Widad Bouchamaoui is anything but the stereotypical image of a high-performing female executive. The attractive, but understated 37-year-old mother of two boys exudes an old-world courtesy and responds to your questions with pithy earthliness. Yet Widad runs Maille Fil, one of the biggest and most modern textile firms in Tunisia.
Widad is one of the new generation of Tunisian entrepreneurs who have used the positive business climate, created by President Ben Ali's economic policies, to launch themselves powerfully into the international market place.
The company's $30m state-of-the-art factory is situated in 100,000 sq metres of ground with 20,000 sq metres under cover. It produces 2,500 tonnes of combed cotton yarn and 600 tonnes of cotton fabric per year. The enterprise provides employment for 200 people. Fifty percent of the output is exported and 50% is used in the local market.
Like many large companies in Tunisia, Maille Fil is a family business although Widad Bouchamaoui is the general manager. She attributes her success, and the success of her brothers and sisters, to the entrepreneurial spirit of her father Hedi. "My father is a rare human being," she says. "He lost his own father at the age of 11 but he never doubted his own ability to succeed at anything he turned his hand to."
Hedi Bouchamaoui went into construction and built hospitals, schools and roads in northern Tunisia and later constructed 90% of the Borma oil field complex in the south. He switched to agriculture and embarked on huge projects in Libya employing at one time over 6,000 people. He returned to Tunisia to prospect for oil but failed to find any. Undaunted, he took his instruments to Egypt and last year, struck oil.
Did he have any time for his family?
"Oh yes," said Widad. "He was very affectionate with all his seven children - four girls and three boys. He treated the boys and girls exactly the same - which was very unusual at the time. He taught us to always speak the truth, have good manners, be honest and respect other people. He insisted that if we did not know or understand something, we should not be afraid to ask. This instilled a love of learning in us."
Widad's approach to business also comes from her father. "He always said that money was never the most important consideration; what counted was to do your work the very best you could. He wanted to be the best at whatever he was doing and his hope was that his children would be better than him. I...