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June 22, 2008 5:31 pm

From Insead to Africa

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Dov and Anat Bar-Gera call themselves “serial entrepreneurs” – a term that might bring a smile to their teachers at Insead, Fontainebleau, France, where the two gained MBAs soon after graduating from university.

Now on their fifth venture since going it alone, the Israeli-born couple, resident in Switzerland for more than 20 years, have focused on telecommunications because of the opportunities offered by market liberalisation and rapid technological change.

Their latest venture, WiMax Africa, is still not a legal entity or even fully funded, “but the key pieces are in place”, says Dov Bar-Gera, a burly 52-year-old who trained as an engineer. “We have the right people and the right partners who help us acquire local licences and will soon be ready to move forward.”

WiMax Africa is a step on from WiMax Telecom, the Bar-Geras’ previous venture, founded in 2004. Set up on a shoestring, the company won licences in Austria, Slovakia and Croatia and built a respectable subscriber base before NextWave, the Nasdaq-quoted US telecoms group, bought a majority last July. In January the Bar-Geras offloaded their 35 per cent, terminating their direct link, although Mr Bar-Gera remains chairman.

“We’ve always seen ourselves as initiators. We enjoy the starting phase of the company, when we can create value very fast. We tend to get out just as a venture matures. We are not maintenance guys,” he says.

He admits business school had little immediate bearing on their latest ventures. But both partners stress the value of what they learnt at Insead, as well as the network they acquired, particularly for a couple just arriving from Israel in the 1980s.

“I didn’t have a fixed idea of what to expect, says Mrs Bar-Gera. “But I thought it could be interesting. We both wanted to be more international. I was working in a Tel Aviv law practice, and my husband – we’d only married recently – was at an Israeli telecoms equipment maker. Really, it’s pretty amazing we made it in as a couple.”

After completing similar courses (“there wasn’t so much choice then”) the two looked for jobs in Europe. “We had to recover the cost,” says Mrs Bar-Gera, now a mother of three.

Mr Bar-Gera found a position in information technology at Sandoz, the Swiss pharmaceuticals group that later merged with Ciba-Geigy to form Novartis. His wife got a job at UBS in Zurich as an investment banker.

Both soon realised, however, that they were not “big company” people. “It took me three years to understand what it meant, working in a large corporation,” says Mr Bar-Gera. His final role at Sandoz was as finance director of the Swiss
subsidiary.

Confidence

Insead, they admit, did not directly influence their eventual decision to become entrepreneurs. But it did provide the confidence and contacts for them to take the plunge. “I was a lawyer, but I didn’t have any commercial experience. I would never have dared to set up my own company without the business school background,” says Mrs Bar-Gera.

They brought complementary skills to entrepreneurship. Mrs Bar-Gera, the lawyer and banker, concentrated on finance and legal affairs; Mr Bar-Gera, versed in technology, looked after the operating side. Depending on the venture, the two have variously held the chairman’s or chief executive’s role in their ventures.

AirPage, their initial company, founded in 1995, won the first private licence in Austria for wireless paging services. When sold to Telenor two years later, AirPage had 70,000 subscribers and a 40 per cent market share, ranking second to Telekom Austria’s 100,000.

RSL Com Austria, the second venture, specialised in cut-price fixed-line services using a prefix number to benefit from market deregulation. By 2001 the company had sales of €50m and healthy profits. The Bar-Geras sold to RSL, a US telecoms group that subsequently became a victim of the new economy bubble.

Timing also proved fortunate in the Bar-Geras’ next venture, surfEU, founded in 1999. One of the first free internet service providers in Europe, the company gained 1.4m subscribers in its first 18 months. In 2001 the founders sold to Tiscali, then Europe’s second-biggest internet service provider.

“It was the height of the bubble. Everyone wanted to invest in us. It was just so easy,” recalls Mrs Bar-Gera. “We sold to Tiscali one minute before the whole market wound down.”

Benefits

WiMax involved a leap into yet another technology, although setting up the fourth venture proved easier than before, as the couple already had a list of contacts and a record in telecoms.

WiMax technology, a high-bandwidth wireless communications protocol, is designed to offer all the advantages of mobile internet access in a standardised and much cheaper package. If it lives up to expectations – and some experts are dubious about the commercial potential – WiMax could offer relatively cheap and simple continuous internet connectivity in a broad range of electronic devices.

The biggest potential is probably in areas such as Africa, eastern Europe and parts of South America, where competition from established telecoms providers is less fierce and where traditional telecoms infrastructures are still un­developed; hence the couple’s current focus on WiMax Africa.

“The potential is most interesting for emerging markets, where they haven’t got huge installed networks of copper cable”, says Mr Bar-Gera. “You can connect anything from old analogue phones to data transmission by computers, television channels and, perhaps even more important for Africa, radio.”

But even now, more than two decades out of business school, the Insead days still have indirect benefits. Mr Bar-Gera remains in touch with some former classmates. “They’re not partners, but they may be doing similar things elsewhere, so we exchange information,” he says.

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