The history of The Olayan Group is intertwined with the life and accomplishments of its founder and chairman, Suliman Saleh Olayan. Over a 55-year career as an independent businessman, he served with distinction as entrepreneur, investor, business leader, and philanthropist. Under his astute guidance and leadership, The Olayan Group became both a leading diversified enterprise in Saudi Arabia and major participant in global investing.
The Journey Begins
Suliman Olayan was born in Unayzah in north central Saudi Arabia. For centuries, this oasis town had been a haven for caravans venturing across the Najd, Saudi Arabia's heartland. The merchant families of Unayzah had developed important trading links with the world outside central Arabia -- the cities on the Red Sea, which had ties to Africa and the Levant, and towns on the Arabian Gulf coast, which had ties to Asia.
In 1918, Suliman Olayan was born into one of these merchant families. His father, Saleh, had recently returned from Medina, where he had been a spice trader. Suliman spent the first years of his life in his family's ancestral hometown.
Suliman's mother died just a few months after he was born, and his father died when he was still a child. When he was about 10 years old, Suliman traveled with his older brother by camel to the Arabian Gulf coast and then by boat to Bahrain.
In Bahrain, at the dawn of the age of oil in that part of the Arabian Gulf, Suliman attended the American school, where he learned English, and then the Al-Khalifa and Al-Jafariya schools. He proved to be an exceptional student with a prodigious memory and an uncanny ability to see things not just as they were but as they could be.
After leaving school in 1936, he went to work for The Bahrain Petroleum Company. A year later, he returned to Saudi Arabia to take a job with the California Arabian Standard Oil Company, forerunner of the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco), today known as Saudi Aramco. By 1947, Suliman had risen from transportation dispatcher to storehouse supervisor to a position in Government Relations. During King Abdul Aziz Al Saud's historic visit to Dhahran in April of that year, Suliman served as a company translator. He later often said that Aramco was his ‘university.’
Genesis of an Enterprise
In the wake of World War II, the oil industry was expanding rapidly. Sensing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Suliman set out on his own in the summer of 1947. With a personal loan secured on his home, he established General Contracting Company (GCC).
GCC's first customer was Bechtel, which was under contract to Aramco to manage the construction of the Trans-Arabian Pipe Line (Tapline), a mammoth project designed to link the oil wells in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province to a terminal in Lebanon on the Mediterranean Sea. GCC handled trucking and supply services for the historic project, which established Suliman's reputation as a dependable contractor who delivered high-quality work.
Buoyed by GCC's success and with his entrepreneurial instincts and drive now in high gear, Suliman undertook a series of trailblazing projects in the 1950s. He played a key role in developing Saudi Arabia's earliest electrical power companies, founding the country's first public utility, the National Gas Company.
In 1954, he launched General Trading Company (GTC), the Group's food and consumer products distribution business. Also in 1954, Suliman was instrumental in introducing commercial insurance to Saudi Arabia, founding Arab Commercial Enterprises (ACE), which went on to become the largest insurance and reinsurance broker in the Middle East. In the 1960s, Suliman turned to international equity investing, an activity which would eventually establish the Group as an influential participant in global capital markets.
Joint Ventures with Major Multinationals
Meanwhile, Suliman was also developing business alliances, pioneering in Saudi Arabia the concept of strategic partnerships and strengthening his relationship to Bechtel. Moreover, through GTC and GCC he acquired exclusive distributorships for Kimberly-Clark, General Foods, Pillsbury, Hunt Wesson, Cummins Engine, Kenworth and Atlas Copco. In 1969, the Group obtained a license from Kimberly-Clark to construct the first paper tissue converting plant in Saudi Arabia. The same year, GTC established one of the first cold storage and meat processing plants in the Kingdom, and the Group played a leading role with other Saudi and foreign investors to establish a large factory for manufacturing plastic pipe and fittings. Other joint manufacturing ventures with major multinationals followed.
Beginning in the late 1980s, the Group embarked on a series of new activities in Saudi Arabia, focusing on light manufacturing and franchising, reaching beyond the Kingdom to other Gulf countries and the greater Middle East. At the same time, it consolidated and strengthened existing operations, a process that continues to this day.
Focus on Investment
Internationally, the Group has built upon Suliman's reputation as an astute, prudent, and patient investor. Today the Group's substantial international holdings include public and private equities, real estate, fixed income securities, and other asset classes. Historically, the Group’s investments have been concentrated in the U.S., Europe, and Middle East but today extend to Latin America, Asia, and other markets.
Suliman Olayan passed away on July 4, 2002, at the age of 83, but his legacy endures. In all that it does, The Olayan Group remains guided by the vision of this self-made business prodigy. He journeyed from Unayzah to Wall Street during an era in which quite literally caravans gave way to global commerce. His values -- hard work, determination, insatiable curiosity, and unassailably scrupulous business practices – are the foundation on which The Olayan Group stands.