Gaby Abdelnour ’77, ‘79G says he climbed to the position of Chairman and CEO of JP Morgan Asia-Pacific by working many days from 7 a.m. until midnight—and by always doing the right thing, too.
“Integrity is the biggest capital you will ever have in your career,” he told a packed audience in Zoellner’s Baker Hall on Oct. 23. “It takes an individual or firm years to build the reputation of integrity, but it only takes 30 seconds to ruin that reputation. So make sure when you say something, you mean it.”
Abdelnour came to Lehigh as part of the Distinguished Finance Speaker Series, sponsored by Donald M. Gruhn ’49. He spent his first day back to Lehigh in 25 years meeting with university administrators, faculty and students, touring the campus and then sharing priceless words of wisdom during the Gruhn lecture. As he introduced Abdelnour personally, Gruhn called him “a truly exceptional human being and brilliant executor.”
Born in Beirut in 1953, the French-educated Abdelnour learned English at age 14 and perfected it by listening to The Beatles and Rolling Stones on the BBC. He applied to colleges and universities in the United States without telling his mother and got into Lehigh at age 18. His engineering education gave him a firm science background and helped him to “see through all the numbers quickly” when he decided to shift his career focus to business development.
In his nearly 35-year-career, Abdelnour has lived in three continents and personally witnessed the integration of three mergers/acquisition with JP Morgan, one of the most challenging financial crises in history and the resurgence of the Asian Tigers. During his six-and-a-half years as chairman and CEO, Abdelnour took the Asian region from less than $2 billion in revenue to $6 billion. Meanwhile, he managed more than 30,000 employees in 15 countries, increased the firm’s market share and tripled the bottom line. Today, Abdelnour is a senior advisor at Bain Capital and serves on the board of various non-profit organizations. He speaks three languages fluently—English, French and Arabic.
A Personal Definition of Leadership
Abdelnour spoke to a group of Lehigh business students eager for advice on how to make their own stamp on the financial world. Under the theme of leadership, he shared stories of his career triumphs and his mistakes, too.
“Leadership is something we develop as we go through life. We all have our own definition of leadership,” he said.
In addition to integrity, which he stressed repeatedly, Abdelnour said his description of leadership focuses on several key points. One is the importance of “EQ,” or emotional intelligence.
“There are many smart, high-IQ people in the world, but few with the right level of EQ—the ability to articulate your intelligence and turn it into a meaningful interaction with other people,” he said. “High EQ involves listening—listening to different accents, different cultural backgrounds, and different ways of interpreting things.”
Abdelnour talked about using his own EQ to expand his firm’s presence in the all-important China market. “I had to communicate to the board of directors in New York City (who think in terms of quarterly earnings) that you don’t invest in China to make a quick buck. To invest in China means you have to look five to 20 years down the road.” With his ability to adapt in multicultural environments and his no-nonsense way, Abdelnour successfully bridged that gap between New York and China and helped create one of the best corporate banking franchises in Asia.
Arrogance is an Enemy to Success
True to the direct style that has helped him bridge so many more cultural gaps throughout his career, Abdelnour told his Lehigh audience not to go into investment banking for the money.
“I know a lot of people are impressed by the lifestyles of investment bankers,” he said. “But investment banking requires real sacrifices, personally and professionally. So unless you are motivated by the intellectual challenge, do not go down the investment banking road because you see dollar signs,” he said.
Abdelnour also talked about the importance of getting a leg up on the competition. “You are part of a generation that is much better trained, much better educated and much better connected and able to face the world than I was when I left Lehigh,” he said. “However, the competition is a lot harder, so you will have to work twice as hard to achieve the same thing; that is the free market environment we are in today.”
Abdelnour stressed, however, that competing shouldn’t mean sacrificing trust. “In advisory, trust is everything. And trust means you have to tell the client what you think is right, not what they want to hear, even if it may be against his or her best interest.”
Competing also doesn’t mean knocking the other guy down with your ego. “Arrogance is the biggest enemy to success. I cannot tell you how many people I’ve seen let egotism take over their decision-making. So stay humble and keep your feet on the ground,” he said.
Some of the hottest industries are overseas, so Abdelnour encouraged students to pursue these jobs, as he did. “If your boss says, ‘You have a job in China,’ take it. You are young. You will have time to do other things in your life, so jump at this opportunity,” he said.
To conclude, Abdelnour quoted a Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is today,” he said.
“We live in a culture of instant gratification, but it’s important to think about where you want to be long term. So no matter how challenging your goals may seem, stretch your imagination. Stretch yourself.”