Bharti boss on cusp of realising Africa mobile dream - TechCentral

Bharti boss on cusp of realising Africa mobile dream

Sunil Bharti Mittal

Indian telecommunications tycoon Sunil Bharti Mittal is on the cusp of
 achieving his dream of building a presence in Africa with a planned US$10,7bn buy-out of assets from Kuwait-based Zain.

But analysts say Mittal, a self-confessed business “junkie” 
always hungering for the next deal, will need all his
 entrepreneurial chutzpah to turn around Zain’s loss-making phone 
operations.

Mittal, who heads India’s largest mobile company, Bharti Airtel,
 will be entering “not just one market but 15”, said Romal 
Shetty, telecoms head at global consultancy KPMG’s 
India unit.

“You can’t play a single strategy for all of them,” he said. “He 
has a lot of work ahead.”

Bharti, hoping to make it third time lucky in Africa after two 
failed bids for SA’s MTN, said on Friday it expected to
 seal a deal in the coming days by which the firm would buy most of
 Zain’s African networks.

Mittal, 52, is looking to expand foreign revenues amid a savage 
price war at home.

He has already warned shareholders the purchase will hit
 Bharti’s earnings. But the trim and dapper CEO says the company 
needs a “growth story” in sub-Saharan Africa, one of the world’s 
least developed phone markets.

In any event, Mittal — who keeps fit with yoga, turns 
vegetarian before any big new venture, and credits his successes to
 “divine intervention” — knows about dealing with challenges.

After starting out manufacturing bicycle crankshafts with a
 $1 500 loan, he spied a chance making push-button telephone
 handsets, a novelty at a time when Indians still used rotary dials.

But his fortunes really turned when the government announced 
plans to throw open mobile telephony to the private sector in 1992, 
paving the way for a telecoms revolution in a country where only 
the elite had telephones.

“I knew it was my moment to seize,” said Mittal, who is one of India’s biggest corporate names and a business ambassador, drumming 
up investment for the country on trips abroad.

His New Delhi-based firm won a licence to provide mobile 
coverage in the national capital in the mid-1990s. It then
 broadened its network around the country, snapping up stakes and
 licences.

At first it was tough, Mittal recalled while collecting a 
business achievement award recently. “We were a rocking boat then. It was a question of when we would 
collapse,” said the tycoon, who ranks eighth on Forbes‘s list of
 Indian billionaires, with $8,2bn.

Now Bharti Airtel has more than 125m subscribers in 
India.

In building Bharti, Mittal is credited with helping transform 
India from a country where people paid bribes for phones and faced 
huge bills into a place where even rickshaw drivers have mobiles
 and call costs are the world’s lowest.

During Bharti’s ascent, he said he learnt “one can’t afford to
 be small in this sector. One either aggressively expanded and
 gathered size or was acquired.”

The takeover, the first big foreign venture by Bharti, will
 create a corporate entity nobody would call small, with operations 
straddling two of the world’s fastest-growing markets: Africa
 and South Asia. The combined group will have more than 165m subscribers.

The second of three sons of an Indian politician, Mittal hails 
from Ludhiana in the northern wheat-bowl state of Punjab and prides
 himself on being a “transformational” thinker as well as hands-on 
businessman.

“India is a continent of consumers, with 1,1bn billion people 
needing goods and services,” he says.

In 2006, his corporate empire, in which his two brothers also 
hold senior jobs, struck a 50:50 joint venture deal with Wal-Mart 
to bring the US retail giant to India and create a modern wholesale
 distribution system. Last year, the partnership opened its first “big box” outlet in
 Amritsar, in northern India.

“We entrepreneurs are like junkies — looking for the next big 
fix,” he said recently.  — Penny MacRae, Sapa-AFP

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