March 20, 2006
Egypt: Retail Empire Privatised, Omar Effendi thrown to the winds of savage liberalism
Catching this article in The Financial Times brought a fine warm glow to my heart. Omar Effendi, the Queen of the Nasser Era, the down-home slut of Mubarek (Omar is of course a male name, which simply means you should be flexible) era retailing.
I recall fondly the first time walking into Omar Effendi and encountering the brilliance of Eastern European School retailing that I had last witnessed in the Alexanderplatz (except the Cuban place that used to be around the Palasthotel area, my memory has faded now as to where): the dusty cliques of bored and hostile clerks, the broken and/or dirty merchandise. (My favourite being the dirty lingerie on the mannequin that looked to have been subject to some kind of slasher attack.
But enough of my reminscing, let's talk about Egyptians in revolt as faded diva of retail is put on sale.
The main issue lurking here from my perspective is the ability of Egypt to sustain liberalisation, and move it down into the economy.
Mahmoud Mohieldin, Egypt's investment minister, has had a relatively smooth ride since relaunching a stalled privatisation programme in 2004.
The state has divested itself of joint-venture banks, sold cement and power-generating companies and floated 20 per cent of Telecom Egypt. This month the Bank of Alexandria, one of the big state-owned banks until recently off limits, is coming on the block.
But the sale of Omar Effendi - once the "grande dame" of Egyptian department store chains but now, in the words of al-Ahram weekly, a "faded high-street diva" - has prompted the kind of backlash reserved for more strategic assets.
I would note the despite the relative length of the privatisation list, the financial system remains far too heavily dominated by the State, and indeed it's the State banks that are the 800 lb gorillas. Divestitures that keep up the apperance of progress without really removing the dead hand of the state from the half-strangled Egyptian economy.
This is the fifth time since 1993 that the government has tried to sell the chain. The latest offer by the Saudi Anwal group, at E£504m ($88m, €72m, £50m), is the best. But the difference in two government-sponsored valuations has provided those opposing the deal with the opportunity to cry foul, exposing obstinate divisions over Egypt's future.
The head of a sister company has filed a legal complaint against Mr Mohieldin, alleging that he is conspiring to cast off Omar Effendi at a knock-down price. Nationalist members of parliament are threatening to block the deal. The impending tussle will test the government's mettle and its appetite for more painful reforms down the line.
The phrase, "conspiring to cast off Omar Effendi at a knock-down price" is the sort of thing that brings smiles to the faces of anyone who knows Omar Effendi.
In its heyday in the first half of the 20th century Omar Effendi drew well-heeled Egyptians prepared to pay for elegant surroundings and products of mark. Like society's upper crust, the stores have since weathered nationalisation in 1957, competition and prolonged recession. While the upper crust has proved resilient, Omar Effendi has been less so. Mismanagement and overstaffing - the chain employs nearly 6,000 - have taken a toll.
After four years of losses, it made a E£2.2m profit last year. Given that there are 83 Omar Effendi stores in prime positions, it might have done better in a year of 5.7 per cent GDP growth.
Indeed. Atlhough presuming the books have any semblance with reality (and given Egyptian accounting standards, and without knowing the circumstances of the reporting, reality and reported earnings may only have an accidental relationship), I remain doubtful there is a genuine profit.
Leaving aside the issue of profitability, there is its social function -providing shoddy goods at appropriately shoddy prices so that the urban Egyptian can almost keep a semblance of a civilised life together. Shoddy Egyptian made tub washers whose sheer gusto in destroying clothes is only exceeded by their sheer cheapness, for example.
The chain does have its loyal followers. A less grandiose version added in the 1970s in the bustling neighbourhood of Mohandiseen was doing brisk sales in cookers, carpets and sundry other items this week.
Young employees, who start on salaries of just E£120 a month (£12) before sales bonuses, are enthusiastic about change.
"We are not selling anything. With a new owner it might get better," said Adel, next to a jumbled rack of trousers.
Frankly, any proper owner than the Egyptian state is likely to do vastly better.
A key problem is that most of the legacy employees are frankly utterly useless. They have to be retrained or fired. But that breaks the implicit contract with the Egyptian state... rather like the old Soviet state.
It is with an eye on the Adels of Egypt - a vast pool of potentially troublesome youth - that Hosni Mubarak, the 77-year-old president, has relaxed his cautious approach, placing the private sector nearer the centre of reforms he hopes will generate 4.5m jobs in six years.
But an older generation, and parts of the vast bureaucracy, have not stopped pressing their case. Mustapha Bakry, the MP who has led the parliamentary revolt, says the chain's trademark is worth a third of the asking price; its architectural landmarks alone are worth more than the deal.
He drew parallels with the recent US backlash against Dubai Ports World's deal to manage US container terminals: "This concerns us equally. The government is planning to sell some of the most necessary assets of Egypt. They are planning to sell our fortune, our blood."
Indeed, the older generation, that desperately fears any change, and dresses up their fear in nationalist language and the lkek to disguise running their interests against those of younger workers and generally speaking a heathier economy.
When one thinks about it, rather reminds one of the problems in France.
Posted by The Lounsbury at March 20, 2006 05:10 AM
Filed Under: Biz - Private in MENA
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OMG! I always consider shopping there such a funny experience. Yesterday I went there to buy a mother's day galabiya for my MIL and I swear I was the only non-employee in the cavernous multi-story branch (the one on Tahrir street in Dokki). I also had to wait at the cashier for the employee from the second floor to bring said galabiya down the stairs to me for about 10 minutes. If they sold it and it became efficient and popular that would be such a sea change!
But, unless one thinks inefficiency, dust and inertia are valuable national commodities, I cannot understand the nationalist opposition.
Posted by: Anna in Cairo at March 20, 2006 10:35 AM
Why on earth you went to Omar Effendi escapes me (other than the price), but yes, inefficiency, dust and inertia are valuable national commodities; why look at the Presidency.
Posted by: collounsbury at March 20, 2006 04:08 PM
Years ago I remember being in Cairo and innocently walking into Omar Effendi for something random, I was with a diplo teen bitch friend of mine and she yanked me from my top ad said, 'What are you doing?? People like us don't go into place like that!' Because I was not yet wise enough to be a snob I walked in anyway and, well, L put it eloquently enough.
Anna re abu aardvark comment a while back, am afraid (or maybe not so much) I do not live in Cairo but please allow to me to get in touch during summer travels to Um i-Dunya .
Posted by: Bint at March 20, 2006 04:43 PM
we have now degenerated to the point of using OMG
i do believe that was the seventh seal.
any winged horsemen yet?
i will have to pop into a branch of Omar Effendi the next time i'm in the area. sounds "charming"
Oh yeah, I forgot this blog prides itself on not using silly internet acronyms. Excuse me for being juvenile. It comes from having two teenagers. Yes Bint please do look me up when you're here. I work in Dokki and would love to meet you. Lounsbury, I like going to Omar E. because the experience is so surreal!
Posted by: Anna in Cairo at March 22, 2006 06:30 AM