Since 1939, the Sallam family has been a staple of Egyptian business. Three generations later, there’s no sign of stopping.
A common belief — hammered into place by generations of films of belligerent, ambitious sons striking out on their own — is that family businesses are rigid affairs. They lack the agility, innovation, and ambition of startups. But, as some local dynasties prove, there’s a way to make the best of both worlds.
One such family is Sallam, who have been a pillar of Egyptian local business for over 80 years. You might recognise their name from the many different brands and businesses they’ve founded or introduced to the Egyptian market, including consumer electronic and appliances retailer BTECH, iconic brands such as IDEAL and Olympic Electric, and edutainment giant KidZania, among others. They are also the founders of the Egyptian Group of Charity Banks—the Egyptian Food Bank, the Cure Bank and the Clothing Bank—which have evolved to be cornerstones in the NGO and CSR ecosystem in Egypt.
According to third-generation entrepreneur Abdallah Sallam, the two worlds of family business and ambitious innovation have been coalesced into one from the start: “I’ve witnessed the older generations innovate and break norms themselves, so I guess it stuck somewhere in the back of my mind that it’s normal to be abnormal,” he says. “My late grandfather re-engineered imported radio sets to work more smoothly with Egyptian electricity standards back in the 40’s...later on as his business grew, his company was the pioneer of retail consumer credit, he introduced the first electric water heater in Egypt.”
“Then his sons, the second generation followed in his footsteps,” he continues. “They introduced the first oil filled radiator in the market, and never fell short of innovating both on a product and corporate level. It seems that our family’s tradition is to break the norm and I’m lucky to be one of the members of the third generation who are now continuing this legacy.” Building on what he says is a deeply ingrained drive to create (“I guess I was born with the DNA of an entrepreneur”), Abdallah Sallam started his first ever venture at the age of 15: a graphic design company called Radius Graphics with his best friend while he was in high school. After spending post-grad years hopping from one family venture to another, Sallam realised that his passion didn’t lie in a particular industry—not in graphic design, consumer retail, or any other singular focus—but in a modus operandi he has carried through every venture since. “I realised that my real passion was to innovate and do things differently, rather than a passion for a specific industry. At that point, I realised my potential to be a serial entrepreneur.”
His most recent large-scale founding is Minka Development, an idea that Sallam notes was sparked out of the family’s existing real estate business (Namaa), but with a drive to innovate the industry. So far, Minka’s development include Kensington townhouses in New Cairo, the Taj City hybrid property named The HOFT, and hospitality management concept CAIROOM. Since its inception in 2016, Minka Development has invested more than EGP 250 million in the market, and currently owns a land bank that will witness investments projected to exceed EGP 6 billion, all to develop livable communities founded on principles of happiness and productivity.
But innovation? How does one innovate in a market such as real estate? “The real estate industry is a very mature and settled industry,” Sallam explains. “This means that there are many traditions, norms and standards to manage, and this I must say is a very fertile land for innovation. Some traditions in this industry (whether technical, operational, or marketing) haven’t changed in decades, if not centuries.” In mission, vision, construction methods, project themes, and even office design, Minka development aims to breathe new life into an old industry. But no amount of innovation could shield any business, in any industry worldwide, from the left hook blow of the coronavirus crisis. The best option, as has been clear, is to reevaluate priorities, cooperate with partners, and figure out how to keep the wheels spinning for the people that matter most.
“I always say that a crisis is not the time to take advantage of opportunities, but rather a time of collaboration, innovation, and reflection. And this is exactly what we did. We were able to pay our salaries ahead of time, and disbursed an extra payout to help employees manage any personal surprises too. We talked to our clients and postponed collecting installments for one month, and rescheduled payments for a few of them.”
Minka development completely halted construction work until precautionary measures were introduced, and still follow a rotation schedule between remote work and in-office shifts. “On a lighter note, we quickly designed and produced a beautiful sanitization kit and sent it out to our customers. Our customers loved the kit to the extent of asking us to start a line of branded toiletries and skin products.”
While we’d be skeptical of most real estate developers proposing a skincare line, Sallam’s track record and breadth shows no signs of limitation. “I was born and raised in a family that takes business and value creation as a duty, I grew up geared towards that,” says Sallam. “Most children aspire to mainstream jobs (ex: a doctor, a pilot, an officer), but me and my generation knew and voiced that we want to be business people before we understood what it even means.”