Thursday, September 10, 2009

Naguib Sawiris, chairman of Orascom and Weather Investments talk Like An Egyptian


Naguib Sawiris, chairman of Orascom and Weather Investments, talks to CNBC's Simon Hobbs

SH Is your boldness in business due to your beliefs as an Egyptian Coptic Christian?

NS It's a function of my belief in God; it is not a function of being a Christian, Muslim or a Jew. I believe God is on my side — my opponent may not be in the same situation.

SH Your focus is getting the best people. How do you balance delegating with your self-confessed perfectionism?

NS I delegate but stay involved. In Egypt you can't always depend upon people to do what they say they are going to do. It may put a burden on you, but you will avoid failure.

SH Do you struggle to tame your impatience?

NS It's a weakness. I sometimes lose out because of it when making a deal. I'll not want to wait for someone to make a decision so I might propose a deal that is actually better for my opponent than one he would have suggested.

SH You've also said you are too emotional.

NS I am a person who, when his heart and mind are divided, will follow his heart. I could never do a deal with someone I didn't like.

SH When did you join your father in business?

NS A friend and I started a small commercial company; at the same time, I was helping my father in his business. One day he said I had proven myself and invited me to join him. I said: "Ok, but I am going to do my own stuff." I began with railways and IT and then went to telecoms.

SH Did you have a eureka moment when you realised that in developing countries, if you employ locals and keep a tight rein on costs, you can sell telecoms to people on low incomes and make better margins than in Europe?

NS The argument was that in markets here in Egypt, people will consume $4 or $5 a month so how can you make money with that? But, if you have one guy in Europe consuming $20 and five people here using $20 and using the same bandwidth, you'll get the same result because, in the end, you are selling bandwidth.

SH Why have you gone for local branding?

NS Local partners are annoying and greedy and want to throw you out of the business that you helped them in. So if you don't want that you need to act local, have a local brand, and do local good. In Iraq we are called "Our Iraq", in Tunisia we're named after Tunisia. It is important to speak to local people locally.

SH Within six months of the Iraq invasion you were queuing to set up a network there.

NS After the war, there was no infrastructure in Iraq. There was a bit of "good doing" in going there. But again, I went for the money! It's not like I'm Mother Theresa.

SH You must have known you would be attacked for that.

NS I am a guy you can't scare. I view God as on my side.

SH What about one year in, when gunmen kidnapped two of your Egyptian engineers from the Baghdad office and then four more the following week?

NS I always believed I would get them back. But it was a tough time. I had the families with me and I felt I owed it to them. We got them out. We did it by shutting the network down for a few hours to say, "look, we are here to do a service". Terrorists and kidnappers need to use the phone too! What other weapons did I have?

SH Your people were caught in the middle between the insurgents and the Americans — how did you deal with that?

NS In these areas you don't know who to please. My way is this: never interfere in politics, do your business, be loyal to the people of the country, be honest and don't get involved.

SH Let's talk about North Korea. How did you make it work, being an entrepreneur working in a Communist country?

NS We already have 40,000 subscribers in North Korea in the first six months. But it's very difficult and we have to deal with them on a daily basis to make sure they respect what we have agreed to. In essence, though, it is a low financial risk for a very high reward.

SH What are you most proud of in your career and what was your biggest mistake?

NS That I created all this from scratch. I didn't inherit it — my father wasn't in telecoms. My mistake? Overexpanding.