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Libyan Tycoon Husni Bey Tells All


“They all want to be like Husni Bey, yes. For many kids, for many youth, for many grown-ups, I’m the role model for them,” says Husni Bey Husni, on an early November visit to his office. “They maybe don’t like me. They may hate me, but if you tell them how you want to be? They will tell you like Husni Bey. It’s not vanity, but this is what they keep telling everybody.”

Later in the afternoon, swerving through Tripoli in his black Infiniti FX45, Bey is headed to his brother’s home. We drive by an old beach club, now just rubble. Bey mentions that he’d been a member in the 1960s. Qaddafi’s kids decided to take the land for themselves and build villas on the beach, then Qaddafi got angry with the project and razed it to the ground. “Look, just look what they did here,” Bey says, craning his neck to survey the extent of the ugliness. This morning, Tripoli reeks of burning garbage. The shoreline is covered in haze. The beach is in ruins, just mangled concrete from compound walls and piles of trash everywhere. “This was an amazing place,” he says as we turn the corner.

Bey drives like he talks, fast but relaxed, sometimes a bit unpredictably. The weather is cooling, so he’s wearing a brown leather jacket over a collared shirt. He’s also got a new necklace—a pendant on a silver chain depicting the recently introduced Libyan flag.

Bey is the chairman of HB Group, which he calls the largest private holding company in Libya. The Group has stakes in 32 companies across almost every sector. It employs around 1,500 people—making it, according to Bey, Libya’s largest private employer. At heart, the HB Group is an importer, holding the exclusive distribution rights to numerous foreign brands—Procter & Gamble (PG), Aldo, Abbott Laboratories (ABT), and Sony (SNE) among them. If a food or personal-care product comes into Libya, it likely goes through the HB Group. That includes Pringles, Crest, Red Bull, Becks beer (the nonalcoholic variety), Ferrero chocolates, and Nutella. It has over 480 distribution vehicles in its fleet. The foreign companies decide what they want to export to Libya. HB provides the distribution logistics, signatures at ports, storage, and even handles the small-scale advertising inside the shops.

Bey cuts the figure of a self-confident man who’s made good. His tan and rounded features make him look younger than his 62 years. He is stylish in an understated kind of way; his curly silver hair is always slicked back and he often wears his pressed striped collared shirts with the top button open—like he’s come back from a day on a yacht.

These days, though, he isn’t doing enough business. Banking is still mostly shut down, and the flow of goods is small. Libya is in transition, and the important questions include not only what role a man like Bey will play in the new country, but what role he played in the old: How did someone who portrays himself as an enemy of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime also manage to build, during the Brother Leader’s four decades in power, what may be Libya’s biggest private business empire? As Mohamed Diab, owner of Tripoli-based New Millennium Rotomoulding, which manufactures plastics, says, “Everybody had a relationship with the government. In order to move your business, you had to have certain people inside to support you.”

Bey’s stance is to be dismissive of such claims. “Honestly, I don’t care,” he says. “Because if I want to care about everybody’s talk in Libya, I would be just sitting and caring.”

Bey almost perfectly encapsulates the problems of a country moving from dictatorship through revolution and into a highly uncertain future. He may have as much or more to contribute to Libya’s bid to join the stable economies of the world as anyone, but he must also answer questions about his past.

 
The eldest of 10 children, Bey is the son of Ibrahim Husni Bey, who founded the precursor to the HB Group in 1944. Bey studied at Savona Nautical School in Italy, then returned to Libya in 1970 to join the family business in the eastern city of Benghazi. In 1975, Ibrahim asked his son if he would consider moving to Tripoli—a city the elder Bey loathed—to take over Libtra, a foundering shipping logistics company Ibrahim had acquired. Husni jumped at the chance.

In 1978, just as Libtra was turning a profit, Qaddafi embarked on a free-form nationalization program, encouraging workers to take over companies on their own. “People who had their revolutionary or pro-Qaddafi tendencies were the first to come in that morning, and say ‘Thank you very much, you have no place here,’” Bey remembers. Overnight, the family lost everything. His brothers and sisters dispersed to Lebanon, Italy, Switzerland, and West Africa. Bey stayed behind working as the representative in Libya of a global shipping insurance cooperative.

In 1986, when Qaddafi loosened his grip on the private sector, the Bey family returned; over the next decade the business flourished again. In the summer of 1996, as Bey tells it, rumors were circulating that something big was going to happen on July 30 and that the regime was planning to detain prominent Libyans to head off a possible revolt. On a sweltering Thursday night, four days before the rumored uprising, Bey was sipping tea at a neighbor’s house when he heard a car screech to a halt outside. Doors slammed and Bey remembers his German shepherd started barking.

“We are looking for Husni Bey,” a man’s voice called out. Bey steadied himself and walked out to find men from the Cleansing Committee, Qaddafi’s enforcers. They drove him to the Tajura Army barracks, where Bey was put in a cell with four other men. It would become so crammed that inmates would sleep on their sides like spooning sardines, flipping in unison. Two days later, says Bey, he was beaten on his legs, sides, and face with a twisted electric cable, while interrogators shouted questions about political activities. He says he was in jail for just over four months without charges and then taken to the prosecutor’s office. The assistant prosecutor general was sitting at his desk. Bey breathed a sigh of relief. He had faith in the court system. It was time to get out of hell, he remembers thinking.

The prosecutor asked for his name and his story. Bey began reciting the abuses he sustained in prison but then noticed the prosecutor wasn’t taking notes. When Bey finished, the prosecutor told him: “Mr. Husni, I hereby release you. You may leave the room.”

Bey was ebullient. His police escort told him to take a seat in the antechamber. Five minutes later, the same officer asked him to go back to the prosecutor’s room. Inside, the prosecutor was sitting at the same desk, waiting for him.

“I am charging you with excessive enrichment,” he said. In Qaddafi’s quasi-socialist dictatorship, it was a crime to be too rich if you were not a Qaddafi.

Bey spent the next five months in the Jdaida prison. In April 1997 he was released, though forbidden to leave Tripoli. Two years later, Bey stood trial and was found innocent. The government’s appeals of the ruling went on for five years until the higher appeals court dismissed the charges in 2001. Still, the regime froze the Bey family assets again.

Though Bey’s personal assets were frozen, the holding group, made up of businesses managed and partially owned by others, continued to grow. In July 2007 the Libyan Business Council televised a meeting with government officials. As vice-president of the Council, Bey was on the podium with Libya’s Prime Minister Al Baghdadi Al Mahmoudi to his left and the Secretary of Tourism, Ammar El Tayif, to his right. During a discussion of foreign investment in tourism, Bey began telling the live audience that Libyans were being treated unfairly. Bey says he got a little carried away, calling out the Prime Minister specifically. Two weeks later he was in prison again, eventually charged with tax evasion. Bey was released after about a week—he believes it was because the government did not want to scare away foreign investment—but the Prime Minister moved against him by other means. As Bey tells it, and as leaked cables confirm, the government put out rumors that he was a Zionist, tied him up in paperwork, and kept changing the rules to prevent him from importing his products.

Alsaid Dhaim, chairman of the National Real Estate Investment and Construction Company, an industry group, says he remembers watching Bey insult Prime Minister Baghdadi on TV. “But after that Husni Bey started to compensate and apologize,” Dhaim says. “He also started a partnership with Saif [Qaddafi’s son] in some companies.” Dhaim says Bey worked with Saif’s Helal Co., which means crescent in Arabic, selling canned tuna, but he doesn’t pass judgment. “In that time, sometimes your only option is to deal with those people,” he says. Bey denies working with Helal or with the Qaddafi family.

“It’s very difficult to have been a big businessman here without being partners with them,” says Mazin Ramadan, a senior adviser to the National Transitional Council (NTC) minister of finance during the civil war. Both Ramadan and Dhaim say many businessmen were playing both sides during the revolution. “It’s like hedging your bets,” says Ramadan. “Qaddafi was sitting here for six months. Even if they worked with him, you can’t blame them.”

 
A September visit to Bey’s office overlooking the Mediterranean finds a sparse, modern setup. He points out that there’s little to see because the work gets done elsewhere, by other people. He prides himself on being a hands-off manager. “I have been to the banks … since I started working not more than 20 times,” Bey says.

Siran Pharmaceuticals, run by one of Bey’s sisters, Dr. Faiza Husni Bey, handles importing and distributing medicine and infant formula from Abbott Laboratories and Nutricia, and products from Procter & Gamble. Two main operating bases in Benghazi and Tripoli ship to the rest of the company’s warehouses around the country and employ 18 representatives.

HB Group also has stakes in Esterlab, a shipping company; Transahara, an info tech company; United Fashion, which operates retail outlets; and the Saraya Bank for Commerce and Investment. Esterlab is the Libyan agent for one of the largest shipping companies in the world, the Mediterranean Shipping Co. (MSC), based out of Geneva. It is the largest container operator in Libya and provides warehouses in all the country’s ports, focusing on the oil industry.

United Fashion locally runs stores such as Marks & Spencer, Mango, Benetton, La Senza, Terranova, Next, Oviesse, Aldo, and Piazza Italia. They manage 15 outlets in Tripoli and Benghazi, with plans to expand throughout North Africa. Bey is also in banking, insurance, and financial services. Tadawul Financial Group provides financial advisory, asset management, and brokerage and corporate financial services. Transahara, according to the company overview, has designed, supplied, and installed radio communication networks for the Libyan port authorities as well as international oil companies such as Wintershall, BP (BP), and PetroCanada. Though Bey does not disclose revenue numbers, he says that the HB Group paid 7 million to 8 million Libyan dinars ($5.6 million to $6.4 million) in taxes last year at a rate of 20 percent, suggesting a profit of 35 million dinars or more, though Bey unapologetically notes his company does what it can to pay as few taxes as legally possible.

In his office, Bey sits at a massive wooden desk, piles of paperwork laid neatly around pictures of his three children when they were younger. Bey starts scrolling through Outlook on a thin black Sony desktop and finds an e-mail from a banker friend. In Bey’s translation, it reads: “If you want to know where Qaddafi is, just ask Husni Bey.” (At the time, Qaddafi had fled Tripoli and was still at large.)

For years, he says, people have been calling him a collaborator, though rarely to his face. Bathed in the bright afternoon light, Bey tries to put his response to the gossip into words. “I don’t care,” he says. “I am not in the business of fighting rumors, after all I just take a laugh and look the other way.” U.S. Embassy cables do seem to agree with Bey’s denial of involvement. A cable from Tripoli in June 2008, released by WikiLeaks, reads: “His impressive personal fortune, prominent public profile, and dominance over several categories of consumer goods in Libya gall government insiders and state-supported ‘men of commerce.’ ” In other cables, embassy representatives express concern that the Prime Minister’s campaign against him may lead to violence.

 
When the revolution came to Libya, Bey went into hiding with friends, fearing arrest as Qaddafi rooted out sympathizers in Tripoli. By the end of March pro-regime forces had come for him six times in the middle of the night, paying three visits to his office, two to his home, and one to a company warehouse where they suspected he might be sleeping. They missed him each time, which he attributes to a guardian angel.

Bey says he made sure his food and pharmaceutical products stayed on the shelves. His tuna and cheese, he says, fed fighters on the eastern front. He says he matched every order with a donated order. He gave away baby formula to the besieged city of Misrata. When phone lines were cut, Bey relied on a personal satellite connection to the Internet in his office to coordinate supplies with his brother in Benghazi. “If they knew it they would have shot us. They would have shot my head off,” he says.

When a UN embargo froze Libya’s banking system, Bey says his foreign suppliers—Abbott, the U.S. pharmaceutical company; Nutricia, a subsidiary of a French infant and clinical nutrition provider; and Procter & Gamble—shipped on credit. (Bey says they continue to do so, which is why there’s still Crest on Libya’s shelves.) At any one time, Bey owed suppliers a combined 5 million to 6 million dinars, he says. A spokesman for Abbott notes that shipments to Libya after sanctions were imposed on Feb. 26 were “humanitarian donations.” A spokesman for Procter & Gamble declined to comment. Nutricia did not respond to a request for comment.

“Usually we carried at least three months of stock in the warehouses, so we had to close the warehouses and do nothing, or sell the stocks and reduce the risk of them being burned,” Bey says. He decided to sell everything he could. Some warehouses were damaged during the war, others looted, and a few were burnt. He still isn’t sure how much he lost.

 
Bey’s brother lives in one of Tripoli’s wealthiest neighborhoods, with Western-style cafes and gated private homes. Parked on the sidewalk out front is a line of shiny black and white cars. The home is stylish, but not lavish. In the living room, white couches surround a large coffee table with sweets in glass bowls. A massive TV is showing the movie Analyze This.

Bey introduces me to his mother, a tiny woman in an armchair, and then heads out for a meeting. Bey’s sister, Amal Husni Bey, is in from Lebanon taking care of their mother. Amal runs HB Group’s human resources department out of the Beirut office, along with Bey’s son Hesham Husni Bey. She’s the second oldest of the 10 siblings, next after Husni.

About 40 minutes later, Bey calls the family and tells them he’s bringing the Egyptian Ambassador to Libya, Amr Ahmed Alzaiat, home for lunch. This is typical, says his sister. “He’ll call and tell you that he’s bringing someone home in 20 minutes.” Amal laughs and hurries to the kitchen to make sure there’s something to serve.

“Since he was young, he protected his brothers and sisters. It was thanks to Husni that we all came back,” Amal says. “He was the one who believed in Libya.” Bey’s mother recites a poem she composed when her children were sent away to international schools. She asked the sea what to do, and it whispered she should be patient. It was Husni Bey who came back first.

When Bey returns with Alzaiat, everyone sits down to lunch. Amal dishes out freshly made pasta with a pesto sauce and Libyan-style stewed zucchini. The subject turns to the country’s new leaders. “They have to kick-start the economy,” Bey declares, “Or everything is going to be a mess.” All nod; the ambassador seems unmoved, tucking into the homemade meal. Bey says “the government is not being decisive in what to do. Everybody is talking about security when nobody is paying attention to the economy.”

Currently, most of Bey’s businesses are shuttered. His tuna, juice, and cheese factories have completely stopped, as have construction and tourism. Among Bey’s concerns is that the NTC has yet to get the Libyan government’s international assets deployed, though they have been partially unfrozen. He wants the NTC to begin moving the money from the international banks back into Libya. Bey is furious that this hasn’t happened yet. “If money doesn’t enter the market soon, no one can do anything,” he says.

Bey likes to tell the story of the ant and the cricket. The Bey family is the ant. “We are collecting in the summer, we don’t sing, and then we have it for the winter. So this is one of the stories that made us what we are.” As for the rumors, Bey’s thoughts are set: “If I’m a crook, why do they want to be like me?”

Topol is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor. Follow her on Twitter @satopol.

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