Age is a determining factor in the appointment of a CEO. The role is often the culmination of the career of a company or industry veteran with the experience to do it well. In rare cases, however, the energy, drive and hunger of youth can carry someone to the top floor much sooner. From a young age, Roland Salameh was destined to make a splash in business.
Throughout his childhood, he was exposed to the inner workings of his family’s company. “When I was 19, the business went bankrupt,” he recalls. “I had to help them manage the situation, which gave me a lot of experience.”
Armed with a taste of both sides of fortune’s coin, Roland landed a job at BMB Group, a conglomerate with a heavy presence in the Middle East and North Africa. “I was working in Algeria, which was a challenging environment, but I had a great manager who became my role model,” he says.
“So from all these experiences, I took a piece of each and constituted my character.” After a year with the firm, Roland made his move. “My manager, the country CEO, had resigned, so I took the opportunity to ask the general CEO to give me the challenge,” he says. Roland proposed a six-month probation.
“If it worked, perfect. If not, I’d resign,” he shrugs. The CEO respected Roland’s hardball approach and appreciated his motivation. “I had a plan to transform the business, to grow it, and I knew how do that,” he says.
“He trusted me, and it was a success.” At just 27 years of age, Roland became CEO of BMB’s Algerian division. The role would provide on-the-job training unlike any other. Before long, Roland was managing operations across Africa and Europe.
“We had heavy industry, telcos, technology and digitalisation and software creation. It was very interesting.” The diversity gave Roland a richness and depth of experience that soon attracted bigger fish from very different ponds.
When leading facility management company ATALIAN Global Services came knocking, Roland discovered that the multinational had begun life as a family business, which held a great amount of personal appeal. “I met the owner and saw what a visionary he was,” Roland says.
“I learned about ATALIAN’s values and that facility management is really centred around humans. I liked that a lot.” Facility management encompasses multiple disciplines to ensure compliance, functionality and comfort by integrating people, places, processes and technology within the built environment.
“Everything related to a company’s service can be done by ATALIAN,” Roland says. “Basically, we have no limits.” ATALIAN had spent decades making a name for itself in global facility management, but was still at the beginning of its journey in Asia. In early 2020, Roland was stationed in ATALIAN’s Malaysian headquarters and tasked with building the brand in the region.
“The Asian side of the business was relatively small compared to the rest of the group, but they’d been doing a lot of acquisitions,” he says. Integrating these new companies was a priority.
“It was something I really knew how to do, and I knew it was a chance to make a real difference,” he adds. But proving himself was made that much more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic that was, at the time, unfolding around the world.
“The first thing I did was build a strong team, which was challenging during lockdown,” Roland says. The CEO moved the company’s headquarters to neighbouring Singapore to be closer to ATALIAN’s key accounts.
“Then I put in place new procedures to get us operating in line with our global business.” The changes started to stick and a new company began to emerge. “I worked hard to evolve and unify the culture of the company to be more like the rest of the ATALIAN group,” he says. “There’s always hesitation before change, but with the right people in place, it works.”
Backed by a lean and enhanced team, Roland turned his focus to operations. “We adapted to the COVID situation quickly and, in doing so, achieved excellent results last year,” he says. “I didn’t know Asia when I first arrived and it was in complete lockdown.” The value of a personal touch is at the heart of ATALIAN’s approach to business.
“We know how to tailor services to our customers because we know our customers,” Roland says. “We do our best to understand them; how they operate, what they need.” On the back foot due to the one-two punch of COVID and a new environment, Roland threw himself into what he knew to be the best course of action: human contact.
“I had to manage all these people in different countries. I think this was the most difficult part of my job in the beginning,” he shares. “When change is afoot and new leadership comes in, seeing people face-to-face is very important, which is something I wasn’t able to do. I had to adapt the way I operated and do it remotely. Despite that, I did my best to visit some countries.”
Getting to know people from different countries during lockdown involved intensive communication with them. “I spent a lot of time talking to people, trying to understand their challenges, the environment,” he says.
“I’ve worked in different countries before, which helped. But, even so, Asia is different. Basically, it all came down to communication.” And it’s a hands-on culture that Roland wants to see maintained as the norm for ATALIAN. “We lead by example. It starts from the top: I push people to make decisions, to not be afraid,” he says.
“Our agility means we can make decisions, test the results, and if it’s good, we continue. If not, we adapt. That’s what it takes to grow a business today.” It’s also the making of today’s CEO, regardless of age. Roland likens the role to a conductor.
“You have to be able to really understand all the people around you, to know where it’s all going and engage everyone,” he says. “In the end, human beings are the same, even if their culture is different. Everyone wants to see a clear future.”
Disclaimer: This article was originally featured in The CEO Magazine Asia Sept’21 issue. For the whole digital magazine, please see here.