“To be successful, one needs to manage human resources, products, and money.”
- Malek El Khoury
Tell us the story of Lyzamir.
In 1987, I decided to establish my shop. I called it Lyzamir (a contraction of two Arabic words which mean pleasure and princes). When I first established my shop, Lebanese products were not well-known, and we needed to promote them.
Geneva is a very open city with many international organizations there, and a population that is at least 30 percent foreign. The biggest influx of Lebanese immigrants came in the late 1980s, right after I established my business.
Now Switzerland has around 15,000-25,000 Lebanese, while in France, Paris alone had 100,000- 150,000 Lebanese which helped Lebanese cuisine to become well-known.
What are the challenges you face as an importer of Lebanese products?
Currently, the two main challenges we are facing are:
- European food laws are very tough and strict
- Prices in Lebanon are too high to be competitive in the European market. For instance, often cooking Japanese is cheaper than cooking Lebanese, even though Japan is a very expensive country.
In many cases we face prohibitive prices in Lebanon that cannot compete with other countries that offer the same quality.
How did you find working in Switzerland as a Lebanese company?
Working in Switzerland is a real tough deal. There is a saying in Switzerland: “Whoever succeeds in Switzerland can succeed anywhere in the world.” I am not sure if this is true, but I did learn a lot from my experience there. The laws are very strict and the inspectors make surprise visits once a month and examine the food, the scales, the storage areas, the fridge, and the conditions of employees.
Since my shop is very famous, it is under a lot of scrutiny.
Because of this we have to be very demanding with our suppliers (Lebanese exporters) to meet these standards. When some suppliers do not understand the importance of complying with the set standards we are forced to discontinue business with them.
Do the Swiss offer any facilities for your kind of business?
Although there are treaties between the EU and Lebanon which exempt Lebanese exporters to the EU from taxes, Switzerland is not yet considered a member of the EU and the customs laws of Switzerland do not offer much facilities. In addition, the fact that Switzerland is not on the sea, the ground shipping costs become considerably high.
With all these obstacles, why are you still there?
Investing in Lebanon is very difficult. Costs are too high and it is very hard to find skilled labor, which unfortunately although is still being “manufactured” in Lebanon, gets imported abroad.
We are working on a project to encourage companies to hire straight from universities the most outstanding students and offer them competitive salaries, instead of waiting for them to go off abroad and then re-hire them a couple of years later for $15,000-20,000 per month.
It would make more sense for companies to offer the talented graduates $2500-3000, and send them abroad for training and allow them to grow with the company.
What have you learned from your experience in Switzerland?
My shop is a small company and it is successful. For someone to reach this point one has to develop connections and build great experience in management and discipline. To be successful, one needs to manage human resources, products, and money.
You learn to put in a long-term strategy, which is feasible because of the stability there.
What is new in Switzerland is the entry of US producers to the market, which are run in a different way than most European companies. The competition is high now, because Americans evaluate their business on a quarterly basis. The big US companies can make profit with the volume of products they sell, without imposing a large margin of profit.
They can afford to lower their profit margins, whereas our small businesses cannot afford lower margins. So we have been forced to offer additional and personalized services which the larger companies cannot offer. In order to stay ahead, we have to do it.
In 30 years, the number of specialty food stores in the Geneva canton grew from 5 to 800, even though the population has not grown by this percentage, which means the competition has grown tremendously. We had to learn how to compete to succeed.
The most valuable thing I earned is my experience and I am trying to apply it here, in Lebanon, where I work in engineering and construction material. I apply the quality and standards that I saw in Switzerland trying to drive quality in Lebanon higher.
Why does Switzerland like to buy Lebanese?
In the food products sector, the fact that Switzerland does not have a very strong gastronomical culture, yet the Swiss travel a lot and are open to try and discover new things helped us enter the market. Then, we had to be disciplined about following the rules and meeting standards in order to succeed. Because Switzerland is a wealthy country; people are not concerned with the price as long as the quality meets their standards.
Now many factors influence the consumer, the new concepts of carbon and energy footprints, and there is a tendency not to buy imported products.
This can be also applied to local or foreign hires, and businesses are forced to keep that in mind. There are now organizations that calculate the carbon footprint and energy footprint of stores and companies and they publicize their results.
For example, I could not import my preferred “halawa” brand, because they use a non-recyclable plastic; so I had to switch to my second choice.