* Made a name with telcos in emerging markets
* Past Italian mobile investment was big turnaround story
* Christian billionaire, a critic of Islamists
* Some executives say he should not meddle in politics
By Edmund Blair and Leila Abboud
CAIRO, Nov 15 (Reuters) - Egyptian tycoon Naguib Sawiris, now seeking to buy a big stake in Telecom Italia, has won admirers for his risk appetite and straight talk, but his blunt approach has also often put him in hot water with business partners and Islamists in Egypt.
The Christian billionaire, 58, made his name building a telecoms empire in places many feared to tread, such as Algeria, North Korea and war-torn Iraq.
With his two brothers who have billion-dollar businesses in fertiliser, construction and real estate, the Sawiris family is one of Egypt’s biggest employers. They built on their father’s enterprise, at one time nationalised by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s.
For all his emerging market savvy, his plan to invest in Italy would bring him back to a developed market that saw one of his biggest successes: he turned around debt-laden Wind from 2005 to 2011 to create Italy’s third-biggest mobile operator.
“He has a lot of experience in Italy. He has political acceptance as a foreign investor,” said Khaled Bichara, who once ran Sawiris’s Orascom Telecom and led Wind through the turnaround. “ T he most value Naguib ever created in terms of financial value was Italy.”
It was Wind, more than operations in the Middle East, Africa, Asia or North America, that attracted Russian-run Vimpelcom, already heavy in emerging markets, to buy most of Orascom and other Sawiris assets.
The $6.5 billion deal was completed in 2011 as Egypt was convulsed by the uprising that ousted longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Since then Sawiris exited other telecom investments and focussed increasingly on politics in the new Egypt.
An outspoken opponent of political Islam, he founded a liberal party that was drubbed in parliamentary elections last year. He owns a liberal-leaning TV channel and other media, and broadcasts his own views to half a million Twitter followers.
Though a devout Christian believer - he has called himself a “businessman who has a strong relation with God” - he says he is engaged in “a struggle for Egypt to stay as a non-religious state - where state, religion and church are separated.”
“I am quite fanatic about my Scotch in the evening,” Sawiris told a Reuters interviewer at a conference in Canada in November last year. “I don’t like anybody telling me that I can’t drink. I don’t like anyone telling me how my wife should be dressed.”
His outspokenness, and charity that includes scholarships for Muslims and Christians, has gained him popularity among Egypt’s Christians, about a tenth of the 83 million population.
But he has not endeared himself to Islamists, drawing ire in June 2011 after he posted a cartoon of Mickey Mouse with a long beard and Minnie Mouse veiled in black on his Twitter account.
The tweet prompted a boycott of his joint venture Egyptian mobile firm Mobinil, a Facebook page to denounce him and a court case in which opponents accused him of contempt of religion. The case was thrown out in February.
Asked in an on-stage interview in Munich in January whether he would retire from Twitter after the brouhaha, he said: “I’m a guy that if you shoot at, he goes forward, he doesn’t retreat. The more you shoot at me the more I go forward.”
Sawiris will see his mettle tested again as he heads back to Europe. On Monday, Telecom Italia said Sawiris wanted to invest an unspecified amount underwriting a new stock issue. Reports say it could be worth 2 billion to 4 billion euros ($2.5 billion to $5 billion).
One of the group’s major shareholders Telefonica opposes a capital increase and the government may weigh in on a foreign investor in key national mobile and broadband infrastructure.
What assets he has kept since selling out to Vimpelcom, including a North Korean mobile firm, are mostly grouped in Orascom Telecom, Media and Technology (OTMT) controlled by the Sawiris family.
Working from one of central Cairo’s smartest office blocks on the Nile, built by his brother’s Orascom Construction Industries, Sawiris now talks of rebuilding OTMT and his other investments into a new empire.
This time, those who know him say he may be less hands-on, even as he seeks a say in operations. Sawiris himself has talked of a “semi-retirement” and of relying on his old lieutenants.
Bichara explained: “He wants to be involved in operations. Not as involved as in Orascom days but he is not an investor who will come and just sit on the board.”
Old habits may die hard. Sawiris told a French newspaper on Tuesday he could seek management changes at Telecom Italia.
Naguib Sawiris’s father sent his three sons to a German school in Cairo, a move Naguib says framed his work ethic and prompted him to send his four children to the same school. He has a prominent picture of his father on his office wall.
Even some who have had major fights with the man are eventually disarmed. France Telecom executive Henri de Joux led negotiations with Sawiris during a three-year battle for control of Mobinil.
After taking to the nightly news to slam the French as modern-day Napoleons on the march in Egypt, Sawiris invited his one-time foes to a swanky dinner in his penthouse apartment overlooking the Nile to celebrate the settlement.
“He rolled out the red carpet for us after we fought each other mercilessly for three years,” de Joux said in an interview. “My colleagues used to tell me I had Stockholm syndrome, but at the end of it all, I still respected him.”
Some business associates view his politics as a distraction.
“Business people should be business people, politicians should be politicians,” said one executive with a close knowledge of Sawiris’s deals over the past decade. “If you mix the two together you get Silvio Berlusconi.”
Much has depended on his ability to build up a skilled team around him, associates say: “He puts three or four points on the table and leaves the rest to the management team to negotiate and get back to him,” said a second executive.
He is known for placing great trust in untested proteges. Bichara was managing a $50 million operation in Egypt before being sent to Italy to work at Wind. In two years, he was running the 1.6 billion euro business.
“The jump was not scientific,” said Bichara, who now runs investment and management firm Accelero, set up by Sawiris and others. It manages his fortune that Forbes puts at $3.1 billion.
Sawiris’s bets have brought him close to disaster. His decision to buy a licence in Algeria - a place many other foreign investors shunned - took Orascom to the brink of insolvency in mid-2002.
Faced with a crushing pile of debt, Sawiris had to swiftly sell off Jordanian, Yemeni and some African assets.
It nevertheless looked like the gamble on Algeria was paying off as Djezzy soon became Orascom’s top revenue earner. But a row with the Algerian government, which demanded back taxes that Orascom disputed, meant the cash stream dried up.
A deal to sell Orascom to South Africa’s MTN, keen on the North Africa assets, fell through because of the dispute.
Sawiris also lost a battle in 2010 in Greece, where bondholders took control of Wind Hellas during restructuring.
Sawiris has said Algeria destroyed his dream to make Orascom one of the world’s biggest mobile firms. Colleagues say he wanted it to be in the top three; instead, selling to Vimpelcom left him with a spot on the board of a firm in the top six.
Now he may have a chance to try again.