Naguib Sawiris likes to think of himself as the Middle East's answer to Richard Branson. Last year the Egyptian entrepreneur started operating what is so far Iraq's only mobile-phone network. After just six months, his company, Orascom Telecom, already has more than half a million subscribers there, earning it $95 million before taxes and interest. Like Branson, Sawiris is a music lover he calls himself a "party animal" and has a taste for risky ventures. To date, six Orascom engineers and technicians have been kidnapped in Iraq and two of its sites have been shot at. "I didn't sleep for a month" after the kidnappings, Sawiris told Time, though he helped secure the hostages' eventual release. But in business terms, it has been worth it. "It's one of our most profitable operations," says Sawiris, 50, sprawled on a leather chair in Orascom Telecom's ornate Paris office. "I take a lot of risks, but calculated risks."
Now Sawiris stands on the edge of one of the biggest risks of his life.
Last week, he began exclusive talks with the Italian utility Enel to acquire its
mobile-phone network, Wind, in a deal that values the firm at €12.2 billion. Assuming Sawiris pulls it off, the Wind deal will be the largest private-equity takeover in European history. It will also put him in the unusual position of building the first European telecom powerhouse out of Egypt.
Sawiris comes from a wealthy Coptic family; the Copts are a Christian minority in Egypt that make up only about 10% of the population but is well represented in financial, government and intellectual circles. His father, Onsi, made his fortune in Egypt in the 1950s in the construction industry, but then lost it all when President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the business in the early '60s. The family moved to Libya and started afresh, but moved back to Egypt a decade later. There, Sawiris senior proceeded to build his fortune anew.
He has since divided his empire among his three sons: Naguib, the eldest, took telecommunications; the youngest, Nassef, runs the construction business; and the middle brother, Samih, has a tourism and travel company. Naguib seems to have inherited his father's golden touch. Over the past six years, Cairo-based Orascom Telecom Holding has grown into an increasingly profitable company with more than $2 billion in annual revenue and 14.5 million subscribers in Muslim countries, including Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia.
Although Sawiris has always been able to rely on family money, his line to international success has not been entirely straight. Having overextended its mobile network in the late '90s, the firm ran into financial problems in 2001 as the worldwide demand for telecommunications dried up. Sawiris had to sell off assets, including a valuable franchise in Jordan, to pay down debts. In the process, he got support from an unusual business source: Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader.