I'm in it for the money, Orascom boss tells 3GSM

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The Independent Online

Naguib Sawiris, head of the Egypt-based telecoms company Orascom, cut through the jargon endemic to the mobile phone industry at this year's 3GSM conference after admitting that he was in it for the money.

Mr Sawiris took to the stage after presentations from Arun Sarin, Vodafone's chief executive, and Sanjiv Ahuja, head of Orange, both of whom discussed improving a customer's experience and the global economic and social benefits of mobile phones at length. In contrast, Mr Sawiris' strident comments had some of the delegates in the crowd in stitches.

"For me it's about the money. I'm the largest shareholder in my company so I am very interested in the money," Mr Sawiris told the audience in a speech that conflicted with Mr Ahuja's insistence that the customer should be at the centre of a mobile phone company's growth strategy. "Where I smell money, I go," he said.

Much to Mr Sarin's chagrin, he also stole some of the Vodafone chief's thunder by pointing out that Orascom had benefited handsomely from the British company's capture of a majority stake in Hutchison Essar, India's fourth-largest operator.

Orascom is a 20 per cent shareholder in Hutchison Telecommunications International, the holding company that sold the stake to Vodafone for £5.6bn last weekend. "We are very grateful for your money," he told a displeased Mr Sarin.

Mr Sarin had already been piqued after he was introduced by GSM Association chief Craig Ehrlich as head of "the world's second largest mobile phone company" - Vodafone trails China Mobile in terms of subscriber numbers.

"You could have said largest by revenue or largest by free cashflow," Mr Sarin countered before saying that the deal to acquire Hutchison Essar had "fundamentally changed our business".

"There is a massive opportunity for our business in India," Mr Sarin said before dismissing concerns about the company's average revenue per user rates as it extends its network into some of India's poorest regions. "Whenever we get into these rural areas, we find people love to talk. They light up our base stations immediately," he said.

Mr Sarin was not the only executive to have his feathers ruffled by Mr Sawiris as the Egyptian executive turned his attention to Mr Ahuja's claim to have 100m subscribers across 23 markets. "We will have 100m subscribers in six markets which makes my job a lot easier than yours," he told Mr Ahuja.

Mr Sawiris said that having subscribers spread across numerous markets causes management distraction and had led Orascom - which has assets in Italy and Greece as well as in emerging markets - to exit a number of African countries. Mr Sawiris said he was once too busy to take a call from the President of Chad when the company was active in that market.

"If I am not answering the phone to the President of Chad, why am I in Chad? I am adding more subscribers in a day in Pakistan than in a year in Chad," he said.

Mr Sawiris also joked that Mr Ahuja's job was made even harder because "he doesn't have a private jet like me". The gibe may have had a particular sting for Mr Ahuja whose speech was preceded by a video presentation by ex-Orange chief Sol Trujillo, now head of Australia's Telstra, who was famous for jetting between the UK and his native US in a his private Learjet.

At the sidelines of the conference, Mr Sarin said the Indian market could have 500m subscribers in three to four years which would still only equate to a penetration rate of 40 per cent.