Murad Al-Katib – 2024 Testimonial Dinner Award Honouree
“The passion and work ethic of Saskatchewan people is the most amazing attribute. We have an attitude that we can achieve anything.”
Murad Al-Katib grew an idea into a $3-billion-a-year business — and revolutionized an industry in the process
Murad Al-Katib’s Saskatchewan-based startup story is the stuff of which legends — and lentils — are made.
More than 20 years ago, the son of Turkish immigrants quit his government job when his wife was six months pregnant with twins to bet on protein-rich pulses (the dried seeds of legumes) as a lucrative alternative to farmers’ fallow fields.
He tells his basement-to-billions founding story with palpable pride, explaining how he grew his idea into a $3-billion-a-year business that has revolutionized an industry.
“(My wife) Michelle and I talked through it, and we agreed we had roughly nine months of money saved up,” he says of leaving his senior job with the Saskatchewan government in 2001. But he believed that millions of acres of non-productive summer fallow could instead be used to grow pulses, creating “an instant market” to feed a hungry world.
“I believed if I could gain the trust of farmers and buyers and build a global supply chain, then I could drive the innovation and commercialization of a new pillar of agriculture in Western Canada,” recalls Al-Katib, now 51. “That was my bet, and I felt it was a pretty safe one.”
Regina-based AGT Food and Ingredients Inc., of which Al-Katib is president and CEO, now has 46 manufacturing and processing facilities on five continents, including 22 in Western Canada. It buys lentils, peas, beans and chickpeas from farmers and ships its products to over 120 countries. It owns two railroad shortlines; is the largest agricultural container shipper in the world; and employs more than 3,000 people.
Dubbed “Saskatchewan’s lentil king” by a Regina newspaper, Al-Katib might just be lentil king of the world, having built the largest vertically integrated supply chain for lentils, chickpeas and peas from the ground up and becoming one of the world’s most respected experts in the agriculture industry in the process.
In recent years, he’s received many honours, including the Globe and Mail Innovator CEO of the Year, Ernst & Young EY World Entrepreneur of the Year, and was the first Canadian to receive the Oslo Business for Peace Award, an international prize selected by a group of Nobel laureates. He received this award for getting 700 million refugee meals made of Saskatchewan lentils, chickpeas and wheat into the United Nations Syrian refugee program. In 2024, he will receive the Public Policy Forum’s Testimonial Dinner Award for his significant contributions to Canadian public policy, which he says has been one of his life-long passions.
Al-Katib has combined his deep interest in public policy and international trade with his rural farming roots to succeed in agriculture — “one of the most political businesses in the world,” he says.
The Al-Katibs immigrated to Canada in 1965 from Turkey and in 1975 settled in Davidson, Sask. His father, Fatih, was the town doctor for 50 years and his mother, Feyhan, learned English from watching Sesame Street with her children. In 1976, she became the first immigrant Muslim woman elected to a municipal council in Canada, and later Davidson’s mayor. (Fatih died in 2020, and Feyhan in 2021).
“I’ve always prided myself on recognizing that leadership in business has a very strong link to public policy,” he said. “My mother always told me that in a democratic country, in addition to marking a ballot, it is your job to work with the government of the day to do what’s best for the people… I try to lend my expertise to try and help government make great decisions that could benefit our business, but also benefit Canada.”
While his mom influenced his passion for public policy, his dad sowed the seeds of agricultural know-how. As a full-time doctor, his dad also farmed his own 4,400 acres. But Al-Katib was more interested in the business of agriculture. After earning a commerce degree from the University of Saskatchewan, he received his master’s in international management from the top-ranked Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz. After graduation, he landed a job at the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C.
In the mid-1990s, Al-Katib met then-premier Roy Romanow and his entourage, who were visiting the embassy, and told them that Saskatchewan needed to take advantage of emerging markets. Afterward, he wrote to Romanow outlining a plan. A few weeks later, he was offered a job with the newly established Saskatchewan Trade & Export Partnership, which meant extensive travel opportunities and the chance to study the provincial economy in international terms.
In the 1990s, he toured Ukraine, Kazakhstan and India with then-premier Brad Wall, and not only saw the opportunities for Saskatchewan uranium and potash, but also for a protein-rich crop like lentils. Instead of letting fields go fallow because nitrogen fertilizer depletes the soil, lentils’ unique “nitrogen-fixing” properties meant they could add nutrients back into the soil, Al-Katib says.
At 28, Al-Katib quit his assistant deputy minister-level job to develop a business plan. He remembers sitting in his basement with two blank sheets of paper. On one he wrote the word “PRODUCERS,” on the other he wrote “WORLD.” He drew a line between the two, which represented his singular vision and the company’s slogan: ‘From Producer to the World.’
By 2003, with seed money from contacts in Turkey, the first processing plant was cleaning and processing crops grown in Saskatchewan before selling them overseas. Two years after the plant opened, the company had 100 employees and was exporting $40 million worth of product. By 2009, it had $300 million in revenue. The company steadily expanded to the United States, Turkey, Australia, China and South Africa.
Al-Katib has consistently been a champion for Canadian agriculture and entrepreneurship, while contributing to public policy and innovation.
He was chair of the Small and Medium Enterprise Advisory Council for the minister of International Trade from 2004 to 2012. In 2016, he was the lead adviser on the review of the Canada Transportation Act, which included 800 pieces of legislation governing roads, airports and railways. He also served as chair of the National Agri-Food Strategy Roundtable from 2017 to 2020. And in 2021, he was one of 10 leaders who served on the Industry Strategy Council to develop a post-COVID industrial strategy for Canada. He has also worked to grow female, youth and First Nations participation in business startups, advocating for the role of entrepreneurs in driving social change and innovation in the new global economy.
He says he has much left to do. Agriculture is “one of the biggest polluters in the world,” he says, but can also be a solution to climate change and sustainability if the industry can convert to “precision farming technology” and reduce its reliance on nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides while “dramatically” boosting production.
Al-Katib says his proudest accomplishment has been “staying true to my roots” and supporting the people and economies of rural Saskatchewan. “The passion and work ethic of Saskatchewan people is the most amazing attribute. We have an attitude that we can achieve anything.”
Profile by Shelley Page
Photo by Blair Gable
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