George Frem, who passed away in May after a valiant battle with illness, will be remembered as an astute businessman, a pioneering Lebanese industrialist, a philanthropist, and a political idealist. Many have written about the business empire he created, but few have talked about the man behind it. It is very difficult for me to write this piece with any degree of detachment as his family are dear friends.
What was striking about George Frem was the personal involvement and passion he put into everything he did. He put people first, not only in his business ventures, but also in his family life, where he always kept a firm focus on solidifying the unity of the family and its business interests. Another laudable trait of this most generous and low-profile man was his modesty and sense of identity. He was a genuine patriot and when he was appointed Minister of Industry, I went to his Paris hotel to congratulate him. Right away, my traditional cynicism about Lebanon was humbled. The man radiated hope and belief in the country and its youth. He always reminded me that the future of Lebanon rests “on you, the next generation, free from sectarianism and working for your country.” I found his idealism refreshing, but worried that his ethics and sense of good governance would run up against the ugly realities of Lebanese political life.
Yet he always felt that in business, his 6,000 or so employees were the ones doing it all and that the most important thing was to keep Lebanon alive. He acknowledged that the system had broken but that the rebuilding was in our hands. How I wish his vision was shared by more people, for George Frem, through his ventures in Saudi Arabia, where he began his professional life, and later in the US and South America, raised the profile of Lebanon, always driven by an inner force of love and respect for his country and friends.
Starting out small
It wasn’t always easy. George Frem started his career working in Saudi Arabia, at a time when air conditioning was a far-off luxury, and well before the name Frem meant so much in the paper and packaging business. Yet the group he built managed to position itself among the most well run and financially strong groups in the region, with revenues of well over $1 billion.
While the group was built almost entirely in an organic manner, he did resort to joint ventures and outright buyouts in some of the global enterprises. His most visible brand in Lebanon, Sanita, has been a genuine success story, challenging world leaders in both quality and market share, while the Indevco group of companies is run along international standards the world over. So, in many respects, Mr. Frem was running a large family business which grew into an impressive global concern. Many of the key executives were sent to blue chip executive programs in order to help the transition from a pure family business into a small multinational
On the many occasions when I corresponded with him, having lost hope in the country, he would have a contagious, upbeat attitude and spirit possessing an almost limitless optimism for the potential of the Lebanese people. We have lost another great man, and it is up to us to make sure that the country he loved so much remains a viable state, a melting pot of cultures, and an incubator for successful business ideas and the virtue of hard work. And while I hope his businesses will continue to flourish, it is his human and humane qualities that will surely be missed most.
George Frem (1943-2006)