The Tamraz family name is Assyrian with origins in Mesopotamia and more particularly in the northern Syrian Jazira region and the adjacent Mosul region in Iraq. It is from there that they spread out to Turkey, Iran, and across Syria to Lebanon. The family was then originally Chaldean, Assyrian, Syriac or Jacobit. Roger Tamraz’s ancestors were Chaldeans. They came to the city of Sidon and became Maronites.
In the period 1865-1940, thousands of people from Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine moved to Egypt in what was dubbed the “Great Levantine Exodus” (hijrat al-shawam). Edward Tamraz (the father of Roger Tamraz) who was born and raised in Sidon, also went to Egypt during that period and settled in Cairo in 1936. Although the family settled permanently in Egypt, it did not cut ties with Lebanon. From 1941, the family would spend the summer in the village of Dhour Shwayr. Dhour Tamraz (Tamraz Plateau), commonly known as Tamraz Hill (Tell Tamraz), is located in the mountainous turnaround between Bikfaya and Dhour Shwayr villages.
The early wealth accumulation of the Tamraz family followed the traditional pattern of merchants living and working in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century: slow accumulation of savings, a policy of refraining from showing any evidence of prosperity, quiet, modest investments in local land and related assets, and for those on a certain level, the discreet use of Swiss banks for long term savings.
In other words, the best policy was to “stay below the radar,” or as the Japanese proverb says, “deru kugi ha utareru” — the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.
In the 1920s, following the upheavals of the First World War and the end of the Ottoman Empire, the Middle East power structure shifted abruptly and the family left Lebanon for a new frontier: Egypt, which by then was within the sphere of influence of the British Empire.
Compared with Lebanon, Egypt was a powerhouse, rich in revenues from cotton and other commodities, as well as tolls earned by the Suez Canal. Socially and politically, Cairo was the capital of the Middle East and the British and their Army were definitely in charge.
Edward Tamraz took what was, for that time, an unprecedented step into high technology: he specialized in representing European and American companies that were leaders in such new industrial sectors as trucks and automobiles, as well as similar allied breakthroughs such as typewriters, and became instrumental in significantly increasing their exports to Egypt, by then the largest economy in the Middle East.
The Tamraz roster of alliances grew to include many major American companies that later became worldwide names:
- International Typewriter Company (later to become IBM) — 435,000 employees, $102 billion annual sales in 170 countries.
- Thompson Automobile Products (later to become TRW) – 122,000 employees in 25 countries.
- Detroit Electric Company (later to become DELCO and then a major part of General Motors).
- The Timken Roller Bearing and Axle Company (now Timken, a worldwide aerospace, automotive, construction, consumer, defense and energy company active in 30 countries).
- Autolite, formed in 1911, was a pioneer of electrical generators to power early day automobile headlights. In 1927, the company branched into automotive batteries, and by 1935 it was a key manufacturer of spark plugs. During World War II and thereafter, the company further expanded and became a key supplier of modern starting motors, generators, regulators, ignition systems, wire and cable products to the major U.S. automobile manufacturers and repair shops.
- Perfect Circle became the undisputed world leader in piston ring technology during the 1920s. with practically every innovation in piston ring development originating there. Manufacturing became international and played a vital part in air, land and marine transportation during World War II. In addition to piston rings for cars, trucks, aircraft, locomotive, marine and industrial engines, Perfect Circle manufactured valve seals, cam shafts, seals and gaskets, pistons and cylinder sleeves.
- BFGoodrich was the first American tire manufacturer, founded in 1896, and is now owned by Michelin. It is a historic manufacturer and its tires have been fitted to several noteworthy historic vehicles: In 1903, the first car to cross the United States was fitted with BFGoodrich tires; in 1927 Charles Lindbergh’s airplane, the “Spirit of St. Louis,” which made the first successful non-stop flight across the Atlantic, had BF Goodrich tires; and in 1977 the Columbia space shuttle was fitted with BFGoodrich tires as original equipment.
As exclusive representative for Egypt of such major corporations, the elder Mr. Tamraz created and dominated a powerful market niche that had not existed before, and with increasing industrialization, the power of the family’s companies grew rapidly.
As the Tamraz companies grew, the family cemented its relations with the British power structure, as well as with the Egyptian government, especially the power elite that consisted of the Royal Family and those that worked closely with it. With the earnings growing appreciably, the methods of preserving the wealth became more modern and sophisticated. Existing relationships with the Union Bank of Switzerland were strengthened and broadened, and the main concentration of wealth protection shifted to UBS in Zurich and Geneva.
The elder Mr. Tamraz continued his long-held policy of investing in the stocks of companies he represented, and over time built up significant shareholdings and capital gains in company shares bought during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.
As World War II approached, the Tamraz companies cooperated closely with the British Armed forces, headed by Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, in the fight against the German Army’s Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, and the full inventories of those companies were put at the disposal of the British for the duration.
From 1945 onward, business prospects brightened immeasurably as the British extended their influences and rewarded those who stood unflinchingly with them in their darkest hour. Land, contracts, preferential permits – all was available as the victors consolidated their position and extended their control.