A Legacy of Social Consciousness
By Ghana Harb Conord
October 29, 2010
Heir to an empire built over half a century ago, Neemat Frem, President and CEO of INDEVCO Group, inherited much more than wealth, fortune, power and social status. He bears the responsibility of keeping the legacy of his father, the late Georges Frem — industrial pioneer, philanthropist, politician, founder and former Chairman of the INDEVCO Group — alive, carrying it like a beacon into the future to illuminate the way for Lebanon’s youth, and encourage them to create a community where social and environmental consciousness can thrive.
Founded in 1955, the INDEVCO Group is a growing empire that consists of 50 companies, including 30 manufacturing plants. The Group enjoys worldwide presence and employs over 7,500 people. It specializes in consumer disposable products, flexible packaging, corrugated industrial boxes and cartons, paper-making and kitchen manufacturing, with well-known brands such as Sanita paper products and Snaidero kitchens.
With the untimely passing of his father, the young Frem has had to step into some very big shoes and bear the burdens, as well as the joys, of running such a huge operation. Frem is also the President of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists, and a Board Member of the Maronite League.
Today’s Outlook sat down with the busy businessman to talk about the major changes in his life, his vision for Lebanon, and to get to know the man behind the professional who is wearing many hats!
You have inherited a business empire with all of its accomplishments and responsibilities. Tell us about your journey so far…
I believe in providence, and I believe that every person is born with a mission. It is very important to discover what your life’s mission is, and you have to understand that this process is one that takes time. You need to have a certain mindset that allows you to evolve towards a point where you can decipher what is expected of you. This can prove difficult unless you remain open and listen to your calling when it comes. There are many rewards to the life that I live today; the choices and opportunities available have really fulfilled me. Of course, there are difficult challenges, and the awareness that if you fall, you can fall very low, is a burden. I try to stay positive, and focus on how things can unfold in a positive manner.
Do you enjoy every aspect of your business?
Yes, very much so! I have learned to love what I have to do in my life, rather than do what I love. Eventually, the two fuse together, especially when you begin to know yourself really well. I love the world of business; it’s where I spent the first 20 years of my working life.
What is the secret to INDEVCO’s success?
INDEVCO has been built on very strong and deep foundations, which makes it a great shock-absorber. An unfortunate event such as losing a chairman can pose as a very difficult transition for some organizations; but we sailed through it because of our core values, which are very strong. We are like a big family and everyone is committed to upholding these values. We place a lot of emphasis on maintaining this sense of family spirit to ensure that leaders of all ranks are at the service of their entrusted mission every single day, and not vice versa. We also believe in the value of an individual, so we have carefully created a system that recognizes comparative advantages and optimizes on them instead of freezing them within the confines of a rigid structure. Precision is also very important to us; in thoughts, actions, behavior, work, and basically in anything and everything. Finally, of course, we believe that honesty and hard work enriches us.
How do you deal with the inherent issues of a family business?
We are well organized in the sense that we keep family matters and business matters separate, but at the same time, there is a lot of love. We see each other often, and we are all close, which works to our advantage. It’s very important, yet not easy, to strike a balance between being close and being professional. I know the many challenges of family businesses, but as Saint Augustine said, “order brings peace”.
The late Georges Frem was known to be an environmentally-friendly industrialist; do you carry this philosophy, as well as a sense of social responsibility, into your activities in the Association of Industrialists?
Yes, we are doing it one step at a time. We have a set of priorities broken down into stages, and this is something we plan to focus on more next year. For now, we are concentrating our efforts on creating the right linkages between us and the public administration in order to obtain the right tools to influence law-making and help the environment.
Tell us about the activities of the Maronite League.
There are large numbers of Lebanese leaving the country, especially Maronites or Christians. They adapt and meld with western cultures very quickly and easily, and in time, many tend to forget about Lebanon. We have seen some very alarming statistics about Lebanese immigrants who have not registered their children in Lebanon, even those who are recent immigrants – as recent as the 1970s! Our aim is to keep the vision of the Lebanon that we want alive. The Lebanese that have made their homes abroad are helping Lebanon to survive by paying seven billion dollars every year. In fact, we have the highest per capita expatriate remittance in the world. This tells you that our Diaspora is committed to its home country. The goal of the Maronite League is essentially to help all the Lebanese abroad to hold on to their roots. We want them to remain citizens of the world, but at the same time, it’s very important that they hold a Lebanese passport as well. The League has offices all around the world; we search for and contact Lebanese immigrants and help link them with their descendants in Lebanon so they can apply for their citizenship.
You have a very busy professional life; how do you make time for your personal life and family?
Indeed, I have a very busy schedule, and recently I have found it increasingly difficult to allocate as much time as I would like to my personal life, and I have had to decrease the number of social events that I can attend. With my new responsibilities at the Industrialists Association, I have also had to cut down on my travels quite a bit, at least for the first six months until we put things on track.
What kind of hobbies do you have and what activities do you enjoy?
I love mechanical design; I very much enjoy the creation of interesting things. I also like sports and I always make time to read.
What do you do or where do you go when you want to get away from everything?
Getting away is something I haven’t done in a while actually. I definitely need a vacation because the last one I took was a couple of years ago. The best escape for me, however, would have to be my home in Kleiaat, and riding a bike around the mountains. If I were to choose a spot abroad, it would have to be Switzerland.
What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
I would like to retire from my business life between the ages of 55 and 60 with INDEVCO Group being four or five times the size it is today. As for Lebanon, I would like to see a Lebanon that functions…a Lebanon where value-added decisions are taken by the public administration as opposed to decisions that are the result of efforts towards a compromise. Such decisions are not ones that help the system improve because the efforts have already been exhausted in coming to a compromise, thus destroying value instead of creating it. I also have some scientific aspirations I would like to achieve in Lebanon, such as unleashing the potential of Lebanese innovators.