Iran’s Iron Lady talks about her family and working life.
In September Tejarat Farda (Tomorrow’s Trade), a weekly magazine which mainly focuses on economic and business news, published an interview with a woman it called the Iranian Iron Lady. The following is an excerpt of the interview and its lead which appeared in the 101st issue of the magazine:
Our appointment was at 9 p.m.; she arrived home a few minutes earlier than our appointment time and exhaustion was written all over her face. That’s why she asked us for a short interview. Female entrepreneur Faryal Mostofi, who is originally from Dezful [a city in Khuzestan Province], with her husband run a few national and international firms.
By assuming the executive responsibility of seven out of eight steel projects, she has probably stepped into one of the most challenging managerial eras of her career. She is a member of Tehran Chamber of Commerce, Industries, Mine and Agriculture. She is also the president of Kazeroon-Dez-Dasht (KDD) Company.
Aside from those positions, she is at the helm of a number of Iranian and foreign firms based in England, China, and Hong Kong. Trade, industry and mining are her specialty. The interview below focuses on her career since its early days and on her education, activities, experience, failures and accomplishments. Mrs. Mostofi’s husband Seyyed Reza Ghotb, who has always kept her company at work and in married life, was also on hand for the interview and talked in detail about their everyday family and working life.
As far as I know, you studied economics at university. I hardly know a manager whose academic education has focused on economics. What made you go abroad to study economics?
When I was a primary school student, I planned on having my academic education abroad. I studied at an Italian high school – Soheyl High School – and then I went to England because I knew English and was also familiar with the country. There I chose the University of Manchester.
Back then, engineering courses were popular and subjects like economics were not, especially among girls. Why did you pick economics?
From the very beginning, I wanted to be self-employed. In other words, I sought to set up my own business. I decided to carry on my education in a field which could later help me with management and corporate planning. I thought I had to know management. I believed that if I was a competent manager, good at what I was doing, I could take on engineers in different technical fields. That’s why I wanted to know economics inside out and opted for it. For my master’s degree, I went for economics and statistics and came first in the subject of statistics and was given a gold medal.
A gold medal?!
It is a kind of certificate awarded to a student who has secured perfect scores in a subject, that’s why it’s called gold medal.
What difference between Iranian universities and those abroad made you go for education abroad?
At foreign universities, interactions between professors and university students are different, at least in the past they were very different. I experienced the difference firsthand. After studying at the University of Manchester for a few years, I returned to Iran and for about three years I taught at two different universities.
Since I left high school at 16 and then immediately got a place at university, when I graduated and started teaching at university, I was almost the same age as my students. I treated them like my friends. Back then, I shared an office with an experienced professor and my students came to my office and we talked about different subjects ranging from lessons to life and social matters.
Why did you quit your job at university after three years?
As I told you, from the very beginning, I set my sights on building my own business. When I returned to Iran, I was a graduate with no experience under my belt. I needed to acquire some experience before I stepped into the world of business. Since I have never liked to work under anyone, I applied for the position at the university which offered me more flexibility.
Besides, the 1979 revolution moved into high gear, university students were involved in a frenzy of revolutionary activities. Universities were almost shut down and following the revolution, the actual closure of universities took place. I was not a kind of person who could stand doing nothing, so I left Iran for England.
Did you manage to start your business in England?
That’s what I did. I established a business there. Given my interest in management, I entered the field of management. Business by itself was unable to gratify me, and I was more after project management. It was 1983 when solar energy was new and AEG (Allgemeine Elektricitäts- Gesellschaft Aktiengesellschaft [General Electricity Company]) was working on it. I went to Germany and held talks with the company and developed an interest in this field.
One of the reasons why solar energy caught my attention was that Iran is a sunny country and enjoys a lot of regions which are suitable to harness this source of power. We also carried out some projects in the Middle East and Africa. One and a half years after the opening of my business in England, I set up a branch in Paris.
When did you come back to Iran? Did you face any difficulty?
In the meantime, of course, I traveled to Iran from time to time, but I liked to be able to be based in Iran. Even when I was studying abroad, I kept thinking about returning home and serving my country.
When the [Iran-Iraq] war came to an end and the stage was set for economic activities, and the so-called Reconstruction Period got underway, we returned to Iran. Of course, prior to my return, I had been told that things were not set for business, and women faced numerous difficulties and limitations. However, no door was closed to me; I was back and started my own business. Since I set up my first business in Iran 20 years ago, I have not come across any major problem.
What was the first business you set up in Iran?
A few months after my return to Iran, my husband and I founded KDD (Kazeroon-Dez-Dasht) Company.
To what extent did your husband’s presence play a role in your accomplishments?
My husband was the one who encouraged me; a helper and a colleague. As a matter of fact, I think no one else except him could have been my husband. We established the business together and worked together. In some companies, I am the CEO and my husband is the chairman of the board and in others the reverse is true.
Considering your dislike for working under someone, what are you like as a boss?
You should ask this question of my employees, but in my relationship with my employees, regardless of their position, I have avoided behaviors which I did not like others display in dealing with me. I believe that in a company we do team work. Every individual in the company has special expertise, and I need all of my employees. I never say I am the boss and things should be the way I want them to be. My company’s atmosphere is so welcoming and friendly.
What got you so involved in steel industry? Your firm has been assigned seven major steel projects?
My firm focuses on project management and we manage projects in different fields, but since I have worked on a considerable number of projects in connection with steel and mining, I have mastered such projects. In other words, we have not chosen to work just on steel projects. Our field of activity could have been any other industry, including oil, natural gas or cement.
The first project that we secured two years after our return to Iran was a coke production project in Zarand [a city in Kerman Province]. The next project was at Isfahan Steel Mill in which we offered the lowest bid to reconstruct its furnace and won the contract.
Weren’t you concerned about taking over a project that you did not specialize in?
No! We specialized in project management not in implementation of it. Besides, we have foreign partners who help us get things down. Another thing is that the technology adopted in the steel sector is not domestic. What’s more is that we have a consortium which is responsible for different aspects of projects, including technical matters, and providing the equipment necessary.
You should bear in mind that in such projects management is more important. There are a few companies in the world that make iron melting furnaces, so you have a limited range of choices in front of you and it’s the point where you should negotiate confidently and mange things at a reasonable cost and with high efficiency.
How do you make partners with foreign businesses?
Part of it comes down to our work background and the connections that we have developed over these years. Another thing is that I am completely above board in my negotiations. I have never sought to make an uncertain comment to get a company involved in a project. We make comments without pulling punches and say no frankly. Whenever I assume responsibility for a task, I am after reasonable benefits. I do not like to do a project which results in losses – which might happen at times – nor do I seek to make astronomical profits.
What is the contribution of Chinese firms to such projects? It is said that you are adept at negotiating with Chinese companies!
As I told you before, I do not mince my words. Holding talks with Chinese firms is so tough, because they do not give you a frank response. If they want to turn you down, they keep you waiting for ages. However, I know well how I should negotiate with them.
As for the steel projects for which China provided finance, it’s typical to import 60 percent of the equipment from the country which bankrolls the project. Nevertheless, with a great deal of attempts through negotiations, we pushed it down to 50 percent, so that Iran can get a 50 percent share. For some projects, we have raised Iran’s share of equipment provision to 80 percent. Although Chinese firms have financed the project, they have only a 20-percent cut.
Do you know Chinese? Of course, it can help you in marathon talks with the Chinese!
No, I do not know the language. I am fluent in English; and know French and Arabic to some extent.
Time management is of great importance to a manager. You are at the helm of a number of firms and projects and aside from your responsibilities at work, you have other commitments at home. What time do you get up and start your day?
In our house, we get up at either 6 or 6:30 in the morning. If I do not have an early morning meeting, I prefer to stay home for an hour or two to take care of some personal matters. I will leave home for work at 9 or 9:30 a.m. Mind you, during the time I am at home, I receive some business phone calls from abroad or other local firms. My working time is supposed to end at 4 p.m. However, my work never finishes on time and even if it does, I won’t return home at that time to avoid rush hour traffic. I often leave work for home at either 8 or 9 at night when my workload lightens and traffic thins.
What newspaper do you usually read?
As for national papers, I read Iran and Donyay-e Eghtesad. My husband and I read the weekly journal of Tejarat Farda. I take a cursory look at the headlines of other publications too. I must say that when I am at work, I do not have much time to read newspapers, that’s why I usually take them home. I am used to reading at bedtime and have a flick through papers and try to cherry-pick the best reports and read them.
Do you read foreign newspapers?
Yes, I read The Times and International Herald Tribune on the Internet.
Given your busy schedule, do you read books?
Yes, I should always have a book to read. Whenever the number of books that I have not read goes down, I will add more books to them in order not to run out of books. That’s why I always have books which I can plan on reading.
What’s your favorite sport?
Swimming, tennis and horse riding are my favorites.
Ms. Mostofi, what kind of perfume do you usually wear?
Italian perfume is my favorite.
Are you more interested in Iranian or foreign food?
I like them both. I am interested in variety. Kebab is my favorite among Iranian dishes. I must point out that I often skip lunch or eat little food at noon. My main meal of the day is dinner.
How long have you been living in this house?
Mr. Ghotb: We bought this house before the Revolution, in 1976 to be exact. We were abroad for a few years and the house was empty. We love it. It is secure and the facilities necessary are close by, plus the location of the house allows easy access to different parts of the city.
For the time being, how many firms are under your management?
Four or five. But it is worth noting that they are not all active at the same level. KDD Company, which manages the steel projects, is the most active one.
Are all these companies active in the field of industry or trade? Are you also active in investment?
Mr. Ghotb: It has been a while since we bought 48 percent of the Mehdiabad Mine’s shares. The mine, which is located in Mehriz – a city in Yazd Province – is the largest mine of lead and zinc in Iran. As for deposits, it might be the world’s second largest zinc mine. However, the degree of zinc purity in this mine is low and it is not like that of the Angooran Mine – a zinc mine in Zanjan Province. That’s why the process of exploitation is costly.
Who owns the remaining 52 percent of shares?
Mr. Ghotb: Twenty-five percent of the shares are purchased by the Australians which they have delegated to Omani contractors. An Iranian-Austrian company is the owner of the other 25 percent. The remaining two percent of the shares are owned by two Iranian companies, but our company is the main shareholder.
At what stage is the exploitation of the mine?
Mr. Ghotb: The process of exploration is complete, so its deposits are known. Exploitation comes in tandem with building a factory in the vicinity of the mine. Overall, the mine needs some $1 billion in investment. It is located in a protected area and we made a lot of efforts to get an exploration license from the Environment Protection Organization. Another major issue is the water supply. Fortunately, we made a contract for water supply and need to lay 100 kilometers of pipeline. We have also signed a contract for the construction of power lines.
So, the mine is yet to be operational and turn a profit.
Mr. Ghotb: The exploitation process is also one of the expensive stages and because the purity of zinc in this mine is low, to have it extracted, we need to adopt a special technology which is employed by a few firms in the world.
How long do you think it will take to have the mine operational?
Mr. Ghotb: I think it will take us another three years to get there.
Which banks do you usually work with?
Mostly Mellat and Saderat. I must say that we have not taken out any loans from Iranian banks at all, whereas we have received some from banks abroad. On no account have we applied for a loan from an Iranian bank and we will never ask for it in the future, but we have been told by our friends that it’s a lengthy process.
Do you run the other four firms from the KDD head office?
Yes, of course, each of them has its own CEO who gets things done and sends us reports at the final stage. These firms are often run by our family. For instance, my brother is the CEO of one of these companies. Nonetheless, our focus is more on KDD and its projects. We also have companies in China, Hong Kong and England. These firms carry on the business that we started in the past. The enterprises in China and Hong Kong support our projects in Iran.