Surviving the Ben Ali regime: a Tunisian entrepreneur success story

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Badreddine Ouali is a model for the new generation of Tunisian entrepreneurs, but he never planned his career.

Today, after blazing a few trails, he’s the chairman of Tunisian financial software multinational Vermeg-BSB, employing over 700 people. 

Facing financial difficulties and pressure from the now-deposed Ben Ali government, the entrepreneur has proved nothing is impossible.

Good student turned visionary

Ouali’s early life looked much like that of any Tunisian upper class kid: engineering school in France and a high paid consulting career. At 30, he was given the run of French IT services company Diagram.

At the beginning of the 90s Diagram was in crisis, a situation followed by a change of shareholders. Ouali suggested to the new shareholders they launch a series of new financial products to rebound - but they refused.

Ouali was fired shortly after and decided to create those new products himself.

“I didn’t start my company because it was a dream of mine but rather because it was a challenge, I went head first, without a business plan,” he told Wamda.

Ouali sold his France apartment, returned to Tunis, sub-letted a room in the office of a friend and installed a shower.

A great start

In 1993, Ouali created BFI, a company supplying local banks with financial software.

For years he worked tirelessly, sleeping in his home-office. “At the beginning, everybody thought I’d crash,” he recalled.

Ouali remembers feeling useful, vital even, to his clients. “When the client calls, it’s often because there’s a problem, and they really needed you. It was like living a dream even though I largely reduced my lifestyle, paid myself the legal minimum.”

Ouali made allies such as Tunisys sales manager Habib Ben Hariz, BFI’s exclusive distributor in Tunisia. Several local banks came onboard including Amen Bank which was, conveniently, a shareholder in Tunisys.

In 1997, Ben Hariz became BFI’s CFO and brought his rich contact book of Tunisian financiers, letting Ouali focus on the European market.

This proved successful. Two years later, in 1999, the company was picked by the Central Bank of Tunisia to implement the clearing system for retail payments that digitalized and automated transfer and check payments processes between Tunisian banks.

With this 10 million Tunisian dinar (US$9 million) contract BFI was able to grow quicker, mostly in Europe, without having to raise money.

Badreddine Ouali presenting Réseau Entrepreneur Tunisie. (Image via QFF)

Being an entrepreneur under the Ben Alis

In early 2000, the growing corruption of the regime of Ben Ali started to impact on BFI.

The regime through its state secretary of informatics had a stranglehold over public computer software and hardware deals.

The then-Secretary of State Montassar Ouali (not related to Badreddine Ouali), wanted to share the IT public tenders, a market estimated at several millions of dinars, between BFI and three other IT companies, Ouali said.

Ouali refused to play the game. The Secretary of State subsequently declared a dozen of bids BFI won unsuccessful.

In 2002, Ouali decided to leave BFI while remaining a minority shareholder, to allow BFI to get back into the state’s good graces.

The entrepreneur learned his lesson and didn’t want to depend on the good mood of the government, so he created Vermeg, a company specialized, once more, in financial software but targeting solely European markets.

The best of Europe and Tunis

Based in the Netherlands, the company’s engineering was done in Tunis but sales were purely European. As early as its first year Vermeg purchased a few small European IT companies to strengthen its sales on the ground.

Thanks to the difference in wages between Tunisia and Europe, Vermeg was able to offer very competitive prices compared to its European rivals and quickly won over their first clients.

By the end of the first year, the company reached 7 million euros of sales (US$7.8 million in today’s money). Ten years later, in 2012, sales reached closed to 17 million euros (US$19 million).

Grow or die

Sadly it was then that the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis kicked in. Small banks couldn’t buy Vermeg’s software anymore and larger banks decided to cap the amount of purchases they made at each supplier.

“We had to grow or die,” said Ouali.

In 2015, he took over the Belgian group BSB, which specialized in financial software but was twice as big as Vermeg.

Passing the torch to the new generation

In a Tunisia which is undergoing major alterations, Ouali is now an accomplished man. “Each difficulty turned into an opportunity,” he said.

He left operational management at Vermeg and now overviews strategy and represents the company abroad.

An art patron, Ouali is also active in the Tunisian civil society. He shares his knowledge by presiding the Réseau Entreprendre Tunis, a network that offers young entrepreneurs mentorship and loans to start their companies.

He’s a living example for Tunisian youth that one can succeed in the country and abroad while staying true to one’s ethics.  

[Feature image via Youtube]

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