MUST READ: Explosions and blood thirsty mobs. Phone salesman Alan Barry discusses his extraordinary career working in some of the most hostile and dangerous destinations on the planet
It is Monday May 29, 2006 and Afghan Wireless chief commercial officer Alan Barry is sitting behind his desk inside the old, bullet-ridden Kabul bank which doubles as home for the country’s second-largest operator. He, like the other 400 panic-stricken, multi-national staff are watching CCTV as hundreds of irate locals try and beat a way into the building, seeking cash and Western targets following an earlier gun battle involving American GIs.
As the mob battles security, Barry eyes his Kalashnikov AK-47 rifle and considers his escape. “If I’m going down, I’m taking someone with me. I’m not being taken out of here with a hood over my head,” said Barry as he reminisces over his most fearful experience during his near-20 years in telecoms.
This is far from an ordinary interview – but then Barry’s story as a phone salesman is anything but ordinary.
His extraordinary journey began when he left school at the age of 18 to join one of the British Army’s crack units, the Grenadier Guards. During his five years of service he spent a lot of time in Northern Ireland during ‘The Troubles’, an experience that would stand him in good stead for the path his career would take.
After leaving the army he sold advertising at a local newspaper in the West Midlands before eventually finding himself in the embryonic mobile phone industry, working at the now-defunct Mercury Communications mobile division. This, Barry explains, was in the days before operators were allowed to sell directly and salespeople were making hay.
“It was door knocking, contacting haulage customers and corporate clients. A mobile then would cost you £1,000 and certain phones would cost you £2,000. It wasn’t a commodity item, it wasn’t mass market, it was very much a select group, a business tool, and not everyone could have one.
“This was the 1990s and if you were good and you could sell, it was like writing your own pay cheque every month. It was great. I look back on it now and think I didn’t even capitalise to the extent I could have. A good salesman was making £5k-£6k a month.”
Barry later went on to become national sales manager at what was then the UK’s largest independent mobile phone service provider, Martin Dawes (owned by Rumbelows), and in 1996 landed one of the largest contracts of its kind, selling 3,000 phones to British Gas on a five-year data deal.
He then spent six years as sales director of B2B dealer Anglo Coms before becoming involved in the SIM gateway business – routing international calls through local SIMs – and found himself being more involved with the international market. It is through this that the opportunity to work in Afghanistan emerged.
Barry remembers the moment in 2005 as if it was yesterday. He explains he was sitting in a hotel room in Kensington, having attended a conference earlier that day at which he had spoken to the chief executive of Afghan Wireless.
Later that evening, Barry received an email asking if he’d like to come out to Afghanistan and become sales director of the operator. “I thought it was some kind of joke”, laughs Barry. But it wasn’t.
Being in the midst of a marriage break-up and throwing himself into various short-term positions in the UK, Barry accepted on the spot. Four weeks later he was stepping off a plane 5,000 miles from home to be chauffeur-driven through the streets of Kabul – complete with a personal bodyguard – at the beginning of his five-year stint in Afghanistan.
His new surroundings, he explained, were something of a culture shock.
“It was just like what you see on TV,” explains Barry. “Imagine thousands upon thousands of people – cars driving up different sides of the road, donkeys carrying loads, people with limbs missing begging in the street, guns everywhere. Virtually every building was riddled with bullet holes, construction going on everywhere because the city was coming out of a 30-year civil war. Everywhere you looked there were AK-47s, everywhere you looked there were American Hummers. It was just a metropolis of chaos.
“I was taken to the accommodation I was going to be living in to drop off my bags and I was met by the house manager. It was in central Kabul and around the house there was barbed wire and a guard on duty at the front door with an AK-47. When you got out of the vehicle you were escorted in – everywhere that you went, you went with people with guns.”
However, behind all the security there was work to be done and Barry began restructuring the operator’s sales force. In 2004, the Afghan mobile industry, as it still is today, was mostly prepay and mostly voice as illiteracy rates were so high.
Most of the transactions were in cash and it was very much back-to-basics for a sales director who was more akin to corporate clientele. There were just two operators of which Afghan Wireless, with 400,000 subscribers, was the second largest.
In his new role, Barry found that previous incumbents had spent their time sitting in the relative safety of that old bank in Kabul and were reluctant to travel out to other areas of the country such as Kandahar, Kunduz and Jalalabad or the city where the Taliban made its last stand, Mazar-i-Sharif. With Barry’s background in the army, this didn’t faze him.
“All of these cities were extremely important for the success of the business and Afghan Wireless had launched towers in all of these places. There were Afghan area managers based in these places with local staff and they were doing their best, but none of them had really been given any guidance or professional sales help.
“I realised fairly quickly that to be successful, that was what I needed to do. I went to see the CEO and he asked what did I need. I just said a reliable guard and a driver. I’m not relying on anyone else to protect me, so I needed my own weapon and he said no problem. That was it. I left Kabul and drove to Mazar-i-Sharif, a 12 to 14 -hour drive.
“The first thing that struck me when I got there was that there was so much potential to do business. Like any sales team here in the UK, if they are not told to leave the office, nine times out of 10 they won’t. So what we had was a complete sales force of order takers – they never went out looking for business. I educated these guys that to be successful they needed to go out and be proactive. If we launched a tower in a village there is no point in waiting on the villagers to come out to Kunduz and see you – you need to go to that village and be proactive for the next two weeks.”
The 2006 incidents, mentioned previously, were one of the worst moments during his time in Afghanistan but Barry was always ready to put his army skills to use.
He explains he had already planned escape routes at home and at work in the event violence should ever flare-up. His route out of work would have been escaping through the window armed with an AK-47 – “removing” anyone that got in his way.
Fortunately, the scenario wasn’t played out. Unlike the burned-out cars lining the pavements, security and indeed the building itself stood strong as the mob eventually gave up.
“I always looked for an exit route because you need forward planning. The last thing I wanted to be doing was to be staring at Al Jazeera in an Orange boiler suit. That particular day I thought if I have to get out of this I’m gonna get out of here with an AK-47. I’ll be running across that roof and if anyone comes near me I’ll be giving them the good news because if I’m going down, I’m going down fighting.
“That was one of the scariest moments. Thankfully they didn’t get in and the whole thing calmed down, but in the process all of our vehicles were burnt-out, the building was smashed on the outside but no one got in. There was another time when I was going home with my driver and a bomb went off and you just saw this massive plume of smoke and debris. You just think, ‘Christ, that could have been me’.”
After just eight months with the company Barry was promoted to the role of chief commercial officer with full responsibility for sales and marketing.
The Afghan Wireless brand, according to Barry, was soon seen everywhere – billboards, buses and even on the back of hi-vis jackets worn by the traffic police.
One particular marketing stunt resulted in bringing TV game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? to the country.
“The owner of the company also owned a TV station and I saw it as a very good way of gaining subscribers, because the only way you could enter the competition was through sending a text in through one of our mobiles.
“I was approached by someone who said they had the rights and we engaged in conversation and then I met with the owners of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, Sony Media, and we effectively bought the rights to publish the show in Afghanistan and in 2009 we launched the show.
“It was highly successful – delivered us a lot of revenues, increased ARPU, text messaging went up 10 times that month and it was also a good way of retaining customers in a market where new entrants were coming in. When I joined there were two operators, when I left there were five.”
It was during this wave of marketing that Barry learned a new and recurring word – “Baksheesh” – which is the culture of having to pay small bribes to police officials. He recalls one occasion when the buses displaying the Afghan Wireless brand were impounded and he had to pay the police commissioner with two cases of black label whiskey to get them back on the road.
“The culture of the business was very much above board and the business itself was operated as any professional company was expected to operate, but at the lower level there was a lot of Baksheesh.”
By 2010, Barry had taken on much more group responsibility and was spending less and less time in the country. His father was sick and he decided to take a year out to spend time with him. Barry says in his spell at the company, subscriber numbers grew from 400,000 to 2.6 million. It wouldn’t be long until someone came calling.
A year later Barry was headhunted for the role of chief marketing officer at BeMobile in Papua New Guinea, a country where cannibalism was still being openly practised until the 1970s, and a place where female tourists are advised never to travel alone.
“It was lawless to a certain extent – you couldn’t walk down the street at night, you would be murdered. During the day it was fine but you wouldn’t go downtown late at night.”
He’d entered a complicated situation where he was in the middle of shareholder dispute, a business that was poorly set-up and run, and the country itself was beset by a constitutional crisis that would see a failed military coup in January 2012. He found himself constantly putting out fires.
“I dealt with it very well, where they burnt themselves out with a lot of other people because guys were out of their depth. I had three CEOs in less than a year.
“From Papua New Guinea it was back to another war-torn territory. He was off to Iraq as general manager of Kurdistani data provider Newroz Telecom, an interim position while the managing director had health problems. During this time he oversaw its launch of 4G LTE services, a $130 million (£77 million) fibre rollout and the recruitment of a new sales and marketing team. From there it was off to Uganda as a consultant for Smile Communications to turnround a 4G launch that hadn’t gone to plan. He stayed for about 10 months.
Despite the dramas, Barry looks back on the whole experience, particularly in Afghanistan, with great fondness and says that our view in the West, filtered through the media focus on Islamic fundamentalism, is full of misconceptions.
He labelled Afghan locals as some of the kindest he had ever met and that TV crews only ever focus on the “evil” of terrorist organisation the Taliban.
“I have had some of the most enjoyable nights out in my life in Afghanistan. The Afghan people are an incredible race. In the West all we see is the Taliban and the evil, for want of a better word, the bad side of Afghanistan.
He added: “I have people who worked with me who had lost whole families, people who had fought for the Mujahideen, had been tortured by the Russians, you meet all sorts of people.”
Barry, who lives in Dublin and has a house in Hampshire, wishes to be based back in the UK and Ireland and is on the lookout for positions that would allow him to spend more time at home.
“Being abroad full-time is something where the novelty has worn off. There would be very few people with the experience I have gained; who would have had the exposure and experience I’ve had globally. Who would have had the experience of working with those cultures? What I’m looking to do now is base myself in Europe, I don’t want to be living abroad full-time.”