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A vision for the private sector: unity and innovation

Q&A with Nicolas Boukather, newly elected president of RDCL

by Thomas Schellen

The Rassemblement de Dirigeants et Chefs d’entreprises Libanais (RDCL) is one of several assemblies for corporate leaders of Lebanon. On June 30, 2021 the RDCL elected a new board, led by Nicolas Boukather as the president of the venerable organization that has stood since the 1980s for representation of free enterprises, private ownership, economic lobbying, and the improvement of the economy. Executive was eager to understand the RDCL’s new direction and the new president obliged us by consenting to an extensive interlocution.

I was very curious about one statement that you just made during our mutual introductions, which was that we have to start changing with ourselves. So I presume from this that, as an organization and as individuals, the members of RDCL are cognizant of this need for internal change of themselves. How do you expect to go about it, is it possible at all to have energy for working on own improvement in a time when everybody is fighting for survival?

Yes. And in order to have that energy, we have to think about the future and not only about the past. It is normal to start talking about the past whenever you have a crisis. Just think about a married couple that argues about what happened and caused a problem. But before trying to mediate this discussion, [we need] to think about tomorrow. Think about the coming five years. Think 10 years [ahead]. [Editor’s note: Boukather proceeds to play a video of the new RDCL message].

I understand that you recently convened a historic meeting where you presented and discussed this message of thinking about tomorrow. Is it correct that this meeting for the election of a new RDCL board was groundbreaking in terms of length, content, and outcome?

Yes. The meeting ran for a full day on June 30. It started at 8:30 in the morning and ended at 7:30 at night.

But the main idea is to engage people within the country. And this is exactly what I started doing. RDCL is not only about the president, it’s also about people in RDCL who are tremendously educated. Really, you have people inside of RDCL that need somewhere to express themselves to create change. This was expressed also in the meeting and the number of people who came to listen and see this core message and elect our new board and president; there was a quorum of 98 percent of the 154 members. This is huge, given the actual circumstance when companies are really falling apart and people are obliged to focus on saving their own lives and companies. But they came and they voted. And they elected three men and three women [to comprise the new board]. Many of [our members] are getting engaged, and we’re happy to follow the lead and take action. [Shortly after the board election] we confirmed our new structure and started to write down new bylaws for RDCL with the support of specialists in the fields. So concerning the vision and mission of RDCL our work is in progress.

Beyond the video message that you have just shown us, is there something that you can already share about the new vision and mission of the RDCL?

The vision of a businessman and the mission of a business movement has to be modified to accompany the new Lebanon we aspire for. I am thus looking at RDCL [from the perspective of] rebuilding a new organization. I believe that RDCL became a startup. Whenever you have a startup, it means you may have to pivot. Or, if a company has failed to pivot, but has a name that is a very strong name and has a history where it has done a lot, [you work with that]. You should know that RDCL was established in 1986 when the country was in total collapse. RDCL wanted to unite all the business people – this was the mission – around liberalism, equality of chances and to have a role to play. This mission wasn’t fully achieved. So the new vision has to include the concept of connecting members, [mitigating] disputes, building the future, and bridging with other organizations. [In the vision] there is also a really strong message advocating social and economic roadmaps and innovating SMEs. It’s an organization of people belonging to companies. [The companies work] in different private sectors but the people are on all levels of their companies, not just CEOs.

About two years ago, in August 2019, the Business Roundtable, an influential group of corporate leaders in the United States, announced that they had rewritten their definition of “The purpose of the firm.” The previous definition that they had used since the late 1980s had been the one of shareholder interests, but any corporations shifted their thinking to be more aligned with ideas of stakeholder capitalism. It was something of a conceptual revolution of corporatism. In their annual Davos meeting in early 2020, the World Economic Forum also released a declaration on stakeholder capitalism. What is the definition of the firm that the RDCL uses?

The United Nations are very clear about the importance of [environmental, social, and governance] ESG standards and about implementing the [sustainable development goals] SDGs. I believe that SDGs should be not only advocated but implemented. Today this is more easily said than done, given the collapse [of the economy]. However, I believe that the great reset on how to reset Lebanon after everything has dropped, might happen if we lead by example. So if we lead by example, this might be a chance, an opportunity for Lebanon, to build back stronger. By what you call a prototype or a pilot, Lebanon in this case can be a pilot project for the world, but we need achievable projects and governance. SDGs can [be realized] in leapfrogging the ecosystem of innovation. Lebanon can be a pilot project, and [countries] can learn from their mistakes and use the same model afterwards. 

But besides the ESG and SDG targets, how do you view the idea that under stakeholder capitalism the purpose of the firm relates not primarily to shareholder gains but to the inclusive benefit of all employees and external stakeholders, from customers to ancillary organizations and society at large?

[I want to give] you my personal experience. I’ve had the chance to know Michael Porter who has redefined the future of corporate values, calling it CSV, the corporate social value. And this is where we talk about stakeholders around the company. I had a chance to get Michael Porter’s insights on the corporate social side, the CSV, and he was explaining to me the move from [corporate social responsibility] CSR to CSVs. So to answer the question, it is not the CSR, which we all know, but it’s the CSVs [that matter]. 

When discussing the role of RDCL as industrial lobby organization, would you consider an aspiration such as becoming a universal corporate forum, quasi a World Economic Forum on Lebanon level, meaning an organization where membership is by invitation so that corporations can be members, including their C level executives, but also certain outsiders such as civil society leaders and thought leaders? Does your vision include plans to lobby for a legal model of social enterprises in Lebanon, which are considered as beneficial companies but where currently no specific incorporation and registration status exists?

What you’re saying is absolutely right. However, we need to not oversell. My fear in life is to say something not right. I know what you’re saying is correct because I accompanied many entrepreneurs in trying to create comprehensive [social] choices, and the law does not provide for it. One mission of RDCL would be to give them the opportunity to have this [social enterprise] choice. And in response to the first part of your question: of course, I invite NGOs and CSOs to join as members. And at the end of the day, their engagement is huge. Also a lot of publishing has been done on so many topics. Here I want to salute the work that has been done by my predecessors after the war when the RDCL created groups of propositions. So just to explain [options for memberships from civil society], the structure exists. They just need to knock on the door to come in.

RDCL is a well-known organization of industrial leaders but there are other lobby groups and sectoral business organizations. Would RDCL seek a role to be a sort of umbrella for more specialized associations, for example the insurance association ACAL or the automobile importers’ association, or arbiter between different other industry groups that sometimes seems to even compete for influence in Lebanon?

I on purpose do not use the term arbiter because I understand the difficulty of arbitration in cases where you have power. I have two terms that I use instead of arbitration. The first term is to “lead by example”. The second term is “we don’t want to take credit.” [As president of] RDCL I don’t want to take personal credit for anything that will happen on my watch. It doesn’t have to be credited. But what I want to put on the table is the idea of dialogs between disciplines, that idea of, say, discussing with each other, opening the door to negotiation. An example might be to have a neutral place for [two parties] to come for dialog. And if we know or don’t know [what is said], we don’t care. But what we care about is not taking credit. Then a lot of things will happen.

How high is the risk in your assessment, that RDCL will face challenges where people would try aligning the organization with a political camp? We have seen different partisanships of economic organizations in the past.

Very good question. You know, I am an entrepreneur, and when you launch a startup, you have 1 percent chance of succeeding, correct? I would like to say it this way, that we have a 1 percent chance of succeeding. Is it worthwhile doing it? I think, Yes.

Will the business model of RDCL change? Or what model of funding the organization will you pursue?

That I can answer directly. Today companies in Lebanon are tired, financially tired. There are fees to [be paid] by members of RDCL [and these] will continue. [But] increasing the fees is not at all our plan. We cannot ask them for more. It’s impossible. However, this is not enough to finance our plan, which is very ambitious. The idea is to create what we will call “Friends of RDCL.” But a very diligent process will happen to make sure there are no conflicts of interest.

The description of “Friends of RDCL” evokes in my mind an association with the Friends of Lebanon conferences of past decades. Will there be an investment element in the friends of RDCL? Will this group be purely donation oriented or will it offer things such as sponsorship with name recognition?

I think that people want to help without being recognized; they just need to believe in the mission. I think requirements will be set and clearly defined, the audit process will happen. This is why we have four subcommittees on the board. One of them is the governance committee.

What you are saying is that governance will be very important. Can you give us the info on the other committees?

The four committees to be created are the membership committee, the governance, the audit committee, [and the] fundraising committee. When you believe in something, you need to support it. And we’re willing to welcome corporate donors or international donors in order to support us financially while we are dealing with the mission that we have started on and for which we have a four-year plan. [Our goal] in terms of numbers would be to, after that time, finance [activities] from the membership fees and I would maybe want that dollars in the bank to be different from the dollars we have now.

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Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail

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