Montpellier’s billionaire owner started life as an unwanted son living in a Syrian tent set to become a shepherd, writes Liam Napier.

Montpellier and Mohed Altrad are much more than southern French city and resident.

"You see, I owe Montpellier everything," Altrad said. "My family, house, the Altrad Group is all here."

And a world away from the Syrian desert and Bedouin tribe he escaped from.

These days, Montpellier should appreciate Altrad, the unassuming self-made billionaire who on this day appears at his rugby club with a grey dotted beard, white polo, baggy dress pants and boat shoes.

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But given what Altrad survived before arriving in France, and the construction empire he has since built, it will always be he who feels the need to repay.

Altrad's story could be so different. How easily we could never know his name. Destined for a life of despair, somehow he emerged from a traumatic upbringing to forge on in a foreign land.

As a child, Altrad was orphaned. His teenage mother died. His father, who raped his mother, disowned him. Altrad's only brother also died from abuse after living with their father. Even now, he does not know his true birthday.

Raised by his grandmother, Altrad lived in a tent. He was supposed to be a shepherd. Refusing to accept that fate, he instead sneaked away each day to school, education proving his lifeline.

Graduating first in his region, Altrad's reward was a government scholarship. At first, he elected to train as a pilot in the Ukraine. When that fell through - a blessing in hindsight - he had a choice: Egypt or France.

Landing in Montpellier around the age of 16, culture shock hit. Altrad survived on one meal a day. He did not speak a word of French. Then there was the fact he was raised Muslim, entering an anti-Arab world.

Today, this provides extensive material for his fourth book, this one on identity. At the time, it was confronting.

"All my life, if you have to choose one word, it is adversity. Up until now, I have this. Although I am 100 per cent French committed, I am still Arabic. This part is hidden in me."

Mohed Altrad took over a financially struggling Montpellier in 2011 and helped the rugby club become one of Europe's strongest. Photo / Getty Images
Mohed Altrad took over a financially struggling Montpellier in 2011 and helped the rugby club become one of Europe's strongest. Photo / Getty Images

Though, in 1969, his French comprehension was extremely limited, Altrad gained undergraduate degrees in physics and maths, and a PhD in computer science.

After four years in Abu Dhabi, working for the national oil company, he returned to France and acquired a bankrupt scaffolding firm. Adding smaller competitors along the way, he defiantly rose above numerous obstacles, many of which originated from his heritage.

In 2011, by which point his business was booming globally, rugby arrived on the scene.

Altrad had never attended a live match but when the Montpellier mayor requested he bail out the financially-stricken local club, he stepped in.

Non-disclosed debts quickly arose. Much like the business world, the sporting sphere did not accept him immediately, either. Not part of the establishment, Altrad says common attitudes were 'what does this rich Arab know about rugby?'

"I don't regret what I did but I regret the way it was done," he says, referring to the club's debts. "The game was not sincere.

"Here in France, when you are owner of a rugby club, it is a political weapon. Most of the politicians see you as an adversary. I'm not. I try to help the city since I'm here.

"I have to prove maybe more than anyone else that what I'm doing and saying is correct. Apparently this is the rule of the game for me. But I am progressing. My business is doing well - my club is progressing."

Rugby progress did not come easily, though. And still he craves an elusive title.

Altrad sacked his first coach, former French halfback Fabien Galthie, in 2014, and by the end of the 2016 season tired of South African Jake White's dour approach.

While he continues to thrive in business, now with a personal net worth of US$2.5 billion ($3.8b), rugby provides another form of education.

"I learned a lot from the game but fairly quickly we understand the basic is team - you can't win alone.

"Look at the All Blacks. They sacrifice their body and heart for the team. We are working on that. Here, it is a different culture, a Latin culture, and we have several foreign players, so it is more difficult to put together."

Unlike other outspoken, all-controlling French owners, Altrad addresses his team in a formal capacity three times a year, preferring not to interfere unless called on by New Zealand coach Vern Cotter.

Even for a man who has endured so much, witnessing his club choke in last year's Top 14 final after leading all season, was a new, emotive experience.

"The word patience in literature is not that positive. Real patience destroys the person holding that. In love, there are a lot of big names who killed themselves or died because of sadness. Maybe rugby is like that. I try to make it positive, not negative, to give hope and emotion to the people of Montpellier."

Unlike other outspoken, all-controlling French owners, Mohed Altrad addresses his team in a formal capacity three times a year.
Unlike other outspoken, all-controlling French owners, Mohed Altrad addresses his team in a formal capacity three times a year.

Altrad has invested €20 million ($35m) of his fortune since purchasing Montpellier rugby and, with it, a passionate attachment evolved.

Earlier this year, he also committed €35 million ($61m) over the next five years towards the French team.

"I'm trying to help and fight for what I believe is good for the national team. France used to be top three and now we are eighth.

"All parties should work in synergy but that is not the case now. We need to sort out the finance problem. There is conflict of interest at all levels and no one is talking about this seriously at the moment."

Appreciating more than most how it feels to be cast an outsider, and perhaps post the success of the culturally-diverse French football team, World Cup champions, Altrad believes rugby in his adopted country should follow suit.

"Why forbid foreigners, talented players, from playing for the French team? I honestly don't know. When France used to be ranked highly, we had a lot of foreigners - a lot of South Africans and Tony Marsh from New Zealand."

From tyre manufactures to comic book owners, there is no shortage of supreme wealth to attract foreign stars to French rugby.

Altrad is merely one with an open cheque book. For New Zealand and its Southern Hemisphere counterparts, French club riches are a constant source of frustration, constantly stripping away valuable talent and resource.

Altrad adopts a more practical view on the lopsided financial landscape. "It is logical. It is a free country. If you look at it from an economical point of view, it is a competition.

"You have an offer and a demand, so it is going up. Yes, you have half of the Top 14 owned by rich people or groups.

"In South Africa, there is maybe not enough money in the country. Scotland is also much smaller.

"It is difficult to compare from one country to another. In England, it is not that different because it is a rich country."

Money, of course, is not everything. Nor does it guarantee exoneration from adversity.

Altrad has never discussed his childhood with his five children but they have all read his books.

"They know what I am and this is all I can give them. It is not always an advantage."

Here, he refers to his youngest daughter who, from seven years old, was regularly bullied at school.

"Other children ask her for rugby tickets, money, this and that. She resisted and they started insulting her."

Weight-related health problems followed - Altrad discovering the source of the issue three years later, and because of his profile feels responsible. He has since met the French president to discuss investing in tackling obesity.

Another life challenge, it seems.

From Syrian refugee to billionaire, author, rugby owner, Altrad has encountered more than most ever will.

So what's next?

"The story needs an ending somewhere. I try to find something to match the whole story but I don't find it yet."

One can safely assume Montpellier will be at the heart of his closing chapter.