We all have a ‘Eureka’ moment that changes the course of our lives and I remember the precise month when my life changed forever. It was in October 1970, as I sat on a disused iron mooring in the Port of Sfax contemplating my predicament. My circumstances were forcing me into some honest self-reflection and like Dickens’ protagonist David Copperfield, I was not sure if I was going to be the hero of my own life or whether that ‘station would be held by someone else’.
I had been working the summer months at the Hotel Mabrouk, in my hometown of Sfax. We Tunisians hailed from big families and mine was no exception – I was the youngest of nine siblings and even though we were comparatively well off, a strong work ethic was instilled in each one of us from the day we drew our first breath. So, I had to support myself during my studies and I figured that the most pleasant way would be in the tourist industry. I found the idea of being given the opportunity to work in the midst of people from all walks of life inspiring.
My reasoning proved to be true and I can honestly say that I spent some of the happiest and most gratifying years of my childhood in those moments spent after school and at the weekends doing any odd job I could get my hands on for the Hotel. The work brought me into contact with characters worthy of an Agatha Christie novel. It was also an invaluable experience in terms of education as I met many people willing to share their erudition and experience with a young boy from Tunisia. Most of all, however, it made me realise that by earning money, I had the power to help those around me using my gift to make situations profitable for those closest to me.
Although I was not given any more chances than the average person, I instinctively seemed to know how to make the most of any opportunity. My spell at the Mabrouk was more successful than I could have hoped. In my humility, I would like to say that this ability to make the most of an opportunity is a gift I have had since childhood, but experience has proven to me that without hard work and a determined spirit, then talent is wasted and the true worth of a gift will never manifest itself. With that in mind, and the realisation that my time spent at the Mabrouk proved to be an invaluable apprenticeship in entrepreneurism, it was time for me to make the first important decision of my life – should I stay in Sfax and further my studies or try my luck abroad and take a leap into the unknown.
Deep down I know that the decision had already been made. I decided to abandon my studies as I had come to see that economic prosperity provided me with the best opportunity to alleviate material difficulties. When I realised how happy I could make people by simply sharing the benefits of my boyhood entrepreneurism, the feeling of euphoria was so strong that it drove me to concoct new ways to take advantage of the opportunities life was granting me every day at the Mabrouk. I knew I could better my circumstances by leaving my homeland.
THE MAKING OF AN ENTREPRENEUR
Anyone successful in business can cite the role models who shaped their formative years and shaped their perspective. I have to say that I hit the ground running as an entrepreneur because my father was an exceedingly canny businessman who had built up a broad and varied business portfolio while I was growing up. Combine the knowledge I grasped learning from my father, with the preparation that I gained from a youth at the Mabrouk, it is no surprise that I gained a firm grounding from an early age.
Following the sudden death of my Father, I found myself as his natural successor and never looked back. I never forgot his influence on my thinking and realised that I had unwittingly soaked up many business techniques from him during the short time he was part of my life. In particular, the sheer hard graft and refusal to allow setbacks defeat me that has always defined my character. I have always truly believed that in order to get what you want you must never lose sight of your goals and by staying ambitious and grounded then you will never allow the reality of your circumstances limit you.
THE FIRST FRUITS OF SUCCESS
By the age of twenty-nine, I had become the Vice President of Olympic Petroleum Corporation in New York, having simultaneously held the office of President of Olympic Management in Italy. This role then led me to become Chairman of Olympic Energy in 1994. Around the mid-nineties, I was beginning to feel that I had gained enough experience at the highest level to branch out on my own and simultaneously held various chairs while running my own holding. Finally, in 2000, I founded GK Investment Holding Group and I can truly say that from that moment I was my own master.
I can honestly say that my triumphs were entirely down to the confidence I hold in the belief that success is not solely dependent on opportunity, but also how you interact with your fellows. I aim to treat everyone with respect unless proven to be unworthy of such respect. I live by the maxim that you must treat the least of your brothers as you would the grandest and pay no heed to creed, colour or standing – for in the last analysis a life led with dignity is open to all regardless of their position and each individual you come across in your life enrichens you in unique ways.
The other essential element to my success is never losing sight of my goals. Success is rarely immediate, but rather takes a great deal of perseverance and patience to achieve, so we often find ourselves losing motivation or interest in favour of easier pursuits. As I once read somewhere, people with clearly defined goals succeed because they know where they are going and no obstacle will ever prevent them from attaining those goals. So it has been with me, when my goals were shattered I accepted the defeat, picked myself up and started building the foundations again and again until I reached my objective. This is the only way to find enduring success in every field from business to personal.
A SHIFT IN PERSPECTIVE
During my career as an international entrepreneur, I inevitably came into contact with world leaders and luminaries from the political, industrial and cultural arenas. Soon enough, first introductions quickly developed into established acquaintances and over the course of time, I was able to develop close relationships with some of the most important figures of modern history.
Yet I was deeply troubled by the course of events in the Middle East and Africa, so decided to discuss my concerns openly with the people I esteemed most and who were in positions of influence. In particular, I was disturbed by how the lack of understanding between certain nations was so deep rooted as to seem almost impossible to overcome. What started as informal chats among friends soon developed into me using my influence in the field of business and translating it into diplomacy. Over time, I found myself facilitating dialogue behind the scenes in order to set the framework for nonpartisan negotiations in such impartial settings as my private homes and properties around the world.
Sadly, recent events have proven that we still have a long way to go before a workable solution to conflict resolution can be found. However, I firmly believe that the greater cooperation and dialogue we were successful in establishing at the highest level in the late 90’s, helped to define the ideal framework to rebuild impoverished economies and fractured societies. That is to say, dialogue and cultural awareness are key to the foundation of stable social and political systems in the Middle East and Africa. Only through the principles of unity, faith, discipline, tolerance and respect will we finally gain peace and prosperity in all nations.
THE HERE, NOW AND TOMORROW
Just as change is a certainty in business, so in life. It has been argued that nothing is certain other than mortality and we cannot know what the future holds. I do, however, believe that “there is no self-knowledge but an historical one” and in this age of strife I would hope that the new generation of political and business leaders can learn from their predecessors mistakes and move forward into the future without fear, but rather in acceptance of the tremendous challenges and responsibilities facing them ahead.