Saad Al Barrak tells Arabian Business how he transformed Zain, Kuwait’s provincial telco, into a global giant in just seven and a half years
“I started my career as an engineer and then I failed so I was promoted to a manager. When I failed as a manager I was promoted to CEO and when I failed as a CEO, I became a consultant. Only when I fail as a consultant will I become a politician,” Dr Saad Al Barrak laughs.
“That’s a good quote,” he quips.
Jokes aside, few people would agree with Al Barrak. In just seven and a half years he managed to transform Zain, Kuwait’s provincial telco, into a global giant. Under his guidance the former-state owned operator grew from a customer base of 500,000 operating in one Gulf state to 72 million customers across 23 countries. Over the same period, revenues at the company jumped from $570m to $8bn.
Today’s pace is rather different from the frenzied days Al Barrak spent growing Zain’s operations. The man known as simply ‘the Doctor’ in many circles is sitting in the plush surroundings of the Ritz-Carlton, Doha, signing new copies of his book, A Passion for Adventure. The evening will mark the official GCC launch of the book he has spent the interim period writing since his surprise departure from Zain two years ago, and from Saudi subsidiary Zain KSA last year.
The book charts Al Barrak’s early days as managing director at the Kuwait IT solutions firm International Turnkey Systems (ITS), ITS’s continued growth during the Kuwait invasion to his transformative years at Zain, and is peppered with anecdotes from those he worked closely with at the former monopoly holder.
“After the 2008 financial crisis the mood changed,” he says. “I knew that [Zain’s] direction would be to consolidate and extract value…I am a challenge and growth person. I love the ecstasy of expansion and I will not stick around just to preserve the post of CEO at Zain,” he says.
He is, of course, referring to the sale of Zain’s African mobile operations to the Indian telecom giant Bharti Airtel in 2010. The deal, which netted Zain $3.7bn in net profit, marked a stark departure from the style of transactions Al Barrak and Zain had become synonymous with.
“We had absorbed huge pressure as managers but once it had transpired that a strategic shareholder – especially one with whom there had long existed a close understanding – wanted to change gear and even direction, it did not make any sense for me to stay,” he writes in his book.
The major shareholder that forced Al Barrak’s final deal at Zain was the very shareholder that first persuaded him to join the company back in 2002: the late Kuwaiti businessman, Nasser Al Kharafi. Back then Zain – or MTC as it was known – was a very different beast to the telecoms giant operating today. A year earlier, the Kuwaiti government had reduced its stake in the company from 49 percent to 25 percent, leaving behind a firm scarred by over a decade and a half of red tape and bureaucracy.
“I discovered a company that had been stymied by government culture for sixteen years, which was an unprofessional, politicised monopoly. It had a big marketing department that knew nothing about marketing and little about PR,” Al Barrak describes in his book.
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