Moe Ibrahim's Biography
I've spent the last 25 years building up the skills needed to run a successful restaurant group. I'm not a chef. I am an entrepreneur. I understand finance, marketing, strategy, leadership and everyday, I try and learn a little bit more about people. My bio page gives you a glance into my professional past. My blog will take you deeper into my journey.
If you find any of this useful, do get in touch to collaborate, share your own stories, or pick my brain. It's these interactions that spice up our lives.
Early Life and Education
I was born in Jersey City, New Jersey. My mom, Fathia, was a homemaker, and my dad, Ismail, was a machinist. My dad immigrated to the States from Egypt a few years before I was born. We were a working class family. As a kid, I loved finding odd jobs to keep myself busy. During summer vacations, I delivered newspapers and when I got a bit older, I delivered pizzas and even worked as a telephone marketer. School holidays were a time to make money, not go on vacaction.
I went to St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, New Jersey, for High School. Prep is a prestigious all boys school. I eventally became the Editor-in-Chief of the school newspaper. In my senior year, I was awarded a full scholarship to Siena College in Upstate New York. I decided to major in Biology as part of a pre-med program. At that time, I thought I wanted to be a doctor.
During my summer vacations, I worked temp and part-time jobs in New York City, mainly at investment banks like Merrill Lynch. In the summer before my senior year of college, I worked in Merrill Lynch’s IT department doing tech support. I graduated from Siena in 1996, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology and absolutely no interest to pursue a career in medicine.
I graduated college at an opportune time. Jobs were aplenty and given my experience on Wall Street, I wanted to go back. I was fortunate to land a job at Lazard’s Rockefeller Plaza office in 1996 as an IT specialist on the firm’s trading floor. For extra cash, I taught night school classes, mainly how-to-classes for programs like Microsoft Word and Excel. But this is where I fell in love with finance. In my spare time, I read every book on the subject I could get my hands on. On weekends, I studied to become a licensed Wall Street trader since Lazard would generously sponsor any employee who wanted to make the effort.
By 1998, I was able to move from the IT department to the distressed debt trading desk as a Research Associate. Distressed debt is an amazing area of finance. My job was to research businesses that went bankrupt. I would spend time to understand the cause of why they got into trouble, and whether or not they would survive or disappear. Sometimes, the trouble was short-lived. Other times, the trouble was game-ending. However, there was usually an angle to make money. I worked with some of the smartest people on Wall Street.
A year later, I was promoted to Vice President and offered the chance to establish Lazard’s distressed debt office in Southeast Asia. I jumped at the chance. I moved to Singapore in 1999, set up the bank's office, and ran the group until 2002. It was an amazing time. When my bosses left the firm to set up their own hedge fund, I decided to do the same and really dig into my love of being an entrepreneur.
In late 2002, after leaving Lazard, I established a firm that would later be renamed 3 Degrees Asset Management. I set out to launch my own hedge fund that would invest in troubled companies. I raised seed capital from two Asian financial institutions and launched The Asian Debt Fund, an award-winning Asian distressed assets hedge fund, with US$22.5 million. Between 2004 and 2008, I launched launched several other funds, raising over US$1 billion of capital. However, the 2008 financial crisis was severe; many of my investors went out of business and I had no choice but to scale back my hedge fund operations. I eventually exited finance completely in 2012, turning my attention to Indonesia and hospitality.
Mozaic Hotels & Resorts,
Bintan Lagoon Resort
The Armchair Years: 2005-2012
In 2005, my funds acquired complete control of Bintan Lagoon Resort, a 473-room Indonesian resort with two 18-hole golf courses and a dozen restaurants. The property was massive, sprawling over 300-hectares with nearly 2km of beachfront. The distance from the hotel gate to the property's lobby was about 3.5km. We would easily have 3,000 people on the property during peak occupancy.
I assembled a new leadership team and managed the investment from Singapore, making the occassional trip to Bintan. The list of accomplishments during this time was impressive. I'd say my biggest feat was adding an immigration entry port to the property. Guests could now take a ferry from Singapore directly to the hotel in Indonesia and get a Bintan Lagoon Resort stamp in their passport. My team and I secured the licenses, built the infrustucture, custom built the software and fully integrated it with the hotel business. It was a game changer.
But by 2012, the competitive landscape started to change. Competition from budget airlines intensified. Online travel agencies proliferated, charged massive commissions and took power away from the hotel operator. My hedge fund business was winding down and rather than jump into another finance role, I decided to direct my focus completely on the resort.
Mozaic Hotels & Resorts,
Bintan Lagoon Resort
In The Trenches: 2012-2015
The jump from being a hedge fund manager to working in a resort may seem odd to most. It certainly looked that way to many people in my life. Doesn't the conventional wisdom warn that we must work on the business, not in the business? Well, yes and no.
Up until this time, I had been an armchair analyst, scrutinizing business performance and setting direction and KPIs from the comfort of my desk. To be a real entrepreneur, I knew I had to roll-up my sleeves and get my hands dirty. I needed to understand how to build a company from the inside out. So that's what I did.
By 2015, I flipped the script, spending most of my time in Bintan, and occassionally going back to Singapore. It was time, once again, for a turnaround. This time, I did things a bit differently. I refreshed the brand, simplified and updated the logo, and most importantly, reaffirmed our mission and vision. I then spent a tremendous amount of time restructuring the team to ensure we were all heading in the right direction. As I often remind my team, our Mission is why we exist. Marketing is how we tell our story to the world.
In the hotel industry, a competitor set is defined as the hotels within a 30-50km radius. So that's the way my team always looked at the competiton. While we were leading the pack, the whole pack was in the dumps. So I spent a lot of time talking to my guests and learned that they had options I hadn't considered. Budget airlines meant the cost of a flight was the same as the cost of a ferry. Now, our competitive radius was several hundreds kilometers wide and my customers were more than happy to remind me of that. I needed to differentiate.
Mozaic Hotels & Resorts,
Bintan Lagoon Resort
The Destination Years: 2015-2017
As I mentioned earlier, the distance from the hotel lobby to the front gate was a trek. For guests, heading out to another location was inconvenient. We needed to be more than a resort. We needed to be a destination. That meant thinking about a customer's experience from the moment they arrived, until the moment they left.
Change started internally. Each day, I announced the location of our morning briefing just minutes before starting time. It was always in a new location around the resort. I revamped each of the hotel's dozen restaurants both aesthetically and via a menu makeover. Food would now be an experience in and of itself! During these revamps, I would fall in love with the restaurant business.
Live entertainment was added everywhere, and it was always cultural so guests could learn something new. Restaurants would sometimes relocate to the beach or the golf course or even the jungle as a pop-up. We called this destination dining and we would whisk guests away via buggy to new surprise locations.
Perhaps the most successful strategy I employed in this latest turnaround was the art of social story-telling. We weaved stories in anywhere we could. We talked about the changes we were making, where our food came from and who our suppliers were. We named dishes after our guests and we celebrated their birthdays, anniversaries, promotions, retirements and sometimes we mourned at their funerals.
The stories created a bond. The stories traveled back to their friends and relatives and were retold to us when those friends and relatives visited us to make their own stories. It worked. Occupancy rose, profitability rose and happiness rose. By 2017, it was time for me to leave Bintan and seek a new challenge. I sold the business near the end of 2017.
Harvard Business School OPM53
It had always been a lifelong dream of mine to attend Harvard. So I was ecstatic to be accepted into OPM. OPM stands for Owner/President Management program. Prior to staring OPM, my career was mostly a function of instinct, intuition, a strong work ethic and dumb luck. OPM changed all that.
OPM taught me why I had been successful in the first place. It turns out that some of the habits I had as an entrepreneur were actually well-defined frameworks. There were also frameworks to deal with areas where I was weak. I learned the foundational principles of strategy and culture.
More valuable than any classroom lesson were the people I met. My classmates came from all corners of the earth. I learned as much out of the classroom as I did in it. It would be fair to say that OPM changed my life.
Armed with the knowledge from my time at Harvard, I set out on my next adventure. So in late 2017, I started Deelish Brands and opened my first two Fatburger restaurants by late 2018. Deelish Brands is the culmination of my experiences to date.
The restaurant business is tough. In fact, the statistics are down right terrible. 60% of restaurants fail within their first year and 80% close before their 5th anniversary. It would be fair to say that the industry, at large, is quite distressed. Yet, the average consumer has no idea, and the average restaurant owner is in denial.
Given my long history investing in distressed businesses, coupled with the passion I developed for restaurants during my time in Bintan, starting a restaurant business made sense to me. If I could crack the formula, it would become a cut-and-paste business. Meaning, I could replicate a successful restaurant and scale quickly. I also knew we needed to be special and clearly different from the competition. We couldn't just be a little bit better. We need to be 10x better.
My time at Havard came in very handy to put it all together. I started Deelish Brands with a clearly articulated mission: to be the most-recognized halal fast-casual restaurant group in Southeast Asia.
The opportunity was clear:
- – No other company was recognized as the leading halal restaurant player; and
- – No other company was focused exclusively on the fast-casual segment of the market.
Confident that there were clear gaps in the market that I could fill, and hopefully dominate, Deelish Brands was born.
- – Siena College, B.S. Biology (1992-1996)
- – Harvard Business School, OPM53 (2017-2019)
- – Young President’s Organization, YPO (2015-Present)
- – Entrepreneur’s Organization, EO (2013-2021)
- – 20 Rising Stars of Hedge Funds – Institutional Investor Magazine (2007)
- – Singapore Spirit of Enterprise Award (2008)
- – Hospitality Asia “Accidental Hotelier” (2015)
- – Executive of the Year – Business Review Management Excellence Award (2015)
- – Outstanding General Manager – Asian Lifestyle Tourism Award (2017)
- – Executive of the Year – Business Review Management Excellence Award (2019)