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the ladder

AGT Foods President and CEO Murad Al-Katib.CHRIS HENDRICKSON

Murad Al-Katib, 45, is the president and CEO of Regina-based AGT Food and Ingredients Inc., one of the world's largest suppliers of pulses such as lentils and chickpeas and staple foods like flour and pasta. It has 48 manufacturing facilities in five continents and more than 2,000 employees. He has an MBA from Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona and a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Saskatchewan. In 2001, he founded Saskcan Pulse Trading, which became AGT.

I was born in a small farming community in Davidson, Sask. My father was a doctor. My mother was a municipal councillor for 27 years in different roles. The dinner-table conversation at our house was talking about the health of the farming community and jobs on Main Street. My love for community economic development, for the rural economy and for agriculture came from that upbringing.

My parents also taught us that there was a world outside of Canada that we had to not only be aware of but also understand how we would fit into it. I got my MBA in the U.S. and expected I would end up on Wall Street or Bay Street. Yet, that pull to Saskatchewan kept coming back into my head.

When I was 23 years old, I wrote a letter to then-premier Roy Romanow talking about how the emerging markets would be the driver of the economy and that Saskatchewan, with its resource-rich economy, had what the world wanted. I pitched an emerging markets trade-development initiative. I thought there was a link to the Saskatchewan economy into the world. One day my phone rang and it was the deputy minister. He said, "Young man, come see me when you're in Saskatchewan next." I was working at the Canadian embassy in Washington at the time. I got a six-month contract with the Saskatchewan government and worked there for five-and-a-half years in international trade promotion.

It was a great gig, but there was this entrepreneurial spirit boiling inside me. When I was 28 years old, and my wife was six months pregnant with our twins, I quit my assistant deputy minister level job in the government and started working out of the basement of our house with a vision to build a lentil processing company and an industry in Canada that would reach the world market.

I am an atypical entrepreneur. I come from five generations of doctors. The expectation, of course, was that I would end up going into a professional career in medicine. Looking back, it was that passion for the rural community that my parents had, and this passion for international connectivity, that drove me in the direction of wanting a career in international business. I credit my parents for my success.

We've done 17 acquisitions to date and one thing I'm very proud of is that, with 15 of those, the management teams are still with us. A lot of those were successful family companies. They sold me 100 per cent and are still working with us. That's highly unusual. We run the business like a family company. Our philosophy is to take what they do best and allow them to concentrate on that, yet provide them with a solid corporate infrastructure. We have a philosophy of empowering people to do what they do best.

People confuse corporate culture with a need for uniformity. We have the opposite view. The world is diverse. As Canadians, our knowledge of diversity and ability to have a harmonious multicultural society gives us an advantage in international business. We just have to get the instinct to bring it home once we get into those markets.

I studied finance in my undergraduate, but also with a concentration in human resources management and industrial relations, which was an odd thing for a finance guy. It has been useful and beneficial to me. It makes me understand that HR is our biggest challenge. Managing people and their expectations is the toughest part of the job. Being responsible for 2,000 families, that's the toughest job I have on a daily basis.

The philosophy we have today with our staff is, "Don't ever be ashamed about the mistake you made, be ashamed about the same mistake you made again." It has been very effective for us. We don't have a culture of fear here around making a mistake. Instead, it's, 'Okay, how do you fix it? How do we make sure that the rest of our family knows the mistake you made so that they don't make the same mistake."

People say, do you ever sleep? To me, sleep is an important element of success in business. If you can't figure out a way to deal with the responsibility and also turn off and rest, you aren't going to be productive.

As told to Brenda Bouw.

This article has been edited and condensed.

‘power tends to take away our steering wheel. So while we are speeding down the highway we crash into things along the way’

Special to Globe and Mail Update