You could say a billion-dollar global entity was built on candy and bubble gum.
When Murad Al-Katib (BComm’94) was a youngster and realized selling sweets to friends could be profitable, he knew he was destined to be an entrepreneur.
These days, Al-Katib is selling lentils, chick peas and other food staples to people around the world as president and CEO of AGT Food and Ingredients, a Regina-based business he pioneered in 2007.
But for him, his first foray into business was when he and his family would return home to Canada after spending holidays in his family’s native Turkey. He found his buddies back in Davidson, Sask., couldn’t get enough of the Turkish delights he would offer them – for a price.
The entrepreneurial light went on in his brain. And it’s never been switched off since.
These days, in addition to running his business, the 47-year-old Al-Katib has other pressing matters to concern himself with, namely the fallout of COVID-19 on the Canadian economy.
In June, he and nine other Canadian titans of industry were named to the federally-appointed Industry Strategy Council. The mandate for the group is essentially to provide advice to the government on how to position itself coming out of the pandemic.
“As a CEO of a leading Canadian company, it’s my obligation to work with the government of the day and give some time to influence public policy,” says Al-Katib. “I have a responsibility, if asked, to do so.”
Being part of the esteemed group of business leaders is not lost on Al-Katib.
“I was quite honoured to be one of 10 Canadians that is going to advise the government on this very historic period, post-pandemic.”
There will be some bumps along the road to economic recovery, he contends.
“We have an economy that has a lot of issues and the government has to react to that. I think it’s positive they are looking to the private sector to provide them with a little guidance.”
Recognition and accolades have been steady since his vision of a Saskatchewan-grown global pulse crop business exploded onto the world business stage.
Al-Katib, was named the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year for 2017, the same year as winning the Oslo Business for Peace Award for his efforts in helping to feed refugees in war-torn Syria.
While awards seemed to arrive regularly for Al-Katib, he attributes his success to his strong connection to his Davidson roots. Growing up in Davidson and watching his mom and dad give of themselves to their community really stuck with him.
“When I look back at my time at the University of Saskatchewan, I always had a passion for community and a passion for this province. That came from my father and my mother, as well.”
Not only was his dad’s medical practice so entwined in the community, but his mother (Feyhan) was, too. In fact, she was the first Muslim woman ever to be elected mayor of a community in Canada.
For Al-Katib, his parents had set the bar high.
“I’ve always been very entrepreneurial. I came from what I wouldn’t consider to be a traditional entrepreneurial background. My father was a physician and physicians are among the least entrepreneurial kind of people that I know.”
Al-Katib’s father, Fatih, passed away in May 2020. He was one of Al-Katib’s biggest supporters, despite the fact he broke the family mold of medicine in five generations.
“For him, watching me going to business school wasn’t a profession. For him, a profession was lawyer, doctor, engineer. Those were respected professions. Not that he didn’t respect it, he just didn’t understand what it meant to be a businessman.”
But as Al-Katib showed his father he had the passion and the drive to succeed, his father stood by proudly.
“He was a huge influence in my life and definitely spent the last decade of his life proud of myself and my brother (Omer).”
But Al-Katib says that drive to succeed was nurtured during his days as a business student at USask. It was there where he realized Saskatchewan was a very special place economically.
“Sitting at the University of Saskatchewan and studying business and understanding the economy, understanding what our potential was, it gave me this hunger for opportunity and to develop it.”
His leap into the international business world was not an overnight success. Far from it.
“I finished at the College of Commerce in 1994 and it was a very tough job market at that point. The province was in a lot of trouble and agriculture was just starting to take its turn into diversification.”
Al-Katib knew there was something out there, but knew his education needed to be enhanced to reach his goal. So, after his USask graduation, he headed to the Arizona desert and the prestigious Thunderbird School of Global Management where he obtained his MBA.
“I knew I wanted to be in international business. I always felt that with the productive capacity of this province that we had to sell to a customer outside of Saskatchewan. We grew so much and produced so much and we have what the world wants so much of – oil, minerals, agriculture. We had all these things that had such huge potential.”
The hunger and passion for business that he felt as a USask student provided him a direction. It became clear to him there was an untapped potential that was ripe for the picking. It was right under his nose. It was in the thousands of fields that decorate the Saskatchewan landscape. And it could be profitable.
“How could we be a market leader in certain commodities like lentils and chickpeas and peas and beans. They were this commodity that I would consider to have a perfect future. They were babies in a perfect future in that they were non-GM (genetically modified), high protein, high fibre crops that world consumed every day that we could grow on dry land and fit perfectly in a three-crop rotation with wheat and canola. It was sitting on a silver platter. All I had to do was take it and run with it.”
And run with it he has. AGT Foods now ships its products to more than 120 countries worldwide with operations in Canada, the U.S., Turkey, Australia, South Africa and China.
This is precisely why the federal government has asked Al-Katib for help. He knows the world and what it needs, a phrase often heard around the USask campus.
“I think it’s my passion for agriculture, my passion for community, my passion for sustainable development. That’s attractive to the government and this committee.”
Al-Katib sees struggles ahead for the national economy, but thinks Saskatchewan is positioned strongly to lead the country.
“Agriculture is a bright, shining light in an economy that has many, many grey spots. Our agriculture is the consumption of staple items – wheat, canola and pulses. People will continue to eat. These are not discretionary spend items.”
This is where Saskatchewan will be regarded as a leader economically on the national scene, Al-Katib says.
“Saskatchewan is in a very unique position and the agricultural economy is going to continue to evolve.”
In 2018, Al-Katib spoke to USask College of Agriculture graduates about how innovation is transforming the ag world.
“There was excitement in that room and that was an incredible opportunity for me.”
For Al-Katib, that brought him back to his days as a purveyor of candies to his buddies.
“To be young again, to start all over again today like I had that opportunity all those years ago. Some of these entrepreneurs have the opportunity now.”