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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

From Executive to Entrepreneur: Naoufel Aoun And His Journey to Impact

In this insightful interview, we had the privilege of speaking with Naoufel Aoun, an accomplished Entrepreneur, Board Member, and Advisor. Naoufel’s journey through various phases of his career, from leadership roles in finance to international ventures and entrepreneurial pursuits, provides a wealth of knowledge and experience. Throughout the interview, Naoufel shares key milestones, the inspiration behind his entrepreneurial endeavors, and valuable insights on fostering innovation, attracting and retaining top talent, risk management, adapting to emerging opportunities, and advice for aspiring entrepreneurs in the dynamic business landscape. Join us as we delve into Naoufel Aoun’s remarkable journey and the wisdom he imparts along the way.

Can you share key milestones and turning points in your journey as an industry leader or entrepreneur?

Throughout my career, I’ve undergone four transformative phases. First, in Tunisia, I led the financial markets section at Banque Internationale Arabe de Tunisie, gaining in-depth knowledge of brokerage, fund management, stock and bond issuance, and custody, with a strong focus on domestic and international economic dynamics.

Following a brief stint as Deputy General Manager at Tunisia’s Volvo dealership (Magrimex), I embarked on a long journey with Sodexo, holding various roles across Tunisia, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the GCC Zone. This culminated in my position as Vice President for the GCC region, providing extensive international exposure and collaboration across organizational levels.

Next, as CEO at El Seif Operations and Maintenance in Saudi Arabia, I successfully revitalized the company, aligning it as a key player in the Saudi market through effective change management.

Now, I transition from a C-level executive to an Entrepreneur/Board Member and Advisor. This shift allows for greater flexibility in exploring ideas and seizing opportunities while presenting challenges in adhering to crucial management practices. Balancing these demands and effective delegation are essential for success, supported by the right individuals to bring visions into reality.

I firmly believe that, despite technological advancements, business success fundamentally relies on human skills and relationships.

What inspired you to start your own company or venture in this industry?

Naoufel Aoun

I am currently immersed in various aspects of the food industry supply chain, embarking on this journey through a partnership with a friend where we share equal ownership. Our voyage began with the acquisition of a greenhouse farming company specializing in premium tomatoes. These tomatoes are cultivated for sale in the European and Middle Eastern markets during the winter season. Located in Al-Hamma, southern Tunisia, our farm harnesses geothermal energy from deep wells, utilizing hot water to heat the greenhouses through a network of pipes. A portion of this water is then directed to PVC basins for cooling before being employed for irrigation.

Leveraging our expertise in business revitalization, we successfully transformed this company, earning a strong reputation among our industry peers. Our workforce, mainly comprising female breadwinners, positively impacts their families and the local community, with approximately 150 employees benefiting from our operations under the banner of “Parfums des Oasis.”

Naoufel Aoun

Our future plans involve diversifying into more sophisticated product lines, including the manufacturing of various fruits and vegetables. Our goal is to produce high-quality, ready-to-cook products catering to both individuals and institutions.

The inspiration for this venture draws from my tenure at Sodexo. While traveling across different countries, I identified opportunities within the food supply chain. As the GCC VP for Sodexo, I orchestrated extensive travel plans for procurement and finance managers, focused on optimizing food procurement in source countries like Brazil, Australia, India, Pakistan, Egypt, and others. I personally participated in several of these missions and was deeply impressed by the potential.

Our overarching ambition remains to utilize Tunisia’s highly fertile soil. Historically, Carthage (modern-day Tunisia) was often referred to as the “greenery of Rome” because the Roman empire heavily depended on Carthage for its premium food imports. With this rich heritage, we aim to promote an international high-end brand rooted in the quality and fertility of Tunisian soil.

How do you foster innovation within your company? Can you provide an example of a successful innovation initiative?

To ensure efficiency and attain desired outcomes, it is imperative to embed innovation within a company’s culture across all levels. Nonetheless, accomplishing this task is not straightforward, given that humans tend to gravitate toward the status quo and familiar routines due to their convenience and reduced effort.

Naoufel Aoun

At ESOM, we have invested substantial efforts in nurturing an innovation culture. This endeavor encompasses the establishment of a senior position exclusively dedicated to Innovation and Technology. A significant portion of quality objectives for senior managers is allocated to the introduction and implementation of novel ideas. We have also promoted participation in international fairs and exhibitions, facilitating the exchange of new experiences. This element has been seamlessly integrated into the learning and development plans for senior and middle managers. In order to incentivize innovation across all employee levels, we have introduced rewards for proposed innovations that are subsequently implemented by management.

A similar approach has been embraced at Parfums des Oasis, resulting in the development of innovative technologies within our irrigation system. These innovations enable precise adjustments of plant requirements in alignment with the quantity of natural fertilizers, thereby enhancing cost control and fostering robust plant growth.

How do you attract and retain top talent in your organization?

As previously highlighted, human skills and talent constitute the cornerstone of our business, as well as any other enterprise. Consequently, it is of paramount importance to not only attract top talent but, more crucially, to retain it.

In general, individuals possessing exceptional talents are drawn to organizations that promise significant growth opportunities upon their entry. This is why I personally ensure my involvement in interviews for candidates demonstrating strong potential, even when they are being considered for CEO-2 or CEO-3 level positions. For roles at higher echelons, we underscore the challenges and potential rewards associated with the position. Top talents are typically enticed by the intricacies of their work and tend to eschew the path of least resistance, especially in the early stages of their careers. We take this inclination into account during the recruitment process.

Naoufel Aoun

However, retaining top talent presents an even greater challenge. Referring to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, individuals aspire to attain self-esteem. Hence, it is imperative to support them in reaching this level by demonstrating respect and care from the moment they join the company. While this may be easier said than done, the more challenging aspect involves establishing a robust HR structure that ensures a warm welcome for new employees, guaranteeing their comfort and continued support during their initial phase with the company. However, what holds even greater significance is fostering an organizational atmosphere that instills confidence. This is the culture of fairness that should permeate throughout the organization, assuring every member that their contributions will be duly recognized. Such a culture is only sustainable when championed directly from the CEO.

How important has mentorship and networking been in your professional journey?

These are two crucial pillars for business success.

Mentorship was integral to the roles of all business leaders at Sodexo. Given the importance of succession planning, mentoring managers earmarked for future leadership roles was imperative to ensure their readiness when succession opportunities arose, a practice particularly prevalent during growth periods. Mentorship encompassed both practical field settings and scheduled sessions. I firmly believe that managers often learn best from their mistakes, emphasizing the importance of empowering them to take initiative, even when outcomes are not always positive. A directive form of mentorship can hinder managers from adequately preparing for higher responsibilities with reduced support.

Networking holds significance both internally and externally. Internally, it fosters a positive atmosphere and streamlines communication. I used to organize informal weekly gatherings with the team, allowing for discussions on non-work-related topics, which helped break down barriers and boost the confidence of lower-level employees.

External networking is of paramount importance. Throughout my career, I prioritized maintaining strong relationships with clients, suppliers, and third parties. In my current role, visits to the Netherlands and Germany solidified our client relationships and facilitated a proactive approach to potential issues, thanks to prior interactions. Facilities Management, often viewed as a “public relations” business, relies on strong client relationships as a key differentiator. Effective networking builds trust, simplifying communication and problem-solving. It also plays a pivotal role in securing new business by providing early alerts on potential opportunities and a deeper understanding of client requirements.

How do you assess and mitigate risks in your business?

Assessing and mitigating business risks are integral components of ISO implementation, subject to regular review and updates. Typically, risk assessment hinges on historical events impacting both the company and the industry. For example, when a virus affecting tomato plants emerged in Europe, we promptly included this factor in our considerations and implemented stringent hygiene measures and access restrictions in our greenhouses as preventive measures.

Naoufel Aoun

At ESOM, we routinely conducted risk assessments for individual projects, accompanied by corresponding mitigation plans, all detailed in our monthly project reports. Subsequently, we consolidated all project-related risks and incorporated company-level risks to formulate a comprehensive risk mitigation plan, reviewed when significant events unfolded.

During the bidding stage, we meticulously identified and addressed project-related risks. If mitigation proved intricate, we factored in additional costs as a contingency. Conversely, when risks were deemed sufficiently low, no extra financial provisions were deemed necessary. Ultimately, decisions regarding risk significance always rested with the management.

How do you adapt your business strategy to capitalize on emerging opportunities and industry shifts?

Remaining vigilant in a dynamic business environment is crucial. Our standard practice involves annual adjustments to our business plan to accommodate emerging threats and opportunities. Despite our comprehensive market presence and field intelligence covering significant market activities, I consistently recommend conducting independent market surveys to gain an objective view. However, there are instances when rapid action is imperative, necessitating adjustments outside the budgeting cycle.

Over the last decade, two such instances occurred. The first was during the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting daily meetings between top management and the senior team to monitor market trends. This agile approach allowed us to meet specific market demands related to hygiene and catering for quarantined personnel, averting significant cost escalations due to pandemic-related regulations.

The second instance occurred at the pandemic’s end, coinciding with the accelerated implementation of the GEGA projects in Saudi Arabia. Mid-year opportunities required changes in our bidding strategies and adjustments to our strategic priorities, considering the significance of the PIF projects.

Additionally, at “Parfums des Oasis,” reduced tomato exports from Morocco to the European market created an opportunity for negotiation. However, we chose a partnership-focused approach over short-term gains, prioritizing long-term relationships with our clients.

What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs in this industry? What key lessons have you learned along the way?

Transitioning from C-class management to entrepreneurship demands recognition of distinct yet complementary success factors.

Effective delegation is pivotal for entrepreneurs. They excel in strategic direction, leveraging commercial acumen, technology adoption, and shrewd recruitment, not in daily minutiae. Empowering managers to be accountable, decide, and learn is essential, as excessive directive control hampers progress.

Thorough market analysis and data-driven decisions are paramount. While dreams are the guiding force, they must align with factual realities. A case in point is my investment in an industrial thread company named FILTEC. This venture was initiated with the objective of leading a turnaround for the company, which was grappling with challenges. The primary motivation behind the investment was a business plan, heavily influenced by the technical insights of a specialized Doctor in the industry. However, the data and projections provided by this expert were not as precise as anticipated, resulting in a significant deviation from the initial business plan figures. This led to multiple revisions, accompanied by substantial losses, in our persistent efforts to steer the company in the right direction.

Cash flow consideration is another cornerstone when launching or acquiring a business. Appealing paper profitability may clash with resource limitations, necessitating a choice between adjusting your investment portfolio or cutting losses.

Partner quality is crucial, especially in shared ownership scenarios. Unpredictable “sleeping” partners pose risks. Establishing shareholder agreements mitigates surprises. Mismanaging dissatisfied partners can lead to financial woes, even bankruptcy.

What are your long-term goals for your company? How do you plan to remain competitive in the evolving business landscape? we asked Naoufel Aoun.

“Parfums des Oasis” serves as the foundation for a business set to transform into an agri-food group, with a well-established Tunisian brand spanning Europe, the Middle East, and beyond. This vision is both personal and a national aspiration.

Our current achievements mark only the initial strides in a lengthy journey, often the most formidable. Successfully entering the market with a single product will lay the groundwork for future expansion.

Our short-term strategy involves increasing production capacity for this single product and diversifying into other offerings within three years. Concurrently, we’ll begin the groundwork for business transformation over the next two years. This endeavor will require financial and technical partnerships, heightened commitment from my partner and me, and the recruitment of a skilled core management team to realize our dream.

Our goal is to firmly establish our brand by 2030. In the meantime, we aim to become a publicly listed company, bolstering our reputation and unlocking new opportunities. This journey will continually evolve as we progress.

Connect with Naoufel Aoun on LinkedIn.

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