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Egyptian Billionaire Family Caught In The Crosshairs Of Egypt’s History

Date: Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Author: Forbes.com

Mohamed Mansour sits in London where he helplessly follows the news in Egypt unfold at breathtaking speed. He came to the U.K. a little over a week ago for family reasons, and was due back in Cairo on February 8. Now everything is uncertain. His supermarkets are being looted, his McDonald’s are being burned down, and his car factory is closed. 

I first got in touch with the Mansour family this past December. My colleagues Luisa Kroll and Kerry Dolan who oversee the Forbes billionaires list, had asked me to value the family’s business, the Mansour Group, to see whether it made the cut. It looked like a typical Middle Eastern family conglomerate, with a hodge-podge of stuff, ranging from cars, to real estate, to banks, to McDonald’s. Any of the Arab billionaires on our list have pretty much the same mix, and having the license for an American brand is highly prized. Whatever you might hear of Arab hatred toward U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, the truth is Arabs love American brands. 

The Mansours, Mohamed and his brothers Youssef and Yasseen were billionaires, but my research turned up a bigger surprise. They were the largest distributor of GM cars in the world, selling more than 94,000 cars and trucks last year in Egypt, Iraq, and Libya. Even the GM media relations guy was skeptical when I asked him to double-check. 

GM was the source of the Mansours’ fortune, and they built upon it. How they got to be a GM distributor turned out to be a fascinating story, and it mirrored the historical landscape of Egypt. 

Mohamed’s father Loutfy built his fortune during the reign of King Farouk, when he became one of Egypt’s largest cotton exporters. He sent his sons to study at North Carolina State University, and hone their knowledge of the textile business, with the understanding that they would come back and work in the cotton trade. By 1952, a group of army officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser had started a revolt to depose the monarch and establish a parliamentary democracy. In 1964, Nasser embarked on a wholesale nationalization of Egyptian businesses. It was outright theft. I know that first-hand, because Nasser expropriated my great grandfather’s pharmaceutical business, and my great uncle was placed under house arrest. The same thing happened to Loutfy Mansour. Nasser confiscated his cotton trading company, and placed him under house arrest. 

Overnight, the Mansours became poor. Loutfy Mansour could no longer afford to pay for his children’s education. Mohamed had to work in a pizza parlor in Raleigh, N.C., washing dishes. Things brightened up a bit when a Sudanese cotton exporting family hired Loutfy, and gave him equity, but the Sudanese government eventually nationalized that business too. 

Ironically, it was in London that Mohamed finally reunited with his father after seven years. “He had zero money outside of Egypt,” says Mansour. But through contacts in Geneva, his father established himself as a cotton broker, and when cotton prices went up in 1973, he made out handsomely. Having lost everything twice though, he wanted to get out of commodities. “He said what goes up must go down, why don’t you go into the car dealership business?” recalls Mansour. That was the beginning of the relationship with GM in 1975; the father passed away in 1976, and Mohamed Mansour came to be known as Mr. Mansour Chevrolet. 

The GM factory in Egypt is now closed. “We will decide to commence normal operations once the conditions permit,” says a GM spokesman.