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Naguib Sawiris: 'I want to be the best'

Naguib Sawiris



LONDON, England (CNN) -- CNN Financial Editor Todd Benjamin speaks to Naguib Sawiris, chairman and CEO of conglomerate Orascom. The following is a transcript of the interview.

Q: Orascom was started more than 50 years ago by your father. He had a big construction company in Egypt that was later nationalized. You've known what it is to have money and not to have money. Tell me about that experience.

A: Well, it's not like we had money, we didn't have money because we were in the house, we were going to school, we were dressed good, fed good, went to a good school, so when he took my father's business, this didn't influence our type of life and we were kids at that time so we wouldn't have seen the difference. I think it was heartbreaking for my father, he came back ... he woke up one morning to go to his office, he goes there and it was totally red-taped with the police and everything there. By the time he grasped what was happening, there were other guys in our house, searching the house.

Q: It must have been very terrifying for you.

A: Not terrifying, no. Neither me or my father get terrified easily, but it was like a sour experience.

Q: What did that experience teach you?

A: Well it taught me, I was too young to really learn something out of it, but I felt sorry for my father because he looked really devastated. When I grew up, it taught me to get over obstacles and problems and the challenges.

Q: Your father is a patriarch of Orascom. What do you admire so much about your father?

A: First, that he is a fighter like me. He never gives up on anything. If it's right, he's going to fight for it. He doesn't let go when he has a goal. He is a very active man. He's a hardworking man. He's like me -- he's righteous and defiant.

Q: Did you learn risk-taking from him?

A: Yes, but I think I have expanded a little bit. I'm much more risk-taking than he is, he's more prudent.

Q: What do you think it takes to take risks?

A: For me the first word that comes to my mind is faith. I think if you really believe in God, you think you're a good human being, than you know he's going to be on your side so you don't fear anything. So this has been the biggest source of my power, my faith to God and my family, my bigger family and my wife and my kids of course, my wife gives me a lot of support too.

Q: What do you think makes a good entrepreneur?

A: Ethics, shrewdness, fast decision making, has to be lucky, you can't do without the luck, some people are just unlucky all the time, hard work of course.

Q: Back in 2001, you got into financial trouble. You had to sell off assets to bring yourself back into balance. What did you learn from that period of crisis?

A: I learnt that it's not worth it to go and buy a new asset and then you sell an old asset, in the end it means you should have not just done the new one. So what good does it do you when you do another asset and you lose a valuable asset? So I should have been more restrained and I should have moved more on my capacity, but it's the ambition sometimes drives you over, but you should always watch not to go over the cliff.

Q: What do you think is the biggest misconception the West has about doing business in the Middle East?

A: I guess, I think they think you need some relation, some corruption, stuff like that, and it's not true. Where you need to have a partner that is politically linked and I will never do that again, I'm out of these countries now. But if you come to Egypt, you don't need anybody, you can start any kind of business and the investment environment is friendly and open.

Q: So you don't feel doing business in the Mideast is not different from doing business somewhere else?

A: In the countries that I'm in now, there is transparency. I worked in countries where there is no transparency and I got out of them. To name a few, Yemen and Syria, I'm out of these countries.

Q: Your strategy as a businessman in the telecom sector has been to go into countries with big populations and low mobile penetration. So why did you choose this strategy, or is it just that the Mideast fit this paradigm?

A: If you're ambitious, then you will think like that, that your value, absolute value, or your market cap, or your cash, your revenue, everything is going to be a function of how much money can you generate. So if you have a very high population with low penetration means there is no limits to the number of people you could sell a phone to. Take Pakistan, 150 million people. You can argue that it is a poor country so I'll tell you fine, 20 percent can afford a phone? You'll tell me yes. Twenty percent of 140 million is 28 million. This is the population of Holland, Belgium, Greece and put another two European countries, so even if you got a guy spending only $10 a month, all what you need is two of these guys for every European and imagine the money you can create.

Q: What's your biggest concern right now?

A: My biggest concern? I don't have any concerns, I'm still having an ambition plan. ... I would like to emerge one of the biggest five mobile operators of the world. I have the growth, I have the population, I cater for 500 million people, but unfortunately there is no more green fields, no more licenses, so the next step is to do acquisitions. So I've done the Italian acquisition with Vint, so the challenge now is to do one or two more in the coming two to three years and then consolidate all into one big player, that's my plan right now, that's what keeps me busy now.

Q: What do you think separates a good business leader from a great business leader?

A: A great business leader, he has a vision, he wants to fly over the sky and get there where nobody's been there before. That's a great leader. A good leader is the COO of a great company that does well and it increases the revenue and so on. But great businessmen would go on to history like the types of people who built an imperial business corporation from nothing or came up with ... all the guys with eBay and with Microsoft, these are great leaders.

Q: What is the buzz for you about building a business?

A: It's the challenge, the excitement, the fact that you came from very far and you become, at the last mile, as the last contender, winning. Building this machine. ... If you look at my company from a revenue stream, it's just the largest Egyptian corporate. I have the largest company in Egypt right now, the largest revenue and the largest profitability. The second player behind me is less than half of my value, and it's again a family business deal, one of my family -- my brother. So it's good to be No. 1. This has been my motto in everything in my life, I never like to be second.

Q: Some would say but you're not operating in Western countries where the competition is much more cut-throat. You're operating in the Mideast where the markets are not really developed. What would your response be?

A: Listen, if I was baking a pizza in Egypt and I would be baking a pizza in Germany, the pizza will not come to be the same pizza? I can do the same ... what the hell is this? This is not about hieroglyphics or about ... you're selling phones to people to use them, so where's the big difference ... amateur market, sophisticated market ... the competition must be more forceful. But we've shown that ... now our markets, we are market leader, we have 70-80 percent market share. So maybe in Europe we will not do that market share, but we will do well. We know the business upside down and so we would ... you wait and see the Vint company after two years from now and you look at the number that's projected when we bought it and look at the numbers we're going to achieve and that should be my test.

Q: What do you think your greatest strength is as an entrepreneur, because you strike me as a man that is very confident?

A: My faith in God. Because I do a lot of good and I fear no one and I fear nothing. They call me ... I have an iron heart. And I don't give up, if there is something difficult, I like difficult things, I don't like easy stuff. The more difficult it becomes, the more challenging it becomes, the more excited I am and the more I want to accomplish it.

Q: You say because of your faith in God you have this confidence to move forward. Where does this faith in God come from? Why is that so important to you?

A: I was a Sunday school teacher when I was young. ... I grew up ... I had religion in me. ... I think life has shown me that God is always on my side so ... I don't know why, maybe he likes me. Maybe I'm doing some good, that's why it's coming back to me. I've seen him always there when I needed him. So that's why.

Q: And you are a Christian dealing in what is primarily a Muslim world.

A: Yes. First if you're from a minority, you always try to be better because you want to get the equal chance. But I have a very nice relation, I'd say I have a Muslim culture because I lived with Muslims all my life and I had no problems. On the contrary, all my friends are Muslims. I don't see a lot of problems in that issue. We all live in one God, I just don't like the fanatics ... even Christian fanatics I don't like. ... I don't like fanatic people in general.

Q: You say your greatest strength is your faith in God, your confidence in yourself. What do you think your greatest weakness is?

A: I'm emotional. ... If I have a problem and I have a decision to make and the struggle is between the mind and the heart, unfortunately the heart always wins. ... I can't do a better deal because I feel sorry for the guy in front of me, so I really can't get the last dime out of him or be a fierce negotiator, I like to leave room for ... I like someone to move from my deal feeling this is a good man, I made a good deal even though I could have done better. So I'm emotional.

Q: And what do you think the biggest misunderstanding is about you?

A: Sometimes people think I'm conceited, and I'm not. I'm a very simple person, but I have a thing like I forget to say hello to someone because ... I thought I already told him. ... I didn't realize that I didn't tell him hello so he thinks, "Here is an arrogant person," or something like that. Sometimes people take my self-confidence as a sign of arrogance, which is not true. People who really know me closely know it is not true, but people will never buy you for as good you are. People prefer to see negative stuff than positive stuff.

Q: People who know say you can be a sore loser and they say you can be moody. is that true?

A: I have a sign on my desk that says "Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser." It's on my desk ... so yes, I'm a sore loser but I don't like to lose ... so in order not to lose, I put a lot of effort. I work like 12 hours a day so.

Q: And you've called yourself a party animal?

A: Yes. I like to go out a lot and enjoy life and I like to be amongst people, specially younger people. I don't like to party with the older, I like to party with young people.

Q: Why, because of the energy they give you?

A: This energy, this ... you know, they like to enjoy themselves. I see the future in them, they all look so ... it's the future, the young are the future. When you go with the oldie, they remind you of the end, so party with the people that remind you of what's to come.

Q: What do you want your legacy to be?

A: I want people to say that this man came to life, he made a difference ... he created jobs, he did some good, he helped his country, he helped his people, he did a lot of good. That's what I want to be remembered for.

Q: When you were growing up, and this is a question I ask all chief executives and they are very honest about it, when you were growing up, was there any incident in your childhood that made you fundamentally who you are today?

A: Yeah I think there was one. In school I was full of hopes and felt a lot for myself ... but I never put (in) the right effort. I thought I was very intelligent but I didn't need to work so much like everybody else because I am. So I was like always scoring in the middle in my class. And I had this German teacher, he was the teacher of German and philosophy in my school. One day he came to me and said, "You are a waste, God has given you everything, and you just don't want to put the effort to really become the best." So I told him ... if I want I can. I was arrogant ... a young guy. So he told me, no, it's not always like that, you have to start ... if you don't start ... it's not like what you say. So we made a bet. He told me, OK, I'll make a bet with you. You have the final year of ... high school ... so I was telling him if I want to be the first in my school I could next year, I would do it. He said you wouldn't do it because you should have started a long time ago. So I took in on my pride to prove it to him because he was a good man ... he was teaching us Kafka and all the philosophy, and I was thrilled by him and the way he was attentive to us. So I told him, OK, I'll show you, so I took one whole year and I closed myself in my room and I studied like crazy and I became the first in my school, just to prove a point to him. So in doing that I saw how good it is to be always the best, so I started in everything from that day trying to keep this -- that in whatever I do I want to be the best or the first, that has stayed with me.

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