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Tanveer Mohammad, Chief Operating Officer, Uninor

October 30, 2014
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Early in April, when chief technology officer of Grameenphone, Tanveer Mohammad, got a call from the Telenor team in Oslo, he was in for a surprise. After 17 years with the company, Mohammad was being reassigned to Uninor as its chief operating officer (COO). The fastest growing and the most exciting telecom market in the world. For him Uninor offered the fresh challenge he was looking for after having 3G enabled the largest operator in Bangladesh.

“It was exhilarating to launch 3G in Grameenphone within 10 days of getting the licence. And Uninor was just the right opportunity to use this experience to improve customer service and offer affordable internet services to our Indian subscribers,” says Mohammad. As the COO at Uninor, he is responsible for overseeing day-to-day network IT operations, sourcing and project management to enhance marketplace execution and service delivery to Uninor’s 40 million customers. The 44year-old Mohammad, has more than 17 years of operational, development and corporate experience in the telecom industry. He joined Grameenphone in Bangladesh as a system engineer in 1997 and went on to play a key role in building the technology organisation while progressing through the ranks in various leadership roles within the technology division. Eventually, he took up the role of chief technology officer in 2010 and transformed Grameenphone into a 3G operator last year.

Having worked for four years in the top management, he felt in need of a fresh challenge and that came with Uninor. After just a month in India, Mohammad is closing one of the largest and fastest network expansion within the company and perhaps within the country. By the year end, Uninor would have added another 5,000 base stations to the existing 23,610. But Mohammad is not new to such tight deadlines. At Grameenphone, he was able to cover all the six divisional headquarters within three months and all the 64 district headquarters within six months of the licence being issued, beating all the obligations and making it one of the fastest 3G launches within Telenor.

“I have successfully led big transformative initiatives, bringing positive changes to the company and society. Handling low-cost operations in a low-ARPU market for sustainable profitability has been my key strength. Having worked at different levels in the organisation, I have gained a good understanding of teams and the organisational dynamics you need to develop leaders who can take on bigger responsibilities,” he says.

Mohammad says he always looks for challenges where he can learn, exercise his skills and make a difference. “Through diversified exposure in my career, I have come across leadership, business and technical challenges, where I needed to stretch and change constantly to cope with the changing world and business challenges. I am a strong believer in teams where people can win together,” he says.

He remembers many assignments at Grameenphone that were challenging. Pressed to name just one, he recalls that when he was project leader for a financially constrained group in 2005, he had six months in which to come up with a total business solution for the group. He met the deadline. Mohammad had to lead a project team that had people from various disciplines of the organisation. “This particular assignment was something that was added on to my regular responsibilities,” he says

Like most people in the telecom industry, Mohammad is enthused by the exponential growth of the internet in India and its future growth possibilities. He says a host of factors are contributing to enlarge opportunities for growth in the telecom sector. These include an expanding Indian economy with an increased focus on the services sector; a population mix moving favourably towards a younger age profile; and affordable internet services and relevant content.

In future, an affordable internet will play a significant role in bridging the digital divide. It will not only become the primary communication medium for people but will also find numerous uses across various domains, he says.

“Today, in leading markets, the internet is being used for banking transactions, payments, an educational and multimedia tool, etc. However, the urgent need is to deliver services that can enable efficient day-to-day functions for the larger masses. It can be an efficient mode of spreading governance, and can also be used across verticals such as agriculture and healthcare. The availability of affordable smartphones will also boost internet adoption in the coming years,” he says.

According to Mohammad, voice will continue to grow as the industry penetrates deeper into the rural areas. And there will be a sharp growth in the internet through different social networks and applications. Customers, he says, will be more demanding and they will look for more value for their money.

“We focus on serving the mass market with basic services. Our operating model, besides being low cost, is about efficient distribution, which is the key to our success in a hyper-competitive market,” he says.

At the India office, the values of the Telenor Group are adhered to firmly, to ensure that it follows the same standards as the group’s offices elsewhere. Mohammad says the company has proved that its three-pillar strategy - best in basic services, mass market distribution and low-cost operations - is effective and successful for a mass market like India.

“We have a strong pool of people that are very talented and good at execution. They have built an agile and transparent organisation, which is customer focused and strong on governance. We have to focus on continuous improvement while retaining our market position as the sabse sasta mobile service provider,” he says.

In broad terms, Mohammad is satisfied with the development of the sector and the economy. Domestic demand and the government’s policy initiatives have fuelled growth and factors such as regulatory liberalisation, structural reforms and competition have played a very important part in this rapid transformation.

With huge subscriber potential and consumers ready to pay for services, the demand for adequate spectrum at the right prices for operators like Uninor has proved that the mass market telecom services model is a success.

Nevertheless, though he feels that efforts are being made to develop affordable technology for the masses, along with comprehensive infrastructure, the fact remains that a number of issues still pose a challenge. “There are some pending matters that need to be addressed, including guidelines on spectrum trading and sharing. Resolution of these, along with clarity on merger and acquisition guidelines, will help consolidation in the industry and make the market more competitive in terms of service offerings and quality.

“The key factors that will fuel growth in the sector include the finalisation of guidelines on spectrum, increased access to services owing to the launch of telecom technologies like 3G and broadband wireless access, and the emergence of cloud technologies,” he says.

With limited spectrum and internet demand exploding, the challenge for Uninor is to continue to remain a “price warrior” in the market and offer value to customers and shareholders.

He gets good work out of his staff. He stresses on teamwork and making sure his teams deliver on projects. He also delegates heavily and likes to empower and foster confident leaders for the future.

Throughout his childhood, Mohammad’s parents were the source of his inspiration. They encouraged him and his siblings to follow their dreams, push boundaries and challenge the limitations of life. His formative years were spent changing schools frequently as his father worked for the government and was transferred to a different city every year.

To avoid disrupting his education, Mohammad was put into boarding school where he formed very close friendships. “I was chosen as the prefect when I was in Class XII. That gave me lot of exposure to leadership at a very early age,” he says.

A graduate of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, Mohammad has also attended executive management programmes at NUS, Lorange Institute of Business Zurich, and INSEAD.

Early on in his adult life, he knew he wanted to move to the US for higher studies. In the meantime, though, he started to work for Grameenphone and gradually got involved in critical projects. This exposure at a very early age was exciting and empowering, and gave him a fantastic feeling of accomplishment.

The most precious time for Mohammad is with his family. In Bangladesh, he used to grow fruits and vegetables. In India, he plays tennis, reads journals and magazines, watches movies and explores new places. Though he has to get to work early, he makes a point of dropping his children off at school first.

An early start to the day gives him some quiet time in the office to sort out his emails and priorities for the day. The second half of the day is typically involved in meetings, market storming and interacting with customers, partners and colleagues.

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