Episode 4: Basma Al Zamil, General Manager, Corporate Human Resources and Corporate Social Responsibility, Zamil Group
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Maya: Welcome to JP Morgan, Private Banks' Spotlight on Family Governance podcast, a part of our Life and Legacy series. And I'm your host Maya Prabhu. In this episode, I am delighted to welcome Basma Al Zamil. Basma is a third generation member of her business family, and one of the first women to join her family company, the Zamil Group which is based in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In addition to her role as General Manager for Human Resources across the group, she also heads up Corporate Social Responsibility and is a Manager in the Family Office. Throughout her career in corporate HR, she has employed women in many Zamil companies and in doing so, created opportunities for women in Saudi Arabia and also work towards addressing their concerns in the workforce. In her role in the family office, she focuses on developing and preparing younger generations of the Zamil family to be better corporate citizens, to lead and expand the family business to new heights.
She has helped design a comprehensive plan that will ensure a smooth transition of leadership, ownership and governance in the future with prepared family members. Basma has a BA in English literature from Imam Abdulrahman Bin Faisal University in Dammam in Saudi Arabia. She has a master's degree in Adult and Community Education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in the United States. She holds a doctorate degree in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from Nova Southeastern University, also in the United States. Basma is a member of the Business Women Executive Council in the Asharqia Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Saudi Arabia. She's a member of the Board of Trustees of the Royal University of Women in Bahrain. In addition, she's a member of the Gulf Region Organization for Women. Welcome Basma.
Basma: Thank you very much, Maya for this introduction. And I'm really happy to be part of the podcast of JB Morgan. It's an honor for me to be honest, to share all of the knowledge and all of the experience that we have with everybody.
Maya: Thank you. So let's start Basma, perhaps, if you could tell us a little bit more about your family and how and why you became involved in the family business.
Basma: Sure. We can talk at the beginning about the family maybe. And I think it will be nice to talk about the family background. We're large family and having a large family, this expresses a lot of things that we are doing now. I'm considered a third generation. My grandfather, he had 12 sons and five [inaudible 00:03:34] filters. And now as a third generation, we are handling a lot of executive roles in the company. So I think it's now it's a most important duration for family business, the third generation handing these important roles we can say. This where the family office and all of what we are working on have been shining in the past couple of years. First of all, talking about Basma and Zamil, it was a challenge to be honest. When I graduated from university, it was a dream for me to be working even with the family.
I used to go with my father to the office. When I turned eight years old, that's a time when my father said to me, "Okay, so today you can't come back to the office". And it was like a shocking moment for me. I had this small office with my father, however, all that, it was like a dream and went back, went to the States, have all my studies and came back to Saudi. And surprisingly, my father said to me, "Okay, you can come back and join the company". At the beginning I was, to be honest, I was not sure about it. However, no, that was real. The first year I was working from home and I accepted and it was for me better than nothing. After one year when they saw the seriousness and everybody noticed that they have allocated an office for me and Alhamdulillah, from there this is my 10th year with Zamil Group.
It went really fast. Through all of these years it was really ups and downs. However, working with the family, I think it's something that it's an important, however, it's not easy, but yeah, it's not easy to be working with your uncles and cousins. However, I think it's a challenge that everybody has to go to be strong enough, to continue on working in it. My first task and fortunately was to employ females. And it was a very nice experience. I have employed females in couple of companies, going through all the logistics of it. Especially that it was the first years of allowing the women to work in Saudi. So it was really a challenge to allocate a place for them, even to let the employees accept that there are females with them in the company. All of these challenges really was something not easy at all.
However, it was a nice journey. It was a successful journey. Thanks to God. And from there, I think everything went smooth. One more thing that I want to add is for me today. I think it's, I'm now looking at it as something nice that I allow all the female cousins to have, I can say an eye opening that, "Okay, we can one day join the company". I'm happy that couple of cousins have joined, female cousins. And as of today, we are five female cousins and we have internship female cousins too, who are joining the company. So I think these days it's really important to have all of these opportunities out there for the females to be really challenging. This is briefly about all of the last 10 years that I have been going through Maya.
Maya: But you are a tremendous role model in the wider community, but also for your cousins and inspired them I'm sure, to join. And also through your presence, the work you've done, you've built your credibility and earned your credibility in the company, working with your uncles and other employees in the business as well. And through that, you've really brought about change without having any authority. I wonder if you could just reflect for a moment on how you influence change without any confrontation or conflict.
Basma: To be honest, Maya, I remember, I don't know if I can say this or no, but there were some days that I was in the office and crying, really crying because I don't know, I was like, "Okay, what I'm doing. What I'm doing, is it right? Is it wrong? Shall I leave the office? Should I know, stay in the office and really work with whatever circumstances around me". So there were really couple of days that were very hard to be honest. I can say that my uncles hold my hand from the first day, and this was really the support that I had. Our culture, I can say, we don't have this very clear communication. However, I can see it in their eyes. I can see it between their sentences. I can see their support, but without saying it, and this is really what made me to continue what I have begin and what I'm doing and what I'm working on.
They were giving me the authority indirectly. So I was like, "Okay, do I have the authority or no"? So they were giving me the authority indirectly. And all of this was really, I think, kept me working hard without this voice, without going to their offices and asking why you are not giving me a serious job? Why you are not giving me the authority? Why you are not giving me a job title that I have to earn? All of this I think made everything smooth. And to be honest, I was thinking about the future more. If I was really not working, however I was there and asking for more and more and more, it might indirectly affect the females who will come after me. So just keep everything smooth and everything will go perfect, since the uncles are supporting you, everything will be perfect. Just keep it.
Even if it would take a longer time, as they say, and Alhamdulillah, we are here and all the girls are happy. We have authorities that we never ever imagine that we will get. And the uncles and the cousins all are proud of what we are doing. And this is for me is the success. When you see the family is proud of what you do. Whenever there is an article in the magazines, or whenever there are anybody who's talking, whatever, if I'm a speaker in any conference, you can see all the cousins are sending messages, are sending emails. We are proud. Good. But these little words really keep you, as you said, and working for-
Maya: Motivated and encouraged.
Basma: Yes. To be honest. Yes. And I can't blame them. Maybe at the beginning, it was really hard because it was not something norm, it's not normal to be working and a female to be working in a corporate environment. So I can't blame them to be honest. However, they really made everything go smooth. And today I'm happy to see them proud of me and all of the female cousins who are really working hard.
Maya: So it's really a testament to your resilience, your abilities, your patience, and also the support that you said you could feel your uncles holding your hand. You could feel their support. So it's a combination of those two things that really helps that. So in creating the path for other family members, I know that one of the programs that you are very passionate about-
Basma: My passion.
Maya: Is about the various programs that you have created to prepare family members. So tell us about perhaps the G2G program and then the Zamil Future Leaders Program.
Basma: Sure. So in 2005 the Zamil family have written the constitution and they have a consultants firm that came to their offices and they really begin with all of this, we can say early here in the region. It's something that's really nice. They have-
Maya: Creating your family constitution. And all of that was early in the region. Yes.
Basma: Yes, it was. Yeah. It was through the Saudi families at that time, they never have this ever. So to be honest, until today there a lot of Saudi family businesses, they don't have a proper family office, a proper constitution. The government is really working hard today on this and educating the family businesses to have it. The Zamil family had really, I can say from the first families that they have this, they have the Talents Committee. Luckily my male cousins, they joined the Talents Committee and they have all the privileges of having mentors, have the privilege of going to trainings and they really worked hard with all the male cousins through these years. However, in 2010, when I joined, there were the moment that, "Okay, why can I join"? And I was not welcomed a lot to be honest. And I was like, "Okay, that's fine. Just keep it for the male. And I'm happy. I have my degree. I hold my PhD. I don't need any more training. I have read a lot of books".
At that moment I realized, "Okay, why don't we go to the younger cousins? Why don't we go to the grandchildren"? And here were where the idea came off of. It's like, "Okay, these are the cousins who are now they are in their mid thirties and above. Okay, what about the other cousins"? And from there, the G2G program has begun. It was really something small and I'm happy that today is something all the family is proud of.
Maya: And what age do you start with the other cousins?
Basma: Six years.
Basma: Yeah. So the G2G program is really from six years old until they graduate from the university. We have an internship program for six months with us, after that they will move to the Zamil Future Leaders Program.
Maya: And what do you do with say the six to eight year olds? The really young ones? People often ask about that.
Basma: Sure. Yeah. So when we talk about the G2G program, it's a program, it really concentrates about the next gen. I can talk about the five tiers that we really focus on is the social, financial, educational, all of these aspects, that whatever they can't really take it from school, we as a G2G program, we will provide it to them. What's missing in the school it's there in G2G. The most important things that we always think about is we have to have them together as a family. And as I mentioned, that we are a big family. So whenever the program is done there, we want the family to be together. We are in different cities. So we will put them all together in one room without their friends. They are in different schools so we have to let them know each other, to be honest.
And at the same time, usually the programs that we do, it usually there is a challenge that they have to have in this program. So either they have to raise money for charity. They have a business that we give them any program for as an entrepreneur, you have to have a business plan. So all the programs that we have, it's a challenging program. And usually we try to let the boys and girls who are in the teenagers, they prepare the programs for the kids who are six, seven years old. So the audience is your cousins. You can feed all of this together.
Maya: So alongside teaching them, it's a great way to connect the cousins, help them get to know each other and to spend time together.
Basma: Exactly. And on the other hand, usually we like to give them little bit of the business. So we try to take them in the tours to the factories. We like to give them like, okay, we've had couple of employees who have been working with Zamil for more than 30 years to come and to talk to them about these Zamil values, about how do they work with the uncles all of these years. Why they are with Zamil for all of these years, so they can understand how important loyalty is to your employees, how important the values of Zamil to you and to your employees, to everybody around you. So all of these programs, I think are important.
We try to make different programs from six years til 10, they have a special programs. And then from 10 to 15, they have special and then 15 to high school. And then when they are in the university, they have different programs. Each program, it depends on the age. It depends on what their needs. Usually I have them at the beginning of the year and they will choose what programs they want. This year one of the ideas that they want, they wanted to learn more about the stock market. And I was really happy that okay, they asked and okay, that's fine. We will have people who they are experts in the stock market and they will lecture you. Even if they did not really benefit from it, however, just asking them and letting them know about the stock market is nice for them.
Basma: Yes. So I think G2G program is something the family is proud of, to be honest.
Maya: Absolutely. And I think it's super wonderful as well to see how you're building that emotional connection with the company. I love the example of the employees talking about the family values and the importance of the company and why they've stayed so long. So let's talk a little bit more about how your family has made sure that the vision and values of the founders is not lost through the generations. What are some other things that you do to really instill those family values in future generations?
Basma: Yeah, sure. To be honest, the values, I believe that the most important thing for us is really to transfer this values to the grandchildren. I had the opportunity to live with my uncles, to hear their stories, to see how do they deal with their employees. How do they deal even with anybody in the street? However, the grandchildren did not have this chance to really live with them and to hear what do they say, and to listen to their stories. Through these ideas, I think that having everybody gathering in one place, it's a great idea. We have the family assembly. It's assembly that we meet one time a year, and the uncles, they talk really informally to all the grandchildren. And just to give them some stories, just to chat with them. We don't talk anything about business. It's really about the family values. We have to have one of the third generation who is really successful in his work will come and will talk about his story. Will come and talk about his challenges to all these younger generation.
So they can see that, okay, we can one day be there. It's really nice. We printed out a book and that book is really has a lot of values that we indirectly put it for the next generation. That book had all the activities that the G2G has done from 2012 until today. So it's all the 10 years work of the G2G. It's a very simple language. The book was titled, From You We Learned, and we had the picture of the grandfather on the cover page. If you went through the book and you read the programs, we had it in a very simple language, like one girl, she is talking to her grandfather and saying for him, "Okay, we are here. We are continuing your legacy. We are working hard to continue what you have begun. And this is some of the work that we have done together, and we would continue working together".
Maya: Wow, that's lovely.
Basma: Yeah. So it's like an indirect message. At the first page it was saying that, "Okay, this book is given to the grandfather. It's from us, the grandchildren to our grandfather for all of what he has done for us". And I think this will give them a very, I can say an indirect message about the values. In between the book we can... Okay, I can give you an example. A program about giving back a charity. So this little girl in the book saying, "Okay, grandfather, you have been working a lot with the charities and you've been giving a lot of the charities. Today, it's our turn to give back the charities. And this is what we have done to continue what you have done".
Basma: So this was the language of the book, and I'm really excited. We will do a very big celebration to give everybody this book, inshallah.
Maya: Wonderful, wonderful. And I'm sure they'd love to have it, and it will have pride of place in everyone's home.
Basma: Yes. I'm sure.
Maya: To shift gears a little bit, many people hear the term family governance and are often confused by what does it mean? It sounds really formal and bureaucratic. I wonder if you could share your thoughts as to what family governance means to you and your family and how you've organized yourselves.
Basma: Sure. When I talk about Zamil, the uncles have worked through the past years to really separate business from the family. And I think it's an important step. It's really an important step. Sometimes I can say, it's not easy. It's really not easy. However, you have to be really clear about separating family from business for us. When we talk about the governance, we are talking about a book that has all the, we can say the ideas that the uncles really wants all the cousins to know, all the next generation to know and really to think about, okay, this governance is not only for you or for him or for her. It's really for the benefit of the whole family. And you have to think about it. Maybe it will not fit you. Maybe what's written there you will not like it. However, you have to really think big about it.
For us it's a written constitution. As I have mentioned, the first one was written in 2005 and it's updated. The last update was in 2019. And I am really happy to be part of the update because in the new version of it, we had the female. So it's really talking about male and female. It's not only about male. The old version it was all the dedicated to male. So in the new version, no, it is both. Either you are male or female, the constitution is there for you. So we had the third generation entering in the Family Council. How can we were really thinking hard? How can the third generation to enter the Family Council and all of the Talent Committees? And so it was a really big editing in 2019.
Maya: So it really creates a sense of fairness and this clarity as well.
Maya: Because it's the same protocols that apply to everyone.
Basma: Exactly. Yes. So it's there, it's written. There will be exceptions. There will be some, however, you have really this book that's written and everybody has to read it. Everybody has to really know in back of their head what's written there and they will work on what's written there.
Maya: What I'm really struck by in your family, Basma, and what you've done is you have this formal arrangements of written constitution. You have a family council, family office, a talent committee, family gathering committee, et cetera. And at the same time, you spend a lot of time and invest energy and funds as well in really building connection between family members through family gatherings and G2G and other programs. This is really wonderful. And it really strikes me as something quite special.
Basma: To be honest, I think for us, we can say the most important thing that we are really looking forward to, we want them to love the logo. We want them to believe that the logo has to be up there. So with all of these formal, informal, all of the connections, all of the help, this is really the things that will let these grandchildren love the logo. Whenever they lo love it, they would really work hard to keep it up. And this is exactly what we are looking forward to.
Maya: And creates a wonderful new set of family managers and owners of your wonderful company.
Basma: And it'll help these cousins to know how to deal with each other, to talk to each other. They would really know each other in all of these informal gatherings, especially when you are from different schools, from different backgrounds, all of these gathering will let them know each other more.
Maya: Basma, perhaps in conclusion, from everything that you have learned over the years, what would be your advice to any family on how to involve and engage the next generation?
Basma: The connection between the family members. I think this is the most important thing. Every family business really has to work hard on the connection. It's not easy. There will be couple of conflicts. However, the connections are really important for the family members, as much as they can. It's really something important. The learning and development of the next gen is something that we did not have the opportunity. However, the next gen, I can see it in their eyes. I can see it when they come back to my office and say to me, "Thank you for all the training that you have done to us". I'm happy that last week, one of the next gen, he's in Boston and he got a job there and he called me and he was like, "Thank you". And he was like, "Why"? And he was like, "Okay. I was really selected because of the trainings of the G2G.
Maya: That's amazing.
Basma: And it was like, "What do you mean"? And he was like, "Okay. Through the interview, what really gave me the extra credit is the G2G trainings that we went through. And they were really excited about, wow, how is your family working with you from 10 years old and giving you all of these trainings? And I was like, "Did you put the G2G training in your CV"? And he was like, "Yes. And even the logo of the G2G, I have put it on the CV". And I was like, "Wow, thank you". I was really happy, Maya about it. And I was really happy that he called me back.
And he said to me that the people who have interviewed me, they really were highlighting the G2G program. They asked me to talk more about the G2G program. They asked me to about the family. Okay. What do you do? And why is your family really are working hard for you from you're 10 years old. And I was really happy about this call. So this is a second thing that I really wanted to mention, really work hard on the training and the development of the family. It'll reflect back one day.
Maya: Thank you very much Basma with those very wise words. I'd like to thank you again for joining us. And it's been a real pleasure to have this conversation with you.
Basma: Thank you very much, Maya. It was really, as I've said, it's an honor for me and the Zamil family to be part of the podcast of JP Morgan.
Maya: Thank you very much.
Basma: Thank you.
Basma al Zamil shares her experience working with her family company and how she brought about a change in the role of women through her abilities, resilience, patience and the support of her uncles. She discusses the comprehensive engagement and training programme for family members aged 6 and above that she launched, which provides a path for next generation family members for different roles in their family enterprise.
"The connection between the family members. I think this is the most important thing. Every family business really has to work hard on [building] the connection. It's not easy. There will be a couple of conflicts. However, the connections are really important for the family."