LEGAL DIRECTOR, MOBINIL, CAIRO
Ayman Essam is the legal director of Egyptian mobile phone operator Mobinil (part of Orange), and previously worked at Vodafone. He chats to Catherine Wycherley about the challenges and opportunities of the fast-evolving Egyptian telecoms market, and his career so far.
G C I N T E R V I E W
EDITOR AND FEATURES WRITER
GC: Did you always want to be a lawyer?
Ayman Essam (AE): Yes and no. Basically it started with wanting to be a district attorney. I decided to go to law school because I wanted to enforce justice in the world, and then when I started my first training year during law school, I went to a law firm. That’s when I started thinking that you could serve justice from a different angle. So I started reconsidering, and by the time I finished law school I was invited to go and start my career with this law firm, and that was the time where I felt that was the career for me.
GC: What made you decide to make the change and go in-house?
AE: By the year 2000, I had worked first in a law firm and travelled to the US for a couple of years, studied in and out of Egypt, and then gone back to work. I was then a senior lawyer, so I started handling accounts with clients myself. That’s when I started realising that I wanted to sit on their side and see what they want from lawyers in law firms. We think we know, or we are told by our senior lawyers and partners what clients want, but realistically lawyers in firms have never been sitting on the client’s side to have an accurate view. Surprisingly enough, when I made the shift in early 2001, I realised that all I was told in my previous life about what the client wants from their relationship with law firms is actually not accurate, because lawyers tend to think that the client would appreciate a very long document explaining all the details about the laws and the regulations. Sitting on the client’s side, I realised that the management appreciate a shorter document, straight to the point, with clear advice that you go this way, or this is what you facing and this is our advice on how you manoeuvre around that, or mitigate the risks.
It was completely different, and also there were different realisations on how to build a budget. Law firms want to bill by the hour, while in the client’s mind, they want a completely different arrangement because they want to manage their budgets properly. So sitting on the client’s side I’ve got a completely different view on it.
GC: You worked for Vodafone previously. Did you always plan to go into the telecoms sector?
AE: No. When I decided to make the shift to an in-house, I always wanted to work in media, because I was handling clients that were producers of music albums, movies and all that. I worked as a corporate adviser for a multinational wanting to acquire small media, movie and music production companies in the region. We called it the “music and movies platform”, where smaller production companies could swap their ownership for shares in the bigger entity. But the opportunity I got was through an ex-partner in my law firm, who went to be general counsel for Vodafone, and he called me and asked me to join when he was still establishing the department. So he convinced me. It was based on a personal liking of the person - I knew we got along, we worked together well and I knew we shared the same value system. I thought: give it a try, move into an in-house role in telecoms (which was very new at the time), decide if you like the in-house experience, then make the shift from in-house telecoms to in-house media production.
I liked telecoms. I liked the challenge of working with no foundation of laws - because the industry was quite new to the market and it was much faster than what the regulator and policy-makers could keep up with. I liked the challenge, and the level of logic that we tried to use rather than just following the laws, regulations and procedures. Of course I liked the environment, and the more I got into the industry, and got involved with Vodafone Group the more I liked it. I stayed for 10 years.
GC: What do you enjoy about working for Mobinil?
AE: I have more influence and more responsibilities. In Vodafone they had stricter, group-enforced rules. The benefits of working for a multinational are that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel sometimes, but the disadvantage would definitely be that you have less room to create. In Mobinil, I can look into the model of any department and consider whether this is missing, or how do we achieve the best out of this. You recommend the policy, you make a small change in the work arrangement. Being close to a good listening CEO is also a plus in Mobinil, and the level of change I can enforce in the company is much higher, my department is much bigger. Now I’m not only responsible for legal, I’m also responsible for public relations and corporate governance and I’m the company secretary for the company, its mother company and eight of its subsidiaries.
GC: What challenges and opportunities are created by being in an emerging sector where the market moves faster than the regulators and legislators?
AE: It’s challenging for every decision you make. The easy way of doing things is when you’re being asked for advice and you go back to the law, you go back to the regulations and you can advise in light of that. When you don’t have a law or a regulation you have to creatively work through the problem; for example, how would this merger work in comparison to the civil law or to the criminal law, what’s the rationale behind this particular piece of the law which I will have to depend on, how do I get a rule that does not yet exist. It’s challenging in every aspect, especially the uncertainty in the advice you have to give. You have to be quite creative, so that’s as much about being challenging as it is about bringing an opportunity to excel.
GC: What has been the highlight of your career so far?
AE: At Vodafone, the creation of the contract management sub-department. The idea came about when I realised that when lawyers work on contracts and contract templates, we negotiate very heavily until we have them signed, then the project managers take over and the contract sits in someone’s drawer and we only look at it when a dispute takes place. So throughout the duration of the contract, from the signature to when there is a conflict or a dispute, there are so many rights that we don’t get, or so many things that we don’t really monitor, and these things can result in problems or a missed opportunity for the company. I realised that and I started working with our boss at the time, who was the company COO who handled legal, HR and a few other things. He was convinced of the opportunity.
He asked me to do a business case of how this would work, to look at the resources I would need, and the value that we would create by having a sub-department that looks after the contract implementation phase. It was successful, and I created a small sub-department under legal called contracts management which looked after the contract implementation. Once the contract is signed, you look after the deliverables under the contract, the payment terms, monitoring what we get out of it, the supplier, the support, the penalties we’re entitled to, all that.
After the first year of implementing this we achieved probably 10 times what I forecasted in the business case with only two guys. We decided we would increase it a little bit, so there were four guys looking after the whole thing. The value created from the sub-department was enormous, so it was really appreciated by the management.
Now I’m working on something with Orange Group (the company that owns Mobinil), called The Legal Academy. I realised that most lawyers in in-house functions don’t have much information or training centres to take them to the next level. They have to dig for information and it’s not necessarily a regulated journey. I realised that these people would need to be properly trained in an academy field where you turn the lawyer into a super-lawyer by exposing them to certain training and certain experiences. For example, we take litigation lawyers on a journey where they have to negotiate contracts. You give them some training on managing an in-house legal function, managing the budget and leadership exposure, because eventually if they grow in an in-house legal function people will be reporting to them. They can then understand what the motivation is like and how to manage staff resources. Lawyers around the world are actually divas, so managing them is not an easy game! It’s not like managing any other profession. So these are learning points that you need to give to people, not to wait until they learn it by themselves, because they screw up the time doing that.
I also gave the idea to Mobinil group legal function and they asked me to put it in a presentation. I went and I met the people in France, I sold the idea, they bought into it, and they decided that was a good thing to do for the whole of the Orange Group. I designed this programme to give both classroom information and practical information, so they get assignments and go into other operating companies in the Orange footprint, and they get experience in areas where it’s not their comfort zone. In a year’s time this person would probably be qualified to be a general counsel in Orange or in any company in the world, because they’ve been exposed to litigation, contracts, regulation, project management, management, leadership, resource management, telecom law, procurement laws - all types of general information that would help them sit comfortably in the next level and manage a function.
GC: Is that something you’re running in partnership with academic institutions?
AE: At this point no, but it’s the idea. Currently we’re testing on a group of five people to see if we are able to come up with a curriculum that would be useful to the community. If we are successful with this then we will continue. If not (which is my expectation) there’s a course in Cambridge [University] which I once attended, and which gave similar background high-level information to help people run in-house legal functions. If we think we need it we’ll probably go to Cambridge and request that we partner with them and build a programme to deliver that.
GC: Looking forward to the next few months, what are the legal challenges or issues that you and your team will be facing?
AE: Two main things are on my mind most recently. One is that in Egypt in the telecom market is currently considering the universal license, where the government will offer rights and obligations for all types of telecommunication activities. Landline, DSL, ADSL, 3G, 4G - all the operators will have the same rights and obligations when it comes to offering telecommunication services. This is a challenge, because we’ve always been in the GSM world so when you start offering things like IPTV and wifi and ADSL, this would be a new area for us. And the market will completely change. On the other hand, mobile money - the initiatives of Visa, Mastercard and all the GSM operators of the world who are now considering getting into the financial market world, offering electronic money and electronic wallets where you save your money in wallets connected to your phone number - puts us in a completely different market, under completely types of regulations. So this is also a challenge going forward.
The third area (which is not currently, in Egypt at least, a big challenge) is the Googles and the Apples of the world wanting to own (either directly or indirectly), or regulate, or manage GSM operators around the world because they offer a lot of the services that users want and depend on. They want to use their strength in this area to become the interface with customers and have the operators as their back office. This changes the entire market again, because GSM operators have always been at the front. So a change in the scenery would definitely change the whole market, and challenge us to know where we want to be. From a legal point of view, we have to assess what would be the risks imposed by this market change.
GC: What are the main economic challenges and opportunities of the Egyptian telecoms market?
AE: The market is quite tough in Egypt because the competition has been very aggressive recently. You keep pushing on the margins, you push on the cost, and you have to push on the amount of risk that you are able to accommodate, which hits directly into my job.
The other thing is the security challenges, because in a market with a hundred million subscribers, lines are being used in national security threats like bombings. This puts the security agencies on our shoulders trying to regulate the market as well as the regulators and the policy-makers. You have more people trying to get involved in how we run our business. For example, most recently the security agencies made a rule that we can’t sell mobile subscriptions through agents in the market; this has to be through our own subscriptions. This changes the whole market again and puts a lot of pressures on our revenues and cost base. Security agencies are pushing really, really hard to put more regulations into the market, and make it even stricter. So as much as it is good for the country - as a citizen, I have to say it is good for the country, it is good for all of us - when I put my employee hat on, it is challenging.
GC: If you could go back in time and give your junior self some careers advice, what would it be?
AE: Probably to consider having a different in-house experience than just telecoms. Even if I eventually decide to stay in telecoms, it would have been useful to have SMCG, or pharmaceutical experience, something of that sort. Probably some experience outside of Egypt would be very useful, so I would advise myself to accept a job for one or two years in the Gulf, or in Europe, or anywhere where I get a perspective on a completely different regulatory and legal environment, and get the benefit from that.
GC: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
AE: Reading. Beach time. Spending time with my son. I love travelling. If I have free time I would probably be with my son somewhere or travelling with friends, and seeing new or old places from a different perspective. And probably during that, I would be reading.
GC: Do you have a particular book on the go at the moment?
AE: At the moment, no. When I’m with my son, reading is not an allowed activity! He’s 11, so reading is not his favourite thing. He wants to be swimming together, running around. But usually I would read things ranging from novels like Paulo Coelho, or a few Egyptian writers that I like, philosophy, sometimes legal stuff - new concepts, proposed policies and laws. When it’s just for fun, I pick a book on my way anywhere that interests me.
GC: If you weren’t a lawyer any more for some reason, is there an alternative career that appeals to you?
AE: Life coach or trainer, somewhere in that area. I’m getting certified in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) now, to be an NLP practitioner, and then will I probably go for the next level and be a master practitioner. I love psychology, I read a lot about psychology, so I would probably be doing that. I’ve been a trainer in Vodafone and Mobinil for culture of change; I’ve been a culture of change champion where I train people in the new values of the organisation and how to go from one point to the other, and it was very successful in both organisations. So I do have this talent, probably from nurturing, and if I were to change career, or as a plan B for an early retirement, it would be a training life-coach type of thing.