Sunil Mittal in a free-wheeling conversation tells Indrajit Hazra how the government once unwittingly pushed him in the right direction, why there's nothing to fear in big retail, and how his latest expedition will open up Africa to India.
What goes around comes around. That's a piece of wisdom that the 52-year-old CEO of Bharti Enterprises knows only too well. After all, after graduating from Punjab University, Ludhiana in 1976, the 18-year-old Sunil Bharti Mittal started his own small-scale manufacturing unit for bicycle parts. The karmic wheel, following the same principles of the mechanical one, now has the man sitting pretty at the forefront of India Inc.'s latest global expansion plans.
"'I started with Rs 50,000 in my pockets. Today, I'm signing a cheque of Rs 50,000 crore," he says with a smile, a day before the official announcement of Bharti Airtel acquiring the African telecom company, Zain Africa. He has reasons to sound a tad proud as he sips coffee from a paper cup inside a sprawling room at the Bharti corporate headquarters in south Delhi. But this workaholic ("I still work 16 hours a day") doesn't take all the credit himself. He says that he's been fortunate in his dealings down the years. "In 1982, I was doing reasonably good business as a Suzuki distributor of generators. Then overnight, in 1983, the Government of India banned the import of gen-sets. I had to quickly think of making a living in something else. I thought of going into television sets, VCRs." But, it was after a fortuitous trip to Taiwan to attend an electronic expo where he came across push-button phone sets -- remember, those were still the days of rotary phones in India -- that he got the first nudge towards the yet-to-explode world of Indian telecommunications. "So, in a way you can say, the Government of India pushed me in the right direction."
Coming from a family with political roots -- his father Sat Paul Mittal was a Congress politician and an MP -- business was not a ready choice, but the only option. "I was not good at studies at all. I didn't care much to work for anyone but wanted to start something of my own. My parents thought I would have made a good lawyer. Actually, so do I. I enjoy reading legal documents and papers. I think I have a knack." Mittal's talent for reading the legal fineprint has certainly helped Bharti in building partnerships and making acquisitions.
His first tryst with Africa started as early back as 1997 in Botswana. That deal fell though. "I remember sitting there celebrating my 40th birthday." The next year, Bharti launched mobile services in Seychelles, an island off the coast of mainland Africa, becoming the first Indian company to offer telecom services in international markets. But it still wasn't 'Africa'.
The more recent attempt to acquire South African telecom giant MTN also fell through -- this time in full public view. That must have had hurt? "I was disappointed, yes. But I also learnt a lot."
All this makes the latest acquisition of Zain Africa ever more sweet. But here again, Mittal talks about how he believes in "some divine power, because this kind of thing doesn't happen only by hard work". It turns out that Mo Ibrahim, the founder of Africa's pioneering telecom company, Celtel, was one of Mittal's partners when Bharti Cellular Ltd launched in Delhi in 1992. He eventually sold his shares in Bharti (5 per cent) and started his own vision in Africa. "He was one of the persons I was introduced to and he joined me then. He sold his company in 2005. At that time he did speak to us, we looked at it. But we weren't in the league and Celtel was bought by [the Kuwaiti operator] MTC, which changed the company's name to Zain. So the company that was build by our original partner in India, finally ends up in this family," says Mittal patting down his tie as if he's just finished describing a mysterious phenomenon of nature.
He's still in touch Ibrahim. "He's given me two slots on two days to play golf with him in the south of France. I haven't been able to keep the dates but I need to talk to him. He knows this company [Zain] inside out. It's like somebody talking to me about Airtel." Mittal believes that Bharti will be a flagbearer for future big projects going into Africa and that India "can be finally on the table that China has been occupying for a decade now".
While it's telecom that is the hull and the masthead of Mittal's Bharti ship, his fleet of companies have also been navigating the still choppy waters of retail. With the government still paranoid about Big Retail in India, is Mittal frustrated? "You get tired sometimes," he says with a sigh. "I think India will need to organise its retail. There's far too much wastage. Assume I pick up billions of dollars worth of cold chain, pick up the produce from farms put them into cold containers... after that where do I take it? If the whole thing has to go to the <saabzi mandi> again, it's pointless."
Mittal believes there are is one fundamental obstacle to retail in India. "First, there is a fear involving the millions who are engaged in mom'n'pop stores. Emperical evidence suggests that countries like Mexico and China, both [mom'n'pop stores and big retail stores] can coexist. That fear needs to be put away." Mittal has seen such governmental resistance: in airport privatisation, and, of course, in telecom. The fear regarding retail, says Mittal, is about the loss of jobs. His counterargument is that retail will create jobs. "One retail job creates 300 jobs in big shops, about 20-30 in smaller shops. In mom'n'pop shops the number is one-and-a-half. They say mom'n'pop, I say sons and daughters. So while we need to worry about moms and pops we need to worry more about our sons and daughters. And I must add that in our country parents have always made sacrifices for their children," says the father of one daughter Eiesha and twin sons Kavin and Shravin.
Along with his wife of 25 years, ("25 years 4 months") Nyna, the other lynchpins in Mittal's life have been his brothers Rakesh and Rajan. "We have something very powerful: the huddle. And the lunchroom. Many interesting ideas come out of the lunch table. Boom, boom, boom, we take quick decisions here," says the middle Mittal brother.
So how is he planning to celebrate the Rs 48,000 crore ($ 10.7 billion) Zain purchase? A holiday with the family in Europe? Throwing a big bash? "The next few years, I'll need to ensure that I know about 15 countries, different cultures, different languages, different currencies [his emphasis]... So I need to spend more time in Africa," he says with an almost apologetic smile.
So does it sound like Sunil Mittal, such a believer in fate and fortune, will be now treating himself to a well-deserved African safari? Why does one get the feeling that he'll simply be doing what he does best: doing a lot of business, with pleasure.