The digital trailblazer
How Hatem Dowidar is transforming e& from a telecom giant to become a global technology and investment powerhouse.
Even though he qualified as an engineer, Hatem Dowidar realized early on in his career that he loved the commercial side of business more than the technical aspect. Closely observing the business leaders around him, he witnessed their holistic approach to leading an organization and how they applied a growth mindset towards tackling challenges that presented themselves every day. Their progressive outlook appealed to Dowidar's ambitious nature, and he knew he had found his calling to be a leader for change. Dowidar relishes a challenge, and his keen ability to assess and adapt quickly to the challenges faced by the telecoms industry over the past few years would become invaluable when blazing the trail as e&'s Group CEO.
A career built on action
After successfully running country telecom operations in both Malta and Egypt as well as some key central functions, Dowidar joined the Group in 2015 as COO. He became chief executive of the company's international telecoms operations in March 2016 before his appointment as the Group CEO in May 2020 – just as the pandemic was taking hold. "I took the role when there was a complete lockdown," Dowidar explains. "So, it was quite a strange time, but I think that helped us shape the story of doing things differently."
It's fair to say that Dowidar was well equipped to take on the role of Group CEO of e&. He has worked in technical and commercial roles for multinational consumer goods and telecom companies. He has been both an existing player and a challenger, instrumental in driving synergies and strategic partnerships across markets and spearheading several ground-breaking strategic programmes to drive business growth. He has also guided and maintained telecom operations during two Egyptian revolutions. "That was a very challenging time," Dowidar admits. "We had curfews plus, supply chains were severely disrupted. We had to improvise to continue to do business." As more challenges came with digital-native companies setting the standards for seamless digital experiences, Dowidar recognized that bringing smart connectivity and next-generation technologies to every person, home and organization would create new opportunities for the business going forward.
Driving digital futures
During his career, Dowidar has seen mobile, or telecoms companies, comfortably sitting among the top ten firms globally in terms of market capitalization. But in recent years, that has all changed, forcing the telecoms industry to recognize the growing importance of embracing digital as part of their strategy – delivering value to all customer segments with ever-smarter solutions. "Telco companies stand the risk of becoming marginalized compared to internet companies," says Dowidar. "For example, you see today, a digital bank working across one continent has a bigger market cap than a telco operator group with operations in 20 countries." This was a key stimulus for Dowidar to look inside the company and effect the necessary change needed to reframe the future of its telco business through the lens of technology and digitalization.
At this time, e& was certainly the region's largest telco operator, but the company needed to diversify its business operations and explore possibilities to address the technology-focused parts of the value chain. It was important to reassess its goals and priorities, break boundaries and reframe the company's direction in keeping with the ever-growing customer demands towards embracing a digital-throughout lifestyle.
Enriching peoples' lives and adding value for businesses
The global pandemic heightened an already obvious need for radical, rapid change within telcos due to the acceleration of changing consumer habits in the area of digitalization and smart connectivity. In discussions with senior management team members, Dowidar realized the need to shift focus quickly to address the uncertainties shown by the forecasts. "I thought, why are we satisfied at just being a telco? We can do so much more." Having helped maintain the connectivity backbone of families and societies throughout the region during lockdown, it was time to initiate a new customer-driven, value-creating role for the company. "If we want to give amazing returns to the shareholders, to the countries where we operate, really grow the business, we need a bold vision to do things differently,” explains Dowidar.
With operations in 16 countries across the Middle East, Asia and Africa, serving around 160 million customers, the company's focus has always been on creating innovative products and solutions that would add business value and enhance customer lives, "We thought, what can we do to enrich their lives even further?" Dowidar says. "How can we provide our customers with a more digital and fulfilling life, while creating opportunities to grow the business?"
Solid foundations digitally empowering societies
As part of its transition from a telecom operator to a global technology and investment conglomerate, e& created a resilient business model representing the Group's business pillars: Telecoms, e& life, e& enterprise and e& capital.
The Telecoms business has been the growth engine of the Group for decades, led by Etisalat UAE in the home market and by existing subsidiaries for international operations. e& life will bring the next-gen digital world to its customers' fingertips via a state-of-the-art 'super app' marketplace. e& enterprise leads on digital transformation and accelerates digital adoption for corporates, governments and large organizations, while e& capital focuses on mergers and acquisitions that maximize shareholder value and strengthen global presence. "When you have a really ambitious and strong vision, you can attract great people," Dowidar says. And that has helped to create momentum throughout the organization.
A company for all
At the beginning of 2022, the company received the accolade of the world's strongest telecoms brand, according to Brand Finance's Telecoms 150 ranking. e& also ranked first in the Forbes MENA Top 10 most valuable listed companies in the UAE. Coupled with the Group's strong financial performance as well as several other milestones, these fueled Dowidar's bold steps to fulfil his vision to evolve the company in the fast-evolving business landscape. "The strongest telecom brand in the world is a very prestigious recognition that we have," says Dowidar. "It takes into consideration how our brand is perceived in the markets where we operate."
Building on the Group's success and capitalizing on opportunities ahead, the company announced its plan to change its brand identity from Etisalat Group to e& in February 2022. "I think this was a really great illustration of how, as a company, we are willing to disrupt ourselves before we get disrupted by others," says Dowidar.
For Dowidar, e& signifies a powerful symbol of the company's ambitions to contribute to societies, pursue mutually beneficial partnerships, pioneer next-generation technologies and maintain its edge. "You want to invest in new technologies and yet, be profitable. You want to create value for shareholders and for the communities we serve. Why choose? You want to have both," says Dowidar. "We have an excellent credit rating, so we have the capacity to spend. We have the capacity to borrow, and therefore we can invest," he explains. This enabled Dowidar to begin the company's transformation into a global technology and investment conglomerate while maintaining its robust industry leadership.
Dowidar’s three tips for business transformation
"If you think incrementally, you don't get anywhere. You have to be really ambitious and think big in terms of what can be achieved, look outside the existing boundary, and take into account what the organization is capable of."
"If you feel the people who are part of the journey are not passionate enough, you need to instil that passion. You need to be honest and sometimes make changes to bring the right people in… on the journey."
Do the right thing
"There are many choices we must make in business that we have to weigh up among different stakeholders. But I think it's important for leaders to stand for what's right and not cut corners."
With the new Telecoms, e& life, e& enterprise and e& capital businesses in place, Dowidar wasted no time putting them to work.
"We acquired a controlling stake in STARZPLAY, the biggest video streaming platform in the region. Plus, we acquired a stake in a digital bank and have also, within this period, acquired a cybersecurity company and integrated an enterprise," he explains.
It's clear that placing e& at the forefront of digital technologies is paramount for Dowidar. He sees 5G technologies and fiber as the essential backbone of the business and fundamental to its transition to become a technology-led company.
"We were one of the first countries to adopt 5G in the home market in the region. We have, in the home market, the highest level of fiber penetration in the world. And we are forging ahead with Core Network Virtualization to open our communication abilities and pursue collaborative opportunities." Dowidar recognizes that the digital revolution is enabling consumers to adopt increasingly tech-savvy lifestyles, and he wants e& to be bringing it to them early on. "We aim to do things differently as we progress to make sure that we don't miss an opportunity – because if you don't try new things, you don't get the benefits of being an early adopter and being on the forefront of technology."
Playing a wider role
Dowidar's vision is taking e& into areas that he sees as adding significant growth opportunities for telecom operators. "The future is going to be how we accelerate value generation through innovation, digitization and partnerships," he explains. "Some start-ups pay hundreds of dollars for the acquisition of customers. We already have them, so we can add services very fast and create value." This was the case with e&'s loyalty app 'Smiles', which has now become a marketplace. "We decided to add a food ordering perk. Within a few months, we were in the top five food ordering apps in the country because people were using the app anyway," says Dowidar. "So, there was an existing advantage there that we were not utilizing."
This is the kind of entrepreneurial thinking that Dowidar wants to see running throughout the company – enabling e& to capitalize on opportunities that are more significant in adjacent spaces. He sees this being implemented by other leaders he admires. "Satya Nadella of Microsoft, an amazing leader. You see how the culture of the company has shifted. It's an example of a company that not only reorganized itself and its core business and grew the business, but also organized the culture and the way people work together," Dowidar says. "Look at Jeff Bezos and how he's shifted an online e-commerce marketplace to become one of the biggest players in the cloud space. This inspires a lot of leaders. I'm one of them."
Inspired to create a brighter future
So, what's next for e&, apart from the company's focus on ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance), which Dowidar views as the cornerstone of how the company conducts business? "The way we behave is important. Doing the right thing legally, but also about the environment and being vocal about that. And diversity. When I took office, we had zero gender diversity in the top team. Now 30% of the team are women, and they are making a magnificent contribution to the success of the organization and the communities we serve."
On a personal level, where does Dowidar see himself in the coming years? "I'm now at the point where I don't ask myself what's the next thing, but actually, what more can I do with what I'm working on now? I think this is my current mission." Dowidar remains grateful to his late father for the focus and passion that he brings to work each day. "He worked for the same newspaper for 65 years, becoming chief editor," Dowidar recalls. "Even after he retired, he continued writing articles daily until his last day. Now that's passion."
Dowidar sees his current role as a major milestone on an illustrious business career path, with perhaps his next challenge being yet another skill to master. "Perhaps one day, someone will say you have a great story to tell, then I'll follow in my father's footsteps, putting pen to paper to write a book."
It would certainly be a business book worth reading.
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