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Perfect partners

William Hatchett19/03/2014 - 14:00

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Michel Bayoud
Michel Bayoud

Twenty-one years ago when he was 23, a recent graduate from Lebanon, Michel Bayoud, made his first visit to London. The cold weather made him yearn for the mild climate of his native country. He stayed at the house of an English friend who worked in advertising. Like most foreign visitors, he was fascinated by the city’s scarlet pillar boxes and double-decker buses, by its cosy pubs and its strange food.

The reason for his visit was practical. He was in Britain for two months to take short specialised courses on pest control and health and safety. Michel had spotted a business opportunity back home and wanted to gain some relevant qualifications.

Two decades on, he’s in London again, on a business trip, this time visiting the CIEH in Southwark. His personal circumstances have changed. Today, the company that he founded after that trip to London in 1993 is a brand leader in pest control and food and health safety training in the Middle East.

It’s also a consultancy - the largest of its kind in the region - runs a professional disinfection service, provides food standards accreditation such as Haccp and ISO22000 and has developed and runs the Q-Platinum Award for small and medium-sized food businesses. Employing almost 800 people, Boecker is active in seven Middle Eastern countries as well as Nigeria. The CIEH’s newest strategic partner, it delivers training in eight languages using CIEH examinations and course materials.

Michel is an engaging and friendly man with a wide range of interests. He lives in Beirut with his wife and three daughters. His wife is a business partner - her graphic design company provides Boecker’s branding, and Michel’s company employs many more women than most in the region.

In 2012, in recognition of his business success and services to the community, he was named Man of the Year by the Organization of the League of Arab Countries in Dubai. He loves music and in his spare time likes to spin the records at family parties.

Meeting with EHN on a February afternoon, Michel seems just as keen to talk about Britain’s public health traditions, going back to Edwin Chadwick, as new business opportunities. Sharing tea and biscuits in a glass-walled office, Michel is drawn by a map of the world. Explaining that he is currently giving history lessons to one of his daughters, he points out the boundaries of the region historically known as the Levant - now the Middle East and Gulf states. His own country, Lebanon, is tiny - squashed against the sea by its larger neighbours Syria and Israel.

He says: ‘We’re very small and we only had one possibility - to spread out.’ The Phoenician empire, which was founded in Lebanon, extended as far as the western Mediterranean.

Michel was born in 1970 in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, to teacher parents. He attended a French-style lycee, where he took his baccalaureate, and then, switching to English, the American University of Beirut. Here he took a BSc in agricultural sciences and a diploma in agricultural engineering, graduating in 1992.

Today’s Lebanese, like their ancestors, are great travellers and traders. Michel was delighted when he obtained his first job in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, working for a pest control company. Unfortunately, it only lasted for 10 days. He explains: ‘I called my parents to tell them I had got the job, only to learn that my father was in hospital. I had to go home. But it was the best thing that could have happened, both for my father’s gall bladder and for me.’

It was 1993. Beirut was now being rebuilt following a bloody, 15-year civil war. At that time, it was the largest reconstruction project in the world. He says: ‘I saw an opportunity in all of the reconstruction and rebuilding. I thought, “Why don’t I do here what I learnt in those 10 days in Dubai?” So I went to London for a couple of months and took some courses being offered by the British Pest Control Association.’

In London, he conceived the idea of setting up a company in Lebanon. In January 1994, he recalls, Boecker consisted of a desk, a filing cabinet and him in a small rented office in Beirut: ‘I used to sell in the morning and do pest control in the evening. Three or four months down the line, I recruited the first technician. By the way, he is still with us.’

The company grew rapidly. In four years, it had 30 employees and opened its first office outside Lebanon in Jordan. In 1998, Boecker added a food safety division. In 2002 came its third office outside Lebanon, in Dubai. Dubai was booming at the time, with skyscrapers springing up like mushrooms. The municipality decreed that food handlers should require training and decided to endorse the certificates in food safety and health and safety being issued by Michel’s company. This was an opportunity for Boecker, which was now training 3,000 to 4,000 candidates a year.

In 2006 came further expansion. Michel says: ‘We opened offices in Kuwait and Qatar so that we were now working in five countries.’ In 2011, the company set up for business in Saudi Arabia - the region’s largest and wealthiest market. Boecker was now operating across the entire Middle East.

The company had already worked with the CIEH for seven years but in 2013, Michel decided to upgrade to a more strategic relationship. Boecker would now move to exclusively delivering CIEH courses and the two bodies, which shared a holistic vision of public health, would embark on joint ventures.

He recalls: ‘At this point, I decided that I needed to go to London.’ On last year’s visit to the CIEH, Michel met chief executive Graham Jukes, commercial director Frank Post, head of customer services and sales Des Hancox, and senior key account manager Jon Flatman. Jon was soon to be based at the CIEH’s newly-opened office in Dubai.

Michel adds: ‘It was a ground-breaking visit - a milestone. I had a very clear vision about where I wanted to go with the company. I was surprised to see that the CIEH had an equally sharp vision and we clicked immediately.’

The meetings lasted for three days: ‘The first day was really to get to know each other - who are you, where do you come from, what are your values? Then it was getting into the detail.’

He adds: ‘We weren’t looking for an old-school academic institution but a body that combined academic knowledge with commercial awareness. I soon noticed that we were clicking perfectly. We shared so much in common that it was clear from day one that we would be ideal strategic partners.’

Those feelings of mutual respect were reciprocated. Graham Jukes observed, on meeting Michel for the first time, that he was welcoming a kindred spirit with the same drive and ambition as the CIEH to improve health and wellbeing. He comments: ‘It’s a perfect partnership and we will do great things together.’ 

The CIEH and Boecker signed a memorandum of understanding and agreed on a series of next steps. Michel says: ‘We decided that Boecker would adopt CIEH training materials and qualifications and that we would use the CIEH to assure our business systems. That was the vision. We agreed that even if we only did some of this, that would be good, but, actually, we had completed everything we had agreed by the end of the year.’

The CIEH’s Frank Post and the chair of CIEH Ltd, Geoff Ward, soon made visits to Lebanon, Dubai and Qatar. At the end of the year, working for the newly-formed CIEH Advisory Services, CIEH chartered fellow and pest control expert David Oldbury carried out the first quality assurance of the CIEH’s new strategic partner.

Michel recalls: ‘David spent 10 days in Beirut. He had a huge and comprehensive checklist. It included things like our customer services, our sales and management systems, and health and safety. We were prepared to fail our first assessment but fortunately he was very pleased with our standards and we passed.’

Michel explains that legal compliance systems are patchy across the Middle East, and, in some cases, non-existent. Boecker seeks to raise standards to well above what is legally required, both in its own practice as a pest control company and through its food safety training programmes.

It is far more than merely a commercial enterprise, however, resembling the CIEH in its mission to educate and raise awareness so as to promote health and wellbeing.

Michel explains: ‘Our positioning has always been to work with the best and largest companies in the world. We knew about the CIEH and its legacy and roots and when we were looking for an active partner it seemed like an excellent candidate. The CIEH is flexible and adaptable, just as we are. We are very happy to be working with it.’

With a frame of reference that goes back to the Phoenicians, Michel sees the troubles in the Arab world as a historical phase and he is optimistic about future possibilities - business, he believes, could easily expand across the Arab-speaking countries of North Africa and even, in time, into Iraq.

‘We are not hit and run - we have been here for 20 years. We have a reputation to sustain and we are going to
be around for a long time, just like the CIEH.’

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