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Lord of the rings

There seems to be no stopping the upwardly mobile man who heads Bharti Airtel, reports Aasheesh Sharma.

india Updated: Nov 04, 2006 03:52 IST

Sunil Bharti Mittal is on a roll. His Bharti Airtel Ltd has just announced second quarter profits, which have soared 79 per cent. He has, this past  week, been ranked the third richest Indian — after Reliance Industry’s Mukesh Ambani and Wipro chairman Azim Premji — by Business Standard in its annual ranking of the billionaire club.

He headed the international jury — the first Indian to do so — of the Ernst and Young Award 2006, which recognises breakthrough ideas. And next year he will be taking over as the head of the Confederation of Indian Industries.

With a wealth of £4 billion (Rs 35,034 crore), according to Business Standard, the Frost & Sullivan CEO of the year epitomises upward mobility. From making bicycle parts, to ushering in the cell phone revolution in the country, Mittal, 49, has come a long way. Call it staying in the loop or an innate sense of survival, but the Ludhiana-born entrepreneur has managed to take setbacks in his stride.

In 1983, when the government decided to ban genset imports, he landed on his feet: He joined forces with the Taiwan-based Kingtel to make push-button phones. When the red tape in the country, coupled with unreasonable tariffs, threatened to disconnect profits from his mobile business, he lobbied for saner
policies and managed to turn around Airtel’s fortunes.

Flying into new terrain

Not content with being lord of the rings, the chairman and managing director of Bharti Airtel Limited is on an expansion drive. Now that his core telecom business is, in his words, in ‘auto-pilot mode’, Mittal wants to explore unknown terrain.

Bring on agriculture and retail. While the hunt for a retail partner is expected to end later this month — Wal-Mart, Tesco Plc and Carrefour are reportedly in talks — Mittal is just as excited about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to his farm in Laddowal in September.

“The Prime Minister spent over two hours and liked what he saw. Food is an area where the investment is low but the effort needed is exceptional,” he says.

Mittal knows what he is talking about. Bharti supplies fruits and vegetables to Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket owner and owns half of FieldFresh Foods.

The man, the manager

With a finger in so many pies, how does Mittal plan to do justice to his many business interests? “Compared to many other Indian conglomerates, we are still not as diverse,” he says.

“Some of our smaller businesses in manufacturing and health care, such as capsules, have been sold out. For insurance, we have joined hands with Axa, the world’s second-largest firm. Our airports business is history. That was an important project, but it fell through when Changi withdrew at the last moment.”

Mittal takes pride in his man management skills; he wants to become a totally hands-off CEO. “Bharti is one of the most empowered family-owned Indian companies,” he explains.

“We have sales of about Rs 50 crore a day. At close to Rs 60 crore a day, our spending is a little more. Not even 60 paisa of this comes to me for approval.

"At the same time, I am highly involved in businesses I am attending to myself. Next year, when I get into the governance mode and physically move away from the telecom business, I’ll be totally hands-off.”

Upping the ante…

Mittal’s career trajectory has been north-bound. Last year, he bought a house in uber posh Delhi, at Amrita Sher-Gil Marg, valued conservatively at Rs. 100 crore. He is not often seen in the city’s regular party circuit, but selectively rubs shoulders with the other Big Boys of business and Cabinet ministers.
Is the middle son of Parliamentarian Sat Paul Mittal moving towards a role in public life? “Politically, I am very alive,” he says. “About whether I will cross the line and join politics, the answer is no. But public life excites me.” The evidence? Bharti Foundation set up by him in 2000 and its investment of Rs. 200 crore for schools in villages. So, he isn’t ruling out a foray into politics, then? “One should
never say never, but at the moment, it looks
unlikely,” he says like a seasoned politician.

On the lighter side…

At one time, Mittal loved to take to the skies. He learnt aero-modelling and took up flying as a hobby. More recently, he joined the exclusive A-list business jetsetters when he bought a stake in a business jet along with a few other businessmen.

“The part acquisition of a jet is really for business needs—when one has to fly to a smaller destination, say Patna, at short notice,” he says.

If he had his way, Mittal says, he would rather be at home. “If I could avoid travel I would avoid it for five years. But it is a requirement of the job,” he says.
Mittal says he is a ‘serious person’. “I don’t believe in making light banter. When I have to unwind, I like to spend time with my family and children,” he says.His twin sons Kevin and Shravan are studying in England, while his eldest, daughter Eiesha, recently graduated in Politics and French from the University of Bath.

Mittal once said his children would inherit his wealth but not his businesses. “My children are still young. They need to display their prowess outside the group,” he says.

What kind of a father does the man running a Rs. 1,100 crore business empire make? “I claim I am a good father, very close to my children. I’m there for them at all their important moments. For instance, I was there for my daughter’s graduation ceremony in July.” We get the message.