Olayan Sisters Surface Among Wealthiest Women in Saudi Arabia – Bloomberg Business
In her Saudi Arabia homeland, Lubna Olayan can’t drive, show her hair in public or leave the country without her husband’s permission. She can, however, run one of the nation’s biggest conglomerates.
A former analyst at J.P. Morgan, Olayan oversees the Middle East operations of Olayan Group, a diversified company founded by her father in 1947. With 15,000 employees and 50 affiliated companies, the Athens-based business is active in almost every sector of the Saudi economy including oilfield services, steel and fast food.
She’s one of a small number of women “in the elite gulf business scene that turn out to be the brightest and particularly suited, so chosen by their fathers to run the business,” said David Butter, a Middle East business analyst and fellow at Chatham House in London.
Olayan, 59, helps manage 40 closely held companies and joint ventures as well as more than $4.4 billion in publicly traded Saudi equities, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. In 2004, she became the first woman to be elected to the board of a Saudi company, Saudi Hollandi Bank, in which an Olayan Group division has a 21.8 percent stake.
During her tenure, the company formed an agreement to provide logistics services to Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil exporter, and one of its joint ventures was chosen as the lead developer of a technology hub at the King Abdullah Economic City project outside Jeddah.
Through a joint venture with The Weir Group, they are one of the country’s biggest makers of tubular oilfield equipment. Their food division is the master franchise-holder for Burger King in the Middle East and North Africa. They manufacture aluminum, steel and plastics while also being the local producer of Kleenex, Coca-Cola and Huggies diapers.
Based on its disclosed equity holdings, property investments and three of its closely-held businesses, Olayan Group is valued at more than $10 billion, making billionaires of its late founder’s four children, Khaled, Hayat, Hutham and Lubna Olayan, and widow, American-born Mary Perdikis Olayan, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. None of them have ever appeared individually on an international wealth ranking.
In Saudi Arabia, family businesses are often passed onto the second generation in accordance with Islamic law, whereby sons receive twice as much as daughters. A person familiar with the group who asked not to be identified because the information is private, said in this case it’s probable that the assets are shared equally by the five beneficiaries.
Tony Kutayli, a spokesman for Olayan Group, disputed the valuation and declined to provide further details.
While all four siblings are Olayan Group board members, sisters Lubna and Hutham are its most visible public faces. As chief executive officer of the group’s Riyadh-based Middle East division, Olayan Financing Co., Lubna is the most prominent female executive in a country where women make up just 16 percent of the workforce, according to Saudi Arabia’s Central Department of Statistics and Information.
Olayan, who met her American husband while studying at Cornell University, began working as a financial analyst at J.P. Morgan in New York after getting an MBA from Indiana University. She joined the family business in 1983 at the behest of her father, Suliman Olayan. It was an abrupt transition to Riyadh, where few women worked, but she had the benefit of her father’s mentorship.
An orphan from modest means, Suliman Olayan’s rise to riches was notable for his lack of blood ties to the Saudi royal family. He began working as a dispatcher for the predecessor company of Saudi Aramco at age 19. When the business started working on a major pipeline 10 years later, Olayan mortgaged his house for $4,000, bought a few trucks and won a contract to help build it.
His contracting company became the foundation for what evolved into the Olayan Group. Like many family-owned companies in Saudi Arabia at the time, it grew by providing services to the mushrooming oil industry as well as a modernizing population. Through Olayan’s partnerships, Saudis got access to Colgate toothpaste, Oreos and Coca-Cola.
In 1961, Olayan began buying stakes in major U.S. equities to use as credit with U.S. banks that wouldn’t loan against his Saudi assets, according to a 2013 speech given by his daughter, Hutham. The company’s holdings now include an interest in U.K. utility National Grid, a $700 million property portfolio in Paris and 5.5 percent of Credit Suisse Group AG, a stake acquired in 2011.
Olayan’s global reach is to be expected for a company that’s in part a private equity firm, said David Butter of Chatham House.
“It’s an old company, it’s been around a long time and in the 60s and 70s there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for M&A in the Gulf,” Butter said. “So they gravitated toward the opportunities.”
When Suliman Olayan died in 2002 at age 83, his only son, Khaled, was named Olayan Group chairman. Lubna has headed up its Middle East division, OFC, for more than a decade.
Their sister Hutham is Lubna’s counterpart in the U.S., overseeing the group’s investments in North and South America, including multifamily properties in Maryland and Virginia. In 1987, she became the first Saudi woman to join the board of a major U.S. public company, Thermo Electron Corp., now part of Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. A director at Morgan Stanley, she’s based in New York, where Olayan America has a Park Avenue office.
The Olayan sisters have been quietly supportive of discussions in Saudi Arabia about the role of women and their limited freedoms. The family funds several organizations in Saudi Arabia focused on health care and education.
“Make no mistake — I am neither a radical feminist nor a proponent of artificially putting women in positions,” Lubna said in a 2004 speech to the Arab Bankers Association of North America in New York. “I am a proponent, though, of a system in which opportunities are ‘gender neutral’ and of a true meritocracy that sees the right person in the right position for the right reasons, regardless of gender.”