BAHRAIN - Finance
President, International Motor Trading Agency (IMTA) of Khalil bin Ebrahim Kanoo Group
Suzan Kanoo is widely considered to be one of the leading business women of Bahrain and has proven to be successful in many fields. After completing her degree in economics in the US, she joined the family business of KE Kanoo Group and was able to grow the car trading business to new heights. Aside from her work in business and investment, she is a sought-after speaker at global events, a writer and poet, and active in volunteering work for refugees, visiting camps all over the world under the banner of the UN. Kanoo is currently writing a book that will be published by Forbes in summer 2020.
Could you tell us more of your journey in taking over and running a big part of the family business?
Our family operations are already ongoing for four generations, so we have a significant presence in the Kingdom of Bahrain. After my graduation in the US, my father asked me to return, and I started working as a floor manager, which was an incredibly important phase in my career as I learned the about the psychology of both entrepreneur and customers. I eventually moved up and took charge of the automotive section of our family business. It has been a difficult operation since the beginning and required a great deal of restructuring. Although as a company, we were top tier, in our car division we were not—it took six years to turn this around, and today we are in the top five of the country. Other than business, I am a strong proponent of promoting culture; I brought philharmonic orchestras to Bahrain and made them perform workshops for our local talent while they were here. There should always be a spinoff to the local economy, and one of the outcomes was the idea to build the national Opera House. Although business is in our blood, culture and arts make you a better human being. It makes living on our small island better. Giving back to the community is a responsibility all business owners should take—we engage in a wide range of CSR activities both as family and as a company. On the personal front, I do a great deal of charity and I do not seek the spotlight with that. Seven years ago, during the height of the civil, I traveled with the UN to Syria for a fact-finding mission to find out how we could help. Today, I go twice a year to refugee camps around the world. Women empowerment is another major focus for me—they make up half of our population, and sometimes they need extra support to get where they need to be. I am also a member of the YPO top CEO network and was the first Arab woman to chair the MENA division through member elections. This made me travel the world and also taught me a great deal about how to improve our working ways at home.
How does Bahrain stand out among the rest of the GCC?
We are lucky with our geography as island people tend to be more pleasant and accommodating. Our island is unique and tolerant. All monotheistic religions are represented; we have mosques for all sects of Islam, churches, and synagogues. There are intermarriages, and everyone is treated respectfully. With just over a million inhabitants, we truly have a unique place. In our company, we give everyone a day off for their own religious holiday, something we have done since the time of my late grandfather. Bahrainis mix well all over the world.
What is the role of Bahrain as a financial center, and how do you translate that to your business?
Bahrain is an easy place to do business. The government has facilitated many things for us and foreigners. You can open a CR in a day. The government understands that we should have more foreigners to come in and invest. This was the first place where women were educated. Other countries may have taken over the role as leading financial hub for the region, but that also has to do with size; both Saudi and the UAE have much larger populations. Bahrain is also really a place to live and raise children. The longer one lives here, the less they want to leave. You rarely see a foreigner leave within two or four years; I call it the bug of Bahrain. We are pioneers in education, healthcare, and for women. It is a wonderful place for women to live on their own. Compared to the rest of the Gulf, everyone has to justify their own business on their own, but as a place to live, Bahrain is one of the most tolerant and safest places to live in the region.
What are your expectations and ambitions for business in the years to come?
For the business, we are witnessing a slowdown, though that is just the cycle of business. There will always be ups and down, but that does not mean we pull out of business. We continue to build service centers and train more people. Saudi Arabia is doing well, and because I am bullish about it, I am convinced there will be a trickle-down effect. We have not stopped growing nor investing. New industries like tech are picking up, and we are getting involved as well—I personally sit on various tech boards. The future is tech and AI. If we do not jump on the bandwagon now, we will be too late.
How are you trying to incorporate tech in your current business?
Every two years, we are strategizing. The world is so disruptive. Many family businesses made their success through old-fashioned style of business, but we have to start to embrace technology. I am investing locally and in Silicon Valley. I was the first woman to be asked to chair a tech board in the region. Family businesses are extremely traditional. They have created their legacy and do not want to blow it on a few investments. They do not like high risk, even if there is high return.
What are your best practices on sustaining as a family business?
So far, we are running the show and we are professional enough. The future is definitely professionalizing management. Many family businesses are moving in this direction. Family business are growing very large, which means we have done a good job. For the future, professionalizing family business should be looked at. Most major businesses in the world started off as family businesses. It does not mean the family loses control; it just ensures that growth is continuous and professional. It does not mean one’s children will not be in the family business, though they have to be in the business by merit, not by name. It is a hot topic here.
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