By Parveen Chopra
Sunil Bharti Mittal,CMD, Bharti Group
His corporate office in Delhi is right in the shadow of the Qutub Minar. And on the door of his conference room are inscribed the words: SULTANATE I. Even before meeting the man, I know why he’s made it big, the biggest name in Indian telecom after the government. Sunil Bharti Mittal thinks BIG.
There’s a story behind his middle name. His parents (father, a bania, and mother, a khatri—Hindu castes) had an intercaste marriage, which created a brouhaha at that time, forcing them to adopt the surname Bharti. Sunil Bharti reclaimed the surname Mittal much later in life.
Sunil’s father, Sat Paul Mittal, an MP, was always in public life. It was Sunil who started in business (making cycle parts in Ludhiana, India) in 1976 at the age of 18 with borrowed capital of Rs 20,000. Later he started operating from Delhi and Mumbai, india, mainly importing and distributing products. In ’83-84 was set up the first company, Bharti Healthcare, making capsules.
The big break into the telecom sector happened by accident. In Mittal’s words: ‘In ’83 many imports were banned, including portable generators which we were importing. So we tied up for the manufacture of push-button telephones. Our telecom business is worth Rs 1,2000 million today.’
With the introduction of Airtel mobile phones in Delhi, India in 1995, they really hit the spotlight. Mittal prides himself on a string of firsts: ‘the first push-button, the first cordless, the first answering machines, the first fax machines’.
What would he attribute his success to? ‘Right from the beginning ours was never a trading or money-making mentality, but of wanting to be recognized in our field and to establish a corporation. We did things never tried before in India. We are very fair to the people we work with (suppliers, buyers, staff). We wanted to prove that even with meager capital we could do bigger things. Now a corporation, we are working to make it an institution.
‘While the public mostly knows about us three brothers behind Bharti, there is no employee-owner situation here. Everybody is a co-owner and now owns stock. It’s a very enabling environment. There’s no hire-and-fire here. Sometimes we are even accused of being too soft! You know the Monday morning syndrome—people not wanting to get behind their desks. Here on Monday morning people are charged up to get back to work!’
Any spiritual connection? ‘I do some meditation and chanting of mantras, a little bit of yoga. I exercise in the mornings. For me spirituality is being good to people. Having a positive frame of mind—we’ve made a virtue of extremely bad situations.’
How does he relax? ‘I used to play golf before, now sometimes I play tennis. But I thrive on my work. For me, work is love, not stress. But I won’t say there’s no stress. As you come to the top of the pyramid, the intensity of competition, of jealousy, is high.’
What about his family? ‘I have a daughter who’s 17 and twin sons who are 13. I don’t get to spend much time with the family. Everybody has a job to do and I think I was ordained to do what I’m doing. My family is supportive, however. Whenever I’m with them I try to spend some quality time. We have an occasional holiday. First generation entrepreneurs always have this problem.’
Is the business environment in India changing to enable operations with integrity? Replies Mittal: ‘I’ve walked the corridors of power and there’s a big positive change, which is very palpable at the higher level, since licensing has mostly been dismantled. At the lower levels, however, things are quite the same. But once change starts from the top there is some impact downwards…’
What’s his long-term vision? ‘In five years Bharti should be a very large corporation. A billion-dollar one! Personally, in another seven years, I’d like to play a larger role in society. No, not politics If I can be of any use to the government then, I’ll be available. By then the company should run on its own steam. Empowering people is important. I’ve had some desires but no time. I used to fly planes. I’d like to do something for my intellectual enrichment.’
Any management model he emulates? ‘Tatas are one organization we really admire. They never compromise. If we can have that image, we’d be happy. However, Tatas are very slow in responding to market needs. But you pick up the good points, put a very entrepreneurial soul into it and institutionalize. Entrepreneurial, say, like the Ambanis. That’s the kind of blend we’re trying to give our operations. While there’s no substitute for hard work, it’s vision that makes success. We’d like to be the preferred choice of customers in whatever we do. High quality, value for money, a sustained relationship with customers…’
Has there been any charitable or philanthropic activity? ‘We are very conscious about our social obligations and have set up the Bharti Foundation. In Madhya Pradesh, India, we have funded 50-odd schools. We’ve also given Rs 200 million to IIT Delhi for building a Bharti School of Technology and Management. You must give back what you take. Our entire standing has been, in a sense, a contribution from society.’
India, Mittal points out, is passing through a very exciting period. ‘We are clearly at the crossroads. The government is fully committed to the IT-telecom revolution. Industry too is committed. In the next 15 years India should see hectic activity in several areas and economic strength will come during this period. And we are contributing to this infrastructure and nation building. That’s a big kick…’
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