x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

New chapter for Zain high flyer

Treating colleagues like family members was key to building the Zain Group "cult", says the telecommunication firm's former chief executive Saad Al Barrak.

Illustration by Christopher Burke for The National
Illustration by Christopher Burke for The National

Saad Al Barrak took Kuwait's Zain Group to staggering heights before the global financial crisis checked his progress. Having left behind his 'patriarchal' role with the company, he now looks to new ventures in the telecoms sector as well as his extended family. Ben Flanagan reports

There is no dividing line between family and business life for Saad Al Barrak.

The Kuwaiti executive was behind the meteoric rise of Zain Group, which he grew from a small-time telecoms operator to a behemoth with US$8 billion (Dh29.38bn) in revenues.

Mr Al Barrak says treating his employees like family members was key to his success at Zain, one of the largest telecoms groups in the Middle East.

And so when he made his surprise exit as the head of Zain Group in 2010, the company lost more than a chief executive. It lost its patriarch.

"I only like to work with people whom I really love. It's really a family relationship," he says. "We are a cult, so we really stick together."

The "cult" he created at Zain Group is described in Mr Al Barrak's book A Passion for Adventure, which was published in March.

He is currently in publicity overdrive to plug the book, aided by Antoine Aboukhalil, the former head of corporate communications at Zain. The fact that Mr Aboukhalil is helping with the public relations drive is testament to the loyalty inspired by his former boss.

"All the people who have worked with me are life friends until today. This friendship even gets stronger and stronger," says Mr Al Barrak.

He does not quite look like a business guru as he arrives to speak to The National.

He wanders into the reception of an upmarket Dubai hotel wearing a bright red Hugo Boss T-shirt, blue jeans and trainers.

"I am travelling 90 per cent of my time, and I studied abroad, so I am so used to western dress," he says.

His diminutive stature is countered by his ebullience, as he bounds up to a hotel suite occupied by Mr Aboukhalil. In the lift, Mr Al Barrak cracks jokes, partly centred on the fact that his former employee has a much larger hotel room than he does.

As he sits in the suite, which has views over the fountains of the Burj Khalifa, he conducts interviews with a series of obscure American radio stations to plug his book.

Mr Al Barrak gesticulates with one hand as he conducts the interviews, trotting out a series of well-rehearsed soundbites.

If his business associates are like kin, his actual family plays a key role in Mr Al Barrak's life.

"I have a great family and a big family. It really is a family that I love and am really proud of," he says.

Mr Al Barrak says that his childhood was generally happy, but he was hit hard by the death of his father when he was 16.

He studied in the United States and the United Kingdom, where he earned a doctorate in technology management. This explains his nickname at Zain: the doctor.

His time in the US was key in developing his management style, says Mr Al Barrak.

"I learnt a lot from my American experience, and I wanted to carry these ideals to our part of the world."

"Our part of the world was very much dominated by the older style of 'command and control' in business … of control freaks. And my style was totally the opposite to that."

His approach to handling staff is to give them freedom and support and tolerate their mistakes, he says.

"The only sustainable competitive advantage is your people. It's not your product, it's not your capital, it's not your market. Therefore we have to treat people as partners, never as employees."

Mr Al Barrak's book details how he took over as chief executive of a small Kuwait operator, MTC, in 2002. The business had 300,000 subscribers then, but just six years later it had grown into an international empire with 72 million customers and operations across the Middle East and Africa.

In 2005, Zain acquired the African mobile network Celtel for a reported $3.4bn.

But the financial downturn put the brakes on Mr Al Barrak's acquisition spree, as key shareholders desperately looked to raise cash. The firm later sold off its African operations to India's Bharti Airtel for $9bn.

As Zain's headline-grabbing acquisitions were undone, Mr Al Barrak's wings had been clipped. He quit as chief executive of Zain Group in 2010, before resigning as head of its Saudi Arabian arm last year.

Peers in the industry paid testament to Mr Al Barrak's achievements at Zain.

"The expansion he made for Zain was really great," says Osman Sultan, the chief executive of du. "He's a very warm person. He likes to move forward on a vision, and that's a good thing."

But Mr Sultan hints that the former Zain boss could have set the bar too high in his ambitions.

"He wanted to run fast. And probably, at some point, was not followed by a lot of people."

Zain has floundered since Mr Al Barrak's departure. A sale of the company to Etisalat fell through, as did a planned divestment of its Saudi Arabian arm.

"Zain has changed direction completely," said Mr Al Barrak. "They don't want to do more acquisitions or grow. They want to focus on the Middle Eastern assets, which are really great assets. So there is a total departure of the original direction we had."

He says that the late Kuwaiti businessman Nasser Al Kharafi, who originally recruited him for the job, was his "guru and my most beloved person".

Ironically, it was the Kharafi family that led the calls to sell off Zain. But Mr Al Barrak said he bears no ill-feeling towards them for that.

"The Kharafi family in general is really like my family," he said. "These are the shareholders, who have invested heavily in [Zain Group]. Hard times came along: the 2008 financial crisis. And it is their right to see what best serves their interests."

Mr Al Barrak is not one to sit still. Since leaving Zain, he has set up ILA Group, an investment firm specialising in niche telecoms companies.

Next year he will attempt to raise up to $1bn to invest in smaller telecoms players in emerging markets.

Having found his calling in the telecoms business, it seems the sector hasn't heard the last of Mr Al Barrak.

"I love change," he says. "I don't like to sit like a retired emperor."