Interview with Victor Saad, Vice President and Board Member, SABIS®

When Tanios Saad and Louisa Proctor began a girl’s school in the Lebanese village of Choueifat in 1886, they could not have anticipated that they would lay down the cornerstone of a legacy that would outlast generations to come. In the decades that followed, the school built its reputation as a quality education provider for both boys and girls. In the mid-1940s, the second generation, Charles Saad, took over the running of the school. In the mid-seventies, Leila Saad, and Ralph Bistany, under the guidance of Charles Saad, charted the course to a promising future, and began the gradual global expansion of the company. Charles Saad passed away a few years later leaving the organisation in the hands of Leila Saad and Ralph Bistany representing the third generation. In the 1990s, the fourth generation, the current SABIS® board, started joining the organisation and were gradually entrusted with operations. Today, SABIS® is an education provider and innovator with an active presence in 20 countries, employing over 8000 people, and educating more than 70,000 children both in the private and public sectors.

Victor Saad is a fourth generation descendant of Tanios Saad and is himself a graduate of the SABIS® schools in Lebanon and the UK. Feeling a strong personal attachment to his family’s centenarian legacy, Victor joined SABIS® as a young math and engineering graduate 20 years ago following a brief career in telecommunications. As the only direct descendant with a senior managerial role in a separate family business in the telecommunications sector, the transition into SABIS® seemed like a difficult decision at the time. However, he always felt a deep attachment to his school and the core ideals of the global institution it had become. Combined with his admiration and strong ties to the SABIS® co-founders, Leila Saad and Ralph Bistany, this led him to join SABIS®.

Today, he is Vice President and part of the board at SABIS®.

Tharawat Magazine spoke to Victor Saad, Vice President and Board Member of SABIS®. Saad is currently engaged with operations and development in various regions. He is also part of the team who initiated the work on transitioning from a family-run business to a multi-national organisation by incorporating corporate and family governance practices. In this interview, he told us about 130 years of family business history and sheds light on the art of innovation in education.

SABIS® – 130 Years of Innovation in Education
Image courtesy of SABIS

Tell us more about how SABIS® came about.

In its 130-year journey, SABIS® faced many challenges and opportunities.

Starting the second generation, Charles Saad took over the running of the school in the mid-40s turning his attention to both the educational programs and the physical facilities. In the mid-fifties he recruited Ralph Bistany alongside Leila Saad who became the nucleus of a new team of young people, who under the guidance of Charles Saad, charted the course to a promising future.

Driven by the Lebanese Civil War in the mid-seventies, we embarked on an expansion program outside Lebanon, starting in the UAE, first in Sharjah then Abu Dhabi followed by Al Ain.

In 1981 Charles Saad passed away leaving the organisation in the hands of Leila Saad and Ralph Bistany (3rd generation). It is at this important juncture in the life of our group that our single family business developed into a multi-family business, the SAADS and the BISTANYS and hence the name SABIS.

In the 1990s, we, the fourth generation, which I, my partner Carl Bistany and other board members are a part of, started joining the organisation and gradually took over the operation. It is worth mentioning that some members of the 5th generation are already on board.

SABIS® – 130 Years of Innovation in Education
Image courtesy of SABIS

Tells us who are the family members you are currently working with.

Presently, the board consists of the two co-founders, Leila Saad and Ralph Bistany. The executive board members are Carl Bistany, current SABIS® President, Victor Saad, Vice President, Serge Bakhos, George Saad, Ghassan Kansou and Mahdi Kansou. We also have one non-family board member, Joe Achkar, who joined the Group over ten years ago initially with the main focus of championing the family and corporate governance efforts.

Currently, we all hold different operational roles and complement each other in driving the business forward in our various capacities. Five of us are actually SABIS® alumni and hence benefit from having had the experience of being educated at SABIS® network Schools long before joining the business.

What are your greatest challenges and opportunities as a family business?

Over our 130 years, as a family-owned business, we have been confronted by many challenges; as the company grows, incorporating more influences and becoming more diverse, there is an ever-increasing need to maintain unity in our outlook, ideals, and focus.

As a family business, we benefit from the advantage of being able to make swift and timely decisions. We have retained that flexibility and the ability of quick decision-making which have enabled us to make the right choices at important junctures, be it a decision to enter into a particular geographical region, or the introduction of a particular digital learning solution, or for that matter, the avoidance of adopting certain educational fads even though they may have been perceived as quite popular.

Also, as a family business, SABIS® benefits from the loyalty of its family members who have an emotional attachment to the company, and are always more inclined to persevere and “go the extra mile”.

As we expand further, the cohesion of the family and all team members maintained through a good culture will continue to grow in importance. The corporate and family governance is a safeguard against potential conflict.

What is the reason behind the SABIS® success and how did you manage to create a global brand?

The first step towards internationalisation was unfortunately driven by the turbulent times Lebanon was experiencing in the 1970s. This forced us to look for other opportunities abroad. That is when we started our first school in Sharjah, UAE. Following the success of our program and the high demand from parents, we began to expand quite quickly; first throughout the UAE, followed by our first project in Europe, in Bath, England. Then, in 1985, our co-founders made a bold move and started the first private school in the USA in Minnesota.

Since the mid-90s, our generation has been further fuelling the development and expansion to new countries such as Pakistan, Germany, Egypt, Romania, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, KSA, Kurdistan and most recently Azerbaijan, Panama and Africa.

With growth obviously comes the challenge of maintaining quality. To achieve this, we had to ensure that our programs, systems, management structure, recruitment and training, and academic and financial quality control processes were efficiently established.

Today, SABIS operates through five academic centres around the world that act as academic support and quality control centres. The more the company expanded, the more structure mattered.

Early in the life of the organisation, we realised that for education to succeed, it had to be subjected to the rules of industry, accountability, and efficiency, which meant that there was a need to quantify knowledge and to measure the acquired skills against time required.

In order to achieve this target, we had taken a strategic decision in the early 60s to invest in IT and R&D and since then development started leading to a number of innovative learning solutions that helped us optimise efficiency and learning currently in place. This work is on-going. The in-house capability in technology and academics led us to write most of our books. Today, we have more than 1,800 titles written in 5 languages in most disciplines. All of this allowed us to have a dynamic and comprehensive academic program, which is constantly updated and refined to meet local and global requirements.

This global reach and demand for the SABIS® services eventually led to the development of different business models which now include direct management of private schools, school licensing and public private partnerships. We are also an outcomes-driven model, a model that assesses success based on results achieved and value added to each student.   Our system, approach and non-selectivity have also allowed us to serve a wide spectrum of communities including severely disadvantaged communities. A special project that we are particularly proud of is The Leila C. Saad SABIS® School Al Metn, probably the first tuition-free private school in Lebanon dedicated to serving the children of financially-disadvantaged families. This project is entirely funded by the SABIS® foundation.

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What have been the most marked changes in the education industry and how did technology impact this change?

The changes we have witnessed over the past ten years are probably more pronounced than what we have seen over the last 50 years. This is because education did not evolve as fast compared to other sectors such as telecommunications, transportation, aviation, etc. before technology made such significant changes in the way people live.

The skills required by top level universities nowadays place a greater emphasis on personality development and community involvement. We were early in promoting student-led platforms to equip our students with the much needed social and interpersonal skill while emphasising the acquisition of life skills through real-life experiences at school. Having said that, I would like to emphasize that although the skill set required by universities is constantly changing, sound scientific, mathematical and language education, continue to be at the core, the secure foundation upon which so much more can be built.

As for the impact of technology, we all know that phones and tablets have become an integral part of everyday life.  This in turn drove us to utilize such tools interactively to achieve more efficient learning in the classroom. Our digital solutions, for instance, allow the teacher to engage the students to learn on their own while monitoring their learning in an objective manner.  This is achieved through activities that students solve on their tablets in the classroom and a system which is capable of providing instant feedback on their performance. Immediate action can then be taken considering that the areas which need to be revisited are quickly identified.  The instantaneous feedback provided by this vital data is key to enhancing the efficiency and to the improvement of the learning process.

Will family ownership and management always be a priority or mostly family ownership?

SABIS® will remain firmly committed to maintaining family ownership of the company.

As for management, our intention is to continue to attract suitable and competent executives (Family and non-family members) into the business. For the selection of new family members, this process is governed by strict guidelines and based on merit, competence and qualifications.

SABIS® – 130 Years of Innovation in Education
Image courtesy of SABIS

How are you attracting the next generation to SABIS as a workplace?

It’s about having a strong culture, a culture that is based on loyalty and dedication, a culture that rewards results and achievements, a culture that stresses high ethical and moral values in everything we do. This culture was put in place by our founders and, as a family, we were able to maintain the values and the vision across the generations. The current management generation – generation four – has been entrusted with the legacy of the founders and will continue to build on the principles inherent in this legacy.

The 130-years history of SABIS, has signified quality and resilience- both characteristics that people look for in a business to trust.

What would you advise for family businesses who want to achieve longevity?

As a family business, first and foremost, there needs to be a commitment from the top to the mind-set of transitioning from a typical family business into a corporately-run family business. This process of institutionalisation necessitates the implementation of strong corporate and family governance, succession planning and rigorous management systems that help avoid the frequent conflicts in family businesses and that stand in the way of longevity.

Another factor is obviously for your offering to remain relevant and competitive and for mechanisms to be in place for continual evolvement and enhancement.

The above are two essential ingredients (not the only ones) but are vital ingredients for longevity for any business and in particular a family business.

What does the future hold for SABIS®?

We as an institution plan to continue to grow and spread to new regions. We will continue to invest in R&D to try to raise academic standards and lower the cost of delivery. As an institution we will aim to continue to make a difference through education.