James Michael Lafferty,-CEO, Fine Hygienic Holding Image Credit: Supplied

Please share a brief history and profile of your company and the services it provides.

Founded in 1958, Fine Hygienic Holding (FHH) is one of the world’s leading wellness groups and the MENA region’s leading manufacturer of hygienic paper products with a focus on sustainability, state-of-the-art production processes and pioneering employee policies and initiatives.

FHH is renowned for its diverse array of products including facial tissues, napkins, kitchen towels, toilet paper, baby diapers, adult briefs, and jumbo rolls. Fine also owns a majority stake in Nai Arabia Food Co, which is famous for its natural and healthy iced teas.

FHH recently pivoted into the production of PPE - Fine Guard Comfort, Fine Guard Sport, and Fine Guard Kids masks as well as Fine Guard gloves, which are all protected by antiviral textile technology. One of the most technologically advanced and effective reusable masks and gloves on the market. Fine Guard is distributed in over 56 countries around the world.

Through its corporate arm Fine Solutions, FHH has also launched Fine Disinfection Solutions, a dedicated disinfection service for companies and businesses across all sectors navigating the COVID-19 pandemic in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt. FHH employs around 3,500 people, from more than 25 different nationalities, in various business units spread across the Middle East and Africa.

What are some of FHH’s recent achievements and how has the company impacted its sector?

The recent pivot into the manufacture of a range of reusable personal protection equipment (PPE) during the COVID-19 pandemic has helped to protect and ensure the safety of the communities we serve.

The launch of the Fine Guard mask line in February was a pre-emptive response to the pandemic and, thanks to the incorporated antiviral technology, which is scientifically proven to be 99.99 per cent effective in killing the virus, we have had an overwhelmingly positive response from the regional and global markets. We have since launched a Fine Guard Comfort, Sports and Kids masks and Fine Guard gloves, which are all reusable products that incorporate antiviral textile technology.

To match the surge in demand, we have operations in Jordan, the UAE, and Sri Lanka that produce up to 30,000+ masks daily and around 6,000 pairs of gloves per day. We are also set to increase our mask and gloves production capabilities in Q4 through an additional facility at JAFZA in Dubai.

While these products are an important component in terms of the health and safety of our communities, they also offer a sustainable solution to the current problem. It is imperative that we have one eye on the future and consider what the post-COVID-19 world looks like. The Fine Guard masks and gloves are a far more sustainable option when compared to disposable ones – for example a reusable Fine Guard mask has a one-year life with Livinguard tech and two years as a functioning N95 mask. This equates to 1,095 disposable masks which would end up in a landfill or in oceans.

Additionally, staying true to the brand, Fine has also launched a fully operational disinfection solutions service that works to sterilize a wide range of businesses and open spaces, including offices, hotels, restaurants, and schools. This business stream is further evidence of our commitment to hygiene, wellness, and safety as we look to support governments, brands, and communities responsibly while promoting consumer confidence and a safe environment across the MENA region.

Critical and quick decision making is an art form that defines CEOs. How has this evolved during the pandemic?

The circumstances may change but I think leadership remains the same regardless. Leaders need to lead from the front at all times, whether to navigate difficult times or to motivate their teams and guard against complacency when things appear to be going smoothly. People cue off their leaders in tough times, so it is important for a CEO to keep calm, resolute and focused, even when dealing with a difficult reality, and that is what has happened this year.

Leaders need to possess a rare skill – foresight. Strange as it may sound, a good leader needs the ability to see around corners, and to understand what is coming down the line. And they need to be steadfast because not everyone in the team will understand what is coming. We have seen that in several instances just this year. It is my job to predict and tell the team the future and that is what happened when we launched masks back in February this year. I knew what was coming, I had seen the data and I understood the threat Covid-19 posed before very few people talked about it. And the pivot to masks was not a universally popular decision internally but look at how the market has reacted.

It is the same with online shopping compared to bricks and mortar. It is important for us as a business to view the future and adapt, and that is what leadership is all about.

Great leaders practice all forms of governance, at one moment it is a democracy, at others it has to be a dictatorship – it really depends on the situation. I have a wonderful team and want their opinions. But sometimes I need to make unpopular decisions. On occasions we need input and the process can become somewhat democratic but at other times it has to be more dictatorial – when I have to ask the team to get with the program. I make a decision and then have to tell the team that this is the direction we are taking, so get on the bus.

Having said all that, it cannot be done without the support of a strong board, and that’s what we are blessed to have at Fine Hygienic Holding.

As a CEO/ company head, how is technology aiding you in the decision making process?

Technology is a huge enabler in our world. We now have far-more real-time data to interpret and to analyze than ever before, enabling us to make informed decisions that enable the business to grow. We can drill down and look at specifics efficiently and quickly, in ways that would have taken much longer in previous times. We can communicate better thanks to the technology at our disposal, and we have the ability now to meet virtually regardless of our real-time location and situation.

What are the short and long-term challenges you foresee within your sector, how do you plan to surmount them?

The industry’s biggest challenge pre-COVID was commoditisation. All hygienic paper products were viewed the “same” by consumers. But things have changed dramatically better for FHH. We have long positioned our paper products as “the world’s only sterilised tissues” and since infection is top-of-mind, it has driven a surge in demand for sterilised tissues.

Another recent challenge during COVID was supply chain, staying in stock with all raw materials as global shipping was massively disrupted. We did an amazing job in that respect, by building stockpiles of key materials early on in the crisis and expanding our supplier base to increase options.

Emotional quotient ranks high in a CEO’s list of variables in handling staff. How do you relate to this statement?

Emotional quotient ranks highly. It is one of the big factors when I recruit my teams. We need leaders and high achievers who recognise and understand their own emotions and the emotions of others. We live in a world and work in a company where there is a lot of pressure, but one of the demands from me of my team is that we consider others — and doing the right thing by others — in all the decisions we make. They may not be popular decisions, but as long as they are informed decisions that aim to do the right thing then I think we are on the right track.

I like a mix of facts and principles when making decisions. An example of a key principle in our company is, “We do the right thing”. So, whilst the facts at one stage may say “We are behind on our profit target”, it is not a problem if this is coupled with the principle of ‘doing the right thing’ – it means we won’t be engaging in anything questionable to boost profits.

Doing the right thing also covers my approach to risk taking. It is essential in business and I always encourage risk taking in my team. But it is all under the principal that to test and fail cheaply is better than to fail big. With this ethos, the team can implement fresh ideas, warm in the knowledge that they will not be punished for failure.

Your advice to entrepreneurs planning to set up business on what it takes to build and nurture a brand.

I would tell anyone looking to start their own business that it is lonely at the top. There is a price to pay for being a true leader, the visibility and pay comes with an enormous price.

As a leader you cannot be one of the team, the culture comes from you and cascades down through the organisation.

With that in mind, I believe it is important to show strength, stability and also a growth mindset. I believe in the idea of being a student for life, so I take on new challenges regularly, try new things and take on new assignments. It is important to get out of your comfort zone or you will never grow.

Take risks, fail, learn from your mistakes and learn how to do things differently the next time round. Personally, I take on a new course every year - this past year I studied an intensive course in negotiations from Harvard Law School.

This is in effect leadership by example. My team sees me taking courses and trying new things, to better myself and broaden my horizons. This culture cascades down and helps the entire organisation to grow.