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Becoming the first ‘outsider in a 101 year-old local company is unique to the Middle East business world, but transforming it into one of the regions’ most envied companies in just two years is unheard of. James Bennett lifts the ring pull on Alex Andarakis, chief executive of ‘new age’ drinks manufacturer Aujan, and discovers why the harsh lessons of life have allowed him to put the fizz back into the business

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By  James Bennett Published  August 6, 2006

|~||~||~|Experiencing a breakdown in your personal life is not something you brag about, but for 40 year-old Alex Andarakis acting positively on the past has radically transformed both his everyday existence and the business he has driven for exactly two years later this month. As the first non-family chief executive to lead Saudi Arabian-based regional drinks giant Aujan during its 101 year-old lifespan, Andarakis has modernised and remodelled the drinks manufacturer that produces Rani, Hani and Vimto to name a few, to become a regional powerhouse and one of the Middle East’s most talked about success stories. But despite learning the hard way to get where he is today, he is someone who is keen to make sure others do not follow a similar path. “I make sure that every employee doesn’t lose out in life. That part is very important because I experienced a breakdown in my personal life which I don’t want anybody to have to go through in an organisation where I’m the leader,” he reveals candidly. When Andarakis talks about his past you can sense the pain it has caused but equally you feel that he has moved on, taken his mistakes on board and adapted them to one of the most innovative management models in the regional business world. “I learnt from it and it was the lowest point in my life, but I was travelling and working too much and business took over my life. It meant that a very important component of my life — my family and my children — didn’t get to see their father enough, my wife didn’t get to see her husband enough and my friends didn’t get to see their friend enough.” Having been through that tragedy, says Andarakis, you can make mistakes once but the second time is unforgivable. “I made a personal commitment to my children, my wife now and to my friends that it wouldn’t happen again. I want make sure that whatever I learn I’m able to pass that onto the people in the organisation that I lead because I believe they should have the freedom to do it. A leader has that responsibility and owes it to his people to pass it on.” Leading from the front and passing a common message onto his staff is something the Greek/Australian has done ever since he joined Aujan in August 2004. His ‘fit for life, fit for growth, fit for purpose’ work-life balance doctrine, for example, implemented as soon as he arrived through the door, has now meant that the drinks manufacturer and distributor has a consistently active, efficient and high profit generating staff. More importantly, with Andarakis’s major branding masterstroke ‘555’ (to make US $500 million in five years with five brands) exceeding expectations, his staff are all moving towards one common goal. “To be brutally honest when I joined I didn’t believe the business had an environment of empowerment. It was very a task-orientated company. What we’ve tried to do is take that away and move towards a concept and destination driven company,” he says. “While I was at Unilever I found that when you provide an environment where people can operate within their skill and competency ranges then they can get you to the destination. But that only works in a company like this once you have a strategic framework which is what 555 gave us. Then once empowerment was granted I set up strict operational guidelines within a strategic framework and communicated it to the entire management team.” If you hadn’t already guessed, the sports-mad Andarakis is above all a people person and holds individual reward within a team ethic as one of the most valuable means of delivering results. He says that deep within his own DNA he is a believer that if each individual is successful in his or her own role then the “common good”, or Aujan in this case, will benefit. “If you saw the images of the World Cup match between Germany and Sweden, where after two superb strikes to put Germany 2-0 up after 12 minutes, the cameras panned in on substitute goalkeeper Oliver Khan who looked like he had major depression. “Now you’d argue that he’s on a winning team, but he hasn’t won as an individual. The philosophy that both myself and my executive committee are trying to infiltrate throughout the business is this concept of winning as an individual to serve the common good. And the common good is team Aujan delivering on their destiny that is 555.” Another novel way of steering everyone in the same direction at Aujan has been the introduction of regular quarterly polling of the management team — a way, Andarakis says, of seeing if his team really “believes” in the business’s long-term corporate strategy. “Last February we polled 120 managers and asked them, ‘do you understand the strategy?’ I was asked and replied back to the interviewer that I don’t believe that everyone needs to know the strategy. If you tell me that our sales supervisor understands it in full I’d be lying. The question is does he believe in it? “Part of the belief in the lower ranks of the business comes in as are they winning as individuals and are they collecting their commission cheques every month, for example? The motivation of our staff even at the lowest levels is very high right now because they can physically see success.” His innovative management techniques go against the grain of many large multinational companies that use, in his words, a “work in progress” model, forcing employees into a rigid reporting line where they need to ask for approval or direction on a weekly basis. His methods, insists Andarakis, centre around encouraging “professional freedom”, an issue he holds close to his heart and that he revisits time and again during our two-hour conversation. “I’m a strong believer in professional freedom. I want people to run to work in the morning because going to work is fun, challenging and rewarding. One of the ways to provide people with freedom is allow them to manage the business with the management style they have.” To discover why Andarakis believes freedom to be the key to life in and out of the office and factory environment, you have to delve deep into the Aujan CEO’s immigrant roots, something he proudly reflects upon as being the foundation for his rapid success over the past 24 months. “As a product of an immigrant Greek family who went to Australia to change their lives, the rub off has been incredible. While they could articulate why they were pursuing that vision, I articulate it for myself on three levels: personal, professional and financial freedom. “I saw what they did and the work ethic they had, and their commitment to the family in making sure that the next generation was educated in the right way. We had the ability to have professional freedom to choose to do whatever job we wanted to do and get it in an environment where we had financial freedom in terms of going to university for three years and not earn a wage for those years. That then ensured personal freedom,” he adds. Andarakis says that it is now his responsibility to carry on his “family’s work” and to ensure their legacy doesn’t simply last one generation, but that it is extended for years to come — within Aujan’s workforce. And he firmly believes that it has worked. “Two years on from the day I first started, I can sit here categorically and say that every single employee of Aujan is better off today than they were two years ago, and every single day they’re getting closer towards personal, professional and financial freedom. “If that can permeate into the next generation having an even greater sense of freedom in those three aspects then that’ll be my legacy and the inheritance they will have benefited from during my leadership in this company.” He may sound like a cool character, especially as 15% annual compound growth is far exceeding the targets set by Andarakis on 555, but the long-haired CEO says that he still feels the everyday pressure of delivering to the chairman and principal investor Adel Aujan. “Of course I feel the pressure because I’ve made a commitment to him and he’s made a financial commitment and investment for 555. We have to deliver. The good news is that over the two years that 555 has been in operation we’re more than half way there and we are exceeding the growth rate. But we’re playing catch up in a lot of areas such as manufacturing to make sure we supply the demand.” If there is one thing Andarakis is keen to stress, especially in a boom time marketplace such as the Middle East, it is that you should never rest on your laurels. In his own words, regional companies should “plan for the unexpected” because no matter how good things are going right now, they can always turn sour very quickly. And he should know. “One of the greatest messages I can give to people in this region is that today we’re in the good times. It’s very easy to be seduced by this and put more and more investment in place, but today is a time when you should be going back and saying ‘I need to get my house in order’ and ‘we need to make sure we have cost control’. “We are cost effective because by planning during the good times you avoid the night of the golden sword when times go bad or when the economy starts to cool off. If you’re able to get your housekeeping in order in the good times you’re fitter for any fade in the economy.” One of the company’s ways of growing cost effectively, and one of its “best-kept secrets”, he says, is “doing less but doing it big” — something Aujan’s competitors have noticed. “Last year the increase in advertising spend was 18%, but we got the impact of a 400% improvement because we did a lot less things, with scale and very simply. The industry thinks we spent four or five times more than we did.” Despite two years of success and a solid route to growth via his branding baby, 555, Andarakis knows and clearly states, that the business has a long way to go before it matches his and his team’s high expectations. One of the more direct paths to expansion will be an end of year Initial Public Offering in Saudi presenting 30% of the company to investors. But more importantly, if he and his staff can achieve what they have set out, then they will all be closer personal, professional and financial freedom than ever before. And the Aujan CEO can finally be at peace with himself.||**||

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