samih sawiris

Egypt’s Groundbreaking Entrepreneur

Egypt’s low key billionaire Samih Sawiris, the Chairman of Orascom Development Holding (OHD), seems to be the man of the moment. With another successful edition of the El Gouna Film festival under his belt – the fully-fledged Egyptian town he created, El Gouna, is now a dazzling and stylish city loved by both Egyptians and foreigners in the know. And El Gouna is now just one of the many local international developments under OHD. The group now oversees developments such as Lustica Bay in Montenegro, Andermatt in Switzerland, Chbika in Morroco, Eco-Bos in the UK, The Cove in UAE, as well as Hawana Salalah, City Walk, As Al Sodah Island and Jebel Sifah in Oman. And in Samih’s home country of Egypt, he has developments, such as Taba Heights in Taba, Byoum in Fayoum and the upcoming Makadi Heights in Hurghada and O West in Sixth of October City.

Samih Sawiris clearly stands out, not only for his outstanding accomplishments in business, but most importantly for his charming, down to earth persona and his joie de vivre; not to mention his philanthropic contributions with his family through the Sawiris Foundation. eniGma’s Founder and Editor-in-Chief Yasmine Shihata, sat down with the enigmatic entrepreneur for a personal and candid conversation on his exciting life, passions, and future goals…

El Gouna Film festival seems to be growing every year. Let’s go back to the beginning a little bit. The first year for the festival, we interviewed Naguib, and he talked to us about how he came up with the idea, and how he convinced you with it. Since you both describe yourselves as dreamers, what happens when the two dreamers get together?
We synchronise. We’re much more effective that way, because he covers the aspects where he’s definitely better than I am, and I do the logistics and host the whole festival. As the host, I am in charge of arrangements where the festival takes place. I finalise the town’s preparations, and now more and more the town is taking the lead, and I find it a natural development.

Ms. Goya Sawiris & Eng. Samih Sawiris at GFF

Is it exciting to see the festival grow every year?
Of course. Everything we do has to get a bit better every year. I feel that this year we had a few advances and improvements. It’s very obvious that it’s become easier for us to organise it, even though Amr Mansi, the festival’s CEO, is still running around stressed! Every year, we are better prepared than the year before.

Would you describe the festival as a labour of love, or a strategic cultural investment to raise the profile of El Gouna?
Well, when we started, we looked at it as more of a philanthropic endeavour than anything else. But we were incredibly surprised by the impact that the festival had on the town of El Gouna. We benefited much more than we had thought we would. But more importantly, Egypt benefited very much. Egypt deserved more recognition than it was getting as a pioneer in the movie business for a long time. We keep forgetting that just sixty or seventy years ago we were the only film producers in the Middle East and Africa. Festivals like this promote the country as a destination, and moving forward, hopefully, this will bring back the glory of Egypt as the capital of the entertainment world that we once were.

One of the things the GFF has done is raise the level of glamour, red carpets and people dressing up like in the old days of cinema…
Yes, it was important to show the world that we’re not gone, that we can come back and recover quickly. I think we definitely proved that.

Mr. Intishal Al Tamimi, Mr. Amr Mansi, Eng. Naguib Sawiris, Eng. Samih Sawiris, Eng. Khaled Bichara & Bushra Rozza

In terms of the boost to tourism in El Gouna, do you think it was the result of the festival and the international stars that came, or was the festival itself enough as a cultural event and a celebration of film?
I think it’s the latter. The easy way to get noticed is to spend a couple of millions and bring a few international celebrities to spend a day or two at the festival and then leave. However, the really lasting positive effect comes from the recognition you get from the film industry and from the world; the recognition that we are serious about films and cinema and bringing together serious producers, directors and actors and tackling serious topics.

You said the impact on tourism to El Gouna is better than you expected, how much of an improvement have you seen?
You feel it in the hotel bookings and the boom in local real estate and business. I can’t give you a number; I’m not really a numbers man. In addition, the whole situation in Egypt and in the tourism sector, is improving drastically, so we are also benefiting and surfing the wave that’s already there.

What sets you apart from other developers in Egypt is that you develop wholistic communities with a strong cultural component, rather than simply compounds. Is that a strategy that you want to maintain?
I find that a town that doesn’t have culture is actually a poor town, and I don’t like to develop poor towns. Even when we did Haram City, which is a place for affordable housing, one of the first things we put there was the movie theatre, because we believe that culture adds to the community.

Eng. Naguib Sawiris, H.E. Minister Rania El Mashat & Eng. Samih Sawiris at a press conference for GFF

What sets you apart from other developers in Egypt is that you develop wholistic communities with a strong cultural component, rather than simply compounds. Is that a strategy that you want to maintain?
I find that a town that doesn’t have culture is actually a poor town, and I don’t like to develop poor towns. Even when we did Haram City, which is a place for affordable housing, one of the first things we put there was the movie theatre, because we believe that culture adds to the community.

Is this something that stems from your love for music and movies?
Appreciating culture, music and film makes it easier to understand their value. When you appreciate the value of something, it is easier to embrace it and fight for it. If I had no interest in and didn’t care about movies, music and reading, it probably would have hurt me to spend so much money on that.

We also heard that there’s a concert hall being built in El Gouna, which isn’t something you usually find in a beach town. Is that related to your vision?
Yes, it’s like the library we set up in El Gouna. We have a proper branch of the Alexandria library here, where it is as if you’re in the Alexandria library itself, because they’re both linked, and they have the same books. You can spend hours in the library reading many scripts that don’t exist anywhere else. It makes El Gouna a richer community and a better place.

Is the ceremony going to be moved to the concert hall?
Yes, everything will eventually be moved to the concert hall and it will be a venue for other concerts and festivities.

El Gouna Concert Hall

I heard that you love to always challenge yourself and your next personal challenge is to play the piano by age 65. Is this concert hall where we’re going to see this performance?
I sure hope so! I’m struggling, but I’m optimistic that I’ll make it on time.

How many hours do you practice a day?
One to two hours, even here in El Gouna. I have a piano everywhere I live.

Tell us a little bit about your international projects, which one are you most focused on now?
Now that I have a partner, Khaled Beshara, who is CEO, and is totally engaged in the work, my role has diminished a bit. He is really driving the company and I’m only involved in strategy, financing and problems that require some governmental dealings. He still uses me for that. This is the most functional way and it’s where I’m needed most.

Since you’re still involved in the strategy, where would you like your next development to be?
A lot of the places we’re working on are still projects and not yet towns. Ultimately, my vision is that, eight or ten years from today, we will have eight or nine towns in the world where people live happily the whole year, and where governments are glad to have us, because they’re making money from taxes, revenues and tourists, etc… that our towns bring in. But this takes a lot of time; El Gouna has that, but El Gouna is thirty years old. It takes time, because there’s something called the spirit of the town which takes much more time and energy to grow, than other aspects.

Andermatt – Switzerland

What is the most important aspect to keep in mind when you create these towns in beach or holiday locations?
You have to be careful to not label the town, so that it’s not considered just a holiday or retirement destination, for example. If you want to be successful and be unique, you have to pay a lot of attention to attracting everybody and offering something for everyone. No single group should overwhelm the character or the spirit of the town with its way of living. Of course, you can’t please everybody; but at the end of the day, in El Gouna for example, people appreciate that there is something that fits everybody here. They appreciate the diversity and that they can find something that makes them happy to be here. When you have a town, the name of the game is to have a diverse population. That’s why schools and hospitals are important too, so you can have families live in the town as well.

All the developments you started were at locations that you thought were challenging. Did people doubt your vision when you started them?
I’m used to such doubts. It’s just funny, because before you actually do it, these people think you are crazy. But when something succeeds, everybody tells you, “I always knew it would work.” Success has a lot of fathers!

Al sodah island, oman
Hawana Salalah – Oman

I also heard that you believe much of success is due to luck. Do you really think luck is that important?
60% of success is luck. The right place and the right time are not things you can control. That’s an important factor that people don’t like to admit. My theory is that 60% of success is due to luck. The rest is persistence, and guts. These three combined are crucial for success. Then there’s intelligence and of course, hard work. You don’t need to be a genius to succeed; but most importantly you need guts. If you don’t have the guts to grab your luck, it will pass you by. Call it luck, call it a gift from God or call it coincidence, you can call it anything; but it’s not up to you.

It may be frustrating to think that luck is the recipe. People who may work harder than I do, but don’t make the most of their luck and the opportunities life may present, are not going to make it. I believe in this theory very much, and I’ve had so much experience that proves the impact of luck. And it’s not just me. Look at the guys who buy shares, then the market collapses and then they fail. Luck plays a big part in that.

Luštica Bay – Montenegro

In your career, have you always felt that 60% of success is due to luck?
Yes, and if you ask my father, he’ll say that it accounts for 80%! I mean look at him. He started at 18 or 20, and created a huge construction company, just to lose it all to nationalisation during Nasser’s time. Is this not bad luck? And then he started again in Libya and lost everything again. I believe him when he says that it was easier for us to succeed than it was for him. It’s because of luck. We wouldn’t have become such a big company if it wasn’t for the time in which we began our companies. Conditions were much better than those of my father’s time.

How did you survive the downturn after the revolution?
It was a tough time. Those three years were the toughest of my life by far. I’m Egyptian, I love Egypt and El Gouna is still a major component in the company. But we went through a tough time. People underestimate the damage we endured. It’s easy to blame the government for the state of affairs, but people forget that, for six or seven years this country was fighting internally. Nothing was happening during that time. From 2011 to 2013, we were not doing anything. No one was producing. The new government even had to fight the outside world. It was a tough time to be able to focus and it left a big dent and people are paying for it now.

El Gouna – Egypt
El Gouna – Egypt

Do you think Egypt is on the right track now?
There is no such thing as the right track; there’s mobility moving forward. There’s no straight highway where you know how many kilometres you’ve done. We’re driving in a desert and we don’t know what the world has in store for us. We have to become more focused on work and to become more nationalistic. We don’t know if we can stop this population growth that’s denting the country’s economic growth. But if it wasn’t for the government’s actions, we wouldn’t have seen this recovery in tourism and the black market for foreign exchange would have prospered again. I think the government did a lot of good things.

It seems that real estate development and tourism are experiencing the biggest boost. Is that true?
Other sectors of the economy need a lot of work. We had a crisis in the country and to overcome it we had to swallow a bitter medicine, namely difficult reform measures. In the period when the economy is being treated, don’t expect growth. The economy needs to recover first.

Were the challenges of working in Egypt part of the reason you wanted to expand internationally or was this expansion unrelated?
No, it was a deliberate move. We had a very successful model, and I thought it was easily transferable to other countries. Even as foreigners, we still came in to other countries with huge upfront knowledge and a track record that made us more credible than locals who had never done it before. There was a golden opportunity to reuse the model of El Gouna in other countries.

I read that the government of Switzerland invited you as a consultant. You’re on the map as the only person to create a town from scratch!
It’s nice to be recognised as somebody who has done something, and it’s not a bad thing to admit it. Actually, if we had started five years earlier, we would’ve been twice as big internationally. And if we had started four years later, we would probably have failed! It’s a matter of luck and perfect timing. Look at our experience in Oman. When we launched in Oman, in the first weekend we sold as much as the whole period following the crisis that hit Dubai and spilled over to Oman. The downturn was all the result of the international and American economic crises of 2008, which are things we couldn’t foresee or predict. If we had started five years earlier, the sky would have been our limit internationally. What distinguishes us as a company is our persistence to keep going further and further and not settling for “enough”.

Samih Sawiris & Dr. Zahi

Do you have your eyes on any new places in your search for the next destination?
No, I don’t wake up in the morning and look at the world map to decide where to go next. It often happens through meeting somebody who knows what we’ve done, and he puts us together with a president or a prime minister. We get tons of offers, but that doesn’t mean I’ll go for anything that I’m offered.

But can we say there’s more to come?
Not much more, because we still have a 100 million square metres worldwide to develop! That’s a couple of Cairo’s! Basically, we need to be a bit more prudent about expansion and to utilise the resources we have.

Yet you seem to be having more big investments in Egypt now.
Yes. That’s because our new CEO, Khaled, has a lot more taste for challenge and competition than I ever did (he laughs). I don’t like competition and going into sectors where others have already been active for a long time. But he’s not like me. He doesn’t mind a challenge. He says we’re better and we have a bigger name, so let’s go for it. And that’s why we are developing our new O West project, and now Makadi. These are typical real estate projects and have been done already. He managed to convince people that although O West is our first primary Cairo home development, we would be better than everybody else. I’m so happy for him. If it were me, I would never have done it. When you become older, you become mellower (he laughs).

ETH Signing Ceremony der ETH Foundation und Sawiris Foundation. Samih Sawiris, Sarah Springman, Rektorin, Donald Tillman.

You and your brothers have shown that you’re not just successful, but you also have a great work/life balance. There are people who are successful who are almost buried by their success. However, you pursue your projects in a way that still allows you to live well.
We learned from our father’s experience. He was such a workaholic, that we said we don’t want to be like that (he laughs). We watched our father work non-stop all the time and we agreed this was not sufficient to give us happiness. We want diversity in involvement in all aspects of life. All the philanthropic work we do is thanks to our mother, who is the ultra-charitable person in our family. So, we learned a lot from watching what our parents did, what others are doing; especially those close to us. That helped us in developing our lifestyle. Work hard, and party hard (he smiles).

Eng. Samih Sawiris & Eng. Naguib Sawiris with their mother, Mrs. Yousriya Loza

Which brings us also to the Sawiris Foundation. You’re not just successful, but you also give back. How important is that to you?
Well, you have to give back. When you have so much, you have to give back. You don’t need all of it, so why are you keeping it? Take what you need and give away the rest. It’s better to give it to worthwhile causes while you’re still alive. I think the model of giving while you’re alive is the most successful. I hope that by the time I die, there would be no more to leave to the foundation.

On the business side, with the three of your brothers so successful, is there a brotherly competition between you?
There would have been competition had we been in the same sector, and that would probably have limited our success. We’re very lucky that each one of us is in a different domain. No one can say whose company is bigger, as the level of success is not measured by money only. But since the material aspect that success brings us is more or less the same, there’s no serious competition between us.

You didn’t compete, even as kids?
We did compete as children, of course; but it was a healthy competition!

Eng. Samih Sawiris with
H.E. Minister Enas Abdel Dayem

The eniGma Questionnaire

What five words best describe you?
Happy, passionate, long-term minded and dreamer.

What would you like to change about yourself?
I would have liked to be a better pianist at an earlier age. One of the things I regret most is that I started this so late. I’ve always wanted to do it but never did. I started in school, but the teacher didn’t recognise my talent, so he put me in the back orchestra, and I cut my career short. That’s one thing I regret and would have wanted to do differently. I also wouldn’t have done an operation on my legs. That was a stupid idea. It’s become quite a problem, and there’s no operation to correct it. And now when I play the piano, I have to use my leg on the pedal and not my foot!

What qualities do you dislike in people?
I dislike arrogance, especially when it’s not merited. I dislike people who don’t believe in their luck when they’re successful, because that makes them even more arrogant. And I don’t like people who don’t like sharing. I think it’s unacceptable when people don’t share what they have with others.

What qualities do you admire in others?
I love happy people, more than successful people. I like passionate people and I am humbled by gifted people, like Magdy Yaqoub. I’m always humbled when I’m around him, because you see talent in front of you and it’s very admirable. I also like musicians; these kinds of people, make you feel in awe.

Who are your real life heroes?
My godfather Dr. Fathy Skandar, was my life hero because he was the most balanced person I’ve ever met, and he had such a big heart. He was a really great doctor and he was very charitable. If it wasn’t for him, El Gouna wouldn’t be what it is today. If it wasn’t for him during my divorce, I would have had a lot of issues. He was always around, taking care of us as a family. He was a fun guy and he had a lot of fun. He affected me more than anyone else.

If there was a book about your life, what would the title be?
I don’t know, and I don’t like the idea of having a book about me at this stage. Maybe later I will change my mind, but when you’re still active, writing about your life is a double-edged sword. When I really retire, then maybe I’ll write a book. It would be a useful book for the real estate development world, and it would be titled, Everything That You Can Do Wrong in Real Estate Development and More. I would brag about the fact that I don’t believe anybody has had the opportunity I had to make so many mistakes in his career and to fix them so quickly without going bankrupt, and still have time to make some more! (he laughs). If I had made half the mistakes that I’ve made in Egypt, in other countries, they would have wiped me out.

What keeps you up at night?
Trying to balance work, life, travel, family, friends and my desire to do everything that I want to do. Trying to balance this portfolio of indulgences that I have a passion for in 24 hours a day is very difficult. You can’t be perfect; you can only live a content life. You can’t reach perfection if you aspire to be involved in too many things in life. So, this balance keeps me up at night.

What makes you laugh?
Internally, I laugh when I see people who are so full of themselves, and others around them simply nodding in agreement. I just laugh quietly when I see that. What makes me laugh on the outside, however, is a good joke, whether it’s an Egyptian joke or not. But actually, I don’t believe there is another nation that is better at making jokes than Egypt. In Egypt, if an event happens at noon, by 4 or 5pm there are already jokes about it! (he laughs) It involves no preparations. Just a man with a phone and a funny thought!

What is your proudest moment?
When I see that in spite of not being the ideal father, my five kids have ultimately all made it, have become straight A students and are successful in work and school. They all managed to get into the best universities and to succeed. That’s what makes me the proudest.

Which high profile Arab do you admire the most and why?
Mohamed Alabaar. We only met recently and maybe I’m a little biased because he works in the same sector that I do. Of course, I already knew he was doing great in business, but I didn’t know that he was a great guy until I met him personally. Even though we’re not similar in many ways, what he’s shown me as a person, has made me feel very proud to know him.

What do you love most about your life?
If you’re talking material things, it’s my boats; since I bought my first boat 40 or 50 years ago, I’ve been happy on the sea. If we’re talking feelings, it’s my passion for music. If it’s about society, then its socialising with a diverse group of people.

What is left on your bucket list?
Doing my first piano concerto; and that gives me another three years and four months to come up with something new for my bucket list! For the time being, that’s my main challenge and the item on my bucket list.

So, when you turn 65, can we expect a concert from you at El Gouna in the concert hall?
Yes, you can! (he laughs excitedly).

And with that we concluded our interview with Egypt’s ground breaking entrepreneur, who continues to inspire us with his every move…..


PHOTOGRAPHY of the Featured Picture
AmmarAbd Rabbo (GFF)

La Maison Bleue, El Gouna