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Sudhir Prasad, COO, Viom Networks

November 29, 2013
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Like everyone in the business, Sudhir Prasad, chief operating officer (COO), Viom Networks, is gearing up for the second wave of the Indian telecom revolution…

Joining the Indian Navy was an act of courage by Sudhir Prasad. So was leaving it six years later. The first because the impulse to join arose from a desire to be financially independent. He was a mere teenager when he took the decision.  Leaving the navy was also courageous because he had reached the level of lieutenant but he chose to pursue his ambitions in the corporate world instead. The process of “turning raw ore into iron”, as the navy calls its character-building, helped Prasad succeed in the corporate world. All the leadership and management skills that he had imbibed as a naval officer also contributed to his success.

Today, Prasad is COO of Viom Networks, a telecom infrastructure company that has 42,000 towers all over India. “I have joined Viom Networks at an inflection point from where the company is aiming to become one of the best telecom infrastructure solution providers in the world,” he says. “We are gearing up to provide an end-to-end solutions portfolio that will cater to the massive mobile data explosion that the country is currently witnessing.”

Commenting on the sector, he says, “The telecom industry is waiting for greater policy and regulatory clarity, but the overall mood is positive. All the telecom companies took a significant hit from 2010 on. Everyone is trying to increase revenue and maintain their cost structure to make themselves profitable.”

The challenges have been all the more intense because they hit the industry at a time when it was reaching the maturity curve. As for Viom Networks, Prasad says that between 2008 and 2011, the company went through organic growth as well as a merger and acquisition phase. During this phase of “asset growth”, the company had two anchor customers. In the current stage (2011-14) of its evolution (“asset-based management”), Viom Networks has focused on asset sweating by increasing efficiencies, and streamlining systems and processes. Managing and operating so many towers require the latest technology, which is why the company has invested heavily in a new programme of technology-based asset management.

“We have 42,000 towers spread across the country. Most of our expenses are on the site, so we need to manage them. Technology can help the company get real-time information on diesel consumption, the state of preventive maintenance and the state of batteries to ensure that the tower staff maintains the desired network uptime. The first phase of the technology-based asset management will cover 20,000 towers. The remainder will be taken up by 2014-15. We are expecting the results of the pilot in the next few months. Eventually, I think we can achieve savings of 10-15 per cent,” says Prasad during an interview at the company’s Gurgaon office.

Running telecom towers involves huge costs. Prasad says Viom’s energy bill is more than Rs 15 billion per year, though it a pass-through to telecom operators. Although, the telecom regulator has been urging tower companies to go “green”, Prasad feels the policy needs to be worked out in greater detail before it can be implemented. Viom Networks as a company has already embarked on an extensive green drive by harnessing renewable energy sources and consequently reducing diesel consumption.

Telecom tower companies are not in the business of generating electricity, he points out. They merely consume electricity and in rural areas where there is no electricity, they can only run a tower with a diesel generator. “The government has to ensure electricity supply in these areas. Telecom has long reached rural India but not the grid. Turning to green energy requires that several ministries coordinate their policies. And the government needs to allocate funds and support the effort. We are talking to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and to telecom operators to see how they can help us. We are evaluating the potential of wind and solar power,” says Prasad.

To achieve results and resolve day-to-day issues, Prasad pursues an issue-centric approach rather than a people-centric approach. He manages a versatile team across the country at Viom Networks. The ability to steer such a team and align it with organisational goals is something he focusing strongly on, apart from meeting customers and potential talent that he can bring on board.

Prasad also puts to use the myriad skill-sets he acquired during his formative years in the navy. “Ours is an organisation that is run by people on the ground. We call them asset managers. They are our field soldiers and are directly responsible for the smooth operation of our towers,” he says.

Throughout his career, he has shown that he likes to take up challenges. In his previous job with Tower Vision in Gurgaon, for example, the company operated 800 towers when he joined it in 2008. When he left five years later as CEO, it operated 8,500 towers, a figure achieved entirely through organic growth. The company grew from two geographies to 18 under his leadership and added tenancies at lightning speed.

His other key achievements were to establish business relationships with all major telecom operators and secure a business pipeline accounting for over 70 per cent of the annual business target.

Before Tower Vision, he worked for Siemens PCN in diverse positions. In fact, he says that, apart from HR, he served in almost every key position in the company from the time of joining in 1997 as financial controller to assistant vice-president, corporate planning; vice-president, sales commercial; and finally vice-president, project management in 2006.

During 1999-2002, he was based at Siemens’ Munich headquarters, where he was responsible for exploring international business opportunities and developing strategies to capitalise on opportunities in the pan-European market.

He enjoyed his three years with the company in Germany, both for its distinctive work culture and for the chance it gave him to use Munich as a base from where he could  explore Europe.

“Germans are very process-oriented. In India, a person who is doing his job will also know what everyone else around him is doing. In Germany, a person is master of his own job and won’t know much about what’s happening around him. They are formal, reserved and straight people, which makes them good to deal with. They mean what they say and say what they mean. That style really works for me,” he says.

Throughout his career, Prasad has drawn on the time he spent in the navy where he says he enjoyed every single thing, from the superficial – wearing a uniform – to the demanding, such as being selected as the officer to be trained by the Russians on how to handle high tech surface-to-air missile systems.

“The navy gave me the career and stability I was looking for. I decided that I could become independent and self-sufficient if I joined the navy. It would reduce the load on my mother. I think the financial insecurity of our childhood lit a fire in all of us. It made us strive hard. One brother became a cardiologist, another is an IAS officer and I joined the navy, so we all ended up doing well,” he says.

So why did he leave a distinguished career with the navy? The reason is related to his family circumstance. Just as he joined the navy to help his family, when the family was settled and prosperous, he began to wonder about the possible careers he had lost out on.

Leaving the navy is difficult. Having invested heavily in a person’s education and training for so many years, the government is naturally loath to lose a prized asset.

Luckily for Prasad, not only did his senior officers support his wish but one of his colleagues also gave him excellent advice on his future plans to do an MBA. He got accepted at IIM Ahmedabad for a post-graduate diploma in management.

He was surrounded by brilliant students, which could have been daunting but Prasad found that he was able to bring a whole new dimension to the course because of his experience in the navy and the real work world. This gave him an edge over students who had come straight from college.

After finishing the course, Prasad wanted to pursue his interest in finance and joined Jaiprakash Industries in 1992 as a senior manager, responsible for corporate controlling and strategic planning. He followed this up with a stint as assistant vice-president at Brisk Capital Market Services, a breakaway group of ANZ Grindlays.

But he left investment banking to join Siemens in 1997. “The markets were stagnant for prolonged periods. That’s when I entered the telecom business by joining Siemens just when the first mobile licences were issued. It offered me a similar financial challenge in that I had to restructure Siemens’ resources and bring in help with project vendor financing,” he says.

Prasad is married to Sharada, a fellow management graduate from  IIM Ahmedabad, and they have a daughter, Shreeya, who is now 14. As a self-confessed workaholic, he has limited time to spend with his daughter. But he still manages the occasional swim and weekend shopping trips with the family.

His mother, now 77, lives with him and continues to be a pillar of strength and a source of inspiration.

Asked if he has any regrets about having left the navy, he replies: “With the navy and with my corporate career, I have enjoyed the best of both worlds. So no, no regrets at all.”

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