The Boss

Sunil Bharti Mittal

The Bharti Enterprises chairman is a leader who relentlessly pushes to challenge the status quo

The year was 2002. On a cold December morning, an uneasy calm prevailed at the ITC Mughal in Agra, even as hot tea was being served to the 30-odd well-suited men in one of the luxury hotel’s large rooms. The occasion was a conclave of Bharti Tele-Ventures’ senior managers to discuss an impending but very real crisis. Reliance Infocomm’s ambitious chairman Mukesh Ambani was talking of bringing down the price of local calls as low as that of a postcard and putting a mobile phone in the hands of every Indian. ‘Go mass’ was the credo and Ambani was at the forefront of this project that his father had always dreamt of. Reliance Infocomm, worthy competitors like Bharti feared, would spoil the market.

Akhil Gupta, vice-chairman, Bharti EnterprisesDeven Khanna, director, chairman's officeThe top brass had already been through intense brainstorming sessions and presentations on the way forward, but today they were waiting to hear what Mittal had in mind to take on the juggernaut called Infocomm. At 45, Mittal was not just a young chairman, but also one who was running an extremely complex business. At this critical moment, being calm and allaying fears was extremely important. 

What transpired that day remains etched in the minds of everyone present. So much so that even today the attendees animatedly narrate that story as if it took place just the other day. Sunil Goyal, who was then Mittal’s executive assistant, says Mittal took his place on stage and spoke for 45 minutes with a sense of calmness that, over time, has come to be associated with him. 

Drawing an analogy from history to contextualise the situation at hand, Mittal spoke of the pains of the 1947 India-Pakistan partition and what West Bengal went through during the 1971 war. In Mittal’s own mind, his company was in a similar situation. Mittal struck a chord with the audience when he implored his top management to lie low and do nothing for the next six months. “Let us think of ourselves as being in bunkers and just allowing planes to fly overhead. Such is the situation today,” said Mittal.

The speech had the desired impact on its listeners and they felt ready and confident to take on Reliance’s aggression. At that moment, Mittal delivered the final blow. “If they do a great job and are better than us, we will quietly sell out to them,” Mittal told his audience. He demonstrated a sense of calm and composure that was completely unexpected in a situation like that. “I would call it the alignment moment, when all of us seated there were converted to his line of thinking. It was definitely a turning point for us,” says Goyal, who, by then, had been working with Mittal for over a year-and-a-half.

It was an extempore address that not just outlined the challenge, but also articulated what needed to be done. That was not the first time Mittal’s speech struck a chord with people. Deven Khanna recalls travelling to Bihar with Mittal around 2005. During each visit, Mittal would pack his schedule with interactions at various levels. There would be meeting with the sales team during the day, lunch with the executive team, and a town-hall gathering in the evening. Usually, Mittal would have pointers ready to discuss with the audience, but this time, he just took off on an hour-long extempore speech in Hindi, complete with sher-o-shayari that the local staff could connect with. “The crowd was ecstatic,” says Khanna. But the underlying message then and now has always been the same: Bharti Airtel needs to be paranoid. 

Gopal Vittal, MD and CEO, Bharti AirtelManoj Kohli, MD, Bharti EnterprisesGopal Vittal was in Mumbai nursing a bad back post a surgery at a time when the top brass at Bharti Airtel had gathered in Dubai for the group’s annual leadership conference. It was March 2012 and a good three weeks before Vittal would formally join the company. Before Mittal’s address at the conference, which he watched via video recordings, the man had made hurricane visits to at least two states each day across India for a week, having intense conversations with local teams in what Vittal describes as “classic Sunil style.” This was merely prep for Dubai.

Once he was on stage addressing the 140-odd attendees, it was time to deliver a full-on ground report. “He was brutally honest about where Airtel was and what needed to be done. Everything was based on his personal observations,” says Vittal. Even though Mittal seemed deeply disappointed, his words did not cause any loss of confidence among his employees. “The inspiring message to everyone was to restore Airtel to the position that it once held. He was remarkably self-critical.” That tone of urgency left everyone energised, with a strong feeling that a lot could be done.

Not surprising that Mittal’s aggressive yet brutally honest approach at work and empowering his team is what has helped him keep competition at bay and emerge as the country’s largest telecom provider. 

Building bonds

This bit about “together we can” is what has always inspired people who have worked or continue to work closely with Mittal. And this was exactly what convinced Akhil Gupta, now vice-chairman of Bharti Enterprises, in June 1994. It was in 1980 that the freshly-minted chartered accountant was introduced to Mittal, an entrepreneur whose ambition to make it big knew no limits. The meeting was at a Diwali party at a common friend’s home. What drew them to each other was the risk-taking ability of either man, which was evident at the mandatory game of cards that followed after the fireworks show. They kept in touch as each grew in his respective sphere. When Mittal was a few months away from getting a cellular licence for Delhi, he made Gupta an offer to join him with a stellar pitch over dinner at the Oberoi in Delhi. “He asked me if I wanted to become an entrepreneur and get into industry, to which I said yes quite enthusiastically.” At this point, Mittal proposed that the two men join hands for the telecom sector. “Saath ho toh aag laga denge,” was the line that clinched it for Gupta and the two men have remained inseparable ever since.

Jagdish Kini, former ED and CEO (southern circles), Bharti Airtel Anil Nayar, ex-president, Bharti AirtelIn fact it was Mittal’s persistence that convinced Anil Nayar to join him. The first time he asked Nayar to join Bharti was in 1992, when Mittal’s telecom business was barely taking off. “This was when Sunil had won the licence for the Mumbai circle, which later got stuck in a legal tangle. He asked me to join him many times over the next few years,” he says. Nayar, by then, was a seasoned corporate executive with two decades of experience. He would soon become head of Sanmar Telecom and project director, JT Mobile, a company offering cellular services in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Punjab.

Nayar was dealing with a consortium, which included the Sanmar Group, Jasmine International and Telia, where there was a lot of infighting. Moving out of this scenario was inevitable for Nayar and when Mittal reached out to him again, he decided to give the offer a closer look. With a wide grin, Nayar says it was “Sunil’s persuasion” among other things that prompted him to join Bharti Cellular in 1996. “Sunil came across as a person who was straightforward and very honest,” he explains.

That observation is something that P Swaminathan, who was then heading BPL Mobile’s operations in Maharashtra and Goa, concurs with. In 1999, Swaminathan met Mittal at his Mehrauli office in New Delhi. Once the meeting was done and the contours of the offer in place, Mittal saw off Swaminathan at the gate. “He makes you very comfortable quickly and can be very endearing. Sunil has the strength to connect without any sense of arrogance or snobbery, be it a board meeting or just addressing people in the office,” he says. 

In the early years, Mittal himself built a lot of camaraderie in the organisation, says Manoj Kohli, who joined Mittal way back in 2002. “I remember all of us going to Karims, walking through Jama Masjid in Delhi, cracking jokes and eating so much that we could hardly move from there,” says Kohli. “Sunil always had the naughtiest jokes at office parties!,” says another official feeling embarrassed to be quoted on this point. Even on normal days, Mittal would lunch with his top brass in the office cafeteria where talking shop was quite a normal thing to do. 

Coming of age

With each passing year as the organisation grew in size, Mittal has been giving up some of his engagements and empowering his A-team a lot more. “It’s really not easy to delegate for an entrepreneur who has built his own company from scratch in a tough business environment dominated by stiff regulation and predatory pricing. But Sunil truly empowered us,” says former group director Hemant Sachdev, who was with the company between 1995 and 2008.

Sunil Goyal, former EA & ex-director, DTH servicesP Swaminathan, founder CEO, Bharti InfratelConcurring with Sachdev is Sanjay Kapoor, former CEO (India & South Asia), who was with the company from 1998 to 2013. “For a lot of Indian entrepreneurs, the don’ts list was often longer than dos. It was exactly the opposite with Sunil and he lets you use your imagination as an executive. Once he assumed the role of chairman, it was a lesson in empowerment.” That empowerment and trust is what made Vittal come back to work with Mittal, after having quit the organisation in 2008.

When Vittal first met Mittal in 2006 — for his first stint — he spent about 45 minutes at Bharti’s office in Qutab Enclave. “Sunil came across as a man who was deeply grounded. Rather than talking up the company, he was trying to tell me everything he thought was going wrong with the company,” recalls Vittal. “He was admitting we don’t segment well enough, our brand position is not clear and distribution needed to improve,” narrates Vittal. Most likely, Mittal had already made up his mind and was only sensitising Vittal to the job that needed to be done.

But it was only in his second stint as CEO of Bharti Airtel that Vittal got to see and feel what true empowerment was all about. Soon after taking over the top job, the first six months were tumultuous for Vittal, with a host of people resigning. The new disposition was the reason went the grapevine. “I expected Sunil to be a little shaken, but not once did he say anything apart from just asking me to do the right thing and build a top-class team,” he says. Vittal’s tack was to give people the jobs they were not ready for and, in some cases, at least four years in advance. The idea is that when you get such people on board, because of their sheer hunger, they will end up putting in their best and stun you with their work. It was an unproven strategy, and the company was probably at a juncture where you couldn’t experiment too much with such matters. But Mittal did not interfere. “If Sunil had any doubts, he never let me see it. The way I saw it, the message was, ‘I am backing you, do what you think is right,’” says Vittal.

Echoing Vittal’s view is Kohli. “It’s the handshake that’s the ultimate agreement of partnership for Sunil.” “He treats you like an equal — you can argue vociferously with him because he knows you are passionate about your opinion, too. He’ll argue passionately for his part and will be equally persuasive,” says Kohli. At any meeting, Mittal will never be the first one to speak. He’ll let everyone else finish making their case before expressing his point of view. “In closed-door meetings, Sunil always spoke from his heart. He would never beat around the bush and made his point clearly. He is a very fine listener and will never use his authority and discretion to take decisions or win an argument,” Nayar says. The proof of that is the fact Mittal often ends up changing an opinion he holds very strongly if he is countered with sound logic. “You can win him over, but not that easily,” says Nayar, who quit as president in 2007.

Nayar thinks back to the end of 1996, soon after he joined the group. Airtel had already been launched in Delhi. At that stage, some state governments such as Haryana and Punjab were opening the doors of the electronic lottery business to private parties. “Sunil was very excited about the opportunity. The logic was that telecom companies had an advantage in an online business,” he says. Bharti’s top management, which included Nayar, seriously opposed this move, saying this is not our line of business. “It did not seem like a good idea at all. Sunil understood our logic and dropped the idea,” narrates Nayar. 

Khanna remembers a hot afternoon from 2010 pretty well. Mittal had a pretty hectic travel schedule, and was in India for a day between trips. Khanna had wanted to discuss a certain technical concept and Mittal had blocked about 20 minutes to discuss the matter. “As the discussion started, we figured we had diametrically opposite views on the matter. We were conceptually on two different planes, and Sunil did not relent, neither did he stop me. We went on debating it, and people began queuing up to meet him as our meeting extended by some four hours.” Mittal gives employees a lot of freedom to speak their mind. “He could disagree with you completely on an issue, but he’ll never give you the impression that you need to agree with him just because he is Sunil Mittal,” he emphasises.

Sanjay Kapoor, former CEO, India and south AsiaJagdish Kini, who was executive director and CEO for the southern circles, echoes the same sentiment. “There was a certain mindset about how telecom should be sold as a product and some of that had to be questioned,” he says. Mittal perhaps realised ahead of others that for Bharti to succeed as a consumer brand he had to market differently. “Sunil did not stop me once and allowed me to experiment constantly,” says Kini.

This transparency in Mittal’s approach makes decision-making a breeze for his executives. About a decade ago, Kohli gave a contract for Bharti Airtel’s internal software to a company in Australia. This did not go down too well with the CEO of Conviva, then a Bharti group company, who thought it should have come his way. When he broached the subject, Kohli simply said, “The Australian company was better on technical and commercial considerations.” The CEO was not too pleased, and threatened, “I’ll speak to Sunil,” recalls Kohli. Whether he spoke to Mittal or not, the topic never came forth in any discussions Mittal had with Kohli, ever. “Even if it was brought to Sunil’s notice, he must have said, ‘He did the right thing,’” he laughs. “Sunil’s diktat has always been to take decisions that are in the best interest of the company,” Kohli says. 

Fast and furious

It was the US-India Business Council’s 33rd annual meeting in Washington in 2008, when Mittal was asked about the leadership and entrepreneurial lessons he has learned during his career. The most critical according to Mittal was: When faced with a choice between perfection and speed, choose speed; perfection will follow. Not surprising, then, that feedback from Mittal is always instant. “You will never have to wait for three-six months to know if something was right or not. He is very candid, open and honest,” says Kohli. Again all of it stems from his overall mission to be agile. Nothing could wait. 

Kohli remembers going to his boss sometime in 2003 to seek approval to put up 10,000 towers. “He asked me if we could put up 20,000 instead,” he says. His team was, as he puts it, flabbergasted, since they hoped to get permission for 8,000 at best. “He really is a big-picture guy, who wants you to succeed and will support you. He is committed to your success,” Kohli’s reveals. Another instance was at the peak of the company’s roll-out in 2004-05. “In that momentum, we overshot our capex approval by about $300 million,” he recalls. With butterflies in his stomach, Kohli with the CFO decided to meet Sunil, to appraise him about the situation. “Sunil simply said he trusted me and just hoped the money had been spent wisely in the right markets.” 

The decision to expand to circles such as Bihar, Odisha and the northeast also demonstrates Mittal’s single-minded focus. Soon after joining in 2004, Khanna had done elaborate work on these seemingly less lucrative markets as part of the pan-India roll-out plan. Before Khanna realised, the conference room, where he was making a presentation, turned into a war room. Khanna recalls a barrage of questions being thrown up over the aggressive roll-out in these new markets. People said that these circles would never make money, and there will be unnecessary financial stress. But Mittal was clear and decisive at that point that a robust pan-India network had to be created.

Sunil Mittal

“We will have a huge competitive advantage by going pan-India and a few hundred crores spent in advance don’t really matter in the long run,” he said firmly to allay fears in the conference room over investments not yielding results. As long as the team is in alignment in pushing in the direction of overall growth, Mittal will back it to the hilt. “The only thing to keep in mind, he would say, is do the right things and spend the right way,” says Kohli. 

In 2014, Bharti put up about 35,000 sites as part of its 3G roll-out; this year, it will have to put up a lot more, says Vittal. “I sent Sunil a text saying I need more money for the sites. He responded with his approval instantly,” says Vittal. “Sunil intuitively understands the levers of this business, besides being decisive.” 

Of course, there have been instances when Mittal might want something and Vittal’s view was not the same. “All I have needed to do was text him to say that I am not sure about doing this right now, since it will be a distraction. I would just get ‘Fine’ as the one-word response.” That’s the way Mittal has always been — a here-and-now man. Having seen his boss from very close quarters since 1996, Nayar says that his agility is even more pronounced when times are hard. “He understands that time is of the essence.” A case in point was the buy-out of SpiceCell, BK Modi’s company that operated the Kolkata cellular circle, in 2001 for ₹450 crore. “The deal to buy out Spice was done over a weekend. It was just one case of quick decision-making,” says Nayar.

Similarly, when Vodafone picked up a 10% stake in Bharti Tele-Ventures for $1.5 billion in late 2005, there was a small gap in valuation and the deal was getting stuck there. When the issue went to Mittal, the message was clear. “He asked us to get the larger picture and to not get greedy. His logic was that when you are getting a few thousand crores, something like ₹5 crore or ₹10 crore was small change,” Nayar explains.

‘Working’ relationship

It was sometime in 2002, Bharti was on an expansion spree and was rolling out operations in the western region of India. The top team, including Kapoor, was burning the midnight oil with hectic travel all over the region. Around the same time, Mittal made an impromptu call to Kapoor’s wife. “He told her that this was an unprecedented opportunity for the company and that I would have to sacrifice a substantial part of my time for the company during the period,” recalls Kapoor warmly.

Gupta maintains that Mittal will not celebrate success or worry about failure. “Good work will get a pat on the back and a few words. His thinking is that the corporate office has to take the blame for failures, while success belongs to the people.” Khanna describes this as Mittal’s “tremendous ability to adapt” and gives it an earthy touch by drawing an analogy to a Punjabi habit. “It’s really all about accepting a mistake, dusting your trousers and moving on.”

The only way for Mittal to appreciate and encourage his team is to keep engaging them for a higher goal. “Sunil is fulsome in his praise for people. Whether or not you get praised, you will know where you stand based on the responsibilities you get,” says Vittal. Not surprising that irrespective of how busy he was, Mittal would take time out twice a year to appraise his top team. “When I sat with him for appraisals, it was all about where I wanted to go from here and what my plans were,” adds Goyal who says the pay hikes were always generous.

But when it comes to work, Mittal can be equally demanding. Goyal remembers being in a meeting with some senior company officials in 2006. By this time, he was the COO of the Madhya Pradesh circle (which included Chattisgarh) and it had been three years since Airtel had launched its cellular services there. “We had just hit half a million customers and were pretty pleased. Just then, I got a text from Sunil asking me why my circle did not have a sailaab [wave] of customers,” he says. Goyal was surprised, since a lot of effort had gone into the circle and his boss was not sounding too thrilled. In fact, Mittal’s next text, which came a moment later, said the circle should have five million customers. At that point, Bharti’s largest market was Karnataka, where it had only 2.5 million subscribers.

A couple of minutes later, Goyal spoke to his counterparts in other circles. “I then realised that Sunil had sent messages to all of them with different sets of demands,” he recalls. The head of Gujarat was asked when Airtel would clock a billion minutes each day in a market that was dominated by Vodafone (then known as Hutch). In Delhi, an Airtel bastion, the query was when the circle would have a perfect network without call drops. “The guy in Karnataka was only asked questions about how revenue could be increased. Eventually, we all had a good laugh,” says Goyal.

Demanding as it may seem to some of his employees, Mittal has his own way of making it up when it matters. Some years back Goyal was instrumental in raising money from investors for Bharti Telecom and was also closely involved in the buyout of Hexacom in Rajasthan. Early this year, he got a call from Mittal’s office asking him to join the board of Bharti Airtel’s holding company, Bharti Telecom, as an independent director and also to join the board of Bharti Hexacom. “I have not been associated with the group for over four years and this was quite humbling. That evening, I had a series of SMS exchanges with Sunil and he was extremely warm,” says Goyal. One such message read thus: “You are an integral part of Bharti. You will never be forgotten.”