Here are seven business lessons from Mohammed Mansour, one of Africa’s few billionaires

BY Ben Ebuka Oji February 13, 2024 1:19 PM EDT
Mohammed Mansour
Egyptian Billionaire Mohammed Mansour. Credit: AFSIC

It is virtually to impossible to know every single billionaire in the world but it is also equally hard for a person to consistently and legally hide from all of the world, their billion dollars in assets or cash. But as used as we have become with their names, businesses and views, billionaires are a rarity. One report says billionaires are just about 0.0000005% of the global population. To be a billionaire is therefore not only logistically difficult but statistically improbable for most people.

Still, it is important to know and understand how billionaires view the world. For one thing, their insights can be helpful to motivated people who aim to rise to the top of their professions.

Mohamed Mansour is an influential Egyptian billionaire, entrepreneur, and investor with a diverse portfolio spanning technology, real estate, and finance sectors. Mansour has made significant contributions to business development in almost all continents, establishing himself as a prominent figure in global entrepreneurship and investment circles.

However, his rise to affluence wasn’t without adversities. Mansour, born into a wealthy aristocratic family, faced a dramatic turn of events when Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser seized his family’s fortune and nationalized their cotton business while Mansour was studying at North Carolina State University. That singular act threw the family into poverty.

When he was 10 years old, he was hit by a car driven by his older brother, causing severe damage to his leg. Despite recommendations from the chief medical doctor, the surgeon handling the issue decided against amputating the limb. As a result, Mansour spent three years confined to bed but gradually regained mobility and eventually learned to walk again. At 18, Mansour moved out of his family home and endured a frugal life in a cramped off-campus residence, subsisting on bread and eggs and working a minimum-wage job at a restaurant to fund his education.

At 20, shortly after completing his degree, Mansour confronted another formidable challenge when he was diagnosed with kidney cancer, a condition with low survival rates at the time. However, prompt medical intervention, including the surgical removal of the affected organ and radiation therapy, facilitated his recovery, and he has remained cancer-free since then.

In subsequent years, Mansour, along with his brothers, successfully re-established their cotton export business and ventured into the automotive distribution sector. Following his father’s passing in 1976, Mansour assumed leadership of the family business and spearheaded its expansion into the multi-billion dollar conglomerate known as the Mansour Group (he now chairs), which boasts lucrative contracts with industry giants like General Motors and Caterpillar.

In 1977, Mansour relocated to the UK, where he established Man Capital, the family’s private equity firm, which oversees various Mansour enterprises, including Mansour Automotive and ManFoods, a McDonald’s franchise operator in Egypt. Despite enduring significant setbacks, Mansour’s resilience and strategic acumen have propelled him to become a highly successful billionaire, with his surviving brothers (Youssef and Yasseen) who are part of the conglomerate.

Now, fifty-eight years after his initial financial hardship, Mansour, now 76, generously shares lessons gleaned from his extensive business experience and numerous encounters with adversity.

1. Promise Small and Deliver Big

This principle emphasizes the importance of managing expectations by committing to deliver less than you can achieve. By doing so, you create a positive surprise for your customers or stakeholders when you exceed their expectations, thus building trust and loyalty.

“I would underplay it,” Mansour talks about his promises to GM years back. “If I know I’m gonna do 100 cars, I’d say 50.” Despite his business being firmly established, Mansour remains steadfast to this principle.

2. Spot the opportunities in the Market

Successful businesses often identify unmet needs or underserved segments in the market and tailor their products or services to address them. By spotting these opportunities and providing innovative solutions, you can carve out a niche for your business and gain a competitive advantage. In the mid-1970s, when Mansour began his entrepreneurial journey, his extensive residency in the U.S. proved advantageous for facilitating with U S. companies. While fellow Egyptian businessmen grappled with language and cultural obstacles, Mansour and his family thrived.

“Nobody could speak the language or understand the American way of doing business in Egypt, except us three brothers at the time,” he says.

3. Avoid the Head of the Table

Mansour suggests that effective leaders should adopt a collaborative approach rather than asserting dominance. By positioning yourself among your team rather than above them, you foster an environment of openness, respect, and teamwork, which can lead to better decision-making and employee morale.

“When I sit in the boardroom, I won’t sit at the head of the table. In fact, no one sits there. The head is empty,” he says. “I’m more of a thinker. I don’t talk much. I have very good people around me. People that I know will tell me the truth, and are probably more intelligent than I am.”

4. Don’t be static

As a business evolves, it’s common to become entrenched in familiar routines or nostalgic about past achievements and goals. Mansour, however, consciously steers clear of such traps. He emphasizes innovation and exploration of new avenues, surrounding himself with young colleagues attuned to emerging trends and fresh ideas.

“I never live in my shadow. It’s an expression I use,” Mansour says. “We bring in bright men and women that are younger, and have vision. They can advise us.”

5. Maintain Friendship with Your Employees, but Outside of Work

While it’s important to build strong relationships with your team, maintaining clear boundaries between personal and professional interactions is essential. Developing friendships outside of work can strengthen camaraderie and trust within the team, but it’s crucial to uphold professionalism and ensure that work-related decisions are made objectively. At the office, Mansour maintained an open-door policy, fostering a friendly atmosphere and closeness with colleagues during the day and more fun activities at night after work. However, upon discovering them playing soccer in the office one day, he realized he had crossed a line.

“I learned from my mistakes. I said: ‘Either it’s work or pleasure. We’re friends out of the office.’ And then I started to withdraw. I closed the door, and that’s how I made the differentiation.”

6. Don’t Downplay Macroeconomic Indicators

Economic conditions such as inflation, interest rates, and geopolitical events, can significantly impact businesses. Ignoring or underestimating these factors can lead to missed opportunities or unexpected challenges. Business leaders need to stay informed about macroeconomic trends and adapt their strategies accordingly to mitigate risks and capitalize on opportunities. In the past, Mansour overlooked the potential impact of political and economic upheavals on his business. Unforeseen to him, the Egyptian currency began to weaken in the late ’70s, a trend he overlooked due to its strength during his youth. This depreciation posed challenges in importing vehicles and servicing debts. Compounding the issue, the Egyptian government imposed temporary import bans, including foreign cars, exacerbating the crisis and nearly driving Mansour to bankruptcy.

“The macroeconomic is key,” says Mansour.

7. Turn Adversity into Strength

Challenges and setbacks are inevitable in business, but they also present opportunities for growth and innovation. Successful entrepreneurs view adversity as a chance to learn, adapt, and emerge stronger. By maintaining a positive mindset and embracing adversity as a catalyst for change, you can turn obstacles into stepping stones toward success. Before his childhood accident, Mansour desired to be a sportsman. However, being confined to a bed following the accident forced him to relinquish athletics, leaving him with extended periods of solitude and limited entertainment. Nevertheless, this experience fostered his development in alternative ways.

“At that time, there was no PlayStation, there was no TV,” he says. “I sat and thought. I learned to be a thinker.”