Emerging from a crisis: lessons in leadership and transformation

Emerging from a crisis: lessons in leadership and transformation

Having worked through political instability, famine, natural disaster and a pandemic, HSA Yemen offers a blueprint for companies trying to reset in difficult times

The coronavirus pandemic has transformed the way organisations, governments and societies view, plan for and approach business-critical continuity challenges and conduct strategic planning and forecasting.

Now, almost a year since the first government lockdowns brought much of the world to a standstill, and with the crippling knock-on effects for the global economy increasingly apparent, the debate on how to reset organisations in a way that ensures operational resilience, adaptation to the new normal and innovation, is intensifying across boardrooms. How and in what state will corporates emerge from the greatest social and economic shock to befall our planet in a generation?

A story of resilience in the face of uncertainty exists in a place where leaders in global business centres may not normally look, at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, in crisis-hit Yemen. For the best part of a decade, the country’s largest company, Hayel Saeed Anam (HSA) Yemen’s community-critical operations have faced the near-constant challenges posed by the nexus of political instability,  famine, natural disaster and climate crisis. However, the company’s managing director Nabil Hayel Saeed Anam, said that by standing firmly behind its values and ethics HSA is able to weather turbulent periods. “We are committed to providing high-quality products and services to our people, even when faced with difficult circumstances. We feel it is our duty to put everything aside and face challenges head-on.”

From a single store to a multinational conglomerate

HSA was established by four brothers of the Saeed Anam family in 1930s Taiz, a city in southwestern Yemen. By the 1970s, a single retail shopfront had grown into an industrial pioneer and an expansive trading model for the region, reaching as far as Southeast Asia and Europe. Now one of the largest companies in the Middle East, with operations spanning the FMCG, industrial, distribution, commercial and services sectors, it is Yemen’s market leader across a range of industries. With a 20,000-strong workforce across the country, HSA produces and supplies essential goods and services to multinational organisations, communities and families across the MENA region through more than 50 operating companies.

The uncertain environment in Yemen has inflicted a devastating impact on the nation’s economy and infrastructure. The country’s supply routes and distribution channels have been pushed to breaking point. Telecommunications capacity was undermined to the extent that internet access remains restricted to major cities only. Many Yemenis in the public and private sector went without regular pay, damaging local economies and further weakening the banking system – an operating environment that rendered business-as-usual operations near impossible.


2015: A crossroads

Given the strategic importance of HSA at a critical time for Yemen and its people, the organisation’s leadership was faced with a stark choice when turmoil broke out in 2015: follow the example of many multinationals and competitors by exiting the market, or absorb the cost of remaining in Yemen in spite of significant operational uncertainty to provide a lifeline to the many communities that depend on the business’ operations for vital jobs, goods and services.

“We couldn’t abandon our people in their time of need,” Nabil explained. “HSA is a family business, built on family values – it’s in our DNA to support communities we have served for generations.”

HSA Yemen embarked on an unprecedented programme of investment, not only within the organisation but across the country. The company has invested millions into rebuilding road and transport links, maintaining distribution networks and enabling smaller businesses to rely on existing supply chains to function. With Yemen’s sanitation facilities hard hit by the crisis, HSA has prioritised major investments in wastewater infrastructure, increasing access to clean water in areas surrounding its manufacturing plants and addressing major public health emergencies.

HSA has also taken steps to address the basic needs of Yemenis during a long period of extreme instability by working with the WHO to adapt the ingredients of its key F&B brands to increase nutritional value, longevity and shelf life – crucial for sustaining production in an environment where daily essentials are often disrupted.

Committed to its home market

For the leadership of HSA, these investments, made during uncertain times, are a demonstration of HSA Yemen’s uncompromising commitment to its home market. “By continuing operations, we have been able to retain our market-leading position across a number of industries, maintaining the provision of essential goods and services to the Yemeni population, supporting its economy and many international partners, which include the World Food Programme and UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs,” Nabil added.

Investment has not been limited to infrastructure and product development. HSA Yemen’s executive management team – comprising experts who have risen through the ranks and senior hires from major multinationals such as Mars, P&G, Almarai and HSBC – has put in place an organisational transformation programme designed to future-proof and equip the business with the tools, capabilities, skills and talent required to flourish in the future.

“While challenging at times, our transformation journey is necessary to ensure we have the right resources in place to be a global leader and partner of merit in all of our endeavours,” said Nabil. Through this journey, HSA Yemen is seeking to strengthen its longstanding commitment to communities across the country, whilst building a world-class organisation renowned for category-leading quality and innovation. Through its organisational transformation strategy, HSA Yemen will invest in product innovation and portfolio optimisation to retain market share and build efficiencies in the way it operates.

Investing in people

HSA Yemen has continued to invest in its diversified portfolio to enable growth and healthy margins despite the uncertainty at home. While the structure of a world-class finance operation will enable the business to capitalise on future market opportunities, significant investment in internal capabilities reinforces the company’s position as an industry benchmark for compliance and corporate citizenship.

Looking ahead to a new decade, HSA Yemen’s strategic direction will focus on continuing growth, while becoming the best place to work and thrive personally and professionally, on an individual and collective level.

“We have placed a significant emphasis on strategic growth, continuous improvements and a strong internal culture.”

HSA Yemen has come a long way in 85 years, expanding globally to become one of the largest multinationals in the Middle East. From a single retail store to a diversified conglomerate, HSA Yemen’s philosophy remains unchanged – a commitment to doing well by doing good. The company’s significant investment in its business, people and communities align with its desire to play a crucial role in supporting the ambition of rising generations of Yemenis.


Lessons for the pandemic

As corporates across the Middle East and beyond pivot and plan in the face of yet further unpredictability in the global economic environment, managing and navigating opportunities for growth amidst threats to market share and established strategies, HSA Yemen’s story of resilience offers a case study for organisations seeking to navigate crisis in the context of the global pandemic.

If we can learn anything from HSA’s experience in Yemen, it is that a focus on identifying opportunities to adapt and grow during periods of turbulence, collaborating and innovating with global partners for the greater good and adhering tenaciously to core values as your guiding principles will place progressive organisations in the best position to thrive and develop, as we learn to adapt to the new age of uncertainty.

  • Reportage