Q&A with Iskandar Safa, Founder of Shipbuilder Privinvest Group

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Iskandar Safa, CEO of Privinvest Group, founded the company more than two decades ago with his brother, Akram Safa. The company has grown from a single shipyard in France into a global shipbuilding power with facilities in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Germany and the U.K., in addition to France. Privinvest has made vessels for the navies of more than 40 nations, including NATO countries, and also builds commercial ships and mega-yachts. Safa, who was born in Lebanon, is involved in a number of charitable activities and offered marble from his quarry in France for the restoration of Notre-Dame Cathedral.

How did you get into shipbuilding?

I always liked boats. Nevertheless, shipbuilding came for commercial reasons, and that’s why I bought my first shipyard in 1991 in France. People always have a tendency to say that everything was planned and according to plan. I don’t believe this. What people do usually is to try to build the story around what they have done, and do it later on. I knew what I wanted to do, and I did it without planning what has happened. 

Talk about growing up in Lebanon. 

What I remember from Lebanon, what impacted my life in Lebanon, was first of all my childhood and the school where I met a lot of my friends from those days. They have remained my friends – we see each other almost every year. What also impacted my life is the civil war in Lebanon, which changed the environment of the country, which changed my career, made me work in the U.S. first, then the Gulf countries. 

What are you most proud of?

My pride is how we were able – me and the people who work with me -- to go from one shipyard in France to shipyards all over Europe and the Middle East. To take a company that was only French, and for Privinvest to become an international group recognized as one of the world leaders in the category of ships. 

What projects are underway at Privinvest?

Our group today has an order book of 80-plus vessels that are being built for a number of NATO countries. Those are among the largest programs today in the industry, in the world, which really confirms the position of leadership we have worldwide. 

What’s going on in the shipbuilding industry, globally?

The environment of the industry itself is changing, where you have new actors today who were not in the picture a few years ago. China is a big actor, South Korea; you have other emerging countries that are becoming actors, like Turkey, that were not actors before. And we have to take all of this into consideration, optimizing our products, putting more quality in, and mainly consolidating the industry in Europe to be more competitive, in front of the competition that’s coming from all over the world.

How do you maintain quality over such a far-flung operation?

It's very important to have direct contact with the teams that are working in my companies. And that’s what we do, actually. I try as much as possible to be in contact with them, to brainstorm with them, because they bring added value to what I know. And I try as much as possible to also contribute to that. And I always try to push them to overcome any challenges. And the bigger the challenges, the better it is for the company and for them if we can overcome it. The thing that I tried to push, as much as possible, is quality.

Outside of Privinvest, what are you passionate about?

I love art. I’m a collector, and more than that, art is a passion. It goes together with my insistence on quality. Now, did quality bring art, or did art bring quality? I don’t know, but I try to push the two together, in parallel. 

Talk about your philanthropic activities.

I’ve been doing charity for a long time. I don’t talk about it, because if you want to do charity, the first thing is to do it without the promotion of yourself.  What we offered for Notre Dame was in the press not because of us, but because of the authorities. We did it because I’m French, because we have an important presence in France. I consider Notre Dame as part of our culture, part of our history. My culture comes from Catholicism, which is a culture I defend and a culture I’m very keen to keep because it’s a culture that I know that I like, that I would like to continue evolving in.

How do you maintain a work-life balance? 

Living a healthy life is very important. It’s very important for yourself. It’s very important for your environment, whether your family or the people you work with. I do sports, I try to eat healthy, and I try to live a healthy life. 

Considering the scale of Privinvest, you are not as widely known as other global CEOs. Do you think this makes you mysterious?

I’m not mysterious at all – maybe I’m reserved. I don’t like to be in public, to appear at social events, but for sure, not mysterious. On the contrary, I don’t like what is mysterious. I don’t like hidden things. When you don’t have anything to hide, and you’re honest with what you do, the way you live, the way you establish friendships, the way you establish relations in any case, you don’t need to be at all mysterious. You’re mysterious whenever you have a problem. Since I don’t have any problems, that’s why I’m completely transparent.

Would you like your children to carry on your company?

I watch my kids, how they’re growing in a fascinating way. I always push them to do whatever they like to do, whatever they love to do. Now if one day, they want to do what I do, it would be a coincidence and I would welcome it, sure. But I don’t want to push them to do what I’m doing, because I want to push them to do what they love to do. 

For more about Iskandar Safa, visit his website https://www.iskandar-safa.com/ or follow him on Twitter