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Tough road ahead for Bharti Airtel's new CEO Gopal Vittal [India Business] [Times of India]
[January 21, 2013]

Tough road ahead for Bharti Airtel's new CEO Gopal Vittal [India Business] [Times of India]

(Times of India Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) When Gopal Vittal takes charge of the country's largest telco, by customers and revenues, on March 1, he will be stepping into unfamiliar territory -- a company that has reported profit declines for three straight years in addition to stagnant sales for much of this period.

This is in stark contrast to his earlier stint as marketing director in 2006-08. At that time, Bharti was a darling of the stock market: it reported stellar profits quarter after quarter, voice-focused customer additions led growth, it extended its lead over rivals in revenue market share and was also helped by an easier policy environment than it is today.

"Telecom has made a generational shift over the past four years in India. The operational style that was closely aligned to that of an FMCG has given way to a new style of management that is unique to the sector. We no longer sell a product, but an experience. So it is not a connection, but a combination of services, data, network quality, apps, music, specialised tariff packages for regions and social media. The end product used by the customer is the outcome of multiple tie-ups with content providers, technology platforms, financial service providers and banks, social media firms, internet giants and app developers," explained a former Bharti executive, who was part of its management team.

A YEAR OF LEARNING It was the changing face of mobile telephony that led Bharti Airtel chairman Sunil Mittal to send his CEO-designate abroad for the past 12 months to learn the ropes, after Vittal rejoined the company in early 2012. For Vittal, the past year has not been about gaining management expertise -- he has had plenty of that in his two stints with Levers. He left Bharti Airtel in 2008 to head the home and personal-care business of Hindustan Unilever, and was second-in-command there, after CEO Nitin Paranjpe.

Vittal spent a significant amount of the past 12 months with SingTel's Singapore and Australian operations to familiarise himself with emerging trends in data and internet business, and this stint also saw him at Japan's Softbank as well as in Silicon Valley to orient himself in new business streams that are linked to mobility.

MANY CHALLENGES Vittal will have to walk a tightrope when it comes to handling former Lever executives who are in top management positions at Bharti. Two former colleagues from HUL -- Vineet Taneja and Rajiv Rajagopal -- have already quit. There is also speculation that K Srinivas -- the president of the company's B2C division and who was higher in the pecking order than Vittal both at HUL and during the latter's earlier stint with the mobile phone company -- may seek a reporting change. ET recently reported that Srinivas may be elevated to a higher role that would involve direct reporting to Sunil Mittal.

(c) 2013 Bennett, Coleman & Company Limited

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