MBC Group interview: Sam Barnett

Leading one of the biggest media entities in the Middle East with 1,800 employees, MBC Group CEO Sam Barnett talks about his journey to success

Trend People are actually consuming more television today than they did ten years ago, says Barnett

Trend People are actually consuming more television today than they did ten years ago, says Barnett

MBC Group is one of the region’s iconic media brands with more than eleven channels and two radio stations and three online platforms under its umbrella. Its growth has been impressive, its quality unmatched, and its leadership unwavering. The behemoth media giant was launched in 1991 with only one channel, MBC 1; which is still on air today.

“It all started because Sheikh Waleed [Al Ibrahim, chairman of MBC] felt people in the Middle East deserved to see good quality international content, complemented by quality local coverage in the Middle East and other organisations were not doing that,” says Sam Barnett, CEO of MBC Group. Barnett has had an interesting journey into the top job as he was not always in media; in fact at one time he was the headmaster of a not-for-profit school in a Kenyan village. His career path has weaved itself across the rural dirt roads of Africa, through the high streets of London, and finally into the heart of the 21st century’s biggest boom town, Dubai.

“At the age of 29 I was flying across Ethiopia privatising tea plantations. I doubt I would have the chance to do anything like that if I had stayed in London,” says Barnett.

Interestingly, following his heart and not a scripted career path has served him well. From his early days at Cambridge University he was always attracted to the emerging economies and got the chance to go to Kenya and work for an educational NGO early on.

“My peers from Cambridge thought I was barking mad, however I learned in Kenya how much fun it is to work in an environment where you can have a big impact, where you can actually make a difference.”

The decision to explore the emerging markets as a professional direction early on did afford Barnett an excellent opportunity to develop as he was given a fair amount of responsibility early in his career.

“I was figuratively punched in the face at a very young age as you realise quite quickly that a nicely produced slide that summarises all the information in three bullet points is relatively useless when you are trying to pull a team together in the middle of rural Africa,” says Barnett.

It wasn’t all a romantic adventure across the Serengeti as MBC’s top man did earn his keep as a first class strategy consultant in the boardrooms of London. To round out his executive skill set he then went to INSEAD to do his MBA and, when asked if going back to school was worth it, he says: “I think it depends where you do it and the journey you undergo rather than the knowledge that you acquire. For example, if you ask me to recite the Black-Scholes pricing model I won’t be able to. But what they do teach you is how to work with diverse people under intense pressure. So they put you into groups of six and fill the group with diverse personalities. Then they say ‘we are going to mark you as a group’.  So you have to learn how to be productive with personalities which are vastly different than your own, which is very challenging. Now you are working with people who are difficult and that mirrors what life in the real world is like. So the key lesson is how to manage that and if your MBA gives you that, then it is good value. Your MBA network also helps as the INSEAD alumni is 450 strong here in the UAE and it is a very useful network to have.”

After finishing his MBA, Barnett took a job as a consultant with ricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in Tanzania.

“Tanzania was going through immense change and was coming out of being a fairly closed system and PwC was helping the government make a massive transition. They were privatising a lot of their functions and it was very exciting,” Barnett says.

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