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Moving Forward Together

In Focus
NAME:Slim Zeghal
COMPANY:Altea Packaging
LOCATION:Tunis, Tunisia
First as a multinational, then as a family-owned federation, CEO Slim Zeghal has fought to maintain Altea Packaging as an international packaging powerhouse.

Over the past 35 years, the flexible packaging company Altea Packaging has reached soaring heights, expanding from its birthplace in North Africa across Europe, only to be buffeted by the winds of history and forced to refocus its attention locally, before finally regrouping as a smaller yet still powerful federation of SMEs.

Leading the company through these tectonic shifts since he took on the role of CEO in 2005 has been Slim Zeghal – a trained engineer and published author who has also managed to leave his mark on the business world.

Zeghal attributes his rise as a business leader to his growing up with a “double culture”, with both Tunisian and French influences in his upbringing.

“I was raised with two languages, and started learning English quite early, which taught me the importance of always having a multicultural approach,” he tells The CEO Magazine. “Leadership is all about people – understanding people, their needs, their thoughts, their culture. That’s something that really drives me.”

“Leadership is all about people – understanding people, their needs, their thoughts, their culture. That’s something that really drives me.”

After completing his education in France and the United States, Zeghal found work as a young engineer at a company that would later go on to become the French multinational Veolia, which is involved in water and waste management and energy services.

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In addition to exposing him to the challenges of various roles in the company, from research to sales, the role also gave Zeghal the opportunity to travel the world.

“It was really a very rich experience that helped me meet different people, see different contexts and understand different ways of doing things,” he says. “Having been trained as an engineer, normally, you are a very rational person. But, in fact, it’s not only about knowledge. As Einstein has pointed out, it’s more about imagination. So you have to be creative. And in the world where we live today, where things change very rapidly, you have to adapt.”

Lessons into Actions

Zeghal wasted no time before putting the lessons of his double culture into action.

Altea was a packaging leader in Tunisia when he took over as CEO, but by regional standards, it was one of many small operations, none of which dominated the packaging field. Zeghal knew that this offered an opportunity, if only Altea could find a way to stand out from the competition.

“The question we had was: What is my business? Is it packaging as a whole? Or is it something more specific?” he recalls.

He and his team settled on flexible packaging, or packaging using non-rigid materials, as the answer. Now that they understood their competitive advantage technically, it was time to start thinking about expanding geographically.

Zeghal turned to private equity investors to make key acquisitions outside Tunisia, which had the added benefit of overcoming the constraints of the country’s foreign exchange regulations. After consolidating in Tunisia, Altea opened the door to Europe by acquiring a company in France.

“The consumption per capita of packaging in Europe is several times larger than where we are based, and having a European presence gives you more credibility in the European market,” he says.

Next came acquisitions in Algeria, Morocco and Egypt.

“Egypt is a huge country and a gateway to the eastern part of Africa on one side and to the Middle East on the other side, as well as being a blend of multiple cultures again, which was a really interesting experience,” Zeghal recalls.

A Model of Independence

But Altea’s packaging empire was not invincible, and the forces that mobilized against it, and against many strong businesses in the region, were immense.

In the 2010s, the Arab Spring uprisings swept across North Africa and the Middle East. Although they had no direct impact on Altea’s finances or logistics, the political instability they brought spooked the company’s European customers.

“We were still delivering on what we had promised, but we faced a problem of perception,” he says. “We had a long period where we couldn’t develop as we wished, and finding a large partner for a region that was perceived as being complicated became quite difficult.”

But that did not stop Zeghal from pursuing growth in other ways. He transformed Altea into a federation of SMEs, where each member of the group retains the autonomy to manage its own customers but benefits from the advantages of the larger group’s logistics network and research and development.

“The model we built left a lot of independence in the hands of the CEOs of the companies we owned,” Zeghal says. “We provide more centralized services that can add value, such as research and development and purchasing power. If you buy 10 times, 20 times more than a given subsidiary, of course, you can buy better.”

Ultimately, Altea had to divest from its assets outside Tunisia and went back to being a family-owned business.

“Taking care of the environment doesn’t mean you will be less competitive.”

Today, Altea’s operations are at least five times larger than they were when Zeghal became CEO in 2005, and exports its products across Africa, Europe and Asia. For the last few years, the company has seen a 20 percent year-on-year growth rate.

“I still believe there is a lot of potential in having build-ups on the African continent because many of the markets where we operate are still fragmented, and we can, hopefully, have interesting growth stories on the continent,” he says.

Being firmly located in Tunisia has also spurred Altea to be more precise in its logistics, more deliberate about its research and development, and more invested in its staff and long-term partners, such as the Italian prepress service provider Inci-flex.

“Not having everything available next door makes you more accurate in understanding your needs,” Zeghal says.

Close partnerships have also given the company the freedom to experiment with new products, like new forms of recyclable packaging. Altea even presented advances in environmental solutions at last year’s COP28 summit in Dubai.

“Taking care of the environment doesn’t mean you will be less competitive,” Zeghal says. “If you find a way to do it that can also improve your business, this is how we all move forward together.”

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