Growing up in South Africa during the end of the apartheid regime made Charl recognize the importance of change and social justice. As the son of two Lebanese immigrants, he also embodies the multiculturalism that has characterized the country for decades. In January, he will become Vice President Global Marketing at Absolut, which means he will leave his beloved home country for Stockholm, Sweden. In his mind though, he’s still just a farm boy who stumbled upon a career in finance and eventually found his true calling in marketing.
You grew up on a farm in South Africa with two parents of Lebanese decent. How did you end up here in Stockholm?
My family is very much a product of the post-World War 2 world, with parents who want to give their children the opportunities they never had. So, for my parents – especially given I was the only child – it was important that I got a good education. So they ended up selling the farm and moving to the city, just for me to get that opportunity.
During that time – this was in the late 80’s, early 90’s – you were encouraged to become a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant or an engineer if you did well in school. And I of course didn’t want to let my parents down, so I studied really hard. Eventually, I decided to become an engineer, because I thought that designing things that could make the world a better place was a good way to contribute to society.
You finished school right at the end of the apartheid regime. That must have had a big influence on your life?
Yes, it really had. I went to a university called the University of the Witwatersrand, which was called the “communist university” at that time. It was given that name mostly because it was a bit left-leaning in a country that was in fact fascist. Anyway, it was there I discovered the reality of South Africa. I became aware of what was going on in my own country.
I got interested in social involvement and in student politics, and just trying to make life at campus better for everyone, regardless of race. I think the one thing I’m most proud of from back then is leading a transformation team, which aimed at integrating – for the first time in South Africa – black and white students at the university. Looking back now I realize that it was sort of a big deal and that the stakes were higher than I initially thought. I actually received some death threats because of that work.
Has your commitment for social involvement been present throughout your life, despite that experience?
I think so, but my life and career hasn’t exactly followed a straight path. When I finished school, I tried my luck in lots of different industries but soon ended up being a production manager at a large company in South Africa. I worked down in the factory with 50 employees from different tribes and worked really hard to get everyone to work together.
Then, once the apartheid regime fell, the sanctions against South Africa were lifted and foreign companies started setting up in the country. It meant I had lots of more opportunities. One thing led to another and soon I was in London, working in finance. When I was 27 years old I was asked to do evaluations of dot-com companies right at the height of the bubble. When I look back, I often say there’s no wonder the bubble burst given how much trust I was given as 27 year-old to evaluate those multi-billion dollar companies. Anyway, it was a crazy time and I had much fun, but it was hard for me to feel at home there, because I still saw myself as a farm boy. And I still think of myself as that today.
So you went back to South Africa?
Yes, two years later I went back looking for a new job. I found one in the beverage industry, as an assistant to the chairman of one of the country’s largest beverage producers. My boss, the chairman, soon became like a mentor to me, giving me advice on everything from life to work. But when the company was eventually bought by an American giant, he moved to the US and I was left with an important decision to make.
In order to integrate more into the company, I could either choose between mergers and acquisitions or marketing. My boss was this really old-fashioned man, with a huge mustache, always with a cigarette in his hand. He said to me in his typical South African accent: “Charlie ma’ boy, when you’re in acquisitions and mergers, you’re a hunter. You kill the animal and you can feed your family for a week. When you’re in marketing, you’re a farmer. You sow the seeds, wait for the rain and nurture the ground. And then after a year, when you harvest, you can feed the village for a whole year.” He paused for effect, and then continued: “Ma’ boy, you’re a very sensitive guy. You’re more a farmer than a hunter.” And of course, he was absolutely right – not only in the literal sense.
So, a small-town farm boy discovers farming in a different way – a sort of 21st century farming. That is why I love this ‘game’ of marketing. The rain doesn’t always fall when you want it to, and sometimes your ‘crops’ get diseases. But when you understand how to do it properly, and you’re building brands sustainably, you’re feeding villages.
Things really took off from there and the last five years I’ve spent as a Marketing Director at Pernod Ricard, building a team from nine people to forty-two – working really hard to find good people to elevate the brand.
So how do you plan to cultivate the Absolut brand as VP Global Marketing?
I still have a farm boy’s perspective. And it’s always been about building teams and building people who can really make the brand flourish. But first and foremost, my job will be to really understand what’s making the brand work across the globe. Although I’m still in the listening phase, I know what’s really working. It’s putting consumers at the heart of everything, which I know the team here in Stockholm understands really well. They want to push boundaries on how you connect with consumers on an emotional level, in a relevant way.
As a philosophy, I really do believe that we as humans have two objectives – to be brave, and to be kind. Being brave because we need to push boundaries to move forward. To continue the farming analogy – a brave farmer removes rocks from the land to make space for new areas to cultivate and room for new crops to grow. Being kind is all about being able to communicate on a more real level. I really think you can make the world a better place by being kind.