Reda Bouraoui (SK 1987) has one objective: “to develop leadership in the frontier markets”

31 January 2020

With a remarkable career in agribusiness in North Africa and the Middle East and a taste for training and personal development, Reda Bouraoui, a graduate of SKEMA’s Class of 1987, has forged himself a solid reputation in entrepreneurial leadership.


After graduating from SKEMA, your first employer was Mars in France. What made you choose that company?
I received several job offers after finishing school. By helping me with the necessary administrative formalities, Mars had shown that they were especially keen to have me on their team. They were my first choice. My position as Channel Profitability Manager in the south-west gave me the opportunity to hone my sales skills. That’s why I always tell young workers to really apply themselves in their first job: I consider it an opportunity to continue building on the foundations laid at school. Very quickly, I was offered a position at the head office, in the finance department. This was a great promotion, rarely offered at the start of a career.


Were you already tempted to gain international experience?
I left Morocco at 17 to pursue my studies in France, so that was my first step towards the international life. Naturally, after working for five years in the French market, my appetite for discovering new frontiers just kept growing. PepsiCo was able to satisfy that appetite by sending me to Dubai, as head of merchandising strategy in the Gulf countries.


How would you sum up your 21-year career with PepsiCo? 
After Dubai, I was appointed Sales Director for Saudi Arabia, the group’s most profitable country at that time. The goal was to maintain our market shares in the face of Coca Cola’s aggressive strategy to capture them. I had the good fortune of being part of the team that successfully rose to that challenge. I was then promoted to the role of General Manager Africa in Cairo, with three offices under my responsibility (Egypt, Morocco and Ethiopia). We went from operating at a loss to achieving a net profit of 70 million in just a few years. We had a huge amount of latitude. We were free to be really creative and manage the business as if it were our own. Africa was an adventure that had a very strong impact on me. The last position I held, for a period of six years, was that of Vice President Sales, Middle East and Africa. With a four-billion dollar portfolio and the set-up of a revenue management policy that enabled us to triple our profits and redefine the industry’s economic ratios. Coaching an internal team and some external contractors taught me that leadership is complicated but that by realising our deficiencies we can develop a personal growth mindset. My PepsiCo adventure ended after 21 years; a long cycle of successes and challenges. 


You seem to have a special affinity for North Africa and the Middle East. Is that where you find a satisfying work-life balance?
As an Arabic speaker of Moroccan nationality, it was only natural that I should be interested in that region. Plus, I’ve always made it a point not to scatter myself. It was also one of the most prosperous zones for the companies with which I was working and they wanted me to run critical experiments for them there. On a personal level, it’s important to find the right balance. Incidentally, my second daughter, Alia, was born in Jeddah, a very comfortable place for young families. 


With two more university programmes under your belt – at Columbia and Harvard – and publications in the field of personal development, training seems to hold an important place in your career…
When I first joined Mars, I remember attending a training session on “how to craft a catch phrase for a sales pitch”. I was fresh out of school, so I thought: what a waste of time! It was only much later that I realised the importance of constantly establishing links between theory and practice. At Columbia, the executive programme in management and business administration not only allowed me to take a breather in a useful way, more importantly it enabled me to develop a new understanding of the concept of leadership and to internalise it. At Harvard I ventured even further into the cognitive sciences applied to leadership and emotional intelligence, with some brilliant professors. There are times in a career when you go through phases of uncertainty. Taking a course fulfilled this need for self-coaching and for bringing out the best in myself. As I gradually felt myself becoming better, I could once again start to imagine myself in different roles. Something magical happens when you get to grips with who you are.


When you took up your current position as CEO of Al Maha General Trading Co in Iraq, you wrote that your appointment would be a wonderful exercise in emotional intelligence and a “test” of your abilities. After 3 years in your role, have you found this to be true? How would you evaluate your experience?

I had to make a successful transition from multinational to local group. Because I wanted to relive the African experiences I’d had with PepsiCo, I looked for a professional adventure in a frontier market. When I was offered the position, I was very excited about the idea of making my own contribution to a region in upheaval and to getting a country like Iraq back on its feet. In 2016, I took the helm of a company that, with 35 million in losses, was on the verge of folding. Today, with a net profit of 12 million and huge growth prospects, we are a success story in the region. So until now it was a huge challenge, a daily lesson in humility, respect, tenacity, but also in listening and compassion. What matters is not what I say, but what the other person feels. I have no doubt that this quality, developed here in Iraq, will be useful anywhere in the world.


Do you think you could return to “simpler” contexts in big corporations?
I tend to reason in terms of agendas. The first was to save the company. Today, my agenda is growth and innovation, with the satisfaction of knowing that I am leaving a mark, in a security context the likes of which is unprecedented in my career. In a few years, if my staff become general managers, CFOs, I will feel a great sense of pride. I see the end of my career as something non deliberate that will simply emerge. I have a special fondness for developing leadership: the need for this is global, and it’s significant in the Arab world. Geopolitically speaking, Iraq is without a doubt the region’s next source of economic growth. Surprisingly, my time in this country is further increasing my international recognition. There is still so much to do!

Contact: Reda Bouraoui (SK 1987), CEO of Al Maha General Trading Co

Interview by for SKEMA Alumni