“It’s necessary for every professional to understand how all the moving parts work”- An Interview with Gopal Vittal: CEO, Airtel India Operations

A 1990 batch Alumnus of IIM Calcutta, Mr. Gopal Vittal talks about the telecom industry, role of ethics in advertising and the importance of cross-functionality in the real world. Post graduating from IIM Calcutta, Mr. Vittal joined Hindustan Unilever Limited. After many years of stay with HUL, in 2012 he joined Bharti Airtel and was appointed CEO of Airtel’s India Operations from 1st March, 2013.

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Q. Being at the decision center of a firm that has been the market leader in the telecom industry, you would certainly have a great bird’s eye view of the scenario. Where do you think does the telecom industry stand today; how is it doing?

Telecom is truly at the center of people’s lives, and can play a defining role for consumers. In addition it has a transformative role in the economic growth of the country.Look at the category. With it you can connect with others, you can use it for a moment of entertainment, you can use if for improving the productivity of your business. It is ubiquitous. And the industry has come a very long way in the last 20 years with its rapid growth and ever expanding reach. Having said that, the last couple of years have been tough due to brutal competition leading to tariff erosion, too many players, very fragmented spectrum holdings and regulatory uncertainty. The good news is that a lot of that is getting much clearer now across each of these areas. This is very important as the sector needs a large amount of investment. Take Airtel for example. Over the next five years we may have to invest nearly Rs. 50,000 crores. This is the investment that will fuel the access of services like Broadband. So as I look at it overall I feel very optimistic.

With improving technologies from 2G to 3G and increasingly 4G the capacity of consumers to connect on the mobile internet has changed profoundly. So in an eco-system that is changing so rapidly, you have to always be on your toes.

 Q. Also, in the recent years, the innovation and growth in technology has been very rapid, moving from 2G to 3G, and now to 4G. How important role does the technology play and where do you think the industry is moving to?

Absolutely crucial, when I graduated from this campus, life was very different, things looked stable then, there were no tectonic shifts in technology, but today things are far more volatile. Look at devices. Five to seven years ago, Nokia was one of the most valuable companies globally; today it is gone, sold. Look at Blackberry, one of the most profitable companies in the world, and now almost reduced to nothing. Apple and Samsung have come from nowhere. Micromax has come from nowhere in India. Look at the network. With improving technologies from 2G to 3G and increasingly 4G the capacity of consumers to connect on the mobile internet has changed profoundly. So in an eco-system that is changing so rapidly, you have to always be on your toes. You have to keep your eyes and ears open, you have to be able to the right bets and make the investments that are needed. And all this must be done in a manner that makes economic sense.

Q. You have been in Unilever for nearly 2 decades, and are now you are in Airtel. How similar (or dissimilar) are the two companies? Or, were there any challenges that you faced during the transition?

Unilever is a fantastic company. I really enjoyed my 20 years working there. If I compare the Hindustan Lever that I joined as a young trainee two decades ago, I see a lot of similarity between that company and Airtel. There is incredible entrepreneurial energy, we are a young company, we are large but still young in terms of age and in the way we think. And there is a “can do” spirit that I find so amazing. So the business models are different. Ours is a CAPEX heavy business while it is not so for FMCG. That is a big difference. Ours is a service business. But the biggest similarity is that both talk to consumers. And serving consumers is fun.

… once telecom spreads, it makes a very big difference to people in rural India…

Q. Talking of your initiatives, you led ‘Project Bharat’, a one of its kind rural marketing initiative by Unilever…

This ‘Project Bharat’ initiative will chase me to my grave. It was just a rural sampling and education program that was done when I was a young brand manager. For some reason it seems to be a big deal. It is not. How important are the rural markets for a telecom firm like Airtel? Similarly, what role can a telecom company play in the rural India – for its development? Telecom in general and Airtel in particular has done a lot of work in rural areas. I recall a seminal program that was done by Airtel in partnering with Nokia to reach out to rural consumers. The distribution strategy that Airtel launched was based on the concept of a hub distributor serving a smaller spoke distributor was again a very important factor in spreading the growth of telecom. And once telecom spreads, it makes a very big difference to people in rural India – in the price they get for their produce, in the ease with which they connect to their families in the city and in opening up opportunities for employment.

Q. You also have been a Member of the Board of Governors at Advertising Standards Council of India. What is your opinion about the role of ethics in advertising?

Very important. ASCI is a self-regulatory body that consists of members of the media and advertisers. The purpose of ASCI is to ensure that advertising that is produced is nor misleading, obscene or that makes a poor impression on kids. The code of ASCI is very powerful. The founding members of ASCI, one of whom was Hindustan Lever set this up as a self-regulatory body. Over time ASCI has become very influential and is extremely well governed. Advertising complaints can be made by anyone and these are assessed by a separate committee that comprises of people from various walks of life – civil society, activists, judges, engineers and professors. These members sit down collectively and decide whether a particular piece of advertising must be modified, allowed to continue or be stopped.

What you do in one area, for example, pricing can have a seismic effect on your network, on the call center, on your billing systems and on your overall operations

Q. Most of your career has been in Sales and Marketing. Now, as the CEO how important do you find is cross functionality within different BUs?

Hindustan Lever gave me the opportunity to do various jobs – in sales, marketing and in general management. But when you look at a business like Airtel there are so many linkages. What you do in one area, for example, pricing can have a seismic effect on your network, on the call center, on your billing systems and on your overall operations. This industry is truly connected, so working cross functionally as a team is absolutely critical.

To execute, it’s necessary for every professional to understand how all the moving parts work, how it is to be executed at the front end because, that’s where the magic happens

Q. It is commonly assumed that there is some amount of initial struggle in the sales and marketing jobs, while the youth aspires to be in a job with an AC – clad cabin. What is your take? And, what is your advice for the young budding managers?

It doesn’t matter whether it is first sales, then marketing or otherwise. It is important to be grounded, to be connected with reality and know what is happening in market. It is important to understand how the person in the front end works because any concept is useless, unless it is executed. I think at the end of the day, you can have a great strategy. But if it’s not executed, then, it’s not a strategy; it’s a meaningless piece of paper. So, to execute, it’s necessary for every professional to understand how all the moving parts work, how it is to be executed at the front end because, that’s where the magic happens. And unless you are grounded, you can’t realize how it is done. Business is all about making things happen.

Q. Also, you were recognized as one of India’s Hottest Young Executives in 2006. So, how do you maintain the work-life balance amidst all these responsibilities?

I enjoy my work. I don’t believe work and life is separate. I don’t believe there are two compartments. There is life and you have to balance your life. I enjoy my work, look forward to coming in to work every day and am passionate about it. My wife is my best friend, and we have long conversations about everything. She’s a classmate of mine, we graduated together, we go for long walks on weekends and talk. I read a lot, listen to music and play the guitar. So for me there is nothing like 12 hours of work followed by life. Your whole life has to be balanced.

It is always fun to be back, always nostalgic to be back

Q. You said you play guitar. We know you were a guitarist in JBS BaroC in your days. How do you feel to be back at Joka?

I love this campus though I dislike how many crows are there now. But it is always fun to be back, always nostalgic to be back.

 

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Original Source: Alumni Live, IIM Calcutta

Interviewed by: Alumni Cell, IIM Calcutta

 

IIM Calcutta

IIM Calcutta External Relations Cell

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