The Wateen job turned out to be one of those paradoxical interview assignments that make an editor’s job extremely difficult and pretty rewarding at the same time. And in hindsight it was for the better that this was not our usual ‘Lunch with Profit’ outing, or Fujiyama’s inviting sushi would’ve been left feeling just as ignored as the latte served at the CEO’s spacious office, and unfairly so. For, no sooner than we presented the mundane employee turnover, annual losses and company restructuring questions did Mr Naeem Zamindar take us on a tangent, only to reconnect with telecom specifics, associating industry dynamics with wider social currents at play across the world.
The turnaround script
Mr Zamindar finds interesting parallels between running a company relying predominantly on customer satisfaction and writing a stage play banking on audience appreciation. And the script of this particular narrative is ‘rebirth of a company’, an ambitious project especially since the first edition was eventually discarded by disappointed users after building quite a following in the early chapters. Luckily for the turnaround man, the breakdown owed more to general mismanagement and inability to translate the company’s long-term vision well enough for customers to stay loyal once initial rigidities began surfacing. There weren’t too many technical inefficiencies to speak of, which enabled him to focus more on identifying and enabling a vision befitting the outreach of the platform he seemingly volunteered to inherit. It is hardly surprising that Wateen began going seriously astray around the fateful fall of ’08, when macro financial contraction compromised the telecom industry on an international scale. Also, much of its problems were typical of emirati enterprises of the time, name-staffing, ineffective human resource management and very loose monitoring and evaluation. So a simple return to fundamentals must not have been the most demanding task for an industry veteran of 20 years. His touch involves much finer details.
With innovation increasingly driving the world economy, particularly since the onset of the 21st century, fibre-optic technology is at the centre of the revolution integrating the world on an electronic platform. And with its own cable tv, six channels, longest fibre-optic and satellite network, Wateen is best placed to represent Pakistan in this ‘new world order’. A grand strategy envisioning nothing short of total transformation of society enabled by technological innovation has also been set in place. All that remains is tactical implementation of the new vision, meant to change Pakistan forever.
On the micro level, this will be done in three phases. First, the organisation will be made more customer-focused and dynamic, probably a reaction to excesses of the past that derailed a very spirited initiative reaching out into three continents. Second, ensuring stable funding will be crucial. Even as the company turns to profitability, fine-tuning the balance sheet will take some time. And thirdly, it will invest in systems, adding value to lives.
Ideal demographics; genius for integration
It turns out that Pakistan’s current social and demographic state provides near-ideal ‘lab conditions’ for the CEO to experiment his vision for the company. Approximately 60 per cent of the population is under 30 years old, the most tech-savvy segment of society. This group has been at the forefront of the communications revolution for more than a decade. In places not much different than our own country, this group has tapped the internet’s genius for integration to engineer serious deviations in social, political and historical narratives, upsetting a regressive status-quo that went back decades. It is this vibrant portion of the population that will be at the forefront of the Wateen miracle, first filling loopholes and overcoming bottlenecks that retard their progress and then elevating them to integrate with international crosscurrents on an equal footing. One of the most significant features of the revolution will comprise tackling fault lines in the national education system, with electronic devices connected through the fibre optic network making the current paralysed system redundant. The social spillover of such exercises can be ascertained to a large extent by linkages already formed by the mini mobile phone revolution of the last decade.
Personal story; the Zen influence
And here’s the most fascinating part of this stage play. Enjoying a pretty profitable career as a venture capitalist riding the dot com bubble in silicon valley, Mr Zamindar learned much from the subsequent market crash that decimated finance execs like himself in the early years of the new century. It was then that the exercise of finding value and opportunity in debris and collapse fashioned an integral part of his professional outlook. And it was then that he associated spiritual lessons of balance, harmony and assimilation with the grater conscious with the technical niceties of the telecom industry. In a mesmerising and animated sermon, Mr Zamindar explained how spiritual mantra regards the present time as a focal point in the larger narrative of the world. It represents a crossroads where human beings as a whole must evolve to a higher paradigm, rendering much of the present system obsolete. For those that fall behind the curve in this epic transformation, the coming half decade or so will indeed spell apocalypse, those resistant to change being rubbished to the dustbin of history forever. He finds the telecom industry at the threshold of a similar existential evolution. Not only will the sector be at the heart of mankind’s overall transformation to a more efficient and connected way of living, it will also undergo tremendous overhaul itself.
Age of abundance; infrastructure and value addition
The coming era will mark the age of abundance of knowledge. Machines will continue to get smarter than humans, and in addition to education, mobile technology will take over all financial, information transfer and communication services. Present systems will no longer matter, unlocking unprecedented productive capacity in entire economies. Even better, steps are under way to connect regional countries through fibre-optic technology. Nature has provided Pakistan with a natural geographic lottery. It is the ideal gateway connecting many regional economies. Therefore, linkages are being formed with Iran, Afghanistan, China and India, tapping windfall transit opportunities in the process.
The Jobs effect
One of the most interesting themes to come out of the brief interaction with Naeem Zamindar was that technical compulsions of running and managing a large entity being one thing, it is the guiding vision that is most important, the rest automatically falls into place once a grand strategy is finalised and the will to implement it mustered. For making ambitious advances in the complicated yet fascinating world of fibre-optic technology, he cites the inspiring example of perhaps the greatest tech wizard of them all, the late great Steve Jobs, and takes a deep breath, staring into empty space, quoting from his famous address to Stanford graduates: Stay foolish, and stay hungry!
NAEEM ZAMINDAR, CEO WATEEN TELECOM
- With an MBA from France’s prestigious INSEAD and over twenty years of progressive work experience in the field of telecommunications, Mr Naeem Zamindar is the charming and vibrant chief executive of Wateen Telecom.
- Mr Zamindar attained his professional certification as a public accountant from the State of Washington, following his graduation from the University of Texas at Austin with a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. Mr Zamindar then joined KPMG Peat Marwick as an auditor, before going on to establish Comnet, Pakistan’s first cable TV operator, in 1992.
- Mr Zamindar’s first foray into mobile telecommunications came as a senior manager at Mobilink, where he held various roles, including financial controller and head of customer services. As one of the founding members of Mobilink and its key Strategy and Business Development operative, Mr. Zamindar effectively demonstrated his leadership traits and strategic planning abilities as he propelled the company to become the telecom giant that it is.
- Following his MBA from INSEAD, Mr Zamindar joined Silicon Valley venture capital firm Inter Capital as a senior investment manager, focusing on fibre optic networks, as well as WiFi and WiMax. This experience proved invaluable when establishing Zamindar Capital, a firm that developed and provided consultative support to companies leveraging technology to leapfrog social and economic development.
- Coupled with Mr Zamindar’s subsequent stint as Mobilink’s head of broadband business, this provided Mr Zamindar with the strong knowledge base he now brings to Wateen’s operations.
- Despite being a savvy businessman and keen entrepreneur, Mr Zamindar takes an extremely Zen approach to life. He is the founder and chairman of the Pakistan chapter of The Art of Living Foundation, a multi- faceted organisation that promotes holistic health, and meditates on a regular basis.
- As an individual who perfectly walks the tightrope between the fast-paced life of a successful entrepreneur and the meditative existence of a Zen master, Mr Zamindar is the perfect person to lead Wateen in its mission to become Pakistan’s leading lifestyle company. Mr Zamindar believes that the high speed broadband and modern day telecommunications have the capacity to not only connect us with one another and the world at large, but also to affect our lives and influence positive change.