Engineer, global business leader, industrialist and philanthropist, Iskandar Safa is CEO and co-founder of Privinvest, a leading shipbuilder in Europe and the Middle East, serving national defense and civilian customers around the world with high-tech solutions. Founded by Safa with his younger brother, Akram Safa, more than two decades ago, Privinvest specializes in advanced, innovative ship design, engineering, production and related technologies. Headquartered in Beirut and employing more than 2,500 core employees, Privinvest owns and operates state-of-the-art shipbuilding and other facilities in Germany, France and the Middle East. Under Safa’s vision and purpose-driven leadership, Privinvest is renowned for designing, engineering and building some of the world’s best and most recognized naval vessels, commercial ships and mega yachts, delivering more than 2,000 vessels and services to more than 40 navies as well as to private customers. NATO countries and their allies in the Middle East are frequent customers. Safa also has led Privinvest to advance naval technology for security and commercial use, including integrated surveillance and protection systems for coastline and territorial water security. Developed under Safa’s direction, the Privinvest high-speed WP18 tactical strike craft has set a new benchmark for the market. To support a more sustainable planet, Safa has also focused Privinvest’s R&D program on marine renewable energies. Iskandar “Sandy” Safa has never sought the limelight. His focus is on delivering solutions and results for Privinvest’s customers, investors and stakeholders, letting actions speak with more impact than words. But his personal story offers a glimpse into why Privinvest has emerged as one of the most successful and trusted names in the challenging and competitive global market for shipbuilding. Born in 1955 in Beirut to a Maronite Christian family amid the civil tensions in Lebanon, Safa was educated in a French school and graduated from the American University of Beirut in 1978 with a degree in civil engineering, following the footsteps of many on his mother’s side of the family. His father inspired his sense of public service as a political leader in Lebanon who served as director of the cabinet of the first president of Lebanon after its independence from France. As a youth, Safa became the champion discus thrower of Lebanon and at one point led the entire Arab countries in this classic Olympic sport. While his life was disrupted by the civil war and he was personally wounded in the strife, Safa was determined not only to succeed, but to be a leader in whatever he did. This personal drive would come to define Safa’s career, his record of building successful, job-creating enterprises and his passion for making a positive difference in the world.
Soon after graduating college and his first engineering job, he went to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to work at his family’s civil engineering company. Safa’s first assignment was also the company’s major project at that time, building a military academy named for the Saudi King, which included an air strip. After three years in Riyadh, Safa decided it was time to leverage his engineering experience and expertise with his entrepreneurial spirit by earning an MBA from INSEAD, the European Institute of Business Administration, in France, paying his own way. With his MBA, Safa launched what would eventually become Privinvest with his brother Akram, who graduated from Ohio State University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Iskandar and Akram began by investing in a major European hotel company, turning it around and making it profitable. Safa then branched into international trade, representing Western companies in the Middle East. One client was Northrop—the USA defense contractor, which was engaged at that time in South Korea. From the end of 1991, Safa took his first steps in the shipbuilding industry, purchasing an ailing but nevertheless famous shipyard in Cherbourg, France, CMN (Constructions Mecaniques de Normandie). In just two years, Safa turned CMN around. Today, it’s a thriving enterprise with more than 500 employees and a full order book, specializing in the design and production of trawlers, coast guard vessels, patrol boats, fast-attack crafts and corvettes. In 2007, Safa collaborated with Al Aïn International to form Abu Dhabi Mar and in 2011 acquired exclusive ownership of ADM after buying out its partners, making Privinvest one of the leading privately-owned shipbuilding groups in the Middle East and Europe. When asked how Privinvest has grown and thrived in the highly competitive global shipbuilding sector while others have struggled, Safa pointed to the strategic benefits of consolidation on behalf of customers and stakeholders. “I prefer large projects,” he said. “I like big things. I like the challenge of it.” Combining industrial and intellectual assets, talents, workforce and abilities also can produce synergies and efficiencies not only in operations and speed to market, but also the agility to quickly pivot to serve the varied needs of a wide variety of customers in a constantly changing market. But Privinvest’s success comes down to Safa’s leadership approach. He believes in picking the right executives and delegating authority so they can make decisions as they see fit, and above all, valuing employees and good relations with them. Safa’s dedication to philanthropy, while quiet, speaks volumes. Under the radar, Safa has built churches in Lebanon, in the south of France and in the Dominican Republic, where he has a home with his spouse. Safa also sponsors and heads the Special Olympics in Lebanon and countless other charitable causes. He does this not to check the box for “corporate social responsibility,” but because he brings the same determination to his philanthropic causes that he does to his business leadership and commitment to quality shipbuilding. But Safa rarely talks about his contributions or his impact. Not even when he played a key, behind-the-scenes role in seeking the release of five French citizens held hostage in Lebanon during the civil war in the 1980s. As negotiations between France and Iran continued, and French officials sought his involvement, Safa reached out to his network of contacts in Lebanon, Syria and Iran and flew between Paris and Middle East capitals to meet personally with those who could help arrange the release. Explaining this unofficial role, Safa told the French newspaper Le Monde, “I accepted out of patriotism, as a Lebanese, and because it was a human problem also. I was horrified that some French citizens could thus be hijacked.” As The New York Times reported, Safa was a “major figure” in winning the release of three of the hostages and was singled out for special praise by French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac. Safa also is credited with helping to release the other two hostages, French journalists. Whether leading one of the world’s most respected shipbuilding enterprises, harnessing the power of philanthropy to make a difference, or employing quiet diplomacy to reunite hostages with their families, Safa epitomizes determination with a human touch.