labels: profiles, bharti tele-ventures ltd / bharti airtel, telecom
Profile: An earnest entrepreneur news
06 November 2004

Uday Chatterjee profiles Sunil Bharti Mittal, winner of the Ernst & Young 'entrepreneur of the year' award

Sunil Bharti MittalSunil Bharti Mittal, chairman of the Bharti group of industries is a man who thinks big and talks straight. The door of the conference room of his Dehli office is inscribed in capital letters with the words 'sultanate 1.' That's thinking big for you.

Recently, a television channel asked him how the result of the American presidential election would affect the outsourcing business. He shot back: "It will not. The whole thing has been blown out of proportion." That's talking straight.

In 1976, when he was just 18, he ventured into the world of business. He set up a bicycle parts unit in his home town in Ludhiana with a modest investment of Rs20,000. He then dabbled in knitwear and utensils before moving his base to Delhi and Mumbai.

Here, he dabbled in the import and distribution of goods, mainly portable generators. So thorough was his grasp of the business that he is said to have committed nearly all the convoluted regulatory sections of the voluminous Export-Import Handbook to memory. In 1983-84, he set up his first company, Bharti Healthcare, manufacturing capsules.

This versatile personality's romance with the telecom world happened purely by accident. In 1983, imports of several products were banned, including portable generators, which Mittal used to import. So he tied up with Siemens to manufacture push-button telephones for the German company.

In 1992, the bids were floated to award cellular licences to the private sector for the Delhi metropolitan area — but the criteria stipulated that bidders were required to have prior experience in offering telecom services.

Mittal commissioned a market survey, which revealed that the market for cellular phones was extremely limited — the size revealed by the survey shoed just, 5,000 takers. Mittal threw away the report and decided to jump in the race regardless.

He clinched a deal with the French telecom group, Vivendi, after a three-hour session with its CEO. However, with the deadline for the licence approaching, Vivendi backed out saying they would join hands with the larger and better-known Modi group, instead. Mittal, mustered all his negotiation skills and cajoled the French to stay the course with him. Vivendi agreed.

Mittal's track record shows a string of firsts, which he is immensely proud of — the first push button telephone handset in India, the first answering machine, the first fax machine and the first cordless phone.

Today, the Bharti group has acquired 20 per cent of the telecom market and is the largest player in the private sector and aspires to become a billion-dollar company in a couple of years.

India's largest private sector telecom company, Mittal's Bharti Tele-Ventures will invest Rs3,000 crore in the current fiscal to expand the company's network infrastructure.

"We invest around Rs 3,000 crore investment a year," Mittal explains. The overall investment of the group till date is Rs 13,500 crore "We are doubling base stations to 10,000 by the end of the current fiscal in largely new places and adding more capacity in the large existing towns," he adds. Last month, Mittal's cellular services venture, Airtel, extended its services to the strife-tornstateof Jammu & Kashmir with base stations located inJammu and elsewhere in the state.

Earlier in March this year, IBM signed a 10-year deal estimated at $750 million (based on the percentage of revenues generated by the Indian company) to take over Bharti's information-technology infrastructure and applications. The agreement also includes joint-development and marketing of IT and telecommunications products and services in India, with Bharti as a preferred supplier of telecom services to IBM India.

"The agreement demonstrates our strategic intent to create a globally admired telecommunication company," says Mittal and adds, "With predictable IT spending, improved cash flow and optimised use of technology resources, the agreement with IBM will enhance Bharti Tele-Ventures' shareholder value."

Having established his presence in the telecom sector, Mittal is focussing his attention to other sectors. Along with Singapore's Changi Airports, he has bid for the modernisation of the Delhi and Mumbai airports. He is also making a foray into the agro-processing industry and hopes to "put the fresh produce from Indian fields onto the tables of the western world."

The agro firm is in the process of acquiring land and hiring people. Mittal believes that if the execution is right, the agro-processing venture will be bigger than telecom. 'India has great weather, zillions of acres of arable land and you do not even need an English accent,' is the reason he offers.

His two brothers have assisted Mittal and as the businesses grew, the group became a board-managed company. Today, a team of 10 or 12 senior people takes key business decisions. At 44, Mittal wants to be involved hands-on in his business for another seven years after which he'd like to play a larger role in society. Though his father was in public life and a member of parliament, Mittal is disinclined to enter politics. He wishes to work in areas that lead to the empowerment of people as he considers this the most essential.

A family man, Mittal lives in Delhi with his wife, daughter and two sons. He wishes he could find more time to spend with the family. "This is the problem with first generation entrepreneurs," he sighs.

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Profile: An earnest entrepreneur