As a result of the 2G spectrum scam, Uninor faces an uncertain future. Will it stay in business after August? Veenu Sandhu looks at how the telecom company is keeping morale, and business, up despite the challenges
It’s a hot afternoon. The swanky cement and glass buildings that define Gurgaon’s skyline look ready to melt in the heat. That’s perhaps why the air-conditioning at Uninor’s office has been turned to maximum cool.
A few hundred employees, men and women, most of them less than 35 years old, are gathered in this open office. There are no cabins, no high walls to hide behind. It is time for Uninor Managing Director Sigwe Brekke’s weekly town-hall meeting with his employees.
The MC starts by cracking a few jokes. People around him laugh wholeheartedly, without any evidence of nervousness. Then Brekke takes the mike. He tells his employees, who include a fair population of foreigners, about his meetings with top Indian ministers and his conversations with the Telenor board (it owns two-thirds of Uninor, while one-third is owned by Unitech) in Norway. After speaking for about 20 minutes, he throws the floor open for questions. There are only three. He then asks his employees what their level of confidence is, on a scale of one to ten. The answers are between five and seven. “Good that you are not zero and good that you are not ten,” Brekke says. He ends with the war cry of Halla bol!
Speaking to Business Standard later, Brekke puts his own confidence level at six. Not without reason. Uninor was perhaps the most serious new telecom operator in India. It has to date got over 45 million customers, and has more than 17,000 employees, over 2,000 distributors, close to half a million retailers, etc. Now, according to the Supreme Court verdict on the 2G spectrum scam, it has to surrender its spectrum by August. The only way out is if the Department of Telecommunications, or DoT, auctions spectrum before that. This will be difficult, says DoT.
But Uninor says it can be done — the template is ready from the 3G-spectrum auction of last year. And India is important if Telenor wants to become a player of global significance. Already, Uninor contributes the maximum number of subscribers to Telenor.
So Brekke is working at various ends: lobbying with the government to auction the spectrum quickly but not to price it exorbitantly, negotiating with new investors, telling business partners it’s not yet over, and holding on to his people.
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Brekke says that he is so overwhelmed by the energy and spirit of Uninor’s employees in this difficult time that, although a question mark hangs over its future, the company has given them “one month’s salary as bonus”. They also got a respectable 12-13 per cent increment in April.
“There was always transparent communication from the management. Since this crisis broke out, the open flow of information has only increased,” says an official from the sales department who has been with Uninor from the beginning, in 2008.
Brekke gives no false hope to the employees. He tells it like it is. There may have been no exodus, but some employees have left, and some are looking out for offers, he says. “The top ones have stuck on,” he adds.
Rival operators know this is the ideal time to poach. Uninor employees now frequently get SMSes such as this one from rival operators: “Interviews for sales positions across West UP… Please come with your CV.” Not many seem to be taking the bait.
Keeping workforce morale high is only one part of the exercise. Outside office, the employees also have to explain to their spouses, parents and perhaps even children why they are sticking with a company which may well have no future in India. Brekke has taken upon himself this task as well. He has written to the families of every employee and also met several of them.
“At one such meeting a woman told him how worried she was because not only did her husband have to feed the family, he also had a monthly loan to repay,” says an official from the operations department. “Brekke somehow manages to draw people out, give them the real picture no matter how grim it is and yet take them along with him,” says the employee who, incidentally is no fresher in the industry but a man in his late 30s and with enough experience with various telecom operators to know that ordinarily a management’s assurances are to be taken with a fistful of salt. “What’s happening here is anything but ordinary,” he says.
The employees may be charged up but they have plenty of questions. Not only do they raise them at the weekly meetings, they also email their concerns to Brekke, who responds to them in an in-house recorded video interview titled “Hard Talk”. The employees can access the interview on the organisation’s intranet which these days also has “I love Uninor”, “We are with you Uninor” and “Hang in there Uninor” messages with pictures pouring in from Telenor employees across the globe.
One employee asks: Is it true that Uninor and India are out of Telenor’s forecast? “That’s true,” says Brekke, without beating around the bush. “And it’s because of the uncertainties surrounding Uninor at the moment, though Telenor has every intention of staying on and would want to increase its equity to 74 per cent with the new partner.”
This triggers another question: Has Telenor found a new partner? Brekke responds, “You know we need to separate from our current wife [Unitech]. We need to find a new one. We are talking to five or six and all are beautiful.” Laughter goes up in the room.
Employees are confident that if Telenor remerges in a new avatar, each one of them will find a place in the new company. Assets and customers, too, will be transferred.
Telenor, Brekke later tells us, will want to run the show. It is looking for a partner who has an economic interest. All he’s willing to reveal at this point is that the partner will not be another telecom player. Could it be a real estate giant like Unitech, with which Telenor fell out after the 2G scam? Uninor having been bitten once, Brekke lets the question pass with a smile.
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Out in the market, where rivals have gone into overdrive to snatch business from Uninor, the challenges are altogether different. One poster in Bihar, clearly posted by a rival, reads: “Caution!! Country’s highest institution, Supreme Court of India, has cancelled licenses of S-tel, Uninor and MTS in Bihar and Jharkhand circle. Please do not get misguided and stay alert.” An SMS from another rival to its employees goes: “Start doing MNP [Mobile Number Portability] drive. Team kindly carry today’s [news] headline on ‘Telenor threatening to pull out of India if TRAI proposals r accepted’ to each outlet. This has to be done to dump its acquisition. Follow it in spirit.”
Brekke knows what’s happening. “Every day, or every other day, our sales staff is physically visiting practically every Uninor retailer. The big ones we’re visiting several times a day,” says Brekke, who has also written to every sales partner. “Constant dialogue is also on with our distributors.”
A Uninor poster in the office of Rajeev Kumar, a territorial sales manager, or field officer, in Bangalore reads: “We invested Rs 14,000 crore and won 4 crore customers in the process. That’s why we are committed to staying in India.” The posters were distributed to employees a couple of months ago, says Kumar, in what seems to be an attempt to shore up confidence. Kumar, who has been with Uninor for three years, since before its services were rolled out, knows the hurdles the company faces but is confident it will bid again for the licences.
Kumar is also reassured by the fact that the company is still hiring. “If it really had plans to exit, the first step would be to fire employees,” he says. The company’s growing subscriber base, despite the wrangling over licences, is another source of comfort.
Kumar has a team of two distributors, each of whom is responsible for supplying to 300-400 outlets. He has a target of 1,800 connections a month, which he says he is able to meet. “Many customers these days have two numbers, one a personal number and another for business, which will usually have very low tariffs. Uninor is able to target the latter category,” says Kumar, who himself uses his Uninor number for business calls, while retaining his Airtel number for personal calls.
The field officer admits he’s a bit anxious about what the future holds. “We are waiting till August to see what will happen... God himself may not know.” Kumar says the company has been having meetings once a month.
Seated under a large blue-and-white Uninor umbrella outside a mobile phone shop in south Bangalore, 18-year-old Syyed exudes confidence. He says he sells at least 10-15 SIM cards a day. When asked if he was worried that Uninor might exit India, he says that will not happen. “Bharosa hai [I have confidence], their licence will be renewed.”
The company has not told him anything about the possibility of shutting shop but neither have customers enquired about the issue, he says. Customers, he says, are attracted by Uninor’s low tariffs. “People buy up to four SIM cards a month because it is so cheap,” he says.
North Kolkata-based retailer Manoj Pandey, too, is not worried about his business suffering if Uninor shuts shop. The number of Uninor subscribers has gone up in Kolkata. Though employees at the Uninor office in Kolkata are concerned about losing their jobs, they say the fact that Brekke himself came down to the city and did a road show with them has reassured them.
Hundreds of miles away in Chennai, Karthik, a salesperson at a mobile retail shop, says Uninor officials have told him about the problems. “Sales have come down since January-February. People ask for other connections even if we tell them about Uninor. We used to sell around 100 Uninor SIM cards a month. Now we don’t sell even five a month,” he rues, adding that service standards too have dropped. “The in-charge of this area is not showing interest and we hear he is looking for a job.”
Uninor, meanwhile, is continuing with its marketing initiatives, one of them being a tie-up with the producers of the recently released film Shanghai. For its target audience in Mumbai, Bangalore in Ahmedabad, the company has announced, “Buy any Uninor connection and stand a chance to meet the star cast of Shanghai.”
Can Brekke and his men survive?
Indulekha Aravind in Bangalore, Gireesh Babu A N in Chennai, Swati Garg in Kolkata and Itishree Samal in Hyderabad contributed to this article