Samir Brikho has trouble staying in one place for too long.
The chief executive has just emerged from the elevator at Toronto’s Four Seasons hotel and bounced into Café Boulud. He is grinning and excited, and in a bit of a rush. He has an hour before he has to be back upstairs, packing his bag to visit offices across Canada. This country is the largest source of revenue and profit for Amec PLC, the London-based global engineering firm he runs, and which aspires to take a good amount of business away from SNC-Lavalin Inc. and other Quebec rivals.
He is on an east-west tour of Amec’s operations here. The business has 70 locations and more than 7,000 employees in this country – a bigger Canadian work force than Imperial Oil Ltd. – doing work in industries such as power, clean technology, energy and mining. That sizable presence means Mr. Brikho is in Canada every six weeks or so; he makes regular stops in Edmonton, Halifax, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Saskatoon and elsewhere.
With an itinerary like that, it’s no surprise the Lebanese-born CEO has opinions aplenty about Canada, though he has never lived here. The startling thing is his willingness to share those opinions with a reporter he has just met, a stark contrast to most Canadian chief executives who are ultra-reserved – certainly when there’s a recording device lying on the table.
Quebec’s scandal-ridden construction industry? Not a problem for Amec, which was “never asked to join the team.”
Calgary? Not a big fan. Too much like Houston.
Keystone XL? A waste of time for Canada. Forget the Americans and move on.
Skiing at Mont Tremblant? “Not good. It is so cold.”
The environmental record in the oil sands? Nothing to get too worried about. Take a look at the mess in Kuwait.
Whistler? Lacks the “charm” of European ski destinations.
There’s no rancour in any of this. The statements are often followed by a giggle. Mr. Brikho is frankly impish – not a word usually associated with people who run companies with £4-billion (about $7.5-billion) worth of annual revenue. He doesn’t mind making an impression. This is a guy who drives a DeLorean.
A waiter stops by to inquire whether we would like wine, and Mr. Brikho retorts: “We take shots, we don’t take wine.”
Of course, we don’t. Because this is Toronto. And it’s lunchtime. And Mr. Brikho is joking, I think. Instead, it’s water all around. He orders a lobster salad followed by risotto that he will later urge me to try, grabbing my bread plate and spooning a dollop on for me even as I attempt to demur, in Canadian fashion.
“We share!” he declares. So we do, as he shares his views on most everything.
Mr. Brikho has been running Amec since 2006. In that time, revenue has soared, profit has surged and the shares are worth 21/2 times what they were when he joined. But he almost didn’t take the job. He had been overseeing a large division at the huge Swiss engineering firm ABB Ltd. and had a bright future there. Amec was in poor shape, in his view.
Then it dawned on him that therein lay the opportunity. ABB could never grow as fast as Amec, because the latter was starting off at such a low base.
He called people who worked with Amec. “They said the people are good,” he said. “I think the management is not good.” That convinced him that new leadership could fix the company.
“To change a new vision, strategy in what we are trying to do, engaging with people, exciting them and making them deliver – that’s much easier than to train 30,000 people.”
About 2,000 of those people work in the oil sands, on projects such as Imperial’s Kearl mine.
“I have been travelling all my life through all these oil and gas installations,” he says. “I’ve seen with my own eyes what feels dirty and bad. Is oil sands the best fuel in the world? No. Is it the worst? No. The reality is somewhere in between.”
He points to dirty operations in Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and especially Kuwait where oil pools on the surface of the desert. Some is the result of the Iraq war, some of Kuwait’s producers flushing their pipes into ponds.
“This place stinks. When you are 10 miles away, you say: ‘Ooh, that stinks.’”
Still, he acknowledges the oil sands can do better in areas such as water and energy use, and that’s where Amec comes in.
“That’s what ingenuity and engineering is about – always to do better. That’s why I feel sometimes the debate on the oil sands in Canada is totally wrong. But it is what it is now today. You cannot change it. It’s like your mayor here, Rob Ford, you cannot rewind it. It is there.”
Energy is Canada’s future, he believes. And if the Americans won’t buy Canada’s oil, someone else will.
“If Keystone doesn’t get built, okay, live with it. In business sometimes, you try something, it doesn’t work, you move on. Okay guys, you don’t want it? Fine, I move on. Maybe they [will] regret it one day.”
Mr. Brikho has a lot of experience with frustrating negotiations. Early in his career at ABB, he was tapped by the Swedish industrialist who controlled the company, Peter Wallenberg, to lead a delegation to Palestine. The goal was to try to do something for the peace process through economic development.
At 33, Mr. Brikho found himself part of the creation of the Palestine International Business Forum, leading a group of Swedish CEOs who were much more senior in every way. Why him?
“I'm quite good in conflict management. I try to listen to everybody. I also find a way to bridge some of these things.” Also, he spoke Arabic.
The group helped to build a power plant in Gaza, a stock exchange, Volvo engineering centres and even an operation that exported carnations, which grew in the West Bank.
What’s next for Amec? Energy, he says. Just as it is crucial for Canada, it is important for Amec. He’s looking at acquisition targets in the area.
He’s also excited about Quebec, where the engineering business is in turmoil after the revelations of bribery and corruption on public works projects. Amec was not much of a player in the province. Now, he calls it “a fantastic opportunity for Amec because we are one of the few left in town who are not tainted.”
If he had to pick a town to live in in Canada, he says Montreal would be high on the list. Vancouver, too, because of the access to wind and water. (Sailing is one of his passions.)
Mr. Brikho has plenty of experience moving around. Born in Beirut, he has lived in Sweden, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Greece, Belgium, France and Britain. These days, he resides in Switzerland, near Davos, where he is a fixture at the World Economic Forum and on the ski hills.
He has skied in Canada but doesn’t get it. Mont Tremblant is too frigid. As for Whistler, there’s something missing. Nobody sits outside socializing, so it lacks the “charm” of Europe, where skiing is as much about sunning on patios during breaks from the schussing. “You are sitting outside with all these people having quite a good time, having a good drink or good coffee. Then you are skiing maybe two more hours. Then you have lunch.”
By night, he enjoys dancing. “It’s nice to go out and people really dance, rather than hanging around in the bar and don’t do anything.”
And he loves food. But there’s no time for dessert. Always in motion, Mr. Brikho must rush off to finish packing.
Born in Beirut, now 55 years old, has a partner and two grown sons; counts dancing, sailing, skiing and golf among his pastimes.
Swedish, Arabic, English, German and French
Engineering degree and master of science degree from Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
On Canada as a safe haven for Amec in the financial crisis:
“We felt so safe with Canada and Canada’s financial policies that we more or less shifted almost all our money to Canada.”