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Hundreds gathered to hear imparted wisdom from the world’s richest man; Mexican-Lebanese entrepreneur Carlos Slim at the American University of Beirut Wednesday.
Speaking on his successful career and business experience spanning over 50 years during a lecture titled “The New Civilization of Knowledge and Technology,” Slim said his trip had shown Lebanon to be a promising country for development.
Born in Mexico in 1940 to a Lebanese father from Jezzine, Slim was named the world’s wealthiest tycoon by US business magazine Forbes last week, overtaking Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates with his $53.5 billion fortune.
“However, there are areas of problem in this country such as electricity and telecommunications,” he told the American University of Beirut’s Olayan Business School. “I believe both should be open for private investment,” he added, receiving rapturous applause from the packed-out auditorium.
Slim acquired Mexico’s state telephone company in a 1990 privatization, spinning off American Mobil to become the world’s No.4 wireless operator. Having made his millions in the telephone industry, Slim lamented the poor state of Lebanon’s own telecommunications sector.
“Phone prices are very high, which is unfortunately not matched by quality. Selling parts off to private companies may fix some of the problems in service,” Slim said, without elaborating.
Addressing a problem both developing countries Lebanon and Mexico face, Slim said the two must fight growing problems of poverty with greater job opportunities for young people and early education. “Education, education, education is the main support of any society,” Slim said while praising the high standard of teaching at AUB.
Slim then noted Lebanon’s rich history rooted in industry and trade: “It started with exports, and the Phoenicians traveling through Byblos show how society can be developed through technical advances.
“Lebanon needs to start to expand and become more global, but like most small countries it cannot do this with plane or steel factories, it must go global in a way that is good for them.”
The self-made billionaire credited his father as the single biggest inspiration on his career. A Lebanese immigrant who left the Middle East in the early 1900s, Julian Slim Haddad taught Carlos his first lessons in business, while opening the “Star of the Orient” general store – named in honor of his homeland – and buying properties cheap during the Mexican Revolution.
“My father was part of the first wave of immigrants from Lebanon. He didn’t speak any Spanish when he moved, but used a keen business acumen to build a life in Mexico,” he said.
Slim stressed that media reports of possible investment deals in Lebanon remain open, but the primary reason for his visit was to explore his heritage.
Arriving last Thursday in Beirut for his second visit to Lebanon since 1964, the magnate said: “The trip has been very important and very emotional. I came not to see my country but to know it. I feel an affinity [with the Lebanese] and their great characteristics are maintained even after four or five generations.”
When asked about what role the Lebanese disapora should play, Slim said: “They should come back more often than tourists do and not lose the spirit of the country.”
A widower with six children, Slim has handed over the daily operations of his companies to his sons, who he hopes will one day visit Lebanon.
Unlike most of the super-wealthy on the Forbes’ list, Slim enjoys a low-key family lifestyle: living in the same house for almost 40 years and driving an ageing Mercedes Benz.
“Well we leave here with nothing,” he said during Wednesday’s lecture. “A greatness of wealth is only temporary … it is not the only measure of success.”