This story is part of our annual CEO of the Year package. Each year, Report on Business magazine recognizes five business leaders who have made outstanding contributions to Canada.
Most corporate leaders shy away from controversy. Their social media accounts—if they even have one—tend toward the promotional and the upbeat. As for their political views, they’re largely kept under wraps, lest they rile the wrong crowd.
Not so for Mohamad Fakih, chief executive of Paramount Fine Foods, a fast-growing chain of fast-casual Middle Eastern restaurants that includes 70 locations in three countries. Case in point: a tweet he sent in October blasting Doug Ford over a statement the Ontario Premier made during a funding announcement in Windsor. “You come here like every other new Canadian, you work your tail off,” Ford said. “If you think you’re coming to collect the dough and sit around, not going to happen. Go somewhere else.”
Fakih, like many other immigrants, was incensed, and the Paramount CEO used Twitter to voice his dismay: “Still no apology from @FordNation. Typical of someone who is incapable of understanding what they said is racist and degrading. Add this to the reasons he does not deserve to be Ontario’s premier. As Maya Angelou said: ‘When people show you who they are, believe them.’”
It wasn’t the first time he’s waded into the public discourse, nor is it something he does lightly. As he sees it, he had no choice but to speak up. “A lot of people say to me, ‘You keep screaming and saying let’s hire diverse team members and executives. How do we attract them?’” says Fakih. “This is exactly how you attract them—by taking certain positions in life, by showing them that they’re welcome at your company, by sending a message that your company will not discriminate against them.”
That’s not just talk. Paramount, which serves Lebanese staples like shawarma, kafta, falafel and manakeesh, prides itself on its racially diverse workforce. That extends from the C-suite—where Fakih runs the company along with four executives, three of whom are people of colour—to its restaurants, where many of the workers are immigrants and refugees.
Fakih is perhaps best known for his philanthropy, a reputation he began to build in 2015, when the federal government committed to resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada. Fakih, who emigrated from Lebanon in 1999—worked with a Toronto-area charitable organization to fund employment support resources for newly arrived Syrians. He even hired more than 150 refugees himself. It wasn’t a one-off: This fall, he committed to hiring another 100 refugees in the near future, this time from Afghanistan.
That’s quite a commitment, considering Paramount lost 90% of its revenue in the first weeks of the pandemic. Yet the company has donated thousands of meals to front-line workers and Canadians in need at long-term care homes, homeless encampments, shelters and food banks throughout the COVID-19 crisis. He slashed prices at his restaurants to make it easier for Canadians to afford Paramount’s food. That’s in addition to personal and corporate donations to such charities as the Canadian Cancer Society, Islamic Relief Worldwide, SickKids and the Make-a-Wish Foundation, which he continued to make even as the company’s revenue nearly disappeared.
He also worked hard to keep his 1,500 staff employed since the start of the pandemic. With restaurants shut down in the early days of COVID-19, Paramount pivoted to takeout. It also launched three new sub-brands, all serving halal food: Krispo Chicken, a fried chicken joint that operates out of existing Paramount locations; MAS.E.MO Pizza, a menu of pizza and sides developed with celebrity chef Massimo Capra; and Box’d, a contact-free restaurant in Toronto’s Financial District. Only Box’d was in the works pre-COVID. Fakih came up with the others as a way to diversify Paramount’s offerings and pandemic-proof the business.
It’s all part of Fakih’s belief that if you invest in your community, your community will pay it back tenfold. “To me, people are the biggest assets,” he says. He goes on to argue that CEOs, corporations and shareholders need to embrace this idea—and put money behind it. “If I was to look at the profit-and-loss today, I’d want to add a line for kindness, support of the community and investment in the corporation,” Fakih says. “Right under the sales, not after the expense, because it has to send a message that the only way you’re getting those sales as a corporation is because of the community support.”
Fakih’s rags-to-riches tale is nearly legend in Canadian business circles. He arrived from Lebanon, he says, with $1,000 in his pocket. A gemologist by trade and a go-getter by nature, he made ends meet by taking shifts at Coffee Time and Tim Hortons before finding success running several locations of jewellery and watch store La Swiss. In 2006, his wife sent him to a Lebanese restaurant in Mississauga—the original Paramount—to pick up baklava. The owner recognized him and asked for a loan, since the restaurant was nearly bankrupt. Instead, Fakih ended up buying it and, within months, had transformed it into a booming fast-casual restaurant. The brand now includes two styles of eatery (the cheap-and-cheerful Lebanese Kitchen and the more haute Middle Eastern Kitchen), plus a butcher shop and takeout counters in select Rabba Fine Foods locations. Most of the chain’s outlets are in Ontario, but Paramount can also be found in British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec, and as far away as England and Pakistan.
Fakih’s secret sauce isn’t his business prowess, according to Andrew Bevan, executive vice-president of Fakih Group. “It’s his ability to make instant positive connections with people,” he says. “He’s approachable, he’s positive, he’s interested in people—what they have to say, what their wants and needs are, their lives in general. He’s a people person on steroids.”
It’s that genuine interest in others that inspires Fakih’s philanthropy and his approach to business, which he’s taken to calling “kinder capitalism.” “For me, profit is a destination,” Fakih says. “So how do you get there? Some people do it by cutting costs; others do it by walking all over their suppliers. For me, it’s by looking after the people who work in my company, the people who live in my community and on the planet. That’s how I get to profit.”
Giving back is part of how he grew up. Fakih’s mother would leave a bowl at the front door to collect spare change, which she’d use to feed anyone who needed a meal. What he does now is much like that, only on a larger scale. And honestly, sometimes he sounds a little too good to be true.
Ann Armstrong, director of the Social Enterprise Initiative at the Rotman School of Management, believes he’s not. “In addition to talking about corporate citizenship behaviour, he actually lives that value,” she says. “What these charitable acts do is reinforce that he’s the real deal. He’s not just using corporate social responsibility–type moves to whitewash his corporation. In tough times, he continues to provide at least some degree of food security for some people.”
But it also turns out that giving away money is good for business. “It’s not just a pleasant theory; it’s a recipe for success,” says Bevan. “That’s amazing to be a part of because I love the idea, but I love even more the practical truth of it: that you can be progressive, sensible and do a whole range of things that are unusual in a business sense, and all those things can actually lead toward more profit.”
It’s a notion Fakih wishes more business leaders would grasp. “Before, the shareholder used to demand that everything is the bottom line,” he says. “It was about profit, regardless of how you treat your staff, of how you get rid of your waste or how you treat your suppliers. And I think this has to change.” The world, he notes, is awash in money. What’s missing is empathy. “CEOs should be chief empathy officers more than chief executive officers, because our staff need us, and companies cannot operate without talent.”
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