In the midst of today’s volatility and global economic turmoil, growth is resilient in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region. It has become a popular investment destination and a key player in the world economy accounting for 5% of the world’s imports valued at around $300,000 million. Now the region shifts towards sustainable business models and strategies which is seen to generate up to US$637 billion and 12.4 million jobs across the region by 2030, making MENA a key market “hotspot”. Recently, we had the pleasure of speaking with Mr Antoun Massaad, the CEO and Founder ofCedar Rose, an international award-winning business intelligence provider for the MENA Region. In this interview, Mr Massaad highlights the growing opportunities in doing business in the region – with its green and sustainable development initiatives – and Cedar Rose’s key role in providing potential investors with top-notch credit information and risk management solutions that help businesses across all industries optimise and utilise the full business growth potential of the MENA Region.
Thank you so much for your time, Mr Massaad. For us to get a glimpse of how a CEO of a successful company starts a day, can you share with us some of your favourite morning routines to ensure a productive day ahead?
Sure, my mornings are actually quite similar every working day. Before I start work, Monday to Friday, I hit the gym for at least an hour before I get into the office. After this and a double espresso or two, I feel refreshed, filled with energy and ready to take on whatever challenges and opportunities the day will bring. From the time I wake up, my usual day starts with checking emails to spot any alerts or anything that requires immediate attention. That’s also when I start to prepare for my day ahead – review what meetings are booked in and decide which issues I will be concentrating on and what I plan to accomplish during the day with the help of my team. I find that having clear short and long-term objectives helps me to achieve them.
You founded Cedar Rose in 1997 and for almost 12 years now, you hold the position of CEO. Can you share with us your inspirations and the story of how you started Cedar Rose? What are the highlights of your professional journey so far?
There was a strong appetite for more accurate information and that companies would prefer to pay a little more for information they could rely on, especially if that intelligence was delivered quickly. And so Cedar Rose was established 22 years ago.
I started the business in 1997 having worked for another business intelligence agency and I realised that there was a lack of credible and accurate information available for the Arabic-speaking countries and this was just being accepted by export credit insurance agencies who would simply build the additional risk exposure into the price of their cover. Having grown up in Lebanon then worked as a researcher myself in London, I knew that with the right attitude, respect for the Arab culture and knowledge of the local protocol, it was possible to obtain more in-depth information on both companies and individuals.
I also realised there was a strong appetite for more accurate information and that companies would prefer to pay a little more for information they could rely on, especially if that intelligence was delivered quickly. And so Cedar Rose was established 22 years ago.
The highlights have been the many awards we have won over the years, as well as the realisation at one point a few years ago that we had created the largest database of companies and linked individuals in the MENA region, passing competitors who had been in the industry over 100 years. That was a real high point for me personally and a very proud moment.
Cedar Rose was recognised as the Commercial Credit Information Provider of the Year 2019, and has been consistently living up to its motto, “Strive for Excellence” by providing world-class and top-notch Due Diligence reports, in-depth Background Screening, and Investigation services to international brands and companies. What differentiates Cedar Rose from other business intelligence providers?
At Cedar Rose, we take pride in what we do and we do it with passion. This is shared throughout the organisation and at every level. I believe it’s the quality, expertise, and engagement of the people we employ who differentiate Cedar Rose from other information providers. Our employees are highly qualified and love what they do – they have a say, they give great feedback, and are always innovative so we continuously have new ideas on how to be better at what we do every day. They literally do “Strive for Excellence” and this keeps us always a few steps ahead of the competition.
Technology continuously evolves and now plays a very important role in every aspect of business across industries. Can you share with us how Cedar Rose leverages the latest technology to innovate your database and services and make you a reliable leader in the field of credit information and due diligence for over two decades?
We translate and transliterate data and identify the entities accurately to ensure out data is clean and user-friendly before we load it into our database and make it available to our clients, who make very important decisions based on the information we provide to them.
We have been proactively sourcing information from countries and regions where information is not so widely or obviously made available to the public, though all the data we gather and provide is publicly available and legally and ethically obtained. We use the latest technologies to normalise and standardise data, which very often comes in various formats and languages even from within the same country. We translate and transliterate data and identify the entities accurately to ensure our data is clean and user-friendly before we load it into our database and make it available to our clients, who make very important decisions based on the information we provide to them. It is widely known that “good data in, good data out and bad data in bad data out” therefore accuracy and comprehensiveness are key to the data we provide, as is speed of access. We ensure to use the very best of what is currently available in terms of technology to achieve the heights we are reaching, whether that be our Add-on for Salesforce, our API, artificial intelligence, machine learning, or other automated processes, mostly developed and monitored by our intelligent teams in-house in Lebanon and Cyprus.
Companies of different industries partner with Cedar Rose in order to gain access to the largest business intelligence database and risk management solutions for the MENA region. Can you share with us how vital these services are for businesses and industries? What industries in particular would find value in your services?
The MENA region is a growing, extremely diverse region with some of its markets being mature, whilst others are not so much so. Nonetheless the region is a key player in the world economy accounting for 5% of the world’s imports valued at around $300,000 million annually. MENA has over 400 million inhabitants and expected to reach over 500 million by 2025 if we consider the Arabic speaking countries alone and not Iran, Israel, or Turkey. The region is therefore nearly the same size as the EU (European Union) but it carries its own unique set of risks. We therefore aim and are working hard to ensure that data from this region is available to our customers who rely on us to make decisions 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Having access to accurate data on businesses and individuals in the region is vital to protect our clients’ reputations, mitigate risks, and ensure they are trading compliantly in accordance with global regulations. And, of course, to help them avoid the risk of non-payment. Our clients include payment service providers, e-commerce platforms, banks, financial institutions as well as commercial, manufacturing and industrial companies, law, risk advisory, and audit firms to name a few. Anyone trading in, exporting to or investing overseas can benefit from our services. Our clients need to have access to easy and quickly accessible, accurate, reliable, and up-to-date information, and we aim to deliver exactly that at a reasonable price.
The MENA Region is estimated to generate US$637 billion and 12.4 million jobs across the region by 2030 as it shifts toward sustainable business strategies (according to Business & Sustainable Development Commission 2017 Report). How does Cedar Rose identify market opportunities and growth with the relevant and potential investors within the industries?
Actually I recently attended the Arab British Economic Summit in London and a lot of topical issues were discussed including sustainability, diversification away from a dependence on oil and gas, green energy, agriculture, and the new technologies being employed in that sector as well as the crises being faced in MENA in terms of youth unemployment and severe water shortages. There are a lot of opportunities for green initiatives – the region is heavily dependent on electricity for cooling because of the extremely high temperatures so global warming just exacerbates that issue. Investors in green energy, technology, education, food, beverages, and luxury goods are always going to find opportunities in MENA. However, I don’t see our role as one of identifying the opportunities, it is more of making sure that our clients know exactly who they are investing in or trading with and what further connections or risks they may be exposed to so that they can benefit from the multitude of opportunities in a secure way.
The MENA Region poses a great and unique opportunity for business development and was identified as one of the emerging key market hotspots. What do you think are the things that companies in the MENA Region should enhance and strengthen in terms of their credit and risk management strategies?
Companies have to be prepared to invest in risk mitigation. We have had large clients lured away many times in the past by cheap credit or due diligence reports being offered by our competitors. But I can confidently say that every time they have returned to Cedar Rose, because they realised that either thorough investigations were not being conducted or the data they received was full of duplicates and inaccuracies. We may not be the cheapest agency out there, but I am very confident in the quality of the reports and data we provide, so my first advice would be to invest wisely, but do invest in risk prevention. As for day-to-day business, MENA is a region where human interaction is still very important, so develop good one-to-one relationships with business people in the region and you will find loyal and mostly reliable partners. Getting to know about the local culture and protocol is important and can go a long way in helping to build strong partnerships.
As the leading provider of credit information, business intelligence, and investigative due diligence for the MENA Region, how has Cedar Rose been able to make significant contributions in promoting the region for major sustainable market opportunities?
Trade happens where there is mutual trust; and good, reliable business intelligence can help to build that trust. With a database of over 12 million companies in the region, we have helped bring MENA data to the masses in a format and language that they are used to working with.
Through our social media pages, we often highlight sustainable opportunities within the region. However, I think the significant difference we have made is proving that business information for the Middle East, Gulf, and Africa can be made available and this not only reduces risks and keeps export and trade credit insurance premiums within reason, it removes the fear factor.
We provide over 2000 credit reports a month – that’s around US$150 million worth of risks mitigated monthly, let alone the billions of dollars in trade our due diligence services and data subscriptions help to facilitate. Trade happens where there is mutual trust; and good, reliable business intelligence can help to build that trust. With a database of over 12 million companies in the region, we have helped bring MENA data to the masses in a format and language that they are used to working with. Our recently developed Salesforce add-on means that potential customers can be identified, leads can be instantly validated, KYC done, and additional information is available straight away, or can be provided within as little as 24 hours so that deals can be quickly closed. This has made painfully slow client on-boarding for MENA a thing in the past.
You have received invariably excellent feedback from your clients and users regarding the quality of your customer service and the user interface of your platforms. How does Cedar Rose ensure the delivery of best client services amidst the fast-changing demands of the key players of the business industries and sectors?
It’s simple. We listen to our customers. We ask what they want and we do our best to deliver it within or beyond their expectations. We make sure nobody promises anything we can’t deliver so we manage our customers’ expectations and don’t disappoint them. If they don’t communicate much, we ask them regularly if they are satisfied and on the very rare occasion they are not happy, we address issues straight away. When they tell us they are happy, we try to make sure everyone in the organisation knows so that they all feel the buzz of having praise from a customer and thrive on that feeling. That’s what motivates us all.
What are your short-term and long-term plans for Cedar Rose? Where do you see Cedar Rose in the ever-evolving business ecosystem in the next 10 years?
In the short term, we will be expanding our coverage globally. We already cover 170 countries for credit reporting and will offer global coverage in 2020. For Due Diligence, we have recently added Russia and the Stan countries to our MENA, Turkey, and India resources. I see us eventually becoming the go-to source for instant business intelligence, risk rating, and verification on any company, director or shareholder in the world with full link analysis. Fintech and the blockchain will change the industry beyond recognition, but we’ll be ready.
What key messages does Cedar Rose want to get across to industries who are wondering about the status quo of MENA Region’s investment opportunities and business environment in the midst of rising conflicts and slowing global demands?
I see us eventually becoming the go-to source for instant business intelligence, risk rating and verification on any company, director or shareholder in the world with full link analysis.
Well the first one would be that demands are not slowing in MENA. The population is growing fast, the climate is getting even hotter and we are talking about a dry, arid region – a large part of which is desert. People need water, sustainable agriculture, food, entertainment, leisure, education, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, housing, vehicles, and sustainable energy. There are development projects underway in almost every country from the Dubai 2020 Expo to Saudi 2030 Vision and Morocco 2020. There have been and unfortunately probably always will be conflicts in the region – it is volatile and tensions run high because of religious and historical disagreements, corruption, and vast economic disparity, but there are endless opportunities too. So tread cautiously – make use of all the available information and don’t jump in until you know how exactly deep the water is.
As you lead Cedar Rose to stay on top in a competitive market, it is also vital to maintain your employees’ well being. How do you ensure a happy workforce and good work-life balance for your group of experts and employees?
We try to encourage our teams to take all their holiday allowance and to finish their work within the contracted hours. Work-life balance is very important and I even try to take full weekend breaks from work whenever possible. There are times when we need key staff to be available out of hours but we don’t abuse that. I like my staff to come in to work full of energy so they need their rest time too. We also have regular meetings, appraisals and social events so that our people get to interact both in work and outside. I’ve noticed that setting an example of fitness and wellness does motivate some of my team to follow suit, but there will always be those who eat the cake and the chips just because I didn’t. You need some of those rebels too to keep a good balance! It would be boring and slightly worrying otherwise.
Your role as the CEO of a well-established company entails great responsibility. On a lighter note, how do you usually spend your time off work?
Indeed it does. My wife and I didn’t choose the easiest business, but we live on the wonderful island of Cyprus so finding ways to relax is easy. If I’m not on my boat or in the gym, I love spear-gun fishing and I recently started free diving, which is like scuba diving without the breathing equipment. The Mediterranean Sea is my sanctuary.
Lastly, how would you describe success? What is your favourite motivational quote?
I’ve learned that success is not about making money, it’s about being healthy and happy. If you can make money doing that, it helps you to reach personal goals like buying the house or car you always dreamed of and that will help some people feel happy – but without health and fitness, you won’t get to enjoy it anyway. My personal successes are seeing my sons grow up into good, honest men I can be very proud of and knowing I gave them a comfortable and happy childhood. My favourite quote has always been – Success is a journey, not a destination. Enjoy the ride.
Written by Antoun Massaad, CEO of Cedar Rose Int. Services Ltd
Interviewed by The World Financial Review
*** The sole purpose of the article above is to generate public discussion, it has no intention to constitute legal advice. ***