Sayed-Amr “Sisso” El-Hamamsy spent his Egyptian childhood toying with rocket science, gazing into space and dreaming of a career as an astronaut.
He never made it into space, but if you drop by the corner office at Wi-LAN Inc., you will find El-Hamamsy still shooting for the stars as the Calgary company’s rookie chief executive officer.
Partnered with one-time Cairo University electrical engineering classmate Hatim Zaghloul, Wi-LAN’s executive chairman and founder, El-Hamamsy envisions bright prospects for Wi-LAN as he draws on lessons from a career at Jack Welch’s General Electric.
The upbeat El-Hamamsy sounds like a man about to launch a rocketship as he masterminds Wi-LAN’s mission to become a global leader in wireless communications.
|Mike Sturk photos, Business Edge|
|Sayed-Amr El-Hamamsy has soared since his early exposure to space as a youngster visiting Caltech. |
1. How do you reflect on your childhood in Egypt?
“I had a pretty privileged childhood growing up in Egypt with my dad (Ahmas) who was a surgeon and my mom (Laila) who was a professor of anthropology. At the time, Egypt was going through a ‘social experiment’ and was very closed in. But my mom got to travel a lot and she would always come home with a lot of gifts for the family like music and records. So I grew up with a very westernized outlook on life, I guess. I loved the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and eating chocolate.”
2. Who were your role models as a youngster?
“Both my parents were role models. My dad had tremendous integrity and honesty and my mom was an extremely creative person. She was probably the smartest person I’ve met. She was also very friendly. I hope I’ve been able to take some of that from both of them.”
3. So what was your career dream?
“I always wanted to be a scientist. I started off wanting to be a chemist. A friend and I would play with chemistry sets and look through booklets and find out which reactions were the most intense. Then, we would try and mix them up into one test tube for the most violent reactions. When my mom went to Caltech (California Institute of Technology) in 1973, I visited her there. When I saw all those jet-propulsion labs, I was really turned on by space. I decided I wanted to go to Caltech and get involved with the space program. Eventually, I did get into that program. The year I was graduating (1986) was the year of the space shuttle Challenger tragedy, so I went and interviewed to go on a space shuttle (as an astronaut). Because I wasn’t a U.S. citizen, I didn’t get the job. I thought maybe they’d have to take me because they wouldn’t have anybody else. As it turned out, there were enough space nuts out there to fill those jobs.”
4. How did you initially hook up with General Electric?
“While I was completing my PhD at Caltech, I had interviews with GE, Bell Labs and Bell Corp. I ended up getting offers that were almost identical from GE and Bell Labs. It was almost a flip of the coin, but the only difference was that power electronics, which was my area of interest, was more of a core business for GE. I believe I was very lucky and fortunate to have picked GE at the time.”
5. How do you reflect on your 15-year career with GE?
“It was a fantastic experience meeting and making good friends who were of a high calibre both technically and in a business sense. In my work there, I could always find something that was a very good link to humanity. We worked on high-efficiency lighting projects and you could calculate the amount of CO2 that you would not be putting into the atmosphere. The other exciting area I worked on was MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanners and procedures. It was rewarding when you heard that someone’s disease was diagnosed because of those technologies we worked on.”
6. From a career perspective, what did you come away with from GE?
“It was a fantastic experience where Jack (then CEO Welch) was restructuring the company. His timing in changing from one mode to another was just incredible. It was interesting to see how the company was operating internally, how efficient it was, how well-oiled it was and how driven people were by performance criteria. The idea at GE was that you made your numbers. That, I think, is a very big element that is sometimes missing at some companies where, if you missed your numbers, you had an explanation. At GE, you made your numbers and then you had an explanation – for why you did succeed.”
7. Do you think there’s a little bit of Jack Welch in you?
“Sometimes, yes. My wife (Rachel) has said to me at times: ‘What would Jack do if he was in your place?’ I think I learned a lot from Jack. I’ve tried to capture and emulate some of the elements of what he has done. Some of those elements are the sharp focus on what needs to be done, then the ability to decide to do it or decide that it would result in diminishing returns and then switching gears to what has to be done next.”
8. You once said that ‘relentless’ was a word that Welch used a lot. What word do you use a lot?
“I think it’s a good word, too. I believe I’ve used it on the (Wi-LAN) website in talking about ‘relentless customer focus’ or something of that nature.”
9. How significant was it for you to have achieved GE’s status of excellence, known as ‘master black-belt six sigma’ status?
“It didn’t feel so significant at the time, but now, as I reflect on it, I realize the experience of that was really critical for me. We’re looking at doing it at Wi-LAN and it’s being discussed now. We’re a company just a little bit out of the startup mode and maybe in adolescence, so it’s so important that we drive the growth in the company properly. And I’m finding that master black-belt training is very critical. Six sigma provides a methodology for thinking about issues and addressing them. It also sets a bar for excellence.
“That methodology can be applied to everything we do, including an executive assistant booking travel or in putting out press releases.”
10. You once likened Wi-LAN to a young kid that had to be raised right. How is that kid doing?
“So far, so good. We still have a long ways to go. My own son is now 15 and I realize the job is not done yet. Wi-LAN is a little bit like a 15-year-old with a few things left to learn. We’ve been beefing up our marketing and technology staff for developing the WiMax compliance systems. We’ve been hiring lately. We’d been down to 108 employees and now we’re up to 130.”
11. Where did you initially meet (Wi-LAN founder) Hatim Zaghloul and what has it been like working alongside your longtime friend?
“We met at Cairo University. In my first year there, Hatim was first in the (electrical engineering) class of about a thousand, so he became very famous. It has really been very exciting (working with him). There’s a type of connection that you almost can’t achieve with someone unless you grew up with them. We actually don’t talk to each other as much as people think we do. People come to me and ask me a question. Then, they go to Hatim and ask him the same question. They get the same answer, so they think we’re always co-ordinating everything, but we’re not. We really think alike.”
12. What are the main differences in the way you and Hatim approach business?
“Hatim definitely has the big vision and big-brush-stroke capability. I have some of that, but not as much as he does. At the same time, I’m more willing to stick with the detailed portion of making that vision come to life.”
13. What’s most gratifying to you about Wi-LAN’s progress since you joined the company three years ago?
“I’d have to say it was achieving cash-flow positive status in the third quarter of 2003. More than anything else, everyone in the company had to pull in the same direction to achieve that and we were very successful.”
14. What are your goals for Wi-LAN for 2004?
“There are two things we are aiming for in 2004. We want to turn the company into a truly sales- and marketing-driven company rather than a technology-driven company. The second thing is to complete the development of the WiMax compliance system. That is actually driven by marketing considerations in order to bring the cost of the units down to where it is mass-marketable.”
15. How confident are you of achieving your goal of profitability in 2004?
“With the revenue estimates and the whole plan that we have, we should make it. Even if revenue growth doesn’t happen as fast as we anticipate, which I don’t expect, we can still maintain profitability by delaying some of the projects or something like that. We have enough variables under our control that I’m very confident that we’ll be able to be profitable for the year.”
16. What aspect of your technology has the most potential in the next decade?
“I think the fact that W-OFDM (broadband wireless technology) is extremely well suited for mobility and there are very high data rates on a mobile environment makes it a huge factor that I think will change the world. The home telecommunications industry is going to have to adapt to this extremely disruptive technology. We will see some of the established telecom companies, wireless operators and even fixed wireline operators having to adopt that technology or maybe get bypassed by that disruption. There may also be more companies that come up out of nowhere and become the giants in that market. Wi-LAN itself is one of the equipment companies that I hope will become a giant in this market.”
17. How do you see that technology changing the world?
“From a customer perspective, there are a number of applications that can be used with the availability of what we’re calling universal broadband wireless. It will be just tremendous. There will be the ability to do streaming video and video phones and all these things will be a reality. The camera phones are already very popular with still pictures, but imagine what will happen when you have actual video cameras that you can talk to and show people where you are, for example. If you drive to Vancouver and you want to keep the kids entertained, you can do that with streaming video in your vehicle.”
18. What’s your vision for Wi-LAN?
“It’s to become a dominant equipment provider in the fixed wireless and mobile broadband wireless areas, and to leverage the patents that we have and get a lot of licensing revenue. So I think Wi-LAN has the potential to be a half-billion or a billion-dollar company (in terms of annual sales), maybe even more. I believe it can happen within the next 10 years. But one thing I’ve learned over the last three years is that things seem to take a lot longer than you expect. I truly believe that Wi-LAN has all the precursors to become a world-class company in telecommunications.”
19. Would you ever return to a major conglomerate such as GE?
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. To be honest with you, the ability to shape a company the way you can with a small company like Wi-LAN when you have a position that I have is something that is very hard to back away from. It would depend on what the position would be . . . (chuckling) maybe CEO?”
20. What other life goals or aspirations do you have?
“I want to see my kids grow up into fine, outstanding citizens. I’d love to see them achieve their dreams and aspirations. From a broader perspective, I’d really like to be able to have an impact on my country of origin, Egypt, which really is somewhat in a drifting state and hasn’t really come out and broken through (economically) like China, Korea and even India look like they’re doing. I’d like to be able to help create a trust fund to help Egyptian students study abroad, or something of that nature.”
THE COMPANY: Wi-LAN Inc.
* Brass: Sayed-Amr El-Hamamsy, president/CEO; Hatim Zaghloul, executive chairman; Keith Bittner, acting chief financial officer.
* Profile: Wi-LAN is a global provider of broadband
wireless communications products and technologies. The company provides business, including Internet
service providers and government enterprises with high-speed wireless communications solutions.
* Cutting Edge: Several wireless standards are based on Wi-LAN’s patented W-OFDM (wide-band orthogonal frequency division multiplexing system). Wi-LAN is the only company selling commercial broadband wireless FWA (fixed wireless access) OFDM systems.
* Recent Stock Price: $5 (52-week range, $1.22-$5.87).
* Website/e-mail: www.wi-lan.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
* Address: 2891 Sunridge Way N.E., Calgary, T1Y 7K7.
* Phone/Fax: 403-273-9133/403-273-5100.
IN PROFILE: Sayed-Amr El-Hamamsy
* Title: President/CEO, Wi-LAN Inc.
* Born/raised/age: Cairo, Egypt; 47.
* Education: Cairo University, Bachelor of Science (electrical engineering); California Institute of Technology, Masters & PhD degrees (major in electrical engineering, minor in computer science).
* Family: Wife Rachel, three children.
* Career: El-Hamamsy joined Wi-LAN on Jan. 8, 2001, as chief operating officer and was appointed CEO of Wi-LAN in December. Prior to that, El-Hamamsy spent 15 years as a scientist and manager with General Electric. He was a member of a team of scientists that created the Genura compact electrodeless fluorescent lamp and, as manager of the GE Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) program, helped engineer a turnaround of that department. His last job at GE was as e-engineering leader of the Corporate Research and Development Centre.
* Passions: Watching soccer, playing guitar, golfing, reading.