Mining isn’t the first industry that springs to mind when you think of Morocco, and Aalaeddine Chahbi isn’t your typical mining magnate. In fact, until earlier this decade, his resume read like that of the quintessential fund manager.
Across a career spanning 16 years, he’d called Paris, London and Dubai home as he learned his trade in financial institutions such as Société Générale and Abraaj Capital. Yet, when the global financial crisis hit, he experienced an “allergic reaction” to the only industry he knew.
“I was managing an important hedge fund for a very large private equity firm called Abraaj Capital in Dubai,” he recalls. Caught in the “middle of the storm”, he knew he couldn’t go through a similar crash again. “I wanted to be involved in something that was as concrete as possible,” he explains.
With China driving a growing global commodities market, he spotted an opportunity. “I discovered that Morocco has a very rich geology, something I didn’t know before. That was basically the additional motivation I needed.”
Having left its shores as soon as he finished high school, he returned home to Morocco to become Founder and CEO of MITS Corp in 2011, a mining company operating across exploration, extraction, trading and consulting.
Aside from phosphate – of which Morocco is the world’s largest exporter and holds the world’s largest reserves – the mining industry in the North African country is what he describes as “nascent”.
This is despite a mineral wealth that had made it one of the largest exporters of silver and copper for coins in the Middle Ages and a leading producer of lead ore for ammunition during the era of Portuguese and Spanish colonisation. “Historically, the country has weight in mining,” he explains.
However, it fell off the global geological map in the 1970s and 1980s due to red tape and capital challenges. Today, the situation is slowly in reversal and the potential Aalaeddine sees is huge.
“This is just the beginning and, if I’m honest, I’m excited for the country, but I’m also fearful. I don’t want Morocco to waste this opportunity,” he acknowledges.
“If I’m honest, I’m excited for the country, but I’m also fearful. I don’t want Morocco to waste this opportunity.”
Now in its seventh year of operation, MITS Corp is one of Morocco’s more established mining companies. A producer of lead, zinc and copper, it also trades in all forms of base metals.
“We’re inside the business. We know where to go for good resources and where to implement our exploration projects,” he says, explaining that current areas of focus include trading expansion into sub-Saharan Africa (especially Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo) as well as the continuation of mining programs that are already underway in Morocco.
Of all the potential obstacles in his new career path, Aalaeddine believes that finding the right people to join him has been the greatest he has faced. Unfamiliarity with the industry and a perceived lack of future prospects has meant that the number of students enrolling in mining-related tertiary courses has traditionally been low.
He has overcome the challenge via a strategy of international recruitment, followed by internal training. The current MITS leadership team is comprised of people who were juniors or recent graduates who were recruited five or six years ago.
Due to the success it has achieved relatively quickly and maintained steadily since its establishment, MITS Corp has also gained a reputation as an attractive employer, and now sees a large number of job applicants from Morocco and abroad. The company’s people, Aalaeddine says, are now its greatest strength.
He may describe his career change as a calculated risk (one that, he adds, continues to pay dividends), but he’d prefer that the younger generation didn’t have to wait as long as he did to learn one important lesson. “I think a lot of us choose jobs and careers based on financial criteria when instead we should be looking at our affinities,” he explains.
“When you put in the right energy and persevere, money will always be available. What counts most, however, is optimising that energy. The only way to do that is by doing something you like, because then you don’t drain yourself and you can have a healthy life both professionally and physically.”