DUBAI: Selim Bassoul, 63, has an enthusiasm that is both child-like and infectious. In the first two minutes of this interview, he got right down to business — his 4 rules for success.
As CEO of Middleby Corp, known for its innovative kitchen technology (pizza ovens hooked up to the internet and controlled by touchscreens, long before iPhones came), Bassoul led the company in growing sales from $100 million to approaching $3 billion.
His exceptional drive came from his humble beginnings in Beirut. Bassoul grew up in a middle class family and went to a Jesuit school. The civil war in the '70s turned their lives upside down. “We became refugees in our own country. My father lost his job, his home. And ultimately we had to relocate to another part of the city, because of the conflict. We became homeless,” he said.
For someone who also had an undiagnosed learning disability as a child (he was found to have ADHD, diagnosed when he was already an adult) his phenomenal corporate success offers hope for parents of children with the condition.
Bassoul, now a multi-millionaire based in Dubai, said he is still unable to do emails. But he knows what he's good at. “Disruptive innovations emerge if you have the right people. If you provide them the highest level of potential, and set no boundaries for what they can perform. You can create amazing things within your core competency. But this means, first, that you understand your core competency,” Bassoul told Gulf News.
We became refugees in our own country. My father lost his job, his home. And ultimately we had to relocate to another part of the city, because of the conflict. We became homeless.
His remarkable success at Middleby (NYSE: MIDD, with about 10,000 employees) is celebrated by both the unforgiving US media and Wall Street ($136/share at NYSE as of January 27, 2021). Bassoul spent 18 years at the top of the Middleby out of a corporate career in America spanning more than three decades.
Under his watch, Middleby rose to become a world leader in commercial food service, manufacturing everything from high-tech ovens and stoves, dishwashers, microwaves and cooktops to coolers, ice-cream dispensers and robotic solutions. It holds numerous patents. In 2018, he retired from Middleby — while still at the top of his game. He currently sits as chairman of the board of Six Flags, the global parks and amusement corporation (NYSE: SIX, $32.09 as of January 27, 2021).
Corporate renewal: Advice sought by CEOs
Top CEOs in the US seek Bassoul’s advice. His thoughts and experiences have been chronicled in a number of books, including Simply Outstanding, Blueprint to a Billion: 7 Essentials to Achieve Exponential Growth and Who: The ‘A’ Method for Hiring, among others.
A case study published by Harvard and Kellogg School of Business entitled Leading Corporate Renewal, featured Bassoul's out-of-the-box thinking for harnessing corporate culture in turning companies around.
“Culture eats strategy for lunch everyday,” Bassoul told Gulf News.
Current job: Chairman of the Board, Six Flags Corp
Previous job: Chairman and CEO, Middleby Corp (18 years)
Other jobs: Headed 9 different US companies
Award: Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year (2015)
Birthplace: Beirut, Lebanon
Undergraduate degree: American University of Beirut
MBA: Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, US
Residence: Dallas, Texas; Beirut, Lebanon; and Dubai, UAE
Selim Bassoul's 4 rules of success
- Be curious. Listen to the views of others. Seek out and act upon the advice of experts in their field. Get inputs and feedback from different opinions and perspectives. Don’t read just one book.
- Take risks. Innovate. Don’t be afraid to experiment. While experimentation can sometimes lead to failures, it’s the only way to improve on what’s available at present. Keep improving your products and services. It’s the only way to get ahead of the competition.
- Act with speed and agility: “Be a cheetah. It’s the fastest animal on the planet. They rarely get caught. The key is not only to think fast, but also to act fast.”
- Say “No" often: Know what you’re good at. People come up with ideas all the time. Customers ask you to do this, that and the other. But saying “No” to something that’s not your core competency — saying "No" to distractions that cloud your judgement — frees you up. It means saying “Yes” to doing what you’re really good at.
Bassoul co-founded the Bassoul Dignity Foundation, which has been involved in providing relief to refugees and homeless people around the globe. Bassoul's drive to raise the "velocity of goodness" comes from his upbringing.
"I grew up in Beirut, a bustling city teeming with ethnic minorities doing menial jobs and barely making a living," he recalls. "As a young boy, I would run down the street to serve cold water in glass jars (plastic bottles were not yet invented) to people working under the scorching sun and the extreme heat.
"I felt blessed at the time that we had a home and the comfort of a decent middle-class lifestyle. Then in 1975, the civil war broke out in Lebanon. As a result, our family became displaced from one side of the city to the other. "Overnight, we had to leave behind our home, all of our belongings and the comfort of our lifestyle. We're now homeless. Our family became divided and scattered as we were seeking shelter with various family members and friends. I will never forget what a terrible feeling it is to be homeless. You lose every sense of hope and dignity."
It's that part of his growing up years that drives his compulsion to help refugees, the homeless and the displaced.
"Back in December 2000, when I was named CEO for the first time in my life, my aunt, Mother Yvonne Bassoul, a Catholic nun, congratulated me on this new chapter in my career and reminded me to 'lead with compassion and integrity'. Those words stayed with me forever. I had watched my aunt, who often was often described as the 'Mother Teresa of Lebanon', dedicate her life to the poor and to the orphans. She was a huge inspiration. Her words will always live inside of me. She taught me about giving back and doing good in the world, about integrity and compassion towards the most vulnerable."
41% are children
50% are women and girls
Bassoul is proud of his engineers at Middleby who developed a stove for refugees and displaced people. The stove uses less firewood (or paper) to cook or bake bread. A magnifying glass acts as a solar panel. Beyond cooking, the appliance can purify water,charge a cell phone or laptop through heat transfer, without using electricity. It can safely used inside a tent as a heater during winter.
Bassoul said the idea for the relief oven hit him after visiting a refugee camp. He then challenged his engineers at Middleby to develop a stove with one goal: to free the lives of women and girls by allowing them to find time to go to school and find decent employment, instead of spending hours searching for firewood to cook.
"Our core competency (at Middleby) was understanding combustion and automation," he said. Thousands of relief stoves have found their way to calamity victims in Haiti and Puerto Rico, refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. The multi-use relief oven is a repository of innovations, and has 28 patents.
4 types of people to avoid
With people, how do you push their boundaries?
"The formula is very simple. By creating two levers: the lever of empowerment and the lever of incentives," explains Bassoul. "Compensate people well for performance, trust them to do the job on their own, and weed out the contaminators, the snipers, the whiners, the passive-aggressive. The people I like are the 'high priests' — high-performers and trustworthy individuals who understand your vision.
"They are your best ambassadors, who communicate your vision, perhaps better than you. I love the young lions, too. They take the hill, spend time experimenting, failing and trying again, failing, and then trying until they take that hill." Post retirement, Bassoul is keen to give back. He is helping local entrepreneurs thrive and navigate what he calls the "next normal".
Coaching CEOs: Navigating the next normal
Next month (February), Bassoul is launching “Igniting Growth” business coaching. He has partnered with Ed Capaldi, a strategic advisor, "Agile ScaleUP Coach" and founder of PlayToScale.
The series includes highly exclusive CEO “retreats”, where they will be sharing trade secrets through a process of what they call "disruptive thinking" backed up with hard facts and proven practical strategies.
The idea behind the CEO retreat, Capaldi explains, is to "re-ignite growth" and prepare well for the “next normal”, and create a winning edge for leaders in business and the corporate world. For more information, log on to https://playtoscale.com/igniting-growth/