About five years earlier, Srivastava had been introduced to a techie called Larry Ellison from a promising database software company called Oracle Corp. Srivastava had been hired by the late Rohinton Aga of Thermax, a Pune engineering group, to try and build a software business. He met Ellison several times to develop a financial application atop Oracle's database software.
The partnership never took off but Srivastava watched Ellison, 67 today, turn a billionaire 30 times over with brashness to match the nickname "His Larryship". Mittal's family wealth, estimated at under $8 billion, may look more modest but Bharti Airtel, the mobile phone services company he controls, is India's eighth most valuable. "The most difficult transition in a businessman's life is scaling up," says Srivastava. "Sure, Larry created a mega corporation but he also developed a mega ego. Sunil managed his transitions with a lot more grace... he is so much more grounded." Mittal, Chairman, Bharti Airtel, is ranked fifth on the BT-INSEAD-HBR Best CEOs list.
Mittal's ability to keep his finger on the pulse of the consumer - Bharti Airtel counts some 190 million customers in India and South Asia, and nearly 50 million in Africa - and think his way ingeniously out of tough situations has got his business to where it is today.
His journey, he agrees, coincides with the years in which India's inflation-adjusted per capita income grew three times and the number of phone connections went from under seven million to some 900 million. But that advantage was available to all in the telecom business. Mittal not only made Bharti Airtel India's largest phone firm by revenues, what makes him stand apart is that he started from scratch. In 1992, when India started the process of licensing cellphone services in its four metros, Bharti Group's revenues were around Rs 20 crore.
"Very few companies in a capitalintensive environment like telecom have come from an entrepreneurial background. McCaw Cellular in the US, Carlos Slim in Mexico... There are just a handful of examples in the world and this makes Bharti a unique story," says Mittal. "We created an enterprise that is the fifthlargest telecom company in the world." Mittal likens Bharti to Reliance Industries and Infosys. Just as Reliance was epoch-making in the 1980s, Bharti has been the big name of 2000s, he believes.
The "we" Mittal talks about is his core team of lieutenants - Akhil Gupta, Joint Managing Director; Manoj Kohli, CEO of International Operations; Sanjay Kapoor, India CEO; and brothers Rajan and Rakesh. Like other successful first-generation businessmen, Mittal values respect more than wealth. People close to him say that it is common in internal strategy meetings to hear him say, "I don't like to lose."
That tenacity, the story goes, was annealed in 1994 when the head of what then was a large automotive business group in the capital asked Mittal over for dinner. At the end of the meeting, Mittal was told he did not have the financial depth for a telecom business and that he should sell his New Delhi cellphone services licence for about Rs 20 crore. Mittal resolved to keep pegging at it no matter what the challenge.
Cut to 2011: the latest revenues of the flagship company of the dinner host are some Rs 3,200 crore and Bharti Airtel's, nearly Rs 60,000 crore. Even businessmen who competed bitterly with Mittal in an industry that could end 2011/12 with revenues just short of Rs 2,00,000 crore grudgingly grant him his due. "I would still say he was not the best in handling joint venture partners and shareholders, but the way he has grown a sustainable business and expanded it beyond Indian shores has been phenomenal," says the former chairman of a mobile phone services provider, who sold his business with handsome returns.
Ludhiana-born Mittal has had at least half a dozen partners - Emtel, Vivendi, Telecom Italia, British Telecom, Singapore Telecom and Vodafone - in Bharti Airtel and its earlier avatars. One of his listed firms, Bharti Telecom, came in for criticism when it delisted in 1999, conforming to stock market rules then, and some shareholders refused to sell.
The last two years have been tough for Mittal, grappling with falling per customer revenues in India, the weight of servicing debt raised to finance its $10 billion deal to buy Zain Telecom in Africa, and the high cost of running a large business there. But that is changing and the operations in Africa will soon be selfsustaining, says Mittal. "Africa is stabilising. We crossed $1 billion a quarter. It is making EBITDA and is in sight of net profits." EBITDA, a measure of operating profits, is short of earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation.
Will Mittal retire any time soon? After all, he once said he would ride into the sunset when he was 50. "Nah," says a close associate. "He is having too much fun." Fun growing his business, whipping the competition and jumping over hurdles coming his way. The Mittal Way.