Sunil Mittal has achieved the enviable position for Bharti Airtel as the topmost telecom company in India, with a market capitalization of Rupees
1, 28, 885 crores. Bharti Airtel counts some 190 million customers in India and South Asia, and nearly 50 million in Africa.
He started as a manufacturer of bicycle parts in the bi-lanes of Ludhiana and branched off to become an importer and then manufacturer of telephone sets, under the brand name ‘Beetel’.
He has been at the ‘right place at the right time’ and has an uncanny ability to predict/forecast the future potential of business opportunities. He has not only made Bharti Airtel India’s largest phone firm by revenue, what makes him stand apart is that he started from scratch.
In 1992, when India started the process of licensing cell-phone services in its four metros, Bharti Group’s revenues were Rupees 20 crores. In 1994, the head of a large automotive business told him over dinner that he did not have the financial depth for a telecom business and should sell his telecom services license for Rupees 20 Crores. Mittal resolved to keep pegging at it no matter what the challenge.
In 2011: the revenues of the flagship company of the dinner host were Rupees 3,200 crore and Bharti Airtel’s, nearly Rupees 60,000 crore. Like other successful first generation businessmen, Mittal values respect more than wealth. People close to him say that it is common in internal strategy meetings to hear him say,” I do not like to lose”.
Mittal is a visionary and a non-conformist. He was the first to outsource all the Airtel operations to IBM and Siemens for a period of 10 years (the arrangement has recently been renewed) against very stiff internal resistance from not only his top professionals, but also his board members. They were of the strong opinion that ‘operations’ are the core competence area of a cellular telephone company and outsourcing their management would amount to loss of control and even loss of face. Mittal however used his veto power as the chairman of the board, going to the extent of maintaining that in case of failure, he would take sole and full responsibility.
The rest as they say is history. The arrangement gave time and freedom to the Airtel management to concentrate on marketing, strategy building and customer service, which have defined the company ever since.
It also gave the company major operational efficiencies and cost savings as the service providers are the world’s topmost network and hardware management companies and are far better equipped to handle the same as compared to Bharti Airtel, who would have otherwise devoted all its energy to operations.
The same strategy is being adopted by the company to turn around its recently acquired African operations.
Again staying a step ahead of the future trends, Mittal started investing in agriculture in collaboration with the famous Rockefeller family and has built up a substantial base. He has also launched B2B retail operations in collaboration with the world’s largest retailer Wal-Mart under the Bharti Wal-Mart banner alongside his stand alone retail operations under the ‘Easy Day’ brand. The collaboration with Wal-Mart would enable the joint entity to get benefit of the topmost logistics, procurement and operational practices. Moreover they would have cemented their relationship and as soon as multi-brand retail is allowed in the country, Mittal would have a definite edge over his competitors.
Bharti foundation does very good work in the education field with a substantial endowment from the Mittal family.
The last two years have been tough for Mittal, grappling with falling per customer revenue in India, the weight of servicing debt raised to finance the $ 10 billion debt raised to finance its deal to buy Zain Telecom in Africa and the cost of running a business there. But all that is changing and the operations in Africa will be soon self sustaining.
Will Sunil Mittal retire any time soon? After all he once said that he will retire into sunset when he was 50.
No, says a close associate. “He is having too much fun growing his business, whipping the competition and jumping over hurdles coming his way”