x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Geek hero stays committed

Saad Al Barrak, the former chief executive of the Kuwaiti telecom company Zain and chairman and founder of Ila Group, talks about life after Zain and his new venture helping SMEs.

Saad Al Barrak oversaw Zain Group's ambitious expansion in 23 countries across Africa and the Middle East. Delores Johnson / The National
Saad Al Barrak oversaw Zain Group's ambitious expansion in 23 countries across Africa and the Middle East. Delores Johnson / The National

The short, portly man in the loose-fitting pinstripe suit could pass off as a misfit among a gathering of well-booted jargon spouting geeks at an IT conference.

Only he isn't.

Saad Al Barrak, the chairman of his three-year-old Ila Group, has a self-confessed hunger for growth in the telecoms sector.

His is one of the growth stories from the Arabian Gulf that has made it into the nerdy pop culture of the region.

The 57-year-old Kuwaiti oversaw his local telecoms operator Zain Group's ambitious expansion in 23 countries across Africa and the Middle East during his eight years at the company.

One of his most recognised deals was a US$3.4 billion (Dh12.48bn) takeover of the Sudanese businessman Mo Ibrahim's Celtel empire in 2005, snatching it away from South Africa's MTN over the Easter break.

The journey that begun in 2002 was cut short in 2010 as Zain shed its assets, including Celtel that year.

But life after the high-flying career at Zain has not changed much, Mr Al Barrak says.

"It's very exciting because we are starting a new venture," he said on the sidelines of the first BCS IT International Conference in Abu Dhabi on Sunday. London-based BCS, which is identified by its acronym, is The Chartered Institute for IT.

He is referring to his Bahrain-based Ila group, which he founded in 2010. It invests in and supports small to medium-sized industries (SMEs). It is now managing four companies and start-ups, two in the United States and two in Egypt.

"There is a lot of challenge and with great challenge comes a lot of excitement," he says.

One of the US-based companies is Red Lambda, which provides cyber security, and the other is a joint venture with Pasadena-based California Institute of Technology to build mobile applications related to content, internet and browsing.

Among the Egyptian companies is one that develops a machine service platform to enable transactions across the world, and the other is a distributor of telecoms products and service provider in which Ila Group took a 51 per cent stake.

Mr Al Barrak is excited about the promise generated by the Arab Spring.

"Societal transformation will bring about better environment and freedom is the cradle of innovation," he says.

Behind the selection of companies is a careful calculation.

While the US companies provide the potential to quickly generate value capitalising on their sophisticated technologies, the Egyptian companies are more service-based, leveraging the growing number of telecoms users in the Middle East.

The group has its hands full with the four companies and Mr Al Barrak says he would not be looking at more SMEs for the next five years.

"The challenge is growth," he says. "Here I enjoy surfing on the waves of growth."

That hunger was also apparent, albeit with a touch of vanity, in his memoir, released in 2012.

"It was hard for people to imagine Zain without Africa, and hard to imagine Zain without me," he wrote in his oft-quoted summation of his career at Zain in A Passion for Adventure: Turning Zain into a Telecom Giant. "The two had become synonymous."

It has been three years since Mr Al Barrak resigned from his former company Zain - but it is clear he still holds it close his heart.

"Of course I do miss Zain," he says. But for him the point is growth.

"I love small companies and love to take them to bigger levels."

When he joined Zain at the end of 2002, it was a small company based in Kuwait with 500,000 customers and $400 million in revenues. When he left it had $8bn in revenues with 73 million customers.

And his lifestyle from the Zain days has not changed much. "I still travel a lot," says Mr Al Barrak.

Ila, which means "towards" in Arabic, has a capitalisation of $20m and can reach up to $50m. It aims to generate $1bn in value among the four companies combined in the next five years.

Of these, Florida-based Red Lambda already looks promising. It aims to secure almost 1 per cent of the cyber security market by 2015, according to Techli.com. The sector is expected to touch $220bn by then.

Besides Mr Al Barrak, Ila has seven investors, and the management team includes three former Zain colleagues. "It is easy to start," he says, referring to his own start-up. "The challenge is to soar."