Amine Habiballah (H.09)
The Wise Dealmaker
Dubai. Amine is not very old but he is very wise. Because he almost died about 10 years ago? Because he lived for 15 years in Saudi Arabia? Because he knows Philippe Cottias?Anyway, by reading this interview, you will see that many of the following facts are not incompatible, like being a graduate from the “alternative management” major and working for one of the most competitive Private Equity funds in the world, or living in Dubai and enjoying the human aspect of a city.
Read full transcript…
HU: Hi Amine, let’s start with our classical Chines portrait. So if you were a color.
HU: An animal?
A: A monkey.
HU: A meal ?
HU: A song ?
A: Chi mai, by Ennio Morricone.
HU: A movie ?
HU: A sin ?
HU: An object ?
A: A dice.
HU: A sport or a game ?
HU: A book?
A: L’attentat from Yasmina Kadra.
HU: A (super)hero?
“I had to fight to get a job, I had to change my ambition and it was a big “Welcome to real life”!
HU: Can you try now to sum up your professional background?
A: I graduated from HEC in 2009, which is not the easiest year to graduate, the whole world was in the middle of a huge crisis. I decided to leverage my assets, because I grew up in this part of the world, and I came to Dubai, where I had a fantastic opportunity with a firm called Triago. It was a very small office in Dubai and I spent about a year and a half there before joining KKR, which was in continuity with what I was doing at Triago. Since then I have been having a fantastic time at KKR, growing here in the Middle East.
HU: Can you tell us what it was to graduate in the tough context of 2009?
A: When I entered HEC in 2005, I remember all these firms coming to the Carrefours to recruit young graduates and I was told at the time that it would be easy to get a job and that I would have many choices. But it was a great experience to discover, out of school, how tough it could be to find a job despite your skills and the HEC label. I had to fight to get a job, I had to change my ambition and it was a big “Welcome to real life”!
HU: Is it the reason why you came to Dubai? Because there were more opportunities in the Middle East?
A: At the time, I was thinking a lot about competition and there weren’t many “exciting” jobs I could do so I wanted to leverage my skills and benefit from my competitive advantage. The Middle East was a place where I could do that, because I grew up in Saudi Arabia. And of course Dubai was much more dynamic than Europe or the USA at the time.
HU: An why did you choose Triago?
A: It’s an interesting one. I started with Triago leveraging the HEC Alumni network: I got in contact with a camarade (i.e. “friend”) who was working with Triago because I was very interested in the Business Model of the firm. He was nice enough to give me a full overview of the firm and as there was an opportunity here, he supported me and arranged interviews with the senior managers of the firm. That’s how it started!
HU: What’s the business model of Triago?
A: It’s an advisory firm, assisting investors to raise capital mainly in the Private Equity industry and at the same time, it is helping investors on the secondary market to sell their positions in Private Equity funds. Or at least it was at the time, but don’t quote me on this because I am not fully updated on what Triago does today. That’s what I was doing at the time and it was a great opportunity to get into the Private Equity industry.
“I didn’t have a pure investment banking background. Let’s say I was not in the typical scenario. But I understood why I had the profile during the very first interview: I realized the firm wanted to diversify”
HU: When did you decide to go to KKR and how did that happen?
A: When I started with Triago I was in a very small team even if there was a very strong support from the partners based in Paris and New York. So it was a great entrepreneurial experience. But after a year and a half, I reached a point where I wanted to learn from others.
How did I join KKR? I don’t want to over-advertise the school but I reached out to the HEC Alumni GCC chapter and I had lunch with the former co-president of this group, who was working at Bain at the time. I explained to him that I wanted to make a move and he was in touch with a headhunter who was working for KKR. They were looking for someone here and I had the profile. That’s how my interviews started with KKR. A pure coincidence.
HU: Why did you have the profile and why did you want to enter KKR?
A: I must say the day I heard I would be in a position to apply for KKR I got extremely excited. But it was a bit strange because I didn’t have a pure investment banking background. Let’s say I was not in the typical scenario. But I understood why I had the profile during the very first interview: I realized the firm wanted to diversify and I felt instantaneously comfortable with the values of the firm. I took 12 or 15 interviews, met several executives of the firm across the world but each time I was more convinced and appreciative of these values, which are focused on individuals and personalities.
I was feeling more and more relaxed about my atypical background. I think I was totally mistaken about KKR’s image and as I met all these executives and told to myself: “Woaw, there is room for me!” So I told them more about myself, about what my ambition and my skill-set were and I felt I was the right match, given my personality and the fact the position was in the Middle East.
“A common statement is also to say that PE is about financial engineering: acquiring a business with a minimum equity, leveraging that equity as much as possible and then pay off the debt of the firm using that firm and maximizing the profits. Some firms have this approach, that’s why it is a common statement.”
HU: You’ve worked at KKR for almost 5 years now. Why are you happy to go to work every morning?
A: I really enjoy working with the people at KKR, this is the first criteria for me. We are not a big team compared to other offices, but when I wake up every morning I think: “I am going to be working with someone who’s great and we might have interesting challenges to face.” Then, the nature of the business, here in this small Dubai office, is great, because we are doing very different things.
And it goes beyond finance in this region. As we speak the oil prices are going crazy, we are in the middle several wars, so the geopolitical challenges matter too.
HU: What is the scope of action of KKR here in Dubai?
A: By nature this region has much more cash than investment opportunities, so a big portion of our role here is to be close to investors, mainly institutional investors, at a Government level, who are investing in our company.
As this part of the world is growing and developing into a much more mature market, the other aspect is to be part of the investors landscape and to capture parts of this growth. We are actively looking at investment opportunities, which is KKR’s core business. It’s not an easy market and we have been very patient and conservative in our approach.
Finally, we are supporting the development in this region of the companies who are in our global portfolio.
To sum it up, our role here is a combination of three things:
- Raising capital and assisting investors in their choices
- Sourcing deals
- Helping our portfolio companies to grow in this region of the world
“KKR has a division called “KKR Capstone”, where my colleagues are specifically focusing on adding value to the firm from day 1, actually prior to acquisition. Their role is to make sure that there is a value creation process.”
HU: If you had to explain Private Equity to a total beginner, what would you tell him?
A: I think you have different ways to look at it: you can be very positive or very negative about a Private Equity fund. First I’ll talk about the negative perception of Private Equity.
A Private Equity (PE) fund is sometimes seen as a firm that acquires a company to liquidate that business, maximize its exit value and generate a lot of income. A common statement is also to say that PE is about financial engineering: acquiring a business with a minimum equity, leveraging that equity as much as possible and then pay off the debt of the firm using that firm and maximizing the profits. Some firms have this approach, that’s why it is a common statement. But other firms have a much more operational approach and think in terms of added value.
Today, and it has been years now, it’s very hard to say that it is all about finance engineering and cynicism. As a KKR executive, the approach is to say that there are a lot of businesses where a firm that has a different expertise and skillset (us) can work alongside an entrepreneur who has grown a business to a certain point, who is looking for an expansion or who wants to develop certain areas of his business but who is limited.
For instance, let’s talk about the minority stakes we are happy to take here or in other emerging markets. We are not always familiar with the whole environment so instead of taking a majority stake, we will take a minority stake in a business to develop that business and provide our assistance and expertise. We have years and years of experience in certain fields. Now, if you go to a more mature market, the idea is to grow beyond measure and to say that we can, with our expertise, add value to a firm. KKR has a division called “KKR Capstone”,
where my colleagues are specifically focusing on adding value to the firm from day 1, actually prior to acquisition. Their role is to make sure that there is a value creation process.
At the end of the day, by adding value and expending, you are creating a lot of jobs and adding potential to a firm. Once that business is up-and-running, we of course want to generate income and to exit the company through different channels.
“If you are not doing those jobs for the right reasons, you will feel uncomfortable and you will not be able to perform.”
HU: Do you have an example that comes to your mind to illustrate this? Is there an example you are proud of?
A: There are many examples across many industries. The example is going to be different whether you look at mature or emerging markets.
If you think about China and the milk market, what KKR did by acquiring Modern Dairy and improving the business is almost a national health improvement! KKR didn’t only improve the performance of this an old-fashioned milk industry, but it modernized it and improved the quality of the product.
I like this example because some of my colleagues from the Beijing office were working day and night in the middle of nowhere, living with the entrepreneur. They sent me the pictures they took and I thought: “This is dedication and commitment.”
When you can go that far to ad value, that’s a fantastic thing. We should maybe communicate more on that.
HU: Sure, because that is not the idea people have of a Private Equity fund, but on the other hand, the PE industry remains very attractive. Why do you think PE is such a Holy Grail for many young graduates from business schools?
A: It’s a good question and a tough one too. I think you are very lucky when you know at 18 or 20 what you want to do in your career. Most of the time, you are not too sure about where you are going to do and it was my case. Actually I was not interested at all in entering a big financial institution, even if I can’t remember why. But in business schools like HEC, some students will tell you “I want to do M&A” without knowing why, they are just following the crowd. “Consulting? It sounds good.” “I’ll start by doing an internship in audit because it is a good way to build it up”
But this doesn’t last for long and if you are not doing those jobs for the right reasons, you will feel uncomfortable and you will not be able to perform.
But why is PE so attractive to many young graduates? Because many follow what seems to be reputable or what the trend is. Maybe this will change!
HU: Maybe this is just a trend, but we have the impression that entering a PE fund is a goal for many people working in the financial industry. Why? Without getting into clichés, is it because of the money? The status? The quality of the teams? The fact that you are working on your own? Why does this fantasy exist and what would you tell to break the clichés?
A: One should dig a bit further. Private Equity is a huge industry, with many firms that are not equally successful. You can be in a PE fund that is not performing well. You can be working in the non-financial industry and be extremely well positioned. Any firm gives you the opportunity to develop your talent and I don’t really see the difference.
If you are really good in a non-financial industry, you can be as successful, make as much money, get as much recognition, have the same talented colleagues and have as much fun as if you work in a successful PE fund.
You can also be in the worst PE fund ever, having a tough life but being somehow OK with your status-approach-thinking. You will be able to say proudly: “Yeah, I am working in the Private Equity industry.” But inside you are probably not going to deliver as much as you can. You will not use your full potential because you are not in line with your convictions.
“I feel lucky to be at KKR because I can bring an idea or a feedback and say: “How can we work differently? What can we do to address that?” There is not limit to your creativity and that’s why you never do the same thing and feel comfortable with your job.”
HU: What does your job consist of?
A: In line with the description of KKR’s action in Dubai, my day-to-day tasks are really about interacting with people. On the investor side, I have to deal with all the institutional investors of this part of the world, either on investments they already made or on investment opportunities.
I am also looking at different sectors, trying to know more about a potential deal that we could achieve. In order to do that I need to get closer to the government entities or to the family groups here to have better access to these local industries and see what we can do together. It goes with my first point because you can have an investor who is interested in partnering with you the other way around and make it a two-way street.
I also try to identify potential Joint Ventures for our portfolio companies and grow our business.
Concretely it is all about waking up in the morning, coming here, having a set of calls or travels in the region, meeting people, spending time digesting the information, sharing it with other KKR teams and brainstorming with them on what the approach will be. So days are pretty full! KKR has a “one-firm” approach, so I have a lot of interactions with different offices, sometimes in the early morning, very early morning or very late night, to keep that link.
HU: What are you particularly proud to bring to the table? When do you have the feeling that your work is creating value?
A: It goes beyond finance, it’s more about these relationships that you build over time and it’s interesting to see how you interact with people. You have different layers:
- The first layer is you, as a person. You meet people and you interact with them.
- The other layer is the corporate aspect. You are part of your firm, in my case KKR, and what I find really interesting is how you can, in this part of the world, bring opportunities to people.
Sometimes you feel that you are in line with a need and that you are meeting this need. Sometimes you can have a debate and you can be convincing or supporting an idea that is going to make a change.
Through these interactions, you sometimes – to your first layer – get more open about things and you can go back to your firm – the second layer – with new ideas and work on them with the teams. I feel lucky to be at KKR because I can bring an idea or a feedback and say: “How can we work differently? What can we do to address that?”
There is not limit to your creativity and that’s why you never do the same thing and feel comfortable with your job.
HU: Is creativity the main skill to have in a PE fund instead of modelling or rationalization?
A: They work together. You need to have a rational, to leverage your skills, but it is a luxury to be able, while you are using your skills, to be able to add a bit of creativity at each step, or to think a bit out-of-the-box in a specific situation. It’s a combination of both.
It’s not the perfect answer to your question, but I believe that if you are given that option to raise your hand and suggest doing it differently, it is a luxury, because you never get bored!
HU: What qualities do you look for in a candidate?
A: The first quality is to fit into the team approach. Like many companies, we don’t want to work in silos but this “one-firm” approach is crucial for KKR. During the on-boarding training we were told about this corporate culture and I thought: “Ok, fine, nice words.” I realized later how central it was in the company.
Of course you also need to come with a skillset and KKR is trying to diversify and to welcome different profiles to maximize their value.
A clear passion and motivation to go in that direction, which is common sense, is also needed.
And lastly, it’s being able to get out of your comfort zone, being an out-of-the-box thinker and making sure that you can be a source of creativity.
HU: Let’s talk about the city where you live now, Dubai. For how long have you been living here?
A: It’s been 6 years now.
HU: A pretty long time compared to the average non-Emirati, no?
A: Yes I think it is. We tend to say that people only stay here for cycles of 3-4-5 years and then go. A lot of people also say that once you are here for more than 5 years you tend to stay forever.
I saw many people coming and leaving so I guess it’s a good way to measure the length! (laughs)
“I heard many expatriates and many French say: “This is crazy, this is Las Vegas in the desert, this towers are awesome and crazy at the same time, but there is something missing here…” I think that’s the wrong way to see it.”
HU: What do you like to do on Saturday afternoons?
A: Dubai is obviously not comparable to and old traditional European town, where History is much more the attraction, whereas here we are much more into modernity. Once you realized that you fell more comfortable.
What I like to do is going to the beach. We are lucky here to have a fantastic weather. You can do all kinds of sport activities that are really easy to access.
You can also go to the desert and it’s a great experience because you are in the middle of nowhere and it’s totally quiet and silent so if you want to relax or meditate you can.
The other thing that I really enjoy is spending time with people. Dubai is at the crossroads of civilization and you meet someone everyday, but you also meet his culture. It can be superficial of course, but if you dig into it and make the efforts, you end up meeting fantastic people, from all around the planet.
I know a lot of people complaining because in Dubai they miss that cultural and historical side. Dubai is a very young town but you have to stay positive and to look at what you can get, which is an access to so many activities and above all to people.
HU: Do you fell home in this hub?
A: “Home” has always been a tricky one for me! Being French and Algerian and spending 15 years in Saudi Arabia, home is not an easy question. For a long time I was trying to find this home and then I decided that the best way to deal with it was to feel comfortable everywhere and to call home wherever you are.
And I am going through this process of feeling home here even if I have no visibility on how long this home will host me! (laughs)
HU: Why would you recommend to someone to come to Dubai?
A: If you want to get a quick exposure to different countries and cultures – quick not in a superficial way -, it is a fantastic opportunity to live here. It can be 6 months or longer but the rule is to come with that idea in your head.
I heard many expatriates and many French say: “This is crazy, this is Las Vegas in the desert, this towers are awesome and crazy at the same time, but there is something missing here…” I think that’s the wrong way to see it. Here, you will be able to meet a lot of cultures, a lot of people giving you a different perspective of the world. It’s interesting because there are not so many places where you can have so much diversity. If you walk in a mall, you’ll probably see 50 nationalities while you are walking: people from the Middle East of course, but also Asians, Europeans, Americans and Latin Americans.
To witness and capture that is interesting.
HU: If you had only 24h left in Dubai, what would you do?
A: I think that I would spend time with all the people that made it so great to me and after that I would go to a specific point in the desert that I like, take a bit of sand from there, and go back.
“I grew up in Saudi Arabia in a very diversified community and it was the first time, at HEC, that I could feel the same kind of energy.”
HU: Let’s talk about HEC now. How did you enter HEC?
A: After my baccalauréat I was not targeting HEC and I started a Math-Sup/Math-Spé at Lycée Saint Louis because my focus was top engineering schools. But in St Louis, I met friends from other preparatory classes preparing for the top business classes and I thought they were studying interesting topics that I wasn’t. We were doing maths, physics, chemistry but less focused on history or geopolitics. Maybe engineers try to escape sometimes in a too rational world… At least it was my case.
Anyway after my second year I was not happy with the result so I decided to go for a third year. But unfortunately before the exams I had a huge accident. I almost died. And I failed the exams. It was a real failure, not only in my head but also physically, because I was very weak. I felt miserable. I had worked so hard and I just saw my dreams falling apart. My friends entered in good schools and even if some were disappointed, they entered in schools! I was thinking it was the end of the world.
My options were limited: it was either a fourth year or getting a Bachelor Degree in a University and apply as an “Admis Direct” at HEC, which I did. I came into HEC that way, thanks to my skills in maths.
HU: Do you think this failure helped you?
A: Yes, now that I have the big picture I think so. I was the saddest man on earth. But I had to move on and I learnt a lot on myself. Whatever happens, you have to cope with your challenges, the next ones. What I learnt is that life is about challenging yourself if your environment does not challenge you. At HEC I felt safe and I thought I was not going to face any more challenge. But I told you what happened in 2009 when I graduated!
You always have to use your full potential, to know your weaknesses and to prepare the next challenge!
“I remember, one day, after an “interesting” evening with my comrades, we made a little running with Philippe Cottias at 4:00am (laughs). We were running in the dark and saw a beautiful sunrise, enjoying one of the rare beautiful days of the Jouy-en-Josas climate!”
HU: Did you like HEC?
A: I loved it. I grew up in Saudi Arabia in a very diversified community and it was the first time, at HEC, that I could feel the same kind of energy. I saw people coming from different areas of France or the world that I didn’t know about. And you have time to be and interact with them, without competition. People were a fantastic source of inspiration so I was meeting them, listening, digesting. It’s the first step to become an out-of-the-box thinker because you are getting new sources of inspiration everyday, even if you party hard!
HU: Who is the most inspiring person you met?
I was a bit sceptical at the beginning about alternative management, but just trying to define it would trigger a huge debate in the classroom. That was the spirit and choosing this major for my last year at HEC was really part of my “out-of-the-box” process. We were constantly debating, meeting all sorts of people and Karim Medjad was a huge source of inspiration. On the one hand he was totally aligned with what we can call “business as usual”, but on the other hand he was bringing some kind of genius and madness by questioning all the concepts. There are so many things we never question. We just do them. A young child will question you on things you think are normal. But are they? Isn’t there a way to do it differently?
We were working on scenarios for the future, building theories not only projecting the present to guess what is going to happen, but trying to be creative. It sounds inconsistent, because you can go for crazy scenarios. But take it the other way around: were people expecting the Internet revolution 50 years ago? That’s where it becomes interesting and you increase your creativity by working with people like Karim Medjad.
HU: Do you think HEC is a good place to develop creativity?
A: To my experience I would say that it was a 100% true. Just by talking to teachers, who are creative in their research, you can develop your creativity. I had visiting teachers who brought me to their own meetings, to see their own businesses, or sharing their own work. You can unlock your creative potential by digging further.
If you are waiting for it, it comes, but if you push it, you can get much higher results.
HU: What was your favourite place on the campus?
A: I had two. Around the lake it’s gorgeous. You can go from you wi-fi classroom and walk or run in the middle of all this nature. This place is amazing. I remember, one day, after an “interesting” evening with my comrades, we made a little running with Philippe Cottias at 4:00am (laughs). We were running in the dark and saw a beautiful sunrise, enjoying one of the rare beautiful days of the Jouy-en-Josas climate!
The other place I liked very much is the amphitheatre Blondeau, just for the great memories: people performing on stage, visitors coming to the campus or great debates during which you can ask candid questions to some of the most inspiring people on earth.
I could also talk about the Zinc or the Kfet, where I have different memories but we said we were trying to be serious! (laughs).
HU: Were you involved in any associations or clubs?
A: At the time I was actively working with French suburbs because I wanted the young generations from those suburbs to get that visibility we all have. They don’t so I took a lot of time bringing some of these young people to the HEC campus just for them to see that there is a way to succeed in life. I worked a lot with HEC, which has always been very helpful to promote this kind of projects.
HU: What is your best memory from HEC?
A: It’s a very tough one…. I think my last day.
A: Because I found that powerful. I knew I was starting my career abroad so the last evening with all my friends was a great memory. You know that 30 years later down the road you will find that picture of you looking so young and so naïve…. It was a fantastic moment, we were achieving something and turning a page for something good so I was feeling a bit emotional but at a same time very happy because you’re done. Every good thing needs to have an end. I am not going to say “Merci pour ce moment” but…
HU: Please don’t!
A: But I could. (laughs)
HU: HEC’s motto is “The more you know the more you dare”. What’s yours?
A: My motto comes from my grand-mother, who is Algerian, so the original moto is in Arabic, but my grand-mother used to tell me when I was a child: “A closed hand cannot receive.” It’s beyond the give-and-take, you have to open to people, to others, to give first and then the opportunity will come. If you are just here to capture and to take without committing or just giving, you fail in maximizing what you can potentially get. Or receive.
… or pick a category…
…or an Alumnus
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