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LUNCH WITH BS: Sunil Mittal

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Sunil Mittal discusses his well-developed sense of destiny with P Vaidyanathan Iyer and Thomas K Thomas at his favourite Italian restaurant

Sunil Mittal agreed to Lunch with BS as readily as he dispenses quotable quotes to journalists who call him. Yes, he’d love to lunch with us, anytime. His preference? Phuchkas in north Delhi.

The trouble, however, was getting hold of him. Having put in eye-popping bids as the fourth cellular service provider and basic services plus vast plans for undersea cables from Singapore, Mittal was rarely to be found in India.

When he finally found time for Lunch with BS, he couldn’t make it all the way north from his Mehrauli office in south Delhi. Instead, he opted for La Piazza, the rather aggressively Italian restaurant at Hyatt Regency. The reason? This was his family’s favourite joint.

Even if Mittal had not been well-known, he would have attracted attention as we walked into La Piazza — his striking yellow tie over a bright blue shirt ensured that. His sartorial sense said a lot about the man. Even now, nine years after he catapulted into the limelight with his high-profile telecom forays, Mittal is a curious mixture of earthy Ludhiana charm and sophisticated business savvy.

Of course, Mittal is no newcomer to power and wealth — his father Sat Pal was a prominent Congress MP with close links with former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. All the same, he still revels in the mixture of hard work and sheer luck that has allowed him to stand up and be counted among Delhi’s power businessmen today.

So he was only too eager to tell us how he made the jump from a Rs 200-crore manufacturer of telephones to the brave new world of telecom services.

Before he started out, he helped himself to a goodly portion of vegetarian salad from the salad bar and a fresh lime soda. In February 1992, his story goes, Mittal tried to convince the chief of Vivendi, France’s second-largest telecom giant, to partner him in a cellular services venture.

Vivendi’s chief was uncertain, so Mittal said he asked him to trust his instincts rather than team up with an established player. “I had a three-hour-long meeting with the Vivendi top executive. He agreed to be Bharti’s partner for Delhi’s cellular bid, the first in the country,” Mittal remembers.

He flew back from Paris satisfied. Then came the bombshell. Close to the March 31 deadline for filing the bid for the Delhi licence, Vivendi phoned Mittal to say it preferred to team up with Modi Spice Communication instead. “I was completely stunned with no place to go. Vivendi was the last name on my list,” he said.

But Mittal wasn’t going to give up so easily. “I mustered all my strength and told him that, during the short meeting in France, he must have seen something in me to have agreed to enter into a partnership with Bharti. I told to him to stick to his initial instincts and he would not have to regret it.” In the next few minutes, he says, he clinched the deal.

This defining moment left him a strong believer in destiny. And destiny, as he saw it, was evidently to be a telecom services giant. Today, Mittal has 15 cellular circles under the Airtel brand. Delhi, no doubt, is the jewel on his crown where Airtel has a subscriber base of over 4 lakh. Mittal is also hoping to bag the licence in four more basic circles. This makes him the single-largest Indian private sector player in the cellular services business.

The story and starter have whetted Mittal’s appetite. He orders two pizza margeritas (thin crust) and spaghetti to be shared between the three of us. When the order arrives, we wage a losing battle with the cutlery. Mittal has no such problem: he uses his fingers.

L’affaire Vivendi, it seems to us, only reaffirmed Mittal’s already well-developed sense of personal destiny. He was evidently convinced of it long before 1992. As a child, Mittal claims to be the naughtiest of three siblings. “By the age of 14, I realised that I had to change my ways and that I was meant to do greater things. I went along with my elder brother Rakesh on his business rounds when I was 18. I used to go around on a scooter to market telephone instruments.”

What’s more, he took it seriously. “I would not do many things which guys of my age did, like hanging out. I missed on all the fun,” he says.

So we ask him the obvious: was it worth it? Of course, he says. “I never thought that one day I would reach where I am right now. To say that would be bombastic. It has been a steady growth. One move followed the other.”

Since Mittal, clearly, didn’t suffer from false modesty we asked why Rakesh, the eldest brother (Sunil Mittal is the middle brother) didn’t head the Bharti group.

Mittal takes care to establish that the brothers are close and there’s no tension between them. But it’s just that he’s the best guy for the job. He doesn’t put it quite like that, of course. Instead, he says: “One must realise that everyone is not made of the same cut. There are strengths and weaknesses. Both my brothers have accepted the fact that I’d lead the group. But it’s not that I call the shots. All three of us — Rajan, Rakesh and myself — have equal stake in the business.”

Food, it appears, is a catalyst for Mittal. As he helps himself to another slice of pizza and then a small serving of spaghetti with mint, he launches into a discussion of his management style. “I have structured the company as a democratic set-up. I have a kitchen cabinet which includes the top four or five executives who know the company inside out. These executives head the various sections of the Bharti Group and below them are a set of chief executives,” he says.

The democratic structure in the Bharti group is without bureaucratic hiccups, he quickly adds. “One thing I have realised is giving the managers a sense of power in the company. I do not interfere in the day-to-day functioning of the company. I see my role in the company as someone who gives direction, vision and broad policy guidelines to the company. The rest is done by my executives.”

For all that, Mittal isn’t just a hard-headed businessman. When we query him on his vegetarianism, he surprises us by saying it’s a superstition. He turns vegetarian whenever he’s on mission.

“I cannot resist non-vegetarian food and, therefore, it is one of the biggest sacrifices I can make. Whenever there is a strong urge to have non-vegetarian food, I fly to another country.” So what’s this mission? Oh, cellular expansion, he says airily.

Mittal is clearly on such a high that we can’t resist asking him how he sees Reliance, the only conglomerate to challenge his domination. The answer is cautious. “There can be no two questions on their ability to set up the infrastructure for basic services and long distance. But I am not sure about their servicing the end customer — which, in our case, is very crucial. They do not have prior experience.”

He’s even more guarded when we ask him about the famous Harshad Mehta allegation that he and his father had accompanied Mehta to Narasimha Rao’s house to hand him over a suitcase full of cash. “I was seriously tense those days. Now, it has been proved that there was no truth to the allegations,” is all he ventures.

Switch to other topics and he’s all volubility again. He enjoys Hindustani classical music and ghazals. He also plays the tanpura for relaxation. As we opt for espresso, he tells us expansively, “Money is certainly not the driving force for me. I have made so much money that my next ten generations can live luxuriously. What matters most to me is recognition of my work.”

In any case, he does not see himself in the same groove four years from now. “I am 44 now. By the time I turn 48, I will move on to some other role. I do not yet know what that role will be. That does not mean that I am going to sit idle, but I have to look for something new,” he says.

And what would happen to his existing business then? Would his children (he has twin sons and a daughter, who are still in their teens) run it? “I do not see a Mittal heading this business in the next ten years. Of course, my children may take to some other business,” is what he offers.

As we leave La Piazza, his Siemens S-45 handset gives a single beep. Time to answer another call of destiny, no doubt.

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