TBY talks to Raphael G. Debbane, Chairman of Debbane–Saikali Group, on local agriculture, diversification, and partnerships.
TBY What are some of Debbane-Saikali Group’s core business activities in Lebanon and the MENA region?
RAPHAEL G. DEBBANE We have private investments, but we don’t have private businesses. It is strictly a family business. We’ve developed in various fields, depending on the expertise of each member of the family. Ten years ago 30% of our total turnover was from outside of Lebanon. Now, 70% of it is externally generated. Our aim is to bring that external experience to Lebanon and the Lebanese. It was very hard for the Lebanese to get established overseas between 1975 and 1990, and many airports were closed and so on. Therefore, we instead decided to diversify in Lebanon. We started with inputs for farmers, including fertilizers, pesticides, and seeds. We introduced plastic greenhouses to the Middle East, and we introduced drip irrigation. We started in Lebanon and then expanded outwards. From 1990 we started expanding outward, to Syria, Iraq, the Gulf, Jordan, and Algeria. We diversified both in terms of the fields we were active in and geographically. We now have 1,600 employees in the group, which, compared to Europe is small, but not so small for the Middle East. We are very proud of our business and instill a family spirit among our employees.
How has Debbane-Saikali Group diversified over the years?
We started off in agriculture, and with the reconstruction process in Lebanon that started after 1990, which marked the end of the civil war, we expanded into the construction sector and established the first ready-mix concrete production in Lebanon. With European partners we also built chemical factories, of which we have seven now all over the Middle East. We built those in conjunction with very well-known French group, Saint-Gobain. We are also in the telecommunications business, in data communication, though not mobile communications. We enable 15 banks in Lebanon to set up direct 24-hour links with all their branches. We also branched out into the field of wine. We like wine and this business is more for pleasure than for profit, but it also became a good business. Another one of the companies of the group is Exotica, a horticulture group, which is well known for its top-quality products and services. One of my brothers manages Exotica, and they work with a very creative advertising agency. Exotica has been around since 1978, and it is active in retail, in large landscaping projects, events, and weddings.
How did you develop your partnership with Saint-Gobain and others?
It has great know-how and experience, and we try and learn from those who have that kind of a track record. We built chemical factories, and we are now also working together in wine production, which we started in 2008. The Chairman and CEO of Nissan, Carlos Ghosn, is a wine lover and he wanted to produce wine in Lebanon, so he began looking for partners. He found us to be the best option for this partnership. Our first wine came out on the market in 2008. Our brand Ixsir is being marketed around the world. Hubert de Beauvoir of Chateau Angelus was willing to offer us his consulting services too, which was an honor for us.
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