In the glitzy national opera house of Monaco earlier this month, the 2017 EY World Entrepreneur of the Year (WEOY) advised a gathering of top business owners that they must add a social dimension to their business: “Social responsibility is no longer optional. The customer demands it now.”
For Murad Al-Katib of Regina, Sask., kicking off this year’s WEOY conference capped an incredible year – and one he couldn’t dream of in 2001 when he left his job as an export advisor for the Saskatchewan government to convince prairie farmers to grow more lentils. AGT Food and Ingredients is now a publicly traded company with sales of $1.7 billion – and the world’s largest producer of pulse crops (e.g., protein-packed beans, lentils and chickpeas).
For Al-Katib, it’s been a year of incredible highs. Here’s a recap of the sort of year you might expect when your business wins the World Cup of entrepreneurship.
- Al-Katib, 45, won his WEOY crown last year based not just on his business success, but also his heart. Judges were impressed that Canada’s national Entrepreneur of the Year had supplied 700 million rations for the United Nations’ food program for Syrian refugees.
- Since winning the title, Al-Katib’s been invited to more than 30 speaking engagements around North America, including EY’s annual Strategic Growth Forum in Palm Springs. As a small-town boy from Davidson, Sask., halfway between Regina and Saskatoon (and home to the world’s largest coffee pot), he still can’t believe he shared that podium with actor Viola Davis, Boston industrialist Robert K. Kraft, quarterback Peyton Manning and basketball’s Shaquille O’Neal.
- Now he’s hanging with CEOs of such companies as Maple Leaf Foods, McCain Foods and Starbucks, which may produce valuable partnerships. He’s also working on refugee issues with Hamdi Ulukaya, founder and CEO of U.S. yogurt-maker Chobani, a former WEOY winner who, like Al-Katib, was born in Turkey and shares his passions for protein and purpose.
- Last summer, he closed a financing deal with Toronto investor Prem Watsa, whose Fairfax Financial Holdings bought $190 million worth of preferred securities – with a 99-year term – giving AGT financial security during a cyclical downturn.
- In the past year, Al-Katib has received an honorary doctorate from the University of Regina, the Order of Saskatchewan and the Governor-General’s Meritorious Service Cross. He was also named chair of the federal government’s National Agri-Food Strategy Roundtable. With the world population expected to hit 10 billion by 2050, Al-Katib says, “The global race (for) protein is on, and we will work to ensure that Canada is the first stop on the global protein highway. “
But it’s not all milk and honey on the way. After years of growing by at least $100 million a year, AGT’s revenues fell 12% in 2017, to $1.7 billion. In the past year, its stock price has fallen 38%, to Friday’s $15.17. And recently, an anonymous online analyst warned the company’s $500 million in debt could push it into bankruptcy.
Al-Katib bristles at such criticism. Increased supply has dampened pulse prices for two years, he notes, and India, Canada’s best pulse market, has slapped hefty tariffs on lentils, peas and chickpeas. Al-Katib says he’s optimistic these tariffs will be temporary, and notes that AGT’s food-processing division now accounts for 50 per cent of earnings, balancing the variability of commodity prices.
“Good entrepreneurs manage for risk, not just for opportunity,” says Al-Katib. “We are financially strong and have a good strategy – and now we’re talking about how we’re going to get to (revenue of) $5 billion or $10 billion.”
As Al-Katib hands off his WEOY crown to one of 46 other contenders, from Argentina to the U.K., spare a thought for the candidate given the least chance of winning: Louis Roy of Quebec City’s Optel Group. In 18 years, the WEOY program has never honoured the same country twice in a row.
Roy, 52, is undeterred. An engineer, he founded Optel in 1989 to develop high-quality production equipment. “We went to prospects and asked, ‘What can we do for you?’,” says Roy. “The customers always said, ‘We need more control, more connectivity’.” Evolving from production line to supply chain, Optel now creates inspection and traceability systems that allow drug companies and other producers to track their entire flow of goods and supplies. It’s no commodity business: Optel commands market shares of more than 50 per cent, and also supplies follow-up data services that generate recurring revenues.
Roy initially focused on pharma companies as he realized the global battle against counterfeit drugs would demand new tracking solutions. But now he is also targeting the resource sector and food, especially products such as coffee, cocoa and palm oil, where quality and place of origin increasingly matter.
Like Al-Katib, Roy says he is driven more by purpose than profit. “I’ve always seen business as the key to changing society,” he says. “It’s the best means for creating markets, influencing consumers and changing behaviour.” He sees traceable supply chains as the key to a more sustainable future, by weeding out bad actors and inefficiencies, and leading to the “circular economy,” where companies take cradle-to-grave responsibility for their products.
Indeed, Roy entered the EOY program mainly to promote the concept of socially responsible business. As such, he promised to fight hard to win the 2018 WEOY title – despite his Canadian disadvantage. “I’ve transformed this business into a tool to save the world. People have to wake up and realize that you can build your personal mission into your business, and succeed.”
• Rick Spence is a writer, consultant and speaker specializing in entrepreneurship.
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