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Altrad, a ‘child of the desert’ at top of France rugby, business

Mohed Altrad’s appearance in the dock marks another remarkable chapter in the never-dull life of a man who turned up in Montpellier from Syria in 1970 without a penny or a word of French.

A self-professed “child of the desert,” he has amassed a fortune estimated at 4 billion euros ($4 billion), employs over 50,000 people, including 15,000 in France, and is the owner of the Montpellier rugby team.

He built his wealth first on scaffolding — he is number one in Europe — and subsequently cement mixers, and is also involved in the oil and gas industry.

Tennis-mad Altrad is better known in France for his involvement in sports than business.

Not renowned for his love of rugby, he bought the Montpellier team in 2011, turning it from near-bankruptcy to be crowned champions of France last season.

His Altrad brand name adorns not only the most storied team of all, The All Blacks, but in 2017 became the first ever shirt sponsor of the French national side.

A Paris court is now probing whether that deal and several decisions in the Montpellier club’s favour stemmed from his close relationship with French Rugby Federation chief and fellow accused Bernard Laporte.

The septuagenarian father of five may see the trial as a minor obstacle given the hurdles that he has overcome in life.

“I was born as a result of a rape,” he told La Region Occitanie.

“My mother was a member of a tribe living near Raqqa. My father, who was chief of the tribe, raped her. She gave birth to me alone in the desert and he rejected her. That was between 1948 and 1951, it is impossible to know precisely.”

Altrad — who has never returned to Syria since 1972 — said life was unbearable for him and his mother.

He sees those tragic origins as the foundation of the drive to succeed that has been his trademark. 

“To be the son of a rejected mother is seen as shameful in tribe culture. She died shortly after my birth.

“Following that I battled to gain a place at school. I passed my bac (school leaving exams) and I received a bursary –- 200 francs, I recall -– to go and study in France.”

For Altrad, Montpellier has been the oasis in his life.

“I have achieved everything here in Montpellier: my apprenticeship, learned the language, my studies, my business group, the rugby club,” he said.

– ‘Great successes’ –

Altrad has made enemies amongst his fellow Top 14 club presidents, labelling them as being “very conservative and small minded” and adding the French rugby business model was not “fit for purpose.”  

Altrad — who says he is a “humanist” — is as brutal in his judgement of those he feels have let him down, like France’s Six Nations Grand Slam winning coach Fabien Galthie, who he fired as Montpellier handler.   

“Someone who does not do his job despite all the advice we give him has to be dispensed with, as he puts at risk the collective goal,” he said.

But Altrad is far from being a big mouth, preferring to keep his own counsel and guard…

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