In 1970, when Mona Bawarshi made her way down to the Port of Beirut for her first day of work, she was in a minority of one.
“I think I must have been the only woman in an administrative position in the whole of that building,” she says. “My looks were unfamiliar, and my gender was completely out of context.”
However, Bawarshi was nothing if not well-prepared. She was, after all, joining the family firm run by her father, Abdul Salam Bou Azza El Gezairi. He set up the company, Gezairi Transport, back in 1945, and it quickly grew to become the Levant’s best-known shipping, logistics and freight forwarding outfit.
As her father’s only child, Bawarshi knew all along — in fact from elementary school upwards — that she was destined to work at Gezairi Transport. After completing her MBA she found herself working at the port, but in very different circumstances to which the industry now finds itself in. There were no computers, no warehouses, no containers and certainly no training manuals, meaning that she had to learn on the job, just like everyone else.
“I was nervous about the location, about the kind of work, but not nervous about the company — climbing up the ladder was the obvious solution, but I had to earn it,” Bawarshi says. “Back then, there was no way you could go to the internet and find out about the size of containers — how much you could put inside, and how to stack — it was all trial and error.
“Now you can learn in universities — they have degrees that specialise in this area. And after 43 years, I’m still there — I’m stuck with them and they are stuck with me.”
The genial chairwoman and CEO of Gezairi Transport may be “stuck” with the company, but it looks like she has done a pretty good job over the course of the last four decades or so. The privately-owned company is headquartered in Beirut, but also has five offices in Syria, three in Iraq, two in Jordan, two in Turkey and a further site in Limassol, Cyprus.
It has expanded its services from shipping, air freight and freight forwarding to include activities such as projects and heavy lift work, packing and moving, and warehousing and distribution. Altogether, there are eleven companies now operating under the Gezairi brand. As a result of her work, Bawarshi was named in 81st position on the 100 most influential women in the Arab world earlier this year.
But it wasn’t always easy. One of the firm’s key attributes was the fact that it was based in Beirut, a key transshipment hub for cargo that came into the port and was then off-loaded onto trucks that carried the freight from Lebanon to other areas of the Levant, plus Iraq and even the Gulf. As Gezairi Transport expanded, it quickly took the lion’s share of business.
“We became the authority in the Middle East,” Bawarshi recalls. “We had competitors in each individual country, but as a group we had no competitors.”
As a result, Gezairi was able to pick up significant business from the likes of the old USSR, where companies preferred to deal with a unified logistics provider, instead of signing up contracts with a raft of different outfits.
“I gained so much trust in myself that I used to tell clients when they first came to be interviewed that ‘you will be back’ [after speaking to Gezairi’s competitors],” Bawarshi says. “And they did. But things change, the market isn’t like it was when we were kings. You have to continue having a competitive edge.”
Bawarshi was also instrumental in bringing in new technologies to Gezairi’s operations.
“The first computer came in as an accounting system,” she says. “Another programme that I bought — which was during my father’s era — taught us how to properly stack trucks. You’d feed in the sizes of the boxes that you have, and it would give you the optimum loading. That was something. This was impressive at the time, but now it’s our bread and butter — it’s common.”
But other changes at Gezairi were brought about as a result of the long history of civil unrest in Lebanon. At one point in the 1970s, Beirut’s port was taken over by militias, forcing companies present at the facility to operate under their terms.
“We relocated,” says Bawarshi. “We didn’t want to work in this situation, and the port area was very, very dangerous. So we stopped working there, and moved our shipping agency over to Latakia, in Syria, where we have offices.”