The taste of success is sweeter when it’s achieved on a global level. That’s why we get so excited when an Egyptian makes it big internationally. And that’s why Hatem Dowidar’s meteoric rise in Vodafone, the international telecommunications giant, is such a big deal. Since joining its ranks as Chief Marketing Officer in 1999 he’s proved himself again and again as he climbed up the corporate ladder. After five very successful years as CEO of Vodafone Egypt, he climbed further still, recently becoming Regional Director for Africa, Middle East, and Asia Pacific for Vodafone Group as well as Chairman of the Board of Vodafone Egypt. Enigma’s Samia Farid Shihata caught up with Dowidar in the company’s sprawling Cairo headquarters to trace his path to top management at the biggest mobile company in the world.
Hatem Dowidar ’s story is both impressive and inspirational. It’s a classic success story with all the right ingredients: self confidence, self motivation, and hard work. And it’s also about being passionate about and loving what you do. “It’s also about taking risks,” Dowidar is quick to note, “to be very successful in business it’s not enough to be very smart and to work very hard. If you dont take risks, no matter how smart and hardworking you are, you will never really break into the most senior levels.”
Risk-taking seems to be a hallmark of Dowidar’s career. He began as an engineer with AEG, the electrical and telecommunications division of Daimler-Benz, but soon realised he was more interested in “the commercial rather than the technical side of things. Procter and Gamble (P&G) were hiring at the time,” he explains, “so I applied to their marketing department, and after a series of interviews, they made me an offer, which I immediately accepted. I went from selling sophisticated telecommunications systems to marketing detergents. “It was really a complete transformation for me,” Dowidar adds, “but it was eye-opening because P&G is such a big school. Until then I had been very engineering oriented, now I realised that a lot of what actually moves the market is happening on the commercial side, in understanding the customer’s needs, how to satisfy those needs and how to communicate with the customer…”
Dowidar’s experience in P&G paid off. In 1999, less than a year after it launched as Click GSM in Egypt, Vodafone made him an offer to lead their marketing as their Chief Marketing Officer. Dowidar recalls, “although I was very established in P&G, I loved the idea since it was a marketing role in telecommunications and technology, the field which I really loved.”
In the ten years that followed, Vodafone grew to become the biggest mobile company in the world and Dowidar’s role in the company grew as well. Vodafone called on him to move to its London headquarters as their first Director for Core Services, namely Voice and SMS, the company’s bread and butter at the time. This was a new central marketing function aimed at achieving more synergies across markets and spreading best practices across Vodafone worldwide. Two years later, to gain experience running a country operation, Dowidar accepted the post of CEO of Vodafone Malta, where he remained for two years, before heading back to headquarters to become CEO of Partner Markets, Vodafone’s franchising arm. Finally, in 2009, Dowidar was offered the post of CEO for Vodafone Egypt, which he was very happy to take on since he had openly aspired to head Vodafone’s Egypt operation since first joining the company ten years earlier.
Dowidar spent five very successful years as Vodafone’s CEO in Egypt. When he took over Vodafone was number two in the market. His first challenge was to fulfill the vision he and his team set for themselves which was to become the market leader. Within eighteen months they had achieved their goal; Vodafone became the number one mobile company in Egypt and a huge gap was established between it and the competition. Another challenge the company overcame under Dowidar’s leadership was that of keeping its services running during the revolution of 2011. Dowidar recalls that when he took over as CEO, out of every ten people in the management team, six were expats and four were Egyptians. “Gradually we kept promoting Egyptians to the point that there is now only one expat in the management team in Egypt. It was a very important asset that we had such a strong Egyptian team in the country at this time. If the business had been dependent on expats, they would have left the country for security reasons and it would have been a problem,” he adds. It is noteworthy that today Vodafone Egypt has 10,000 employees today, only two of which are expats.
In his current position as Regional Director for Africa, Middle East, and Asia Pacific for Vodafone Group, Dowidar joins the ranks of Vodafone’s top management team in its London headquarters. “Theoretically I’m based in London,” he says, “but in reality I spend no more than 10 days a month there. The rest of the time I’m travelling all across the region. I need to make sure we continue to grow and introduce new services across the region. I also look at the potential expansion into other countries in the region where we are not operating at the moment”
Dowidar is also Chairman of the Board of Vodafone Egypt and sits on the Board of Vodacom Group, the business that looks after Sub-Saharan Africa. He believes Egypt has a lot of potential and finds that Egyptians can be just as efficient as staff in many advanced countries. He notes that “you can run the business in Egypt as well as in any place in Europe if you have the right management know-how, good systems, and good processes.” Dowidar stresses the importance of providing continuous training to staff at different levels, from entry level to management. That includes providing them the opportunity to work internationally. He notes “right now we have between 25 to 30 Egyptians working in Vodafone in different places at different levels of seniority.”
While Vodafone Egypt is easily able to attract top talent from universities, Dowidar is aware that smaller companies are not so fortunate. Too often the calibre of graduates is not good enough. “One problem is a lack of soft skills,” he notes. “A graduate can be very bright academically but appalling in an interview and often can’t even write a CV. Students must be taught how to do research, how to make a presentation, how to talk in an interview and so on,” adding that “through Vodafone Egypt Foundation, we work with several organisations like Education for Employment and others to see how we can improve the calibre of our university graduates.”
On a personal level, Dowidar feels that change has had a profound influence on him. “ Working at so many different jobs and with different managers and different nationalities has enriched me as a person,’” he explains. He also stresses that his successes are closely related to his passion for what he does. “My Dad always taught me to be passionate about what I do. It’s not about doing a job because you have to, but because you love it and you have fun doing it.”
Dowidar insists that at this stage, his focus is less on what he would do next and more on trying to find ways to influence things and develop the business further. “I am always very passionate about helping people develop, seeing them grow, and at the same time having an impact on the business. Dowidar is clearly an inspiration to the many young people he has generously mentored and who have witnessed his passion and his success up close. Yet the inspiration he provides is not limited to the persons who know him personally. His impressive achievements in a highly competitive international corporate environment is an inspiring example to all young Egyptians who dream of achieving their own success in business. Dowidar sums up his advice to them: “Do what you love and don’t be afraid to take risks.”