82-year-old  Egyptian billionaire Onsi Sawiris, is the founder of the Orascom conglomerate and the patriarch of Egypt’s richest family. With a net worth estimated at $2.9 million, Sawiris made the majority of the family’s wealth has been made in construction and telecoms, though the empire now stretches to tourism and media. The Sawiris family, which comprises Onsi and his sons Naguib, Nassef and Samih, has an estimated worth of $4.2 billion. Tom Jackson looks at five lessons that can be learnt from the rise of Onsi Sawiris from pariah of Nasser’s government to one of Africa’s richest men.

Invest in the future

Onsi Sawiris always said that the greatest investment he’d ever made was in his sons. He is now effectively retired, and has each of his three sons running arms of the family empire. Eldest son Naguib, who was educated in Zurich, is executive chairman of Orascom Telecom and a media owner in Egypt. He is said to be the intellectual guru of the family, with strong connections in the Cairo political elite and liberal sympathies. Nassef, a graduate of Chicago University, is chief executive of Orascom Construction Industries. Observers of the Egyptian political scene say he is an advocate of a progressive, liberal future for Egypt. He is an investor in the newspaper al-Masry al-Youm, which was launched in 2004 and has earned a strong reputation for pioneering an independent editorial agenda, and also launched the satellite TV network OTV. Samih is responsible for holiday resorts in the Middle East such as El Couna and Taba Heights and has turned his attention to other tourist developments. The Sawiris siblings are revolutionaries when it comes to Egypt’s corporate culture. Educated and trained in the West, they keep a lean group structure, hire managers on the basis of merit rather than family connections and recruit expatriate talent with generous compensation packages

Spot an opportunity

Not so long ago, few saw telecommunications taking off in Africa, but now the sector is the continent’s fastest growing. Orascom Telecom is now the leading mobile phone operator throughout Africa, the Middle East and Pakistan, with 11 million subscribers. The firm has long been one of the largest mobile phone operators in the world, with a presence in twelve countries, including Algeria, Pakistan, Canada and North Korea. Until this year it ran Egypt’s leading mobile network, Mobinil, and has even expanded into North Korea, where it has become the secretive communist state’s first mobile phone operator. Naguib has also entered the European mobile market, with his Weather Investments vehicle, buying mobile operators in Italy and Greece.

Fight on

The Egyptian government nationalised Sawiris’ first construction business back in 1971, after Sawiris fell foul of the socialist government of President Nasser and was prevented from leaving the country for six years, eventually relocating to Libya. Undeterred, he returned to Egypt and rebuilt during the more business-friendly presidency of Anwar Sadat, creating what eventually became Orascom Construction Industries, which his son Nassef took over in 1995. In more recent times U.S. affiliate Contrack was forced to withdraw from Iraqi contracts worth $325 million as a result of terrorist attacks and rising security costs, but the company has weathered the storm. Orascom managed to weather the recession storm, with Naguib saying in October last year that he was in discussions with partners to help finance a bid for Orange Switzerland, the France Telecom SA mobile phone unit, for $2.8bn.

Know a good offer when you see one

In February, Naguib Sawiris sold most of his stake in the group’s mobile operations to its French partner, France Telecom. Following the completion of the sale, France Telecom will own 95 per cent of Mobinil while the Sawiris family will retain a 5 per cent “economic interest”, according to a statement. The family sold its 20 per cent stake in Mobinil for 202.5 Egyptian pounds (€25.31) per share – a 61% premium on its closing price before the sale was announced. The whole deal was valued at around €1.5 billion.

Target emerging markets

The company has been awarded $355 million to build science and technology centre in Qatar. It is also expected to be involved in Qatar’s preparations for the 2022 World Cup. Recently Naguib dropped support for the Qatar consortium targeting a buy-out of Egyptian investment bank EFG Hermes after EFG shareholders backed an alternative tie-up with Qatar’s QInvest, yet the family retains close links with the country.

Image via Forbes

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