Perspectives from ISB

Mishal Kanoo is tired. Asked if he is having a busy day, the chairman of century-old Gulf conglomerate the Kanoo Group inhales deeply on his cigar and responds: “Twenty four hours in a day is not enough. If you sleep too little, it’s miserable, and if you sleep too much, there’s not enough time.”

It has been more than two years since Kanoo Group instigated a restructuring to “professionalise” the business – removing some family members from management roles and bringing in outsiders to head up a newly organised group.

But the changes have taken longer than many envisaged and Kanoo is weary. Family relationships are complex at the best of times, and wrestling power from people close to you is bound to make things more difficult. The process has been anything but smooth.

Still, he insists progress has been made. “We have [new senior executives], most members of the family have taken a back seat; it’s still a struggle, but we have managed to ‘change the guards’. That shift towards trying to professionalise the business has happened, but the results will take a while to settle down.”

Kanoo Group has enjoyed almost continuous growth since it was established in Bahrain in 1890 by Haji Yusuf Bin Ahmed Kanoo. It expanded to Saudi Arabia in the 1930s, followed by the UAE, and now also has offices in Oman, the UK, France and India, with more than 4,000 employees and another 6,000 under its joint ventures. Real estate, travel, shipping, machinery, logistics, energy, industrial chemicals and retail all come under its vast empire.

But now it is at a crossroads. The new investment ventures could see Kanoo Group pulled in different directions based on the best performing sectors in the years ahead. But Kanoo does not wish to predict what these will be. “It’s hard to pinpoint,” he says. “I define the world as two worlds right now: the old world and the new world. The old world being FMCG, oil and gas, retail, and the new world being anything to do with IT.

“The biggest misconception people have is that you flip on a switch and the light comes on. It doesn’t work like that in business. You are talking about a change in culture.”

Fitting for the head honcho of a 125-year-old family business, Kanoo uses the metaphor of a parent-child relationship to explain his outlook. Referring to the complex shifts the group has undergone in recent months, and its reticence to predict the future, he says:

“Think of it as a child growing up. You can try to explain to a five-year-old what will happen to them when they get married, and they look at you like a deer in the headlights thinking, ‘What are you talking about?’ because they are not prepped for it. It takes a while but eventually there will be an inflection point at which they have understood and absorbed.”

At Kanoo Group, such a compromise is being made in that the family members are still “the front face” of the firm. “We are heavy on the PR and strategy side,” Kanoo states. “And that’s the ideal position for family members to be in. You decide where you want to take the firm, and let the professionals execute it.”

Source: Townsend, Sarah, November 2, 2017,

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