Sunil Mittal – the poster boy of Indian entrepreneurship

Visiting my relatives in India when I was young, I was always struck, even then, by the stories that were told about India’s bureaucracy. For example, we were told that to get a fixed line phone, people had to wait over 5 years after lodging their application. Given this was the state of India and in particular of her telecoms sector not so long ago, one of the statistics that astounds people today, unsurprisingly, is the take up rate of mobile phones in India – which averaged upwards of a couple of million handsets being sold every month!

Coming from quite a mature western European market, I’m totally flabbergasted with the competitiveness of India’s cellphone market. In addition her innovative ways of winning and keeping customers, such as with low cost price plans, energetic (but melodious) ring tones, value added information services etc. all are refreshing and provide great case study material in MBA schools all over the world.

But, often people outside of India (and outside of business schools) fail in recognising Indian brands and their successes fully, which was a prime motive in my writing my recently released book: India Inc: How India’s Top Ten Entrepreneurs Are Winning Globally.

My biggest regret is not that I didn’t write about Ratan Tata, Mukesh or Anil Ambani, but in fact that I didn’t include Sunil Mittal, the man behind the telecoms boom in India. He’s often credited as India’s poster boy for entrepreneurship as he’s created a phenomenal juggernaut of a company in Bharti Airtel. My reasons for excluding him, despite having met him over the past decade at many occasions, is that until recently he was totally focused on the opportunity India’s domestic market provides for Airtel – not that you can hold that against him – and my book looked at the international success of India’s corporate titans.

But, finally, all has changed. As of this week, Bharti Telecom owns Africa’s Zain Telecom and therefore makes his success an international one in the truest sense. His acquisition is second only to Tata’s purchase of Corus and provides Mittal with a growing footprint in an additional 15 countries and 150 odd million subscribers. It would be misleading to suggest that Mittal wasn’t interested in internationalising Airtel, as we all know of his failed negotiations with South Africa’s MTN over the past couple of years. But, I’m glad its finally happened.

What excites me, and many more, is his focus on Africa as it is here that I believe he’ll really be able to leverage his Indian experience to much gain. We hear of China’s love affair with Africa, but seldom do you hear of India making a beeline to some of the world’s most stunning countries and for this reason look forward to charting Sunil Mittal’s international success as much as India watchers have kept a keen eye on his domestic conquest.

Please don’t be mistaken, his rise hasn’t been free of challenge, controversy, or criticism and I don’t intend on sugar-coating his rise, but I fundamentally believe, above all, he demonstrates some phenomenal entrepreneurial traits that could teach the Bransons of our world a thing or two.

Welcome to the motherland – musings about my book tour

I write this post on the flight back to London after a mammoth visit to India and Singapore to promote my book. Gliding at 30,000 feet, I thought that I should write this before I forget the details I wanted to convey.

THE DELHI DURBAR
The visit started in Delhi, which I’ve enjoyed visiting for many years. I find the people I meet somewhat more relaxed than those in Mumbai, perhaps even more sophisticated in their dealings – all very unsurprising as Delhi is home to the thousands of civil servants, government officials, and parliamentary types – behaviour that is to be expected from an outwardly looking city.

But, this time, there was a marked difference. On the faces of the people I met, there seemed a massive anxiety, which when explored further centred on the Commonwealth Games, which are to be held later this year in the city.

The roads are gridlocked, hotels are overflowing and packed to the rafters, stadia aren’t finished – and on top no one seems to be articulating what the legacy from these games will be. One of my friends swept my observations away by quipping: “don’t worry, we’re a nation of 1.3billion, if required we’ll hand everyone a paintbrush to finish the job in the week preceding the games”.

The event at the Reliance TimeOut bookstore in Gurgaon was great. It afforded me the opportunity to practice my script and prepare for the big event hosted by the British Council the next day.

At the event in the British Council, we had a great line-up of speakers for the panel discussion. I was invited to deliver the keynote address and thereafter moderated the panel discussion, which included some heavyweights like Siddhartha Vardarajan (Strategic Affairs Editor of the Hindu), Saurabh Srivastava (Chairman, Computer Associates, India) and Rajesh Shah (Chairman of Mukand Steel and former President of the CII).

The discussion touched on themes like China, entrepreneurship, the future of family owned businesses, which the panel seemed to relish tackling. Quite a few people commented on the quality of discussion, which I too thought was incredibly good, if not fantastically moderated 🙂

AAMCHI MUMBAI
This was my first visit to Mumbai after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, and it was brought home to me as a result of both book events – 24th & 25th being hosted at the Taj Mahal hotel – the centrepoint for the attacks.

One of these was on the Terrace of a venue called Chambers, which was written about quite a bit in the aftermath of the attacks, as it was one of the places in the hotel that a lot of lives were lost. Without commenting on the emotions that were running through me, suffice to say that at the end of the evening I had a tear in my eye and a lump in my throat.

The following evening was easier to cope with. The CII hosted a great event which saw that a number of embassies and consulates were represented. More than anything, I invited some friends who had moved to India from the UK, with who it was great to catch up and re-live the good times.

Mumbai’s quite a place. On one hand you have the Dharavi slum – Asia’s largest slum – and on the other you have the best that money can buy. Despite knowing this and having experienced both extremes during my many visits before, I was struck by the same during this stay. Mumbai is in fact not one but many, many cities with several faces to show – all of which became more evident as the evenings progressed (I’ll leave it at that for now :).

Lecturing to some of India’s brightest MBA students (at NMIMS) was as expected – great. To qualify for admission into one of these premier institutions takes a lot, so it was no surprise to see a class packed with phenomenal intellect and intelligence. Their questions, and also the discussion that ensued was eye-opening for me as their command on the subject was terrific.

VIBRANT GUJARAT
The Gujarat Electronics & Software Industry Association (GESIA) invited me to deliver a keynote address in Amdavad to an audience packed with some seriously influential people. The event ran on the lines of the British Council event in Delhi, with the only difference being that the book was released by three Secretary level bureaucrats – all of whom run massive state government departments in Gujarat.

Interestingly, the book launch took place on the 600th anniversary of the foundation of Amdavad City, which resulted in a massive celebratory event on the waterfront, which is being redeveloped in a major way.

One of the criticisms of the book is that neither Kamath nor Ramadorai are entrepreneurs. They were corporate professionals who lead their respective firms to global success. So, one of the questions that was posed to Ravi Saxena, Secretary for IT was whether this was a valid criticism. In his response, he rightly knocked the stuffing out of the question by demonstrating through examples of how some of India’s most successful enterprises are in the public sector run by public servants!

SINGAPORE SLING
The thought of opening an office in China fills me with fear, however it seems Singapore may be a great destination to get started, as it’s on the China trade corridor just as the UK is on the India trade corridor.

I was invited to speak to Aventis Business School, which is part of the New York State University, and the SP Jain School of Management, which is a leading MBA school in that part of the world. Naturally, I had to amend my messages for this visit, but I kept on being probed about the China Vs India theme that emerges in my book.

I have a few friends and relatives who’ve moved to Singapore for work, and used the opportunity to catch up with them. More than anything, what came through was despite the great lifestyle that can be afforded in Singapore, there’s no substitute for a city like London or New York.

MEDIA
One of the objectives was to drum up as much publicity as possible for the book, and I conducted interviews with the following:

Zee Business
Zee News
UNI TV
UNI Bloomberg
Press Trust of India
DNA
Sandesh
The Economic & Trade News
Hindustan Times
HT Cafe
IBN Live
Strait Times
Tabla
Asian Age

All of which, I’m sure, will begin appearing from next week. So keep upto date on www.indiaincthebook.com for the articles as they appear.