Taking tough calls

Jesal Asher, Executive Director, Al Ansari Trading shares her views on adapting to a different cultural context, succession planning and the need for governance structures for family businesses.  Mayank Singh reports


Can you giveJesal Asher our readers a brief background on your education and professional experience?

I lived for 18 years in Oman and then went to the London School of Economics to pursue a Bachelor of Science and Management. After my graduation, I moved onto work for PwC – London, where I qualified as a Chartered Accountant (ACA). I worked for PwC for six years, thus spending nine years in London adding three years of college. During my tenure at PwC, I took a sabbatical to backpack around the world by myself. After PwC London, I decided to go to New York. I applied for a job in New York, and this was around 9/11 and the job market was difficult. Moreover I was a British citizen and needed a work visa. Despite the odds, I went ahead. PwC offered me a job in its audit department while KPMG came up with an offer to join the consultancy practice. At that stage, though I liked finance, I wanted to do consulting and joined KPMG. Initially, I thought that it will be a short stint, but after 11 years I was still in New York and loved the city. I became one of the youngest female partners in KPMG’s risk consulting practice. I led the enterprise risk management practice, for the North East which included New York, Boston, Washington DC and more.

You were doing well in the US. What made you move back to Oman?

In the middle of 2013, I moved back to Oman. The decision to do that was tough as it meant leaving a flourishing career both for myself and my husband. The main reason for moving back was to ensure continuity at the business that my father, Kiran Asher had founded. He had put in 40 years and I wanted to see as to what I could do for the business either in the short term or in the long term.

In what capacity did you join the family business on returning from New York?

The role assigned to me was to take on the role of my father. I had to understand how my father got involved in the decision making process so that I could learn his vision and values. The first project that I worked on was putting together a governance structure which included a shareholders agreement in the company. It also details as to what happens to the business in the absence of the original shareholders and how does the second generation get involved from an operational perspective.

I also got involved in two other business units that my father took care of and we looked at diversifying those units with offices in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Dubai. The company already has operations in India. The idea was to grow our business globally.

On the softer side the induction process entailed understanding the country and culture where I have not done any professional work in. I also had to work on building my network.

You moved back to Oman from a different cultural context. Secondly you went from a consultancy to a family managed company. How difficult was this transition?

It was very difficult. Though I consulted family businesses in New York, I was not fully exposed to such a business. Moreover, the culture is completely different, hence it was critical that I came in and did not make any changes for a reasonable period of time. I needed to build relationships, credibility and get acquainted with the culture. So I had a lot to learn. In Oman, you build trust first and business comes later, while in the West they view it as ‘you are not here to know me but to get the work done. So come in, get the work done and we are good to go.’

Have you settled down and got used to the change of pace and milieu?

I am better adapted to the change of pace and understand it a lot more. I think I will continue to learn as it has been 15-16 years of working professionally out of the country. But I am definitely in a much better place than when I came in.

Family-owned businesses tend to wither away over generations. How are you going to ensure that something similar does not happen at Al Ansari?

I think the toughest task is to go from the first generation to the second, because you go from the founders to ‘what comes next’? First, the founders need to be clear about when and whether they want to exit their operational role in the business. If they have thought about this, then they need to share their vision and values for the company with the succeeding generation. If the founders want to retire at some point, then there needs to be a plan to train family members from the next generation to come in. There needs to be transparency, clarity etc. and an agreement on how people will be inducted.

While you can have hundreds of shareholders, a business cannot have an equal number of board members. So there needs to be a distinction between shareholders and operational management. The founders need to envision whether the next generation is ready, capable and enabled with the requisite skill sets to grow the company in line with their vision and values.

If they are confident about the next generation, then there needs to be an agreement with inputs from family members to say that this is the way I intend the company to run, and there needs to be a lot of open communication. Once you have determined that the skill sets are right, you also have to groom your family to take on that responsibility. If the second generation does not have an interest in the company, then other options like going in for a strategic investor or doing an IPO come to the table. The critical part is for the founders to figure out the next thing. We need to distinguish between succession and continuity planning. If you see this as succession planning then founders tend to get unnerved
as they are under pressure to find
that one person, who fits the bill.
So it is more assuring to think about
it as continuity.

Is there space for everyone from various generations in a family business?

No. Currently there is no space for everyone operationally, but there is space as shareholders. But one has to remember that until the business grows, the amount that is being passed onto shareholders will continue to get smaller unless we are all focused on growing the company. The idea for the next generation is to decide that they want to grow the business for the collective good of the families that are beyond them, making space for more generations to join the business.

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