A collaborative research project between New York University Abu Dhabi and Tharawat Family Business Forum


Legacy Starts Now

Experience shows how legacy can inspire innovation and entrepreneurship. Coming up in the family business, Abdulrahman AlBassam took inspiration from his great grandfather, Abdulaziz Ali AlBassam, who founded and then led AlBassam and Sons for over half a century.

Interview with Abdulrahman AlBassam

Experience shows how legacy can inspire innovation and entrepreneurship. Coming up in the family business, Abdulrahman AlBassam took inspiration from his great grandfather, Abdulaziz Ali AlBassam, who founded and then led AlBassam and Sons for over half a century. Through tales of his great grandfather’s triumph over adversity, Abdulrahman not only developed the motivation to start his own business but also came to understand the power of storytelling and its ability to transform tradition into meaningful action.

As CEO of Tilal Real Estate and the executive chairman of AWN Enterprises, Abdulrahman AlBassam continually looks for opportunities to inspire others through the lessons of history. Noura, Abdulrahman’s wife and the co-founder of AWN enterprises, also comes from a prominent Saudi business family with a powerful legacy — one that adds further momentum to their work.

Together, Abdulrahman and Noura have embedded this dual legacy of entrepreneurship in AWN, leveraging the power of storytelling to encourage family and non-family members alike. Abdulrahman also acknowledges the pressure that family legacies can place on a family firm’s governance and the impact it can have on decision-making. But even unfavourable outcomes offer wisdom, which is why Abdulrahman believes documenting every story is important.

Q: In what ways can the legacies of today’s family firms inspire the current generation of leaders and entrepreneurs?

Business legacies, especially those that span several generations, should provoke a sense of pride and responsibility in the generations that follow. If a company has survived for a century, its current leadership should be inspired to continue this success for another hundred years. 

And these legacies should also trigger conversations about how to motivate an organization’s non-family members.

Storytelling is equally fundamental for building connections with family and non-family stakeholders of every generation.

It’s also an effective way to catch the attention of investors who might be inspired by a company’s founder or other remarkable accomplishments.

Q: Legacies are complex – how can families deal with the stories of difficult moments or failures?

It’s a privilege to have a family legacy, and they come with perks. For example, others often form their first impressions of someone based on their family’s legacy and good repute.

But a legacy can also be a burden; there’s pressure not to disappoint or fail.

Consequently, decision-making can be affected in both negative and positive ways. The emotional involvement that comes with a family legacy can make certain operational choices harder, especially when addressing underperforming aspects of the business — nobody wants to be the family member that tarnishes the legacy. But that underlying anxiety must be tempered and even used as a learning opportunity.

Q: How can a family’s business history be leveraged to address operational challenges?

The history of a family business is often rich with challenges that have been overcome. How a company’s founder successfully dealt with crises or other obstacles can be shared with everyone through storytelling. Unfortunately, exploring a family’s business legacy through reading is not as common in our region as in the West, but that’s improving. Still, storytelling is a strong positive influence on those confronting new or difficult situations.

Q: How can families who don’t have a strong bond with their history find inspiration in their legacy?

This can be challenging, especially with businesses that are, for example, three generations removed from the founder. The key lies in research and, again, storytelling. Family firms who feel detached from their histories should study their founders and other leaders within the business. They will discover setbacks that were reversed, opportunities that were capitalized on, and instances of weakness that were transformed into strength.

Understanding and conveying past events is the foundation for building a family’s legacy.

Q: How can families document their ongoing legacy for future generations?

Beginning the process right away is the most important factor and there are various ways to do so. An example is daily journaling, which has become popular in the West but hasn’t yet taken hold in our region. Journaling’s capacity to capture the immediacy and essence of events, thoughts, and feelings makes it an effective tool for documenting family or business histories. Like most healthy habits, discipline is vital to maintain the practice, especially with today’s distractions, but the idea of building legacy provides strong motivation. 

Another important aspect of journaling is that it allows individuals to tell their stories in their own way. Plant the seeds of experience as soon as possible. Before long, a legacy will grow.

Q: In what ways can families draw on their experiences together to preserve continuity and aid in generational transitions?

Maintaining relationships between core family members and extended family members can become more challenging as time moves on. I think families should be honest with themselves and understand that there will be challenges as businesses become multi-generational. Creating a family charter to help family members address personal problems can aid generational continuity. Overall, a family firm’s governance must be adapted to the complex reality faced when setting goals, especially when transitioning an organization’s structure.

A willingness to have open conversations within the family about its values and the family connections that have helped define the business’ success over generations is key.

Individuals willing to take on the challenge of maintaining, building, and growing their family’s legacy have a greater chance of success when they have a strong vision and can be both optimistic and grounded. Moreover, communicating those characteristics is crucial. When families establish a common bond between all members, they create the glue that will keep their businesses together for generations.

Publication Date: 3-March-2023

The Interviewee

Abdulrahman AlBassam, Executive Chairman AWN Enterprises and CEO Tilal Real Estates

Abdulrahman AlBassam founded AWN Enterprises in 2009 to manage a portfolio of investments. As a holding company, AWN has the strategic advantage of having the flexible entrepreneurial structure with the background and strong affiliation of legacy companies; that is AlBassam & Sons (founded in 1914) and Tamimi Group (founded in 1953). Abdulrahman is a founder and board member of several companies in the HORECA and Professional Services sectors; the latest is Tilal Real Estate Company of which he serves as CEO. He is also a member in organizations such as the Asharqiya Chamber Board of Directors, the Saudi-British Joint Business Council and the EY Next Gen Club.