Throughout her young life, Noor Al Qatami’s father groomed her to take over his steel company in Kuwait. She graduated from Bentley University in Boston with a business degree, specializing in team management and likely would have excelled at the role. But Al-Qatami Steel couldn’t match the allure of Target.
Having spent considerable time abroad, Al Qatami noticed a deep chasm in the supermarket experience back home compared to what she’d witnessed both in the United States and Switzerland. “I love the way products are displayed [in the West], and the care taken to designing the stores,” says the 34-year-old mother of three. “When I came to Kuwait, that was something I didn’t see.”
She observed how several stores merely stocked products above boxes and pallets, wholly rejecting any notions of merchandising, design or customer experience. Bickering with her father, who she professes is her biggest supporter, Al Qatami was encouraged “to do something about it,” since it riled her up so fiercely. Steel promised a life of bureaucratic ennui, while the entrepreneurial juices were coursing through Al Qatami’s veins. And thus, in 2013, Saveco was born.
Arab world or not, it is rare to find a young woman running a burgeoning ‘fempire’ of her own.
Farrah Berrou, of Wesley’s Wholesale in Lebanon
An amalgamation of Al Qatami’s favorite stores, Saveco draws inspiration from Target, Kroger, Gelson’s and Waitrose. The hypermarket is effectively an expansive retail facility combining grocery store, restaurant, cafe, florist shop and food academy where Kuwaiti shoppers, notoriously shy in the kitchen, can learn how to cook with trendy ingredients like quinoa and chia seeds.
Saveco has a leading advantage over its peers thanks to a home delivery service mediated via messenger application WhatsApp. Catering to a tech-savvy society that actively avoids talking, whether on the telephone or in person, Saveco offers customers the option of sending images of products they want, in addition to providing them with a range of products to view. The messenger service coupled with delivery are complimentary.
In the five years since its inception, Saveco has grown into four stores, with two more planned in the coming months. The company employs around 450 men and women, and staff are subject to routine education in courses like merchandising and product promotion — though Saveco has drawn skepticism for not allowing in-store branding. Still, Al Qatami intends to sprout smaller stores throughout Kuwait and directly compete with the Sultan Center as well as cooperative society stores, which have long formed the backbone of the country’s retail. The heavy presence of expatriates, who account for nearly 70 percent of Kuwait’s population of 4.2 million, coupled with one of the world’s richest economies per capita, means there is a place for high-end grocery. And Al Qatami has firm plans to expand around the region eventually.
While Al Qatami would rather praise her “excellent team” when asked about her biggest achievement, she has won heaps of honors, from the Arab Woman Awards to the Europe Business Assembly to Arabian Business magazine — which tapped Al Qatami among the 100 Most Powerful Arab Women.
Saji Nair, head of finance for Saveco Group, says Al Qatami treats employees like family. Her “moral and mental support to everyone,” Nair says, extends outside the company to a food bank program for needy families and parties for young, terminally ill cancer patients.
So what’s it like being a female CEO in a landscape dominated by men? Al Qatami claims that “all doors are open in this day and age in Kuwait,” citing women’s leadership in local banks, construction firms and oil companies. But she does recall in her early years having people come to her office door, clearly marked CEO, and ask for the person in charge. While at a meeting in Saudi Arabia, one businessman refused to look at her, directing all communication to her male colleague, who repeatedly asserted he was not the decision-maker. “Needless to say, no business transactions were struck between the two companies,” she says with a chuckle.
“Arab world or not, it is rare to find a young woman running a burgeoning ‘fempire’ of her own,” says Farrah Berrou, creative strategist at her family’s American-imports emporium Wesley’s Wholesale in Lebanon. Like Al Qatami, Berrou counts as a prominent Arab female in grocery retail. “Expectations of women in our part of the world may still fall in line with the traditional gender roles, but the effects of the patriarchy are alive globally,” Berrou says. “What Noor is doing is an example of the modern-day woman … She saw a gap in the market and managed to persevere through the trenches of the first rough years of retail, all while juggling a new facet of her identity: being a mother.”
Indeed, Al Qatami is raising her boys — Faisal, 9, Naser, 8, and Hamad, 4 — in the enterprise she manages. “If they want a toy, they have to earn it by promoting it to customers,” she explains, having spent her own childhood shadowing her father. Her husband, a cranio-facial orthodontist who treats cleft lip and palate patients, is not involved in Saveco.
Al Qatami is well aware of the Western stereotype of Arab women sidelined by an oppressive patriarchal society. She points out that Arab women do not assume all Western women are battered and raped based on Hollywood movies or the news. So perhaps it’s time for a bit more international respect. “We have traveled the globe,” she says, “and we are just as tough and aggressive in the business world as any female entrepreneur chooses to be.”
OZY’s 5 Questions for Noor Al Qatami
What is the last book you read? Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson.
What do you worry about? My kids, my family, the future.
What is the one thing you cannot live without? My family.
Who is your hero? My dad.
What is one item on your bucket list? Oh, wow, I have so many! Visiting Japan one day tops the list.