Ilham Kadri, a Franco-Moroccan woman with an extraordinary career and an iron will, has earned a reputation to match her ambitions. Having worked in Europe, Canada, Dubai and the United States, she is known for her ability to lead a team and transform a business. In March she became CEO of Solvay, a chemicals giant with 27,000 employees and $10 billion in sales.
Year took up current function: 2019
Turnover in 2018: $10.3bn
Growth in 2018: N/A
At the Aix-en-Provence economic forum in early July, her address provoked a thunder of applause. Speaking on the theme "What values do we need to build the society of tomorrow?", Solvay's latest president spoke about respect, merit and freedom; values she knows well because they are the ones that have carried her through life, starting from her youth in the disadvantaged neighbourhoods of Casablanca to where she is today, the CEO of a major multinational. Values that were instilled in Ilham by the grandmother who raised her and who, during her entire childhood, repeatedly said to her: "In life there are two doors for a little girl to walk through: one leads to her husband's house, the other to the grave", before ordering her to find a ‘third door’. She taught her that even if you grow up without running water or electricity, education is always the gateway to a better future.
The third door
Obviously, grandma’s message got through. Ilham Kadri was so studious and determined to succeed as a teenager that she obtained two scholarships; one in Morocco, the other in France. As soon as she graduated high school, she crossed the Mediterranean to integrate a preparatory class for the high scientific school in Besancon. Then came postgraduate education, which she commenced in France and continued in Canada. At the age of 28, she obtained her doctorate in macromolecular physico-chemistry. After beginning her career at Shell in Belgium, then at LyondellBasell and at UCB, she appeared on the radar of the big American companies.
Initially hired by chemical manufacturer Huntsman, she joined Roms & Haas, which in 2009 was bought by global industry giant Dow Chemical. This is where Jérôme Péribère, then CEO of the company, spotted her. He recognized her potential, that she had a certain something which, a few years later, Jean-Pierre Clamadieu also noticed when he welcomed her to join her at Solvay. He first entrusted her with the creation of the first seawater desalination plant in Dubai. Afterwards, when he took over the management of the Sealed Air group, he offered her the management of one of its subsidiaries, Diversey, which specializes in maintenance and cleaning products. Her mission? Nothing less than the reorganization of a business that had lost its way.
Something extra special
Named CEO of Solvay in 2013, Kadri was passionately involved in running the company. She boosted activity and even went as far as to transform the corporate image from ‘floor cleaners to life savers’ by fighting against diseases caused by a lack of lack of hygiene. The results were spectacular. When, in 2017, Bain Capital bought Diversey for $3.2 billion, she was understandably retained as head of the company: between the cumulative effects of her recovery policy and the arrival of the fund, the value of its stock had increased three-fold.
This performance was enough to attract the interest of the recruitment firm entrusted by Solvay to find a successor to Engie-bound Jean-Pierre Clamadieu.
With her international career, her knowledge of the market and her managerial performance, Kadri ticked all their boxes. "They were looking for someone who knew the industry," she would explain, "someone who knew the value of technology, had a track-record in transformation and was a global citizen at ease doing business everywhere." And if she’s an insider, then so much the better. Seven years after the merger of Solvay and Rhodia, she has ye to be associated with any corporate clique. Other pluses, just like her management style, are her ability to transform the company and her personality. This personality, for Jean-Pierre Clamadieu, was what made all the difference, back when he recruited her, "She was the only candidate who surprised me in the first interview," he says. "One perceives in her something that goes beyond her CV." And it was this which allowed Ilham Kadri to beat the odds and become the first woman to lead the Belgian chemicals empire, which she officially took over the reins of last March with one promise: "to astound."