Young Batroun entrepreneur shows courage, stronger than the crisis
Antonios Salem, 24, runs an important candle making company in an expanding market. With the money first set aside for a car he bought a machine. He made his first candles in 2016. Today his company has six machines and a monthly output in excess of 10 tonnes.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – “Yes, there is still work to do in Lebanon!” said a smiling Antonios Salem. At 24, he runs a candle making business that is taking Lebanon’s convents and supermarkets by storm.
Contrary to an almost general discouragement that borders on defeatism, his spirit of entrepreneurship on constant alert, he says he has enough ideas to start five new businesses, if he had the money.
We are in Batroun, a town with a flourishing local tourist industry. Full of the light from the sky and the sea, the alleys of the small town, its Bronze Age rampart, its churches and restaurants, attract more and more people, especially young people.
Georges Salem, the father of the young entrepreneur, used to run one of these restaurants. Today, he works on busy days, imports paraffin – the raw material for making candles – and keeps the accounts of the flourishing company driven by his son.
Nothing suggested that Antonios Salem would become boss of a candle making enterprise at his young age. Nothing but the entrepreneurial spirit that seems innate in some Lebanese, combined with tenacity and perseverance.
The second child of a modest, close-knit, believing family, he says he grew up with a desire to be his own boss, a desire that two short stints in a pastry shop and a small seaside resort, as a teenager, definitely put in his mind.
Hands-on at the university
After studying at the school run by the Capuchin Fathers in Batroun, Antonios Salem earned a management degree from the University of the Holy Family, also in Batroun. Three years of study, which he considers “a waste of time, since the theory was so far from practice.”
As a “hands-on” kid, as he describes himself, he says he didn’t learn “what a check is” in three years of study. Instead, he has great respect for the manual trades, and notes – with a bit of know-it-all – that plumbers and masons make as much money as doctors and lawyers.
His career as an entrepreneur began when, after his high school diploma, he got his driver's licence, and his father set aside, at his request, money to buy him a used car.
Thanks to this, sometime later, he bought a candle-making machine abandoned by a neighbour. But he quickly became disillusioned with it because it was obsolete, unusable.
Still, his determination overcame this disappointment. He dismantled the machine piece by piece and built a new one with parts made by a turner. That needed a lot of money... He found it by learning... about fish! “I started selling fish, a very profitable business in Batroun," he said, all smiles.
“My new machine cost me a lot of money," Salem explained, “but thanks to my father who continued to believe in me, I held on. Then one day, my machine worked. I made my first batch of candles in 2016. The success was immediate and little by little, I grew in the business and diversified my production.”
What Antonios Salem does not say is that as any good entrepreneur knows, he had the reflex to reinvest his first profits. Today, his company, Bougies Salem, includes six machines. With a monthly output of more than 10 tonnes in high season, it is considered one of the top candle makers in Lebanon.
“There are four or five candle producers in Lebanon and some four small ones,” said Georges Salem, Antonios’s father, who delivers paraffin to small retailers, "and we are, with Bougies Aoun, among the top.”
“We import all the raw material from China, and our candles are distributed in the north and in Jbeil. Today, we are at the gates of Beirut,” Antonios explained. “I'm happy with 10 to 15 per cent profit, far from the 30 per cent that some people make. Yet my candles neither ooze, nor drip, and they last longer” and are also cheaper.
Nostalgic, he remembers his first machine. “It taught me everything,” he said. His success story is all the more beautiful since it also involves a love story.
A naturalised Canadian, his father Georges Salem came back to the old country to find a wife, and it was love at first sight. But “he never pushed us to leave Lebanon to benefit from Canadian citizenship,” the young man said.
As a wise father, Georges Salem marvels at his son’s overflowing energy in his work, spending sleepless nights to meet large orders, and going to the workshop at 7 am.
“We are a family that relies on Providence,” Antonios explained. “God fills a great place in our lives, as does music. We all play an instrument and to truth be told, my one and only regret is that I sacrificed the violin for my business.”