Naguib Sawiris joined the family business, Orascom Group, in 1979. Founded by his father, Onsi Sawiris, the sprawling Orascom empire has grown into the largest employer in Egypt and has spread out internationally in everything from tourism and IT to construction and telecommunications.
Mr. Sawiris, who is worth approximately $2.5-billion (U.S.), is a brash billionaire who speaks bluntly in plain language. He heads the family’s telecom business, which has grown into an immense entity with about 120 million wireless subscribers – about five times the combined total of Bell, Telus and Rogers. The business straddles the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, operating everywhere from Zimbabwe to North Korea – and Canada, where he backs the start-up wireless company Wind Mobile. In recent years, he led a $15-billion (U.S.) buyout of Italy’s Wind Telecomunicazioni (from which Canada’s Wind gets its name).
But he will not stop there, or here in Canada. In an interview last August, Mr. Sawiris elaborated on a prediction that the global telecom industry will be rocked by a series of multibillion-dollar mergers and that only a few companies will remain.
As he looked out over Lake Ontario and made proclamations that sent his Canadian colleagues into fits of nervous laughter, Mr. Sawiris said he wants to stand among those global giants, even if it means selling parts of his own companies for a seat at the table. Indeed, he has already started. Mr. Sawiris is trying to merge Orascom with VimpelCom, a Russian telecom giant. However, that deal is far from a sure thing, partially because of Orascom’s unstable telecom business in Algeria, where the government has made Mr. Sawiris’s life difficult with, for example, a surprise $600-million tax hit.
But Canada wasn’t any easier, he says. The federal telecom regulator initially wouldn’t allow Wind to launch, citing foreign ownership rules. The federal cabinet intervened in Wind’s favour, but the issue is still before the Canadian courts. When asked whether Canada was a stable piece in the chess game of his global empire, he replied: “I wish I could say that. It should have been.”