It would need many articles and even a book to talk about Kamal Sinno’s adventurous life. He is known for being the owner of Toy Market Trading (Joué Club and Toy Park), Premium Partners (Marketing and Procurement Solutions) with many offices abroad and managing the Lebanese Food Bank who is along with other charitable organizations leading the fight against hunger in Lebanon.
Taking after his father who was in the tobacco and cigarettes business (taken in the French mandate it became the Régie), he wanted to be an entrepreneur and his own boss and also cannot see someone in need or in trouble and not help him. Kamal Sinno truly lived up to both values when one looks at his life works. Wherever there is injustice and hardships, he would want to defend and help.
When I sat with m. Sinno, I was mesmerized by the parcours he had from his beginnings (early in his studies in London), to his return to Lebanon, his early work years, transitioning to the toys industry – all and all with smart strategic tactics, a lot of perseverance, patience, hard work and tenacity to make it within the intricacies of wars, ports closing, imports unloaded in different Mediterranean ports etc…
Creativity, wittiness and tenacity in Sinno’s life started very early on in his life.
Upon his father’s death, Sinno was in 8th grade (approximately 13-14 years old) and the family suffered materially. Back then he was in IC (International College) and had to find a way to continue his studies.
He opened a one-man-shop and created a product named “Chocottro” made from Perugina chocolate, Danish butter and sugar. It was a buttery sweet paste that can be conserved in fridges. But to store and maintain it in good conditions you needed a proper freezer. A one-man-shop not having industrial freezers, Sinno used his home freezer and his neighbours’ freezers to keep the packs in good temperature. He packed them in 2 suitcases every time and walked the train rail liaising Furn el Chebbak to AUB, every day at 5 pm after school. Chocottro needed to be sold quickly otherwise they melted and went to waste. The business launched after 3 months and was a good success especially in the Gemmayze area where the French residents loved Chocottro and other areas like Furn el Chebbak, el Nahr and Manara. After 5 years in this business path, Sinno stopped. He was exhausted and needed to focus on his university studies.
Another story was when Sinno was in the UK. Having taken Business school in London, he was short on money facility to complete his semester and take his exam. This didn’t stop him and he presented the faculty with a proposal: he would teach Arabic to the students and people who wanted to learn the language to read the Quran. Not only that, he also would teach arithmetic. This permitted him to complete his exam and year, and the faculty wanted him to continue with them as a professor. However, this was not part of Sinno’s plans and he came back to Lebanon with the mindset of starting his own business.
Upon his return to Beirut, he noticed that there was quite a clash between the market, how it was in the real ground and his studies. Although he didn’t want to work for anyone and be his own boss, his uncle – who was a chemistry professor – convinced him to start training in a company, to take a feel of the real thing and grasp the market properly on what is happening on the ground and then assess what to do. It was the first step to enter the market.
Taking his advice, Sinno went to work for a macaroni, biscuits and halawa (among other products) factory for 3 months. The owner looked at him and Sinno told him – from the beginning – he didn’t want to do any kind of factory work and is willing not to get paid (there weren’t spots for him in the administration). Since he lived next to the Beirut Hippodrome and the company was in Chiah, it was a 7 miles walking distance!
Three weeks passed and Sinno launched his first move, he went to the boss and told him that he was making a deficit and came to him with a proposal. Having big competitors on their back, the solution was to start selling the spaghettis in boxes. More appealing to the consumers – especially the foreigners living in the area – and less hassling than the 1kg roll. The owner accepted and they had the boxes prepared. Sinno went on to team with a salesman from the crew and sold 2,200 boxes in 1 day to different buyers! It was a marketing coup and success. The factory started packing spaghettis in 500g boxes, hundred of tons were sold.
Another feat that Sinno did was to propose to sell the ‘halawa’ in plastic boxes. It was sold back then in metal boxes. In our local summer heats, the ‘halawa’ used to melt and its syrup could get stuck in these tins and was returned by customers to the points of sale, a total loss.
The plastic boxes – also appealing in their look – did not have the ‘halawa’ melt and were a success with the ladies who used these boxes also to pack their sewing equipment (as it was not practical in the metal boxes either). 5,000 Lebanese Liras where invested in this venture and all were sold in 2 weeks – the factory started to pack halawa day and night; 3 shifts were set to be able to accommodate the need. The boss and the company were thrilled.
Three months afterwards, having had this experience under his belt, Sinno left to try things out on his own. Now what to do? As he was walking in the downtown of Beirut, he met his friend Jacques Sehnaoui and asked him for an office, for free. He was given a small room on the roof of a building where he can start his business.
“Ok, so now that the office was ready, how to generate capital when one doesn’t have a capital to start with?” Kamal Sinno wondered. “What did Lebanon miss?” The answer was industrial statistics. There were none at the time and this was Sinno’s next labor and goal to create and achieve. The Lebanese Industrial Directory “Made In Lebanon” was born – with the industries, factories, around 1500 of them, their details. This was also a success and was translated in different languages. The embassies in the country wanted this directory, the Ministry of Industry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants as well. It was the only reference of the Lebanese Industry. Profits were more than expected.
Moving into a bigger office and a new path, Kamal Sinno went into commission work handling business deals from silver, clothes, retail etc… He was the broker and contact point to many merchants and provided solutions to all problems on the ground and managerial work.
It was a successful venture (around 120 clients), and Sinno had a want to give back. A feeling that drives him just as much as his ambitions. He saw there were organizations that had no money and struggled in their mission and started to give them food as contribution. This made him glad as it’s not only work and success that can sustain happiness but sharing and giving back.
A few years afterwards, tired of commission work, Sinno wanted to buy an office located next to the Beirut Municipality. Next to it was Souk el Ezez where Jews mostly owned the toy stores. The office purchase was of 18,000LL and he needed a bank loan for it. He headed to Blom Bank (this was around 1969). He hadn’t decided yet what his new office would be and did not have a property or guarantor however he still went in and asked for a loan. Not having both, the bank manager was hesitant – without these guarantees and only having Sinno’s word. As he was leaving, the bank manager stopped him (impressed by his gusto) and signed the loan with him.
“As I went out of the bank, my (back then) fiancée was waiting for me in my Fiat”, Sinno recalls. “We saw a Cadillac park right next to us – he was a big toy trader (from the Hajjar family). The switch turned on and I decided to go into toy trading. It was meant to be”.
However this area of interest was mostly monopolized by the Jews (Hajjar specializing in the higher end toys). It was a big challenge and they didn’t accept him. Competition was fierce. What to do in this new scenario?
Striking back to this challenge, Sinno took a van and wrote ‘cash van’ and started to go to his clients: from Naqoura, to the Beqaa to the last person in Akkar. Not everyone could come to Beirut back then, so he went to them! The toys would be brought to them and storeowners responded positively.
Success came and from one van, they became 5 vans. They went to Aley, Bhamdoun, Sawfar, Broumana; you name it, the vans were traveling inbound and met with happy customers as their needs were met without having to drive to the capital…
One story that particularly touches Kamal Sinno’s hear was when one day, an organization came to buy toys for the children they are caring for Christmas (a nun and 2 teachers were representing this organization). As they chose the toys, they requested an invoice, he started writing the invoice working on original price. Sinno decided to go to wholesale price, then lowering even more and finally decided to donate the toys to the organization telling them “I cannot write the invoice”.
“But we have money for it, we collected it!” They said. To which Sinno replied, “Buy some chocolate for the kids instead”.
“We have already bought the chocolate”.
“Buy some more then!” and that was it. Kamal’s heart was big and joyful.
On the second day, he went to the post office in the morning to pick up his mail. He had received an envelope from someone to whom he worked for as a commission agent. This said person owed Kamal money to which he couldn’t pay back (due to bankruptcy). Walking towards the parliament, he opened the envelope and found a check and a letter, where the man wrote to him that ‘a company bought the factory and the requirement was to close off all his past debts (Sinno was one of them)’.
For Sinno, this was a link between his deed yesterday and today’s event – there was no question about it. Whatever you give out to the world, you receive back. And your return is multiplied by 10 or more.
In the early 70s, the political situation was starting to be more and more unsettling; the Jew merchants were starting to leave Lebanon.
And the years between 1975 to 2000 contain too many stories to tell. The Toy Traders Syndicate was created and with the Jews leaving the business behind, it went back to Kamal Sinno.
With the war, Sinno struggled with the Port of Beirut being closed. The toys did not arrive and captains if they couldn’t dock in Beirut went to unload their shipments in different ports in the Mediterranean Sea depending on their route. In which case, Sinno had to go himself to fetch his shipment from the different countries and bring them back to Jounieh, Saida or Tyre (Sour) ports. And bringing them back, he did. All of them. Sometimes at great dangerous costs (some shipments were by land on the borders between Syria and Lebanon), and sometimes in damaged deliveries by sea. One time, his Christmas shipment was in Turkey, he drove from Beirut, to Baalback (as the direct road was closed) to Aleppo in Syria then Turkey – only to drive back to Beirut for an additional paper for his bills of release and back to Turkey again to release the shipment.
More than 40 trips on the Mediterranean Coast to retrieve the toys: from Lebanon to Syria, Italy, Egypt, Malta and even Spain, to name a few. In some cases when the ports could not accept the shipments, they were shipped by land (by trucks) and they would encounter another set of problems with safety challenges.
In all these adventures, Sinno went on and continued further in the toy trading. Presently general manager and owner of Toy Market Trading which has Toy Park and Joué Club, the company is covering the import and distribution of more than 50 international brands with 20,000 best selling items yearly from 178 suppliers not only to Lebanese retail stores but also to run the export to some neighbouring countries. Not only that, Sinno also has prepared a new set of services along side of products agreements with China.
When the Food Bank regional office arrived to Lebanon, he decided to take the helm of the Lebanese Food Bank (established around the end of 2011) to which his goal is to feed 150,000 people in 1 day. A new simple plan to feed them was prepared. The Ministry of Finance is on board, however the Ministry of Social Affairs is a matter to tackle, they need time and many Lebanese need food. The Lebanese Food Bank’s main goal is to have Lebanon free from hunger by 2020.
The fuel, chauffeurs, crew and volunteers are ready and available. And the sky is the limit for this caring and charitable endeavor.
Our story does not end here, at 80 springs; Kamal Sinno is still planning and working for the future, setting up the bars and targets higher and more creatively than ever. Age is not a stopping point for him; his plans go far beyond in the years to come – be it in the business or philanthropic level. We can only aim to be inspired and work towards this energy level, keeping at it when things are tough. All this while not forgetting to help one another, as in the end, this is what truly matters.
Thank you for this inspiration m. Sinno, wishing you the best in realizing your plans.