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Follow The Leader: Mohamad Sami Ballout, CEO, AWJ Mohamad Sami Ballout -the post- acquisition appointed CEO of AWJ- says that the Kitopi team decided to make it a point to respect the legacy and culture of the acquired organization from the outset.

By Tamara Pupic

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

Sami Ballout, CEO of AWJ

This article is a part of the 2023 edition of Entrepreneur Middle East's annual Follow The Leader series, in which enterprise head honchos from the region talk strategy, industry-specific tactics, and professional challenges as they lead their respective businesses to success.

When the UAE-born tech-powered, multi-brand restaurant Kitopi acquired food and beverage group AWJ (which has developed some of the Middle East's most popular dine-in brands, like Operation Falafel, Catch 22, Awani, and Sushi Do), it was clearly stated that the former's aim was to take this regional brand global. And to achieve this ambitious goal, Mohamad Sami Ballout -the post- acquisition appointed CEO of AWJ- says that the Kitopi team decided to make it a point to respect the legacy and culture of the acquired organization from the outset.

"Taking the helm of AWJ post-acquisition was an interesting yet challenging venture," Sami Ballout says. "To successfully manage this transition, my approach was two-pronged: fostering an open communication culture, and establishing mutual trust and respect. Understanding that every member of the AWJ team had invaluable insights and perspectives about the organization's workings, I actively sought to hear their thoughts, concerns, and suggestions. We conducted town halls, team meetings, and one-on-one conversations, not only to discuss our new vision and goals, but also to listen and learn. This inclusive approach allowed us to build an environment where everyone felt valued, heard, and more comfortable with the change."

AWJ's acquisition by Kitopi has been billed as one of the largest in the region's F&B space, and it is one of a series of 18 acquisitions that the Kitopi team has done over the last few years. In an interview with Entrepreneur Middle East, Kitopi CEO Mohamad Ballout said that he decided to retain AWJ's original team and operate it as a separate vertical to Kitopi's on-demand business, given the large size of the acquiree's business. Since opening its first outlet in Dubai in 2014, AWJ has expanded its portfolio to more than 10 brands (delivery and dine-in), and over 32 outlets across the UAE and KSA, franchises in New York and London, and more than 1,300 employees.

"What we've seen is that with smaller acquisitions, you can integrate teams much faster," Sami Ballout explains. "However, with a business the size of AWJ, especially one that is growing rapidly, the right approach is for them to maintain independence, so they can continue to move fast." Sami Ballout reiterates here that his first decision when starting out on his role at AWJ post the Kitopi buy-out was to work on merging the unique identities of both companies into a shared culture. "This was dealt with by developing common goals that resonated with both teams," he explains. "Reflecting on this journey, the biggest lesson I learned is that change can be a catalyst for growth if managed with empathy, clear communication, and inclusivity. Merging two cultures doesn't mean erasing one to fit the other; instead, it's about combining the strengths of both to create a stronger, more vibrant, and inclusive organization culture that everyone is proud to be a part of."

Mohamad Sami Ballout and the AWJ team. Source: AWJ

Of course, Kitopi already has plenty to pat itself on the back about- after all, it has experienced uber growth since launching as a cloud kitchen in Dubai in 2018. Kitopi now runs over 100 brands with more than 5,000 employees across offices in KSA, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain, who operate over 200 locations across five markets. It also has an engineering hub in Krakow, Poland, a global customer experience center in Dubai, UAE, and a robotics hub in Odense, Denmark. It also has the honor of being known as the first UAE-headquartered company to get funded by SoftBank'sVision Fund 2 in 2021, which allowed it to also attain unicorn status.

Sami Ballout's work is now thus focused on building upon Kitopi's success so far. "Motivating and managing AWJ as a part of the Kitopi brand revolves around keeping our vision and values aligned, while recognizing and celebrating the uniqueness of each brand," he says. "AWJ's portfolio includes a diverse range of vibrant food and beverage concepts, each with its distinct identity and strengths. Our goal is to ensure that these brands continue to thrive, innovate, and deliver unique culinary experiences to our customers, while benefiting from the resources and operational efficiencies that Kitopi offers."

Since the acquisition, AWJ has achieved a few milestones, including doubling of daily delivery orders, and expanding into Saudi Arabia. As for the road ahead, Sami Ballout will strive to continue this growth trajectory by further solidifying the brand's presence in existing markets, while also exploring new ones. "Our focus will be on enhancing our delivery infrastructure, expanding our brand portfolio, and innovating our culinary offerings," he says. "Additionally, we aim to leverage digital transformation for improved customer experiences, operational efficiency, and data-driven decision-making. In terms of team motivation, it is crucial to remember that our people are the driving force behind our successes."

From a personal perspective, Sami Ballout says that his leadership strategy is based on celebrating both big wins and small victories, acknowledging individual and team contributions, and ensuring a positive, inclusive, and growth-oriented work environment. " I believe in leading by example," he declares. "I strive to imbibe these qualities and reflect them in my interactions and decisions. My mantra is 'innovate, inspire, and impact.' I aim to bring innovative solutions, inspire my team towards achieving our goals, and make a positive impact through our work."

Mohamad Sami Ballout, CEO of AWJ.

TREP TALK: Mohamad Sami Ballout's tips for business leaders

Practice empathy "A great leader understands the emotions and perspectives of their team members. It's crucial to create an environment where everyone feels heard and valued. This leads to enhanced teamwork and collaboration."

Have a vision "A leader needs to have a clear vision, and be able to effectively communicate it to their team. This involves setting clear expectations, defining goals, and ensuring everyone is on the same page. It helps in aligning individual efforts towards a common objective."

Showcase resilience "A journey in leadership is filled with ups and downs. It's vital to remain resilient and persistent, especially in challenging times. This not only helps in overcoming obstacles, but also serves as an inspiration for the team."

Build a learning attitude "A good leader is always open to learning and growth. This involves not just self-improvement, but also encouraging a learning culture within the team. It promotes innovation, skill development, and a positive work environment."

Related: Follow The Leader: Dena Almansoori, Founder And CEO, Whitebox HR, And Group Chief Human Resources Officer, e&

Tamara Pupic

Entrepreneur Staff

Managing Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East

Tamara Pupic is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Middle East.

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