Interview with Bilal Ballout, Co-Founder, BMB Group
BMB Group is one of the largest Chocolate and Arabic sweets manufacturers in the MENA and GCC Region. With operations in the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi, BMB employs over 1,000 people and last year appointed its first non-family CEO. Starting the company in 2006, Bilal Ballout, Mohamad Ballout and Mohamad Khachab, aimed to conquer the chocolate and confectionery sector in the UAE and beyond. The three entrepreneurs went well beyond their initial ambitions and are set to grow even more in the years to come. Tharawat Magazine asked Bilal Ballout about his entrepreneurial journey, the demands of growth and the introduction of a professional structure into the family-run company.
How did you get started in this industry?
We grew up in an entrepreneurial household. My father built his business from scratch; he established the first coffee, nut and sweet shops in the UAE. Growing up, I remember seeing him roast the nuts and coffee himself. He taught us the tricks of the trade: how to keep costs low, how to expand and most importantly how to retain the necessary mindset for entrepreneurship.
Maybe that’s why when I graduated from school I wasn’t happy in a corporate job. To take the time to find out what I wanted in life, I began working for my father. I helped in the kitchen making chocolate, roasting nuts and coffee, before I became interested in the purchasing side of the business. I realised that we‘d been using the same suppliers for years, and they never needed to negotiate with us; they knew they were the only supplier in the market. Upon finding myself negotiating a lost cause, I realised there was an opportunity.
I called my brother and asked him if he wanted to start our own trading company. He was still at university but supported the idea immediately. After some research on chocolate suppliers who didn’t have UAE partners, I flew to Singapore and asked a chocolate producer there to give us a chance. At that time – 2006 – I had no office, no warehouse and I was only 22. But I got the contract!
What did you do once you got the client?
I started thinking about how to provide the service I got hired for! I asked my father for collateral, and we raised a loan from the bank with our business plan. We got a warehouse and hired our first employee; he was the driver, warehouse guy, secretary, sales guy and everything else in between! Together we painted the walls and built a small cold-room, and when the first containers of chocolate arrived, we unloaded them ourselves.
I started calling potential clients – bakeries and patisseries – and said: “We’ve got chocolate,” but it was a slow start. The economy was going well, and no one cared about reducing their costs. We were barely making ends meet.
We were supplying chocolate factories but more and more suppliers came to market and competition was tough. When the crisis hit, being small and lean was an advantage. Pretty soon we decided to start making the chocolate ourselves. At that time Lebanon was the regional leader; all the chocolate shops in the UAE bought their finished products from Lebanon. Here in Dubai, we had only five suppliers and their offering was very limited. We started with two chefs. Today, our facility includes over 1,000 plus staff producing chocolate and sweets with state of the art equipment from Switzerland, Belgium, and Italy. We’re now the largest private label chocolate manufacturer in the GCC.
What happened when your brother and cousin joined the business?
When my brother Mohamad finished university and joined full time he brought the business to a new level and we saw accelerated growth. Then when our cousin Mohamad joined us five years ago, that was another decisive moment because he brought the potential for internationalisation. With his zest and instinct for other markets, he expanded our operations throughout the GCC and worldwide.
You’ve recently gone through restructuring. How did this change come about?
We were accepted into Endeavor – a mentoring and growth platform for entrepreneurs around the world. The mentoring sessions had a huge impact on us. We were at the stage where we were asking ourselves “What now?” We realised we needed to put a strategy in place for our future.
We knew we would need to hire people who are better at this than we were. So we started transforming ourselves into a global brand and redesigning our processes to become a dream company. We need the company to be governed in its best interests and not by our family dynamics. Now we are aligned.