With a net worth of $1 billion, Mohed Altrad has done very well for himself in the financial sphere. But his background is very different from most of his fellow billionaires. To give you just one idea of just how different his background is, Mohed has no idea how old he actually is.
The back story regarding when Mohed Altrad was born (whenever it happened), is dramatic enough for the Bible or Shakespeare: He says his father was the leader of a Bedouin tribe in Syria, who raped his mother, a poor woman who was then more or less discarded after the incident. This unholy union also resulted in another son. This birth actually resulted in the death of Mohed's mother. As if that wasn't bad enough, Altrad's father soon killed the new baby brother. As you can already see, this is not the typical origin story of a billionaire, not even a purportedly "self-made" one.
As a child, Altrad was raised in impoverished conditions in Syria by his grandmother, who gave him only enough education to let him work as a shepherd in the desert. What little glimpses of a proper education he was able to get intrigued him, though, and eventually he was able to pursue one on his own. From there, he somehow made it into the household of an adoptive couple who supported him to the point of getting accepted at Montpellier, a French university that is also one of the oldest educational institutions in the world. Oh – and when he arrived for class, he did not speak a word of French.
What could have been a crippling linguistic liability for some didn't seem to hinder Altrad's education much, as he soon walked away from the university with a PhD in computer science. After that, his financial fortunes started to turn, with stints with Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and a portable computer company in France (this before all computers were portable computers).
But Altrad had the urge to attain more independence for himself and his business pursuits – an urge which eventually led to his saving enough money to purchase, along with a partner, a small scaffolding company. Slowly but surely, over the course of around 30 years, this business has grown to a massive conglomerate, encompassing a total of 170 companies and $200 million in profit a year. The most recent acquisition was a rival Dutch company that Altrad managed to absorb, doubling the size of his own company, and substantially increasing his personal net worth.
Mohed Altrad's life story is the focus of renewed interest now that he's been named World Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst and Young. His acceptance remarks also included his business philosophies (he wants happier workers, not wage slaves) and what he does when he can't sleep (writes a lot – enough to fill entire books, like his autobiographical novel Bedouin, official reading in French public schools). The phrase "rags to riches" gets thrown around a lot in relation to successful businessmen, but it rarely seems as appropriate as it does when describing Altrad's life and career.