Exceptional, January 2014

IBC Group

A thirst for growth

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Akram Khreis, founder and CEO of International Beverage Consultancy, explains how his company puts fizz into the global drinks industry.

For a soft drinks manufacturing engineer and business leader, it is surprising to learn that Akram Khreis’ favorite drink is water. But then, the German-born entrepreneur with Jordanian parents defies conventions.

His approach to growing his business, for example, is both surprising and refreshing. “I’m goal-orientated, but it’s not about the money,” Khreis explains. “It’s about doing different things, having an impact and creating.

Our philosophy is we sow our seed and we wait.

As a tenacious networker with a gift for spotting opportunities, Khreis has rapidly built up his business, International Beverage Consultancy (IBC), and its client base over the past decade. Dominating market share in the Middle East and Africa, IBC operates in a niche market offering an array of technological, technical, executive and consultancy services to the beverage manufacture and packaging industry.

After only a few minutes in his presence, it is clear Khreis has the demeanor of a man whose success and prospects put him in the highest league of achievers. Wearing an immaculate gray suit and black tie, Khreis sinks back into the large sofa in his office and occasionally leans forward to emphasize a point.

“We are among very few companies in the world doing this,” he says. Indeed, IBC has only three major competitors, two of which have been in the market for 20 years.

Despite this, IBC stands out, Khreis explains, because it is seen as a company that delivers faster than others but with the same level of quality.

Opportunities from challenges

Having studied mechanical engineering in the US, Khreis began his career in the beverage industry in 1997 as an operations manager in Lebanon for one of the biggest soft drinks brands in the world, covering the Middle East and North Africa. It was in this role that he identified a significant niche need in the market for specific ingredients and lubricants used in the bottle-filling industry.

So in 2000, Khreis and a partner launched Original Chem Group with just US$7,000, equivalent to about 30% of the company’s first letter of credit. The company’s first sale of bottle-cleaning additives managed to cover its debt and the business has gradually expanded from there.

But it was his experience of helping to establish a production line for another global drinks brand in Libya that gained Khreis the attention of Krones. At the time, the German bottling and packaging manufacturer was struggling to maintain its business in an increasingly volatile Iraq.

Khreis was able to persuade Krones that his engineers could support it, provided they were trained to Krones’ own exacting standards. A joint venture was established.

“It helps a lot having a German background,” Khreis explains. “Working with a German company is very technical. So if you know the language, it’s an advantage in this industry.”

“The technology started in Germany, home to a major proportion of the [global] bottling industry,” Khreis says. “It was in the hands of a closed group of people, so there was no knowledge transfer. We convinced them to share that knowledge with IBC.”

Out of this deal, IBC, which acts as an umbrella company for a string of joint ventures with international partners, was born and quickly made a name for itself in the global soft drinks industry. Khreis and his team come in before a plant starts operating, supplying designs and directing product development and line specification.

Once equipment is shipped in, IBC helps install, operate and commission a manufacturing line before client handover. If a plant is already up and running with its production, then technical and spare parts assessment, as well as preventive maintenance, help with fine-tuning the production line.

“We [offer] from A to Z. When a client comes to us, he doesn’t just get a product,” says Khreis. “By offering the full spectrum of services, we are a one-stop shop. That is our strength.”

The group, which is now valued at US$100m, operates in 38 countries and has worked on more than 185 projects. It employs about 350 people and expects to add 50 more in 2014. Company value has doubled annually in the past decade, and, he says, “next year, we should grow by another 50%–60%.”

Future growth

“We see a lot of growth opportunities in Africa,” Khreis says “We realized about two years ago that it is a place we should start investing in.” A number of local and global drinks brands have entered the African market in recent years as there is a significantly expanding customer base.

“Today, 90% of our work is in Africa,” he says. “For us, South Africa is a hub. While Angola is growing very strongly, Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia are also important.”

Meanwhile, Khreis says he is always looking into different areas and is keen to break into the US market once regulatory proceedings are complete. “What we learned from working in Africa is that you have to be patient,” Khreis says.

“Our philosophy is: we sow our seed and we wait. Sometimes you do something, but you do not see the effect of it until years later. Patience is a virtue.”

Some of those seeds were established back in 2000 when Khreis was managing operations in Libya, where he built up a network that was to prove crucial when he came to establish and develop IBC outside his domestic market. The company’s phenomenal growth has led admirers to ponder the reasons for its success.

“We are lucky to have a team that bubbles with ideas; that really helps to export success,” he says. “So finding the right people is critical.”

He has often remarked on the importance of what he calls “superstars” in a company. “When you have a superstar, you do everything to keep them. Working with them, you mentor them and support their will to go that extra mile. Do they think outside the box? Do they have that internal passion to succeed in the business?”

Khreis’ management philosophy is simple: “I have an open-door policy. Anybody who feels they have a problem can walk in and discuss it with me.” IBC’s flat management structure fosters trust and good relations between employees and their boss.

Meanwhile, the company has invested heavily in human resources and recruiting and puts candidates through several stages of testing before they are hired. “What we measure here is return on human capital,” Khreis explains.

“When we identify an employee, we invest a lot of money in that person. We look at how we can bring him/her up to the level we need.”

Khreis is set upon combining the benefits of more technological training abroad with Jordan’s pool of human talent. “We’d like to attract new investors in the future in order to go to the next level.”

Always an advocate for networking and getting meetings with people who appear out of reach, Khreis is sanguine about the prospects. “Most entrepreneurs see obstacles. I don’t. You will always find someone who will help you.”

With such a positive outlook and determination, it’s hard to imagine that Khreis won’t succeed.