On Being Part of the Next Generation

Crescent Petroleum is an upstream oil and gas company with headquarters in Sharjah, UAE, and offices all over the world. It is part of the Crescent Group of companies, which includes activities in power, port management, logistics, contracting, healthcare, private equity and real estate. The group has been in existence for over four decades and behind its success lies the hard work and full commitment of the Jafar family. Today, the family is making the transition from the first to the second generation. In an exclusive interview, Tharawat magazine gets to know the Jafar family’s youngest member: After graduating from Cambridge University, as well as completing her legal training at the Norton Rose Group, Razan Jafar is following her father and two brothers’ footsteps into the family business and is leaving a mark very much her own.

The Outside Experience

We are sitting opposite a young woman who cannot be described as anything else but a “modern lady”. “I have never done an interview like this before”, she says modestly. Fact is that Razan Jafar is the youngest of the Jafar’s second family business generation. Less than a year ago she followed her two elder brothers Majid and Badr into the family business, Crescent Petroleum. We wonder whether it has always been Razan’s plan to join the family business and get a charmingly direct reply: “To be honest, it wasn’t. It’s a very recent development. When I graduated I applied for jobs to get a legal training contract, which is usual for law graduates. One day my father asked me ‘What are you doing? You’re going to come back and work with me!'” Razan recollects her father’s words affectionately. “My father said: ‘You will learn way more with me. I will give you real work and I will throw you in the deep end.’ I said to him that I wanted to be able to stand on my own two feet. My brother Majid argued that it was important for me to work in a law firm and, if I liked it, I might want to do that and not join the family business.” Razan’s eldest brother Majid himself started his career outside the family business. Feeling that this was an important experience, he strongly believed his sister should be given the same opportunity. Razan did get a job at a top London-based international law firm, and qualified as a UK solicitor. “I enjoyed what I did; I found it very rewarding. Then I truly was intrigued by the family business and I wanted to explore it.” She adds that the fact that she loves her family played a great role in this. “I respect my father and brothers not just because they are family but also because of what they do and how they do it. I did hesitate before joining the family business. Once you’re in, you’re in!”

The Inside Experience

Razan’s external experience provided her with qualities she felt she would need in the family business. “You learn good habits from working full-time at multi-national corporations, and it’s so important to acquire that discipline early on in one’s career. I learnt so much that can’t even be pinpointed but it all adds up to value that I hopefully bring to the family business”, she says, thinking back.

As soon as Razan joined the family business, her father gave her a lot of responsibility. She confesses to us that she had never been more nervous than during her first few weeks in the family business. “In a corporate environment you know your place and you know everybody else’s place too. When my father said he’d throw me in the deep end, he meant it! He told me to handle most things myself and to use my own judgement.” Razan goes on to describe how her father’s confidence in her gave her more confidence in herself. She soon found herself participating actively and usefully making her mark in the business. “It has been really great and things have changed rapidly in my life: I studied law but when I joined I wanted exposure to all aspects of the business, and to see it from all viewpoints and not just through a legal lens. My brothers’ roles are really specific as they have been in the business for a while and have established their own domains, using their individual strengths for the ultimate benefit of the business. I am not at that point yet; it will take time. I am a director at the group level and I sit on the board, but to know exactly what I want to do, and more importantly where I can usefully contribute and add value, I want to spend a year doing a bit of everything. This includes shadowing my father and working directly alongside him.” Razan affirms that her legal training gives her a unique view of the family business, yet after joining the business she discovered that she enjoys many other areas as well.

Advice from a Next Generation Family Business Member – Interview with Razan Jafar
Image courtesy of Crescent Group

How it Feels

In many ways Razan describes her experience in the family business</span> as a sort of process that helped her come into her own. She tells us that even though she had done well in all her studies and also in her previous work experience, she still never felt as if she had quite gotten the confidence that went with her position. This changed when she joined the family business. Razan leans back into her chair and frowns a little: “The one thing that I did feel when I got here was that I have relevant knowledge. I surprised myself by understanding that all my skills had grown over the years and that I could now use them effectively. My confidence started growing when I shared ideas with my father; he liked them and encouraged me to share them with others.”

In a company that is all about chemistry, physics, and engineeringan>, the young woman sitting opposite us is finding her way. She is the first woman to join the family >businessan> at the executive level. She laughs outright when she confirms that sometimes she is even the only woman in the room. “All the senior executives here are men. But I am used to it now.” Man or woman, Razan believes that every individual in the family brings different strengths to the table. The three Jafar siblings complement each other in the business and also have a strong relationship> outside the office. “We socialise together and enjoy it. We don’t talk about work; we talk about personal things and share everything together.” Razan’s face lights up affectionately. “We are there for each other.” When we ask her what she thinks the secret ingredient is for this type of family cohesion, she has her answer ready: “My father is not a typical first generation member; he is very hands off and he is happy to delegate, particularly to us as second “>generation members. He encourages us to take the reins effectively. Since we joined the business he is mostly handling high-level matters. He wants to give us the responsibility and is open to our ideas. We are given the room to breathe and be creative, and I know that this is not usual, especially not in family businesses.”

The Next Generation Challenges

Next generation members often face challenges in the family business especially when they have just joined it. Razan knows of a few: “A great challenge for the next generation family members is to be treated as professionals in their own right by others. It can be difficult to gain respect inside and outside the family business, particularly by the old hands. When you tell people that you work for your family they sometimes believe that you have an easy life. I think that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the parent generation being tough on the next generation; I think it is even healthy for everybody else in the business to see this. It is normal to work twice as hard to earn the respect of your peers and of your colleagues to demonstrate that you are in the business because you want to be but also because you deserve it.”

Another challenge Razan identifies for the next generation is one that depends on the stage the family is in; she explains: “You need the right governance system in place. A family business always has real challenges, so the rules are best addressed and put in place early on. It is up to the next generation to implement these systems and enforce them. Fixing a problem or an issue is much harder than preventing it in the first place.”

“But I think that the greatest challenge of all is to maintain the awareness that as new family generations join the business, the complexity of the organisation increases.” Razan adds that awareness and communication among generations is key. “Open dialogue, being brutally honest, sitting down in a casual place, and really being a family is important. When you do that you realise that business is important but family is equally if not more so.”

Finally, Razan puts it very simply: “The role of the next generation is to preserve old value, to create new value, and also to hold the family together.” After talking to her, we think this particular next generation member is going to have no problem living up to the task.

Tharawat Magazine, Issue 15, 2012