Middleby CEO's ovens bring heat, light, hope to refugees

Selim Bassoul is a hands-on CEO of a rapidly growing Elgin-based kitchen-supply maker with about 8,500 global employees and has two young children at home, yet finds it important to give his time to others in need.

The chairman of The Middleby Corp., which makes popular appliance brands such as Viking and Aga Rangemaster, says he wants to give people a second chance in life. He is doing so through the Bassoul Dignity Foundation, where the focus is the belief that every person on this planet has the right to live with dignity. Bassoul, 61, has been very active with his foundation that developed a Relief Oven for refugees and displaced people, which is designed and manufactured in Elgin.

Having grown up in Beirut, Lebanon, Bassoul understands about second chances.

More than an oven

In coming up with the most recent idea, he visited refugee camps and saw the need for the oven, which has a magnifying glass that acts as a solar panel. Along with cooking, the appliance can purify water and charge a cellphone, without needing electricity. Bassoul spent several years testing and developing the appliance, which weighs 12 pounds, has no fumes, does not tip over and eliminates the risk of fire.

The foundation is donating the ovens to needy people all over the world. He said the goal is to free women and girls from spending hours searching for wood to use for cooking, allowing them to go to school and find decent jobs.

The stove can also serve as a light source so students can do their homework, Bassoul said during a phone interview before he left for Haiti to deliver some of the red ovens. About 1,000 of the ovens have been made and delivered, with some going to Puerto Rico where many people were without electricity after Hurricane Maria.

While Bassoul is delivering the ovens, he listens to people's devastating stories. He recently gave one of the ovens to a woman in Puerto Rico who left a successful career in Florida to return to her country to care for her ill father. The hurricane hit and she now has nothing. "She is back to ground zero," Bassoul said, adding that he hopes the ovens provide a bit of hope.

Change the world

Bassoul comes from troubled beginnings in his war-torn homeland and is now one of the most highly regarded, influential CEOs in business, according to analysts from The Motley Fool.

"I want to change the world," says Bassoul, who's doing so while turning once-struggling Middleby into a global firm that did $632 million in sales in the most recent quarter.

Bassoul's competitive drive came from his father, an Olympic swimmer competing for Lebanon in the 1948 Games in London. His aunt, a nun, impressed upon Bassoul the importance of acting with compassion, according to a Kellogg School of Management report.

Tough beginnings

When Bassoul was in junior high at a Jesuit school in Lebanon, he was at the bottom of his class and severely dyslexic at a time when the condition was not recognized, according to industry reports. Bassoul's passion and skills as a cross-country runner helped keep him in school.

Through high school he was educated by the Jesuits at Notre Dame de Jamhour in Beirut as civil war was raging in his country, according to his biography on the Middleby website. He got a bachelor's degree in business administration from the American University of Beirut and started working for Ernst & Young in the Middle East.

Bassoul moved to the United States to attend the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, where he earned his M.B.A. in finance and marketing, with a certificate in accounting.

After eight years working for Premark Inc., a unit of Illinois Tool Works, Bassoul joined Middleby in 1996 as president of the company's Southbend division. He became chief operating officer in 1999, chief executive in 2000 and chairman of the board in 2004. Under his leadership, the company has added more than a dozen acquisitions to make Middleby a market leader and quadruple sales in a five-year period, according to the website.

The company makes ovens and other cooking gear for restaurant chains such as Pizza Hut, Dunkin' Donuts and Subway, as well as for home kitchens. It has been named one of the fastest-growing companies by several national publications, including Fortune, Businessweek and Forbes.

The CEO, who used to live in Inverness, now lives in Dallas, Texas, where he is raising his two youngest children, ages 2 and 14, with his wife. He admits he is busy, but finds it deeply rewarding to help others.

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  Middleby headquarters in Elgin. Brian Hill/
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