Hamza Laraichi (H.04)
Africa Raising

Casablanca. Hamza co-founded Infomineo a bit more than 4 years ago and grew it with his friend from HEC and business partner Martin Tronquit to a 70 people company with offices in 7 countries in Europe, Middle East and Africa. What they do: deliver in depth expertise and data on the Africa and Middle East regions to their clients. They succeeded in building a business rooted in their conviction : Africa and Middle East have a tremendous potential.

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HEC United: Hi Hamza, thanks for welcoming us in Infomineo’s offices in Casablanca. So as usual, we are going to start with a Chinese portrait. So, if you were a color?

Hamza: I would say black, because it’s the color that absorbs all the others.

HU: If you were an animal ?

Hamza: A cat, because of his ability to always fall back on his feet.

Moroccan Couscous

Moroccan Couscous

HU: If you were a meal?

Hamza: Today is Friday, and it’s a traditional day for couscous in Morocco.

HU: A song?

Hamza:  I would go for Happy, from Pharell Williams, because today is the last day of work and tomorrow is holidays.

HU: A movie?

Hamza: The Godfather, one of the best movies I’ve seen.

HU: A sin?

Hamza: Lust.

HU: An object?

Hamza: A Swiss-knife.

HU: A sport or a game?

Hamza: I am very keen on surfing. I started a couple of years ago and I love it. Casablanca offers good opportunities to surf. It’s an amazing sport, totally complete: very technical, very physical and it brings you a lot of joy as well.

HU: A book?

Hamza: Leo Africanus from Amin Maalouf, because of our African adventure together with my partner. It’s the story of a diplomat who started making maps, talking about Africa and he discovered quite a few things around so that would be probably the best book to share.

HU: A superhero?

Hamza: I have two kids, so I’ll share two superheroes. One for my son, Sangoku from Dragonball, and one from my daughter, the snow queen from Frozen.

HU: Do you want to sing us the song?

Hamza: Let it go? No. I’m sick of it, it’s done! (laughs)

HU: Now, can you try to sum up your professional background in just 30 seconds?

Hamza: Right after graduation I joined McKinsey & Company for the opening of the Casablanca office which covered North Africa. I spent about 7 years with McKinsey, with a small break in the middle during which I did an MBA at INSEAD. During my term at McKinsey I worked on advising corporates and governments here in the region. And after these 7 years, I partnered with Martin Tronquit, a friend from HEC, to found Infomineo. It has been our common adventure for the past 4 years now. We grew it to about 70 people, providing data on Africa and Middle East to our clients.

Infomineo's logo

HU: If you had to explain Infomineo to a 5-year-old child, what would you tell him?

Hamza: We help clients, who ask questions about Africa and Middle East, to get answers to those questions. We help them creating transparency on those markets, understanding how those markets are working and get the data they need to be able to make fact-based decisions when it comes to investing in those regions.

We also cover Europe of course, which represents 40% of our business today. Our idea is to offer a nearshore research platform for Europe. We are more flexible and tailored than what exists in India for instance. We are able to move up in terms of value add, leveraging our proximity to Europe (both culturally and in terms of time zone) and our smaller size.

“The Middle East and Africa are high growth regions for many companies. It’s becoming the new “El Dorado” but these regions are not very well covered by the typical data sources, so here comes our value.”

HU: Who are your clients?

Hamza: Our biggest clients are consulting firms because they rely a lot on research. Consulting firms are really data oriented and need facts to advise their clients. Now we also serve more and more corporates who are looking into those regions.

The Middle East and Africa are high growth regions for many companies. It’s becoming the new “El Dorado” but these regions are not very well covered by the typical data sources, so here comes our value.

HU: That’s very interesting. Since we arrived in Morocco, we had many discussions about the future of Africa, in which Morocco wants to play a part of course. Are you an afro-optimist?

The Economist, December 2011

The Economist, December 2011

Hamza: When I left the campus I was one of the rare Moroccan HEC graduates of my generation to come back directly to Morocco. At that time Moroccan students used to work a few years in Europe before coming back to their home country. I’ve worked in Morocco for more than 10 years and I’ve always been really optimistic about Africa.

Infomineo is actually about realizing this optimism. We have become an African company: we have offices in Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa and we are opening an office in Kenya. That’s our ambition: being an African company bringing Africa to the rest of the world, and vice versa.

HU: In terms of dynamism, do you think, like many, that North Africa is slowing down and Sub-Saharan Africa booming?

Hamza: Not necessarily. There was a political term over the past years that probably made North Africa slow down, mainly due to the Arab Spring. But the intrinsics for growth are still there: infrastructure equipment and some of the most educated people in the continent. So I think North Africa still has a bright future.

Regarding the rest of Africa, there is huge potential and everything is to be built there. They are starting this infrastructure development phase that North Africa already went through. And the dynamism of the population growth also offers interesting prospects for consumer goods and retail markets.

We can also see increasing relationships between African countries fueling this common growth, with local companies developing an Africa strategy, with presence in multiple countries. The famous “South-South” development model. And there are a lot of soft links too! More and more Sub-Saharan Africans are coming to Moroccan business schools for example. They cannot afford to go to Europe, so they start their studies here. Those soft relations will improve the interactions and the links between the different countries in Africa.

That is also something we are trying to achieve here at Infomineo. We recruit people from different backgrounds with more than 13 nationalities represented in the company. For instance we have Sub-Saharan Africans working here in Casablanca to cover a vast range of African markets, 30 as of today. We have been able to do so because those countries are opening more and more.

HU: Very concretely, how do you collect data? What are the topics you cover?

Hamza: We are generalists in terms of sectors covered. We end up covering a very wide range of topics. For instance we can be asked by a client what is the structure of public transport in Saudi Arabia. Who are they key players? What are their fleet sizes? What are their prices, their margins?

To answer these questions we develop a specific research strategy, which makes our research very customized to the client question. The research strategy will be a mix of research on private databases, the internet, reading reports and running press searches in French, English and Arabic. Being able to  master local languages is a key element. We also send analysts on the ground or use of our freelancers network to execute local interviews whenever required.

Once we collected the data, the teamstarts packaging it, reviewing it with the managers, making sure it meets the clients expectations, and then we debrief it to the client and adjust with their comments and questions. In the end we submit a final deliverable.

HU: How long does an average delivery take?

Hamza: On average a project might last between 4 to 5 weeks, with projects that last for 6 months and others only a couple of days.

HU: Do you overview all final deliveries?

Hamza: (laughs) I used to, when we were 20 persons in the company, but I cannot anymore!

What Martin and I do is that we invest an extensive part of our time in training the managers personally. We want them to have the same level of expectations that we have and to be able to implement the same quality level that we have.

“There is a story behind Infomineo: it’s been built brick by brick, piece by piece, we can see it every day and that’s what I love.”

HU: Do you think this level of expectation comes from your experience in consulting firms?

Hamza: Yes definitely. I worked for 7 years at McKinsey and Martin at BCG. We are in a service business and the companies we work for  have a very high level of expectations.

Even more, we agreed with Martin that the client shouldn’t set the level of expectation. We should. Because that’s the best guarantee for the sustainability of our client relationships. Building a high quality service is actually the best commercial action we can take.

We try to build long-term relationships with our clients. I prefer having 5 projects with one client rather than 10 projects with 10 different clients, because it means you can make deeper and more relevant research and also that this client has trusted you and is happy with what you deliver.

“We always think that we are taking more risk than we actually are. It’s just a matter of trying things, there is always a way to get back on your feet. So just try!”

HU: What makes you happy to go to work every morning?

Hamza: I’ve always been a people person so I take a lot of drive in the teams that I am working with. What thrills me most when I come to the office every morning is to see that we are building a team and growing our people. And more generally to have the impression to build something. There is a story behind Infomineo: it’s been built brick by brick, piece by piece, we can see it every day and that’s what I love.

Infomineo team at work

Infomineo team at work

HU: Have you coped with a difficult choice in your professional life? What did you learn?

Hamza: Yes! I think the most difficult choice was actually to start the Infomineo adventure. Being a consultant for about 7 years, you tend to learn not to take any risk. Consulting was the only job that I knew and starting Infomineo implied jumping into the unknown. I was a young father, I had the responsibility of my family, which is not always in line with taking risks. That was a very difficult choice.

But I am really happy that I made this decision. I mainly learnt one lesson: we always think that we are taking more risks than we actually are. It’s just a matter of trying things, there is always a way to get back on your feet. So just try!

HU: What is your typical working day?

Hamza: First of all, there is not a typical working day. I always have a very well planned agenda, but I can never follow it because there are always unexpected emergencies.

But some elements are recurrent. I arrive at the office at 8.30am, I start reviewing my emails and then I split my day between different tasks. Admin tasks: managing HR, including recruiting interviews and accounting. Coaching the team on content, reviewing deliverables and making sure we are making progress. And last but not least commercial and business development: client calls or meetings. That’s pretty much the typical day.

HU: What do you prefer: Managing projects or getting new clients?

Hamza: I think that I need both. Managing projects helps you be better at getting new clients. But the most important thing, it to make sure not to lose focus on the big picture. I like to step back, discuss with Martin: “What do we want to focus on? What are our priorities? How are we going to approach that client? What is our strategy to make sure that we will keep this employee?” The strategy is also about managing your team, the culture you want to implement in your company. Those are things I need also from time to time, to build my own vision and after that to share it with the rest of my team.

“Finding data and information just for the sake of finding data and information… anyone can do it. But if you know that by doing so you will help the development of your continent by bringing companies and investments, it gives your work a bigger purpose.”

HU: In your craziest dreams, where will Infomineo be in 10 years?

Hamza: (laughs) 10 years is very far! I rarely project myself beyond 5 years. The objective is to achieve sustainable and healthy growth over the next 5 years and probably get to a team of 250 people. We think it is achievable and we believe this is a critical mass that will allow Infomineo to be sustainable over time.

We want to be seen as a reference when it comes to data information in the Middle East and Africa and we also want to be seen as one of the best places to work in Africa for Africans especially.

Infomineo Deco

HU: Why is this corporate culture something important to you?

Hamza: We have people coming from all around the world: the US, Spain, Sweden, France and Africa naturally. And we all have in common that we want to show that Africa has a tremendous pool of talents and opportunities. Finding data and information just for the sake of finding data and information… anyone can do it. But if you know that by doing so you will help the development of your continent by facilitating investments, it gives your work a bigger purpose. We as a team are very sensitive to those ideas, it’s a ground for common efforts and actions.

HU: Is this something you are particularly proud of?

Hamza: Definitely. Human capital is probably the best investment you can make here in Africa. Industrial or financial investments can come and go, but people is what stays ultimately. If you have the right skills, the right talents and if they are trained properly, it can diffuse in the rest of the economy and be a solid basis for future growth.

HU: Is Casablanca a good place to have this kind of melting pot?

Hamza: Yes of course. Morocco has strong links with French-speaking African countries. As I said before, many Sub-Saharan Africans come to Morocco for their studies. Morocco is also very close to Europe, making it easier for us, in a commercial perspective, to get in touch with European clients.

On top of that, it’s very easy to live in Casablanca. You have the sea, many places where you can go out… It’s a very attractive environment for foreign talents.

HU: Where do you hang out on Sunday afternoons, when Infomineo is fine?

Hamza: Half of the time I am with my kids. In the swimming pool, on the beach, playing games or watching movies, Frozen or DragonBall! (laughs)

The rest of time, I am surfing or going on the golf court, or just hanging out on the beach. A lot of outdoor activities, thanks to the weather.

Casa Plage

HU: If you had only 24 hours left to spend in Casablanca, what would you do?

Hamza: I’d start with a run on the Corniche, by the sea. Then I would go for a surf session, take my board and go to the beach. Then my kids and I would have lunch in front of the sea, eating grilled fish and sardines. Then I would hang out on the beach with the kids in the afternoon, playing football, or swimming. And I would organize a nice party in the evening in Casablanca.

HU: What are the best places to party in Casablanca?

Hamza: Kimmy’z or one of the bars around, where there are many afterwork parties. There is also Le Cabestan,  a very famous landmark bar in Casablanca, a very nice spot in front of the sea, next to the lighthouse. You should definitely go for a drink.

“Moroccans are forced to be creative and hard-workers. We do have these people, I see it when I recruit graduates from Moroccan business schools.”

HU: What do you like most about people from Casablanca?

Hamza: Their diversity. I am not talking only about the mix between foreigners and Moroccans, but also between Moroccans. Casablanca brings people from different regions of Morocco. I come from Meknes for instance, I didn’t grow up in Casablanca. It’s a very nice melting pot and that’s something that I like.

HU: Talking about Morocco a bit more, what is Morocco’s issue that matter the most to you?

Hamza: I would not say issue but challenge! (laughs). The biggest challenge for Morocco is to reform its education system. This diagnostic has been made by all political parties and elites and we are struggling, as a country, to make that reform. I wouldn’t be able to tell you why, but it’s definitely something that we should be working on. As I said earlier, human capital is key. Apart from phosphate, we don’t have many natural resources so the best resource that we have is our people!

We are forced to be creative and hard-workers. We do have these people, I see it when I recruit graduates from Moroccan business schools. They are smart, they are willing to learn, they want to work.

HU: Maybe it’s a reason why Morocco is the first provider of foreign students in France. Today, there are Moroccan students in all French universities, including the best ones. In your opinion, can it be a threat?

Hamza: I don’t think it is a problem for Morocco, because most of those students are coming back. In the HEC Alumni association in Morocco for example, we have between 150 to 200 alumni living in Morocco. This is big and it means many graduates come back to their home country.

Plus, it creates strong links between France and Morocco. And it goes the same way with the US or England. This diaspora, as long as it comes back to Morocco, is positive.

But there is still an issue because we are talking about the few people who can afford those studies, most of Moroccans can’t. And it’s for those guys that we need to have a proper education system. I went to the French system because the Moroccan system was not offering the good guarantees. But I was lucky that I could afford it.

“The best memory I have is probably the “Week-end d’Intégration” (…) that’s where I met the woman who is the mother of my two kids.”

HU: The transition is perfect to talk about HEC now. Try to remember the time you were 20 and living in Jouy-en-Josas. What was your favorite place on the HEC campus?

Hamza: The lake, next to the rugby pitch. I was on the campus just a few years after the big storm of 1999 during which many trees had been destroyed in the forest, it was a devastating picture to see but the place was still magic.

téléchargement

The lake at HEC

HU: What is your best memory?

Hamza: The best memory I have is probably the “Week-end d’Intégration”. You just spent two years in prep school, you arrive in the school of your dreams and it’s the occasion to let it go.

On top of that, that’s where I met the woman who is the mother of my two kids, during that same week-end. It’s a very nice story to tell and one of the strongest moments of my years at HEC.

In terms of studies, I was a bit laid back during the first year and I had to catch up a little bit during the second year (laughs).

In terms of associations, I helped a little bit the Junior Enterprise, but I was also involved in a new association, a kind of JE, but specialized in e-commerce and e-business. To put things in context, I was on the campus in 2000, when the internet bubble was starting and the e-business booming. It was a trendy topic. So we created, with a couple of friends, a small association close to the JE, that was called “E-Conseil”.

“The associations are actually a risk-free environment so you can try everything: it’s on the campus, it’s funded, the administration oversees everything, you know everybody around… It’s a great opportunity to blossom and to develop yourself.”

HU: We are afraid to tell you “E-Conseil” doesn’t exist anymore.

Hamza: Yeah I know! (laughs) But at least we’ve tried it and that’s probably the very first entrepreneurial experience of my life.

HU: Do you think the associations on the campus are good ways to learn business?

Hamza: Absolutely, it’s very empowering. At the end of the day, entrepreneurship is just about looking at the risks from a different perspective. The entrepreneur is someone who has an idea and who has the drive to overcome the risks that he sees to implement that idea. And because we are very analytical in the curriculum that we follow, we tend to put too much constraints and analytical thinking. The associations are actually a risk-free environment so you can try everything: it’s on the campus, it’s funded, the administration oversees everything, you know everybody around… It’s a great opportunity to blossom and to develop yourself.

So getting involved in the associations is a good way to overcome this internal risk-averse type of behavior.

HU: And that’s also where you met Martin, your current partner. Tell us a it more about that!

Hamza: It was during the “Croisière Caraibes” (i.e: “Caribbean Cruise”), one of the best trips you can do at HEC. I was looking for a skipper. Martin was a skipper but he was looking for a crew. We ended up together on the same boat and that’s how we met. We kept in touch and we met again when he moved to Casablanca to open the BCG office here. And since then we didn’t loose contact! (laughs)

“Leverage the network, do not hesitate to talk to people, try things, travel and open your mind because that’s ultimately what you are going to need in the future.”

HU: Would you advise someone to go to HEC today? Why?

Hamza: Yes of course. The main reason is that HEC, while being one of the top business schools in the world, has also been able to reinvent itself. It is very important because the environment is now changing much faster than it used to 50 years ago.

If you go to a school which cannot reinvent itself, even if it is the number one, it won’t necessarily be in 10 or 15 years, when you are going to need its influence and its network. HEC is able to reinvent itself and that’s for me the best reason why you should go to HEC.

HU: Which advice would you give to a 20-year-old HEC?

Hamza: Try. Try everything. Talk to people, be an outgoing person. People are much more happy to share their experience than what I thought when I was 20. I was very “by-the-book”, a bit afraid of the seniors, the alumni… I didn’t dare to reach out to them, to talk to them and ask them for their experience.

Now that I am on the other side, I am always happy to share. It’s probably something that I didn’t benefit enough from.

So my advice is: leverage the network, do not hesitate to talk to people, try things, travel and open your mind because that’s ultimately what you are going to need in the future.

HU: What about the HEC alumni community here in Morocco? You are involved in the local association, can you tell us more about it?

Hamza: I am the vice-president of the association, I’ve been part of it for more than 10 years and it changed a lot on the way. During 50 years, there were only one or two Moroccans in each HEC promotion. In the late 1990s-early 2000s that number moved to 8-10 Moroccans by promotion. And very recently, it doubled to almost 20-25 Moroccans by promotion.

When there was only two Moroccans graduating from HEC each year they knew each other and their community was mostly informal. Today we have many more Moroccan alumni, but their link with alumni from previous generations and the association has somehow diluted.

With Jaafar Mrhardy, the president, we took the association with the idea of bringing everyone together and re-orienting the association so that it is closer to the younger alumni. Now we have an active chapter. We meet informally every 6 weeks, we have conferences…

We have just been reelected to pursue this strategy and after that we will transmit to the next generation.

HU: Do you personally benefit from this involvement in the local community?

Hamza: To be honest, I don’t, or not that much. My company addresses to experts from all around the world, not only Morocco. I got involved because HEC has done a lot for me and I wanted to give back to the community by helping it to maintain itself. By doing my part of the job, I want to encourage other alumni from Morocco to do the same. It’s all about volunteerism, you have to be ready to give your time for the community, and I want the younger generations to see that, because one day they will in turn be in charge of this community.

A memento mori mosaic from excavations in the convent of San Gregorio in Rome, featuring the Greek motto

Memento mori mosaic featuring the Greek motto

HU: Final word: The moto of HEC is “The more you know the more you dare”. What is your own moto?

Hamza: I would say “Connais-toi toi-même”, know yourself. When you know yourself, you know what are your shortcomings, your strengths, your weaknesses and you can work things around. People are not humble enough to recognize their weaknesses and therefore I think they don’t progress quickly enough.

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