Traversing the borderless corporate world

(By Edu Lopez, published in Manila Bulletin, B-11 – February 15, 2008)

When Samir Cairae graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, India in 1988, most of his classmates went to the United States to join the growing number of Hindu-Americans in the technology sector.

But for some reasons, Samir did not jump on the bandwagon to America.

Instead, he left for France to seek his fortune in the country whose history, culture, art and architecture had always fascinated him.

When be got to France, the engineer found himself enjoying a full scholarship at the premiere French business school, the Hautes Etudes Commerciales in Paris where he also learned to speak French.

Samir’s management and technology education were put to test in 1992 when he joined Sehlumbcrgcr, the world’s largest oilfields corporation.

While holding various positions in the organization, Samir’s stint with Sehlumbcrgcr culminated with the successful launch of Smart Cards in India, which was part of Schlumberger’s diversified businesses, achieving 60 percent market share in the first year.

UNLIKELY PLACE

In the last four years of the end of the millennium, Samir found himself yet in another unlikely place—working as chief financial officer of Accor, the European leader in hotel and the global leader in corporate services.

His background in acquisitions acquired from his stint with Schlumberger prepared him for the fast-paced aggressive environment of the hotel business.

When the Asian financial crisis struck, he found himself traveling extensively in Asia: “There was a lot of restructuring and it was a very challenging time for me,” he said.

In India, he acquired three hotels as part of the owning company which contracted management services. By now more savvy on the fine art of acquisitions, Samir was hired by Lafarge in Mumbai, India eight years ago, in 1999, to be vice-president for strategy and development.

This was Lafarge’s first venture into India and Samir’s rich background in management, acquisitions and business development made him the right fit for the task.

After acquiring two cement plants with output totaling three million tons, and bringing them to become model plants of the Lafarge Group, Samir’s superiors suddenly told him: “You have acquired the plants, now why don’t you go out and manage these plants? You have to get your hands dirty. Without experience, you cannot be a general manager. ”

Taking the challenge and without training, Samir had to now manage veterans in plant operations. From the brash aggressive white collar world of acquisitions, Samir now had to adjust to leading in a blue collar work environment.

Successfully steering the newly acquired plants to effect a smooth integration, both plants rose to distinction to becoming the top five of Lafarge plants worldwide in energy consumption.

Asked how he, a neophyte succeeded in leading old hands in the trade, Samir said: “I knew hdw to say ‘I don’t know”. I did not pretend to know. We talked and we came to a solution that was better than what they were thinking. To be a good leader, you have to be humble and open. Challenge issues but do not challenge a person’s self-worth.”


EXPAT IN CHINA

In 2003, Samir found himself BU general manager in Beijing, China, the only expatriate then who had the task of leading an all-Chinese Lafarge staff who spoke no English. To speak to his staff, he had to do this through an interpreter.

Somehow, Samir broke through the language barrier and managed to successfully oversee the financial conditions of two cement and ready-mix companies.

He initiated a marketing strategy that reduced customer receivables by 50 percent while improving profits by 200 percent. Under his keep, one of their plants was classified as most reliable in the Lafarge Group.

Now in the Philippines as country manager and president of the Lafarge Cement Services Philippines Inc., Samir’s self-effacing but powerful presence endears him to the Filipino staff in the Lafarge associated plants in the country.

“I have learned many things in life. People can make or unmake your business. In China, I did not know anyone, I did not know the language, I did not know the competition. I had no ready answers.”

“But when in business, you must rely on people, otherwise, there is no way I could have succeeded in China. If you rely on people, you make them do their work well” Samir said.

“When you interact with a different culture, do not assume. Be self-aware, listen and learn to work only with facts. You have to adapt,” he added.


FAMILY MAN

Samir goes home to his loving wife Neeti and sons Siddhant, 10 and Varun, 4. “I have been happily married for 15 years,” he beams, “and my children are very well adapted to various cultures and environments.

Siddhant took interest in learning French, Varun picked up Mandarin quite easily while wife Neeti found herself compelled to learn Mandarin without even trying, in addition to serious lessons. Samir speaks fluent English, French and Hindi and is learning Mandarin.

On weekends, Samir plays tennis with friends at the Manila Polo Club.

Now eight years with Lafarge, Samir is but one of the many expatriates in the Lafarge global family who enjoys the good fortune of experiencing the vast opportunities of a borderless corporate world.

“I am quite happy with Lafarge because it is willing to take risks in order to bring out the best in its people. In the end, it is the people who bring out the best in Lafarge,” Samir said.

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