22 - 28 July 1999
Issue No. 439
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
A capital ideaProfile by Fayza Hassan
Business and family are synonymous for this magnate with old-fashioned values
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The small apartment block directly overlooking the Nile in Zamalek is not very impressive. Like others lining the street, it announces well-established bourgeois aspirations. A few cars over-spill the garage on the side street where the entrance is located. There are no spanking new Mercedes; not a collector's Rolls Royce in sight. The attendant at the door is rather friendly. "Do you have an appointment with Mr Sawiris?" he inquires perfunctorily as he leads us towards the elevator, apparently without expecting an answer, although as we wait he does ask if we represent a company. Our reply, in the negative, deprives us of any vestige of his interest.
Onsi Sawiris, the billionaire businessman, lives on the top floor of this building. The two other floors are occupied by two of his sons. The third lives across the river. Together, the four men run one of the largest and most successful business enterprises in the country, with interests in the construction industry, tourism and electronics. They are Egypt's version of the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers -- or so, at least, one can infer from the comments of the media, which takes an uncanny interest in their endeavours.
It is 5.00pm and, through a glass door, we can see the family finishing their evening meal in the small dining room. Sawiris is surrounded by his wife and sons. From what we can observe fleetingly, the discussion is lively. We are hastily ushered by a smiling manservant into the living room, which is large and rather sparsely furnished. The afternoon sun pours in torrents through the bay window, shedding light on a few exquisite Chinese pieces of furniture. The sofas and armchairs are unpretentious and comfortable, the side tables devoid of the usual knickknacks. The art work, professionally arranged on the walls, seems to belong mainly to the Dutch school. The general impression is of subdued but rather impersonal elegance. This is probably not the family's favourite gathering place. Coffee arrives immediately, served in small cups which remind me of those we had at home when I was a child.
The lady of the house, Youssriya, bustles in and chats brightly and amicably with us in her usual way, touching on the many projects that take up most of her time. Onsi arrives a couple of minutes later and greets us warmly, although it is obvious from the start that he is submitting to this encounter more to accommodate us than to please himself.
Nobody could be further from the tycoon image than Onsi Sawiris. A slightly built man, his features are set for a good laugh, which will resound several times in the course of the conversation. For now, he appears reserved, almost shy. He has not come in waving the huge cigar which has become the trademark of prosperity, but then Youssriya had just told us that he only smokes an occasional cigar, to which he prefers the shisha. He speaks in measured tones, and seems to have stuck to the Sa'idi accent, also conspicuous in his wife's speech. "My friends and my family all speak like that," he says simply, "so I never had any cause to change."
Someone who knows him well told me that Sawiris has remained completely faithful to his friends of the '60s, and largely to the values of his youth. "If you did not know who he was, his laid back attitude would give you no clue that he is one of the wealthiest men in Egypt," the person commented. From the early years, Sawiris has also kept the habit of rising at dawn and going to bed early. He is happy to turn in at 11.00pm but, even when he has had a late night, he is up and about at 6.00am. He has few needs, walks an hour a day to keep fit and plays backgammon with his friends for relaxation -- but always for high stakes, because that way only the very good players will dare to approach him.
Sawiris seems slightly amused by the media attention, but is certainly weary of the photographic routine and the endless questions about his formative years. "There is nothing special there," he warns with an ironic smile, implying that this is not where the source of his success may be found, though this is where everyone keeps looking. "I was born in Sohag, where I went to school until graduation. It was an uneventful period." He sits on the edge of the sofa, ready to go if only we would let him. He checks his watch discreetly but frequently.
"My problem with my sons is that I am their friend, because the generation gap is smaller than usual. We talk frankly about everything and they do not believe that obeying their parents is a sacred duty"
His father was a lawyer and a landowner, like many members of the Upper Egyptian gentry. His brother practised law as well, and his father had hoped that he would take care of the land, a role traditionally reserved for the youngest son in those days. He was therefore directed towards the Faculty of Agriculture. He emerged four years later with a degree and no specific plans for the future, except that he did not wish to become a government employee. He made up his mind, therefore, to heed his father's advice. Peasant life did not agree with him, however, he says, and "the fellahin, even before the revolution, did not welcome outside interference." He had a degree, and they made it clear that he would be better off making use of it in some administration rather than poking his nose in their affairs. They convinced him that his place was elsewhere and, with a few friends, he opened a small contractors' firm, confined to Upper Egypt at first. When the company began to expand, they moved to Cairo, where their contracts were concentrated around the Delta provinces.
Sawiris had married early, at the age of 23. "In the Sa'id, there is no social life for a bachelor," he comments." Either a man is married or he needs to be accompanied by a sister, or even his mother, if he harbours any hopes of being invited in someone's house. All my best friends had married young and, to be admitted to their homes, I badly needed a female relative. In my case, since none was available in the family, marriage was the only solution. I went to ask my father about the possibilities, but he just joked and asked me if I was in a hurry because I feared the species might run out. 'There will always be women,' he told me, 'so why the rush?'" Sawiris was determined not to remain a loner, however, and when one of his life-long friends (who had taken a wife at the age of 19), offered to introduce him to the family of a cousin living in Assiut, he accepted at once. "I saw Youssriya, I liked her, I told my father, he agreed, and I asked for her hand in marriage. It was as simple as that."
In Cairo, his company was awarded several contracts from the Ministry of Irrigation to dig waterways and basins, and the business grew enough to be targeted for nationalisation in the early '60s. He was prevented from leaving Egypt and for five years worked as a director in his own enterprise, receiving a monthly salary from the government, the very situation he had tried to avoid at the beginning of his career. When his passport was returned to him and he was granted permission to travel, he took off in February 1966 for Libya, where he remained for 12 years, only coming back after the Camp David Accords were signed, which prompted the departure of many Egyptians from this suddenly unfriendly country. He came back in August 1977, and for the third time began to build his business up from scratch, starting this time with five employees.
His years in Libya gave him the financial opportunity to send his sons to colleges overseas, although at the time, he says, "I could barely afford the fees for the three boys at the same time." Enrolled at the German school in Cairo, each one chose a different destination after graduation. "Naguib, the eldest, went to the Polytechnic School in Zurich, one of the most demanding engineering schools in the world; the second one, Sameeh, who is averse to hard work, studied engineering in Berlin, where the curriculum was easier and night life more pleasant, and Nassef, the third one chose to study economics at the University of Chicago," explains Sawiris.
Only at this point does he really warm to the conversation. His boys are obviously the greatest joy of his life. He does not say so, but he must have feared to see them settle away from home after college. That is why he seized every opportunity when they were abroad to encourage them to spend their holidays in Egypt. "We went to visit them several times a year, but they were never really away for long and, when they graduated, we convinced each of them that his future was here. The three came back to work with me," he comments, and relief at the idea that they are together now brings a gleam of contentment to his eyes. He remembers these years as the most difficult, especially for his wife who, at one point, remained alone in Cairo. "There were no facilities for her in Libya and I came to Cairo every two weeks; with the boys away, each in a different country, for a long time she missed the feeling of being surrounded by her family."
The boys were given executive power in different divisions of his company and have never looked back since. He denies that he still pulls the strings: "I can barely give them advice," he says, bursting into laughter. "The new generation has its own methods and ideas and I have to practice consummate diplomacy when I want to make them see it my way. That is not to say that I am never overruled." Sawiris clearly enjoys the thought of his sons' success. "My problem with my sons is that I am their friend, because the generation gap is smaller than usual. We talk frankly about everything and they do not believe that obeying their parents is a sacred duty -- unlike us in the past. Every decision is open to discussion." Reminded that he did not obey his father when it came to overseeing the family's land, a mischievous smile plays on his lips and he claims quite untruthfully that this, of course, was completely different. "In view of the deplorable results achieved, he became convinced that my place was elsewhere, as I was rapidly turning into a liability," he explains, trying not to laugh.
He does not consider the success the family has achieved anything extraordinary. "We are contractors who play by the rules and try to always do our best. When we do not have the expertise, we seek it elsewhere. We work hard and always remain within the boundaries of the law. Why should we not do well?" He still regrets the rather rapid expansion of the business at a time when he had planned to retire and enjoy the fruits of an arduous life. "I was against such wide diversification; I did not like the business of the cinemas for instance, but then again we were asked to restore the old movie houses and to create new ones. My sons have actors among their friends who complain constantly that some films barely show for a week before they are removed, as others have been scheduled right after them. There is undoubtedly a strong demand and finally I was convinced and we launched into this line of business, including other related services such as restaurants."
He smiles, and seems lost in thought. "I hear that Pizza Pomodoro is doing quite well and that one cannot get in without a reservation...I like that." Left to his own council, however, Sawiris would have stuck to his first love, the contracting business. Building cement factories, for instance, is a rewarding task. "We are still doing that, of course, construction remains our main activity, and who knows? Maybe I was against the cinema business because I don't enjoy going to the movies. Watching satellite television in the comfort of my home is much more pleasant, and when I don't like what I see I can at least change it or turn it off." He says he yearns for the day when he will be able to watch his favourite programmes all day long. Somehow, it is hard to believe him. Not being able to leave "the boys" to fend for themselves without worrying constantly is only a small part of the truth. "They are young and ambitious, and I have to hold the reins to prevent them from forging ahead too daringly," he says. Obviously, he still enjoys the game tremendously.
Sawiris does not like his sons to take undue risks, especially in a country where "capitalism is still misunderstood". Since the revolution, he says, large enterprises are automatically bound to acquire a bad name, quite irrationally. Yet past generations of Egyptians had to their credit a string of successful industrialists and businessmen who created large corporations: Talaat Harb, Abboud, Wadi' Saad and the Shurbagis, to only name a few. The whole public sector is a testimony to their business acumen, he points out. "Today, the government encourages us to develop the country's potential in various industries and definitely favours an Egyptian company over a foreign contractor, but people are still looking back and are ill-prepared to witness the working of capitalism."
Sawiris does not fear more successful competitors, however. "We often lost to better-equipped outfits; it goes with the territory," he admits, but he is wary of those whose endeavours met with failure. Bitterness often begets malice and makes for the worst enemies, he asserts, because there is nothing reasonable in their hostility. His sons need protection, he believes; and "this is why," he concludes with an impish smile, "you see me at the age of 69, going to work every day, instead of taking up residence in El-Gouna -- where I have banished mobile phones."
(photos: Randa Shaath)