Bichara has tough act to follow Sawiris at Orascom

Khaled Bichara has to lead Orascom into a new era where mobile operators make money selling music, banking services and digital media.

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Khaled Bichara's first 100 days as the chief executive of Orascom Telecom have reminded him of his formative years founding an internet business in the Web's frontier days. The internet entrepreneur set up Linkdotnet, one of Egypt's first internet service providers, in 1996, and sold it to Orascom three years later. Last November the founder of Orascom, Naguib Sawiris, introduced Mr Bichara as his successor as chief executive. His new challenge, to lead Orascom into a new era where mobile operators make money selling music, banking services and digital media, is one that eluded even the efforts of his accomplished predecessor.

"We all know what needs to come, but the progress has been slow," Mr Sawiris says. "It has been so slow that I had to admit a failure, and the response was removing myself as CEO. I brought a young guy, 38 years old, from the internet world and told him this company needs a new challenge, a new start." For Mr Bichara, the situation is reminiscent of his early years. "I've been used to selling stuff that people initially don't want to buy," he says. "When we started selling dial-up internet in 1996, that was not the easiest thing. Convincing companies to buy websites in 1996 was also not easy."

His early days at Orascom have been largely spent pushing a vision of integrating Web development, mobile internet services, digital publishing and online advertising businesses owned by Orascom. "Khaled's mentality is to leverage on all of us, much more than before," says Fadi Antaki, the chief executive of Arpu+, an Orascom company that specialises in providing value-added services to mobile users. "I am feeling this, we are seeing now that he has a very good road map for the future."

Arpu+ recently struck a deal to provide Morocco's Meditel, the country's second-largest operator, with the technology, content and management tools to offer a mobile entertainment portal to their customers. Connect Ads, Orascom's digital advertising business, signed an agreement to become the Middle East's advertising agent for Facebook, similar to the role it already plays for the MSN Web portal.

Deals like these, Mr Bichara says, may be small compared with the total revenues of an international mobile operator. But as chief executive, he is placing a disproportionate focus on such developments, which he sees as signs of the business moving into the future. "We want this to be a visible part of our revenue in the next two to three years," he says.