‘In retrospect, it was a mistake’: An Egyptian billionaire offers useful lessons in investing in Canada

Exposing his money to Canada still nags at Naguib Sawiris

I’m shaking my head in wonderment over the international telecom mogul who proudly goes by the imposing handle of Mr. Naguib Sawiris. I’ve devoted much serious effort to analyzing his name, using state-of-the-art anagram-finding technology, and I am now able to report that there are many revealing phrases concealed therein. By far my favorite is: “I saw gab-is-ruin.”

So true, so true. “Gab is ruin,” and it has been ever thus for consumers, as we regard the monthly bills from our mobile telephone carriers.

Mr. Sawiris saw this, and did more than merely observe. Two years ago he acted upon his vision by investing a half-billion dollars in a Canadian mobile telecom startup known as Wind Mobile. (If only Mr. Sawiris had performed the due diligence of seeking out anagrams within that brand, he would have found “I’d blow mine,” which, regrettably, appears to have foretold how his investment would perform.)

Last week Mr. Sawiris offered this forthright comment to the Toronto Star regarding his decision to sink dough into a Canadian business proposition: “In retrospect, it was a mistake.”

Mr. Sawiris flew in from Egypt, filled with big plans for his service, which operates in two dozen countries. But what Naguib Sawiris could not have understood is that Canada is not a country in the same sense as other countries, such as, say, Luxembourg or Slovakia.

Similar to those other jurisdictions, we issue currency, and passports, and maintain a state broadcasting service, display a smartly designed flag over courts and post-offices, and, all in all, evince a fairly presentable citizenry. But, to a greater extent than certain other nations, Canada has only ever been about one thing, and that is protecting the interests of its business establishment.

That’s the singular, overarching principle that forged this great nation out of disparate territories, built the railroads, tamed the wilderness to harvest and ship the natural resources, settled the Golden West and the uninviting lands north of the 55th parallel, established the Wheat Board and the Dairy Board, left the banks and underwriters alone to do their thing, created and perpetuated our unique culture. And, to enable the preceding accomplishments, Canadians devised the protective tariffs that kept the foreign robber-barons from acquiring and defiling our great commercial institutions; that is, until recently.

When Canada became a signatory to the supranational trading bodies created at the tail-end of the 20th century — your NAFTA, your GATT — it was suddenly a requirement that we become less obvious in using regulations to prop up the tiny number of groups that had thrived under our traditional mercantile system. And so we complied, but only to the extent of making it less obvious. The revised regulations seemed cleverly inspired by Barry Levinson’s great movie “Avalon,” especially the comment made by the teacher, after a student imploringly asks if he can go to the bathroom: “Yes, you can. But, no, you may not.”

That is essentially what Canada’s telecommunications regulators told poor Naguib Sawiris: Yes, indeed, foreign man, you can compete with our fat, sassy domestic suppliers, and certainly we wish you loads of luck. But, at the end of the day, no, you may not.

And so Wind Mobile, along with Mobilicity, and Public Mobile, and the other newcomers to the Canadian cellular scene, find themselves blocked by arcane stipulations that somehow seem not to pose much of an impediment to the three established providers, which in this case are Bell, Rogers, and Telus.

If you are used to this kind of distinctively Canadian situation, and it exists in absolutely every sector, you learn to merely shrug and mutter about it over your Tim Horton’s bagel. But, it will go without saying, that is not Naguib Sawiris’ way.

He calls Bell, Rogers, and Telus “pampered” – bound to be regarded as a hurtful descriptive — and demands to know, “Why would an Egyptian like me be in 25 countries, and a big company [like Bell, Rogers, and Telus stay] here? Because they’re pampered. How can you create innovation if you close up yourself like that? Why don’t we have Rogers in the U.K. or Germany? Why is Vodafone everywhere? Why is France Telecom everywhere? What’s the argument? I don’t see it.”

Of course, he doesn’t see it. That’s because, unlike Bell, Rogers, and Telus, he isn’t entirely fixated on cheesy little acts of prestidigitation intended to short-change the local yokels. Wind Mobile is so clueless to the ways of Canadian telecom that they don’t even charge the infamous monthly “system access fee” that Ted Rogers fabricated, and his heirs are still slapping on my monthly invoice. (Learning of Mr. Sawiris’ travails made me curious enough to contact Rogers to ask about the additional seven bucks I’m still required to fork over each month simply because Ted could never resist the urge to spearhead any small-scale swindle. “I thought Ottawa told you to stop billing these bogus charges,” I told the service representative. “That won’t apply to you,” was the response. “You’re still on a three-year contract.” You see? Sad, sorry Wind Mobile is ill-equipped to even think of keeping its customers captive through long-term contracts. Their middle-eastern philosophy of unaffected plain-dealing may suit a transaction in a Cairo bazaar, but in Calgary it will be regarded as something worse than merely suspicious.)

Naturally, the Rogers group didn’t need to respond to Mr. Sawiris’ criticisms about remaining parochial and cloistered; but they did, through Ken Engelhart, a regulatory affairs vee-pee. The Globe & Mail reports Mr. Engelhart’s comment that his company “once operated a U.S. cable business, but sold it in 1989 to invest further in Canada’s wireless sector.” Well, actually, that’s not the whole story. As part of its rationale for seeking permission to acquire Maclean Hunter, which owned cable systems in the New York City suburbs, Rogers persuaded Ottawa regulators that Canada needed a national “champion” to compete on a worldwide basis with global media giants such as News Corporation, and the like. Shortly after getting regulatory assent, Rogers decided they didn’t need to take on the entire world after all, or even take on Fort Lee, New Jersey. They ditched the Maclean Hunter asset, and concentrated on noodling out penny-ante schemes to squeeze a few extra nickels out of the domestic Canadian market, where the tough boys and bad girls they encountered in the vicinity of New York City were always turned back at the border.

Handed the chance to compete against the world’s best, Ted Rogers and his cadre did not much care for the odds, and high-tailed it back to their well-appointed club on a leafy street in Toronto, where Gus the barman never fails to make solicitous small talk about your children, doesn’t waste precious moments asking if you’d care for your usual order, and never bothers to ask you to sign a chit. We all know each other here. It’s true that occasionally one of the members will run afoul of some out-of-town chancers, or encounter some bad luck in any of its various forms, or fall victim to unforeseen circumstance. Pity about the Eaton family, wasn’t it? Always sad to see those you know so well ripped to small pieces by sharks.

But, you know, there’s nothing at all wrong with liking things the way they are. And one other lovely thing about being here is that there’s never a problem locating a parking spot not too far from the canopy that leads to the front door entrance, where the door is held open for those who belong. That’s what makes this our home, all the expected little niceties. The very word “home” will convey an exact meaning. Home should always be – homey.  Comfortable.

This is the mind-set of the very business class that Naguib Sawiris so horridly calls “pampered.” Well, how would the man from the land of the pyramids ever understand us? He’s not in the club, and he will probably continue to expose his resentment and frustration, even after Ken Engelhart thoughtfully has taken the time to sum it all up for him, as he did for the Globe & Mail reporter. “The fact that we are very efficient,” said Engelhart, “is one reason why I think [Wind] and the other new entrants are finding it so difficult to compete in Canada.”

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2 thoughts on “‘In retrospect, it was a mistake’: An Egyptian billionaire offers useful lessons in investing in Canada

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