. We would call clients and say, “We are Airborne Express,” or “We are Emery”—whatever company we were representing. We wore many hats and customized our services to suit whoever gave us business. If you looked back at the global offices of some of the major package-delivery companies in the 1980s and 1990s, you’d find some recurring addresses. Those were actually Aramex offices.
After knocking on the door at Federal Express time and time again, we finally gained it as a client in 1987. Aramex thus acquired its single largest account to date, because FedEx had more packages going into the Middle East than all its competitors combined, giving us a healthy monthly infusion of cash.
But our first serious relationship was to be our most significant. Airborne Express started to build a global alliance of regional courier companies like Aramex in order to offer customers service in every corner of the world without having to run or acquire all those operations itself. We were among the first of what would eventually be roughly 40 companies in the alliance—which was called Overseas Express Carriers (OEC)—whose responsibilities included establishing common operating procedures, rates, and quality assurance. Because Airborne provided its package-tracking technology to all its OEC partners, we had an enormous competitive advantage at a very low cost. (We also acquired e-mail early on, achieving a quantum leap in management efficiency.) Previously Aramex had relied on faxes and telex machines for tracking and tracing; we didn’t have the resources or the expertise to create our own system. Suddenly we were part of a sophisticated global operation. We’d been given access to similar systems from FedEx and Emery, but without permission to use them for our own Middle Eastern customers. Airborne’s system elevated us to a whole new level of service.