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  Selim Bassoul

Selim Bassoul '81: Stirring up competition and compassion at Middleby Corp.

By Amy Trang

Two core values instilled by family members have guided Selim Bassoul's leadership path.

The Middleby Corp. chief executive's drive to win came from his father, an Olympic swimmer. His aunt, a nun, impressed upon Bassoul the importance of acting with significant compassion and heart.

Bassoul has helped Middleby strike a balance between those values. The food service equipment maker is on track to achieve more than $700 million in sales this year while retaining a 2 percent turnover rate for employees.

The Elgin, Ill.-based company makes ovens and other cooking gear for restaurant chains, such as Pizza Hut, Dunkin' Donuts and Subway, as well as for home kitchens. It has been named one of the fastest-growing companies by several national publications, including Fortune, BusinessWeek and Forbes.

And amid an economic recession, Middleby is rolling out its most ambitious plan yet: creating products that allow businesses to recoup their investment within 12 months.

"You need to be innovative," Bassoul says. "You need to provide a payback for your customers. Today, nobody has a tendency to buy something with a payback five years down the road."

Although outsiders worry about how Middleby will fare on the other side of the current recession, Bassoul says the company lived through its own economic crisis 10 years ago. By the time Bassoul was named CEO in 2000, company stock had plummeted to less than $3 and the firm was on the verge of bankruptcy. Its customer retention rate was less than 50 percent. Employee morale was at an all-time low and sales were around $100 million annually.

So Bassoul embraced some risky moves to boost stock prices and stakeholders' confidence by eliminating products that did not fit into Middleby's business model, offering a no-quibble warranty for all products worldwide and opening customer service lines on the weekend, something none of the firm's competitors did.

On the employee side, Bassoul started a profit-sharing program and implemented a flat management system, creating only three layers between himself and the entry-level employee. The Kellogg School graduate also ramped up company communication and started visiting Middleby plants worldwide, having fireside chats with employees about profit projections and sharing information on other divisions' production.

"I've watched people in corporate America — it tends to be diluted and people don't feel connected," Bassoul says. At the fireside chats, "they can say whatever they want to say and we will answer it very openly."

The company also invested globally, acquiring companies in emerging markets. That meant buying companies that specialize in ceramic tandoori ovens for India or a built-in rice cooker for ovens in China.

Middleby's international business grows 10 percent each year, with about 30 percent of the company's revenues from overseas. Bassoul says the company's next target markets are Indonesia, Malaysia and North Africa, where casual dining has increased.

"We go into markets where we can create solutions for them," Bassoul says. "We are changing the rules. We are now a major player in India and China."

Bassoul puts into daily practice the lessons he learned from his father and his aunt about the importance of giving back. He is involved in philanthropic activities and sponsors scholarships in the Philippines, the Middle East and the U.S. He donates equipment and time to culinary schools around the world, and Middleby regularly gives to local food pantries. He also uses his international business acumen and fluency in many languages as an ambassador for Chicago 2016, the team dedicated to bringing the 2016 Summer Olympic Games to Chicago.

"Put people first," Bassoul says. "There's more to business than profit and production. If you take care of people, then they will take care of you."

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