Pramod Saxena, Chairman and Managing Director, Oxigen Services

People , July 14, 2017

Pramod Saxena, chairman and managing director, Oxigen Services, believes that India is at an inflection point in financial services and digital growth. And he intends to leverage this opportunity to the fullest…

When Pramod Saxena started Oxigen in 2004, his vision was to cater to the middle- to low-income classes with a low-margin, high-volume-oriented business model. The new company started off with retailer-centred mobile recharges on its network and with each passing year, added more services to its bouquet.

In recent years, Saxena has changed Oxigen’s focus to developing nationwide infrastructure for easy access to financial services. He added kiosk banking, mobile money wallets and domestic money remittances to Oxigen’s portfolio, in line with the government’s agenda to promote financial inclusion. The company is today the largest service aggregator and distributor for micropayments and the first company in the country to digitise cash and distributed micropayments. Last year, it generated

Rs 100 billion in transaction value and 600 million in annual transactions.

Saxena has successfully promoted many other business ventures besides Oxigen. These include Chorus Call Conferencing Services India and Mpower Softcomm.

These achievements are just a tiny part of his 40-year-long career. A chemical engineer from IIT Roorkee, Saxena has worked in various capacities and had long associations with the DCM Group, the Essar Group and Motorola. His experience spans the telecom, BPO, steel, petrochemicals and fertiliser industries, where he held lead responsibilities for M&As, greenfield projects and joint ventures, and business operations in India and abroad. During the early stages of his career, Saxena was involved in various operations management and project monitoring and controls functions, as a lead in the CMD’s office for DCM.

Saxena learnt a lot from DCM chairman Lala Charat Ram, particularly the art of management. “From 1976 to 1986, I cut my teeth on business operations and project management sitting in the chairman’s office,” Saxena says. “Lala Charat Ram was a no-nonsense person; very liberal with his rewards, but extremely tough on his demands. You had to survive year to year with him. That was my biggest learning I would say.”

Later in his career, at Essar, he learnt the art of decision making. “With the Ruias, I learnt how to take risks and do big things. They would always think very big. It was providence that in the 20 years of my initial work, I spent time with two groups of entrepreneurs at opposite ends of the spectrum. One, Lala Charat Ram, was very methodical and everything was on paper. The other wouldn’t let grass grow under your feet,” he says.

Saxena worked with the Essar Group for 10 years. As a part of the senior management, he was responsible for many big projects including the Vizag steel plant. In fact, he joined Essar at the time where it was hitting the news around 1987 when the plant was coming up. At that time, Essar and Reliance were the two biggest groups, which talked about megaprojects. “No one came near them, in terms of their audacity to take up the biggest businesses and challenges,” he says.

He told the Ruias, when they asked him to help with Vizag, that steel was not his cup of tea. They seemed to think otherwise. “So I said, if you think I can do it, I will take it up. I worked with Shashi and Ravi. I became like the CEO of the chairman’s office. It was a huge project, a Rs 10 billion project, which would be Rs 100 billion today,” he says.

In 1994, Essar entered the telecom sector. Within a year, it partnered with Swiss Telecom and Bell Atlantic. Those were the formative years of telecom in India. Airtel and Essar were the first to get licences in Delhi. However, as Essar became financially stressed, it made a deal with Hutchison to merge Essar Cellphone with Hutchison and the result was Hutchison-Essar.

Later, he joined Motorola; he wanted a different atmosphere to work in. Until that time, he had been on the client side of the telecom business (as a service provider). At Motorola, he moved to the other side of the table – the seller’s side. In working with Charat Ram and the Ruias, he had enjoyed a lot of liberty and freedom. Motorola offered the experience of a structured international company, known to have great ethics and processes and systems. He joined as executive director and general manager for infrastructure, and then became president, with responsibility for the Asia-Pacific region. “I was a member of the management committee for Asia-Pacific, so it gave me a wide horizon to learn telecom and go to China and other parts of South Asia to understand how telecom was growing in those markets,” he recalls.

Saxena certainly got the change he wanted. At Essar, he travelled in private jets and in the Concorde. At Motorola, he travelled economy. At Essar, everything was flexible and plans could change overnight. At Motorola, things were more bureaucratic and policies were set in stone with no exceptions made. At Essar and the DCM Group, things moved fast. At Motorola, he could become impatient at the slow pace. He understood the difference. “At an MNC like Motorola, you have to follow procedures because, given the company’s presence worldwide, flexibility could lead to chaos,” he says.

At first, Saxena was impatient and unable to cope with the “playing safe” culture although he liked the environment and the respect Motorola gave to people. But it was just too slow for his liking. So he turned it around in terms of working style, and people appreciated it.

Motorola products like the flip-phone were good but they were priced very high. “However smart you are as a company, you always lack something. The lack may not be in technical skills, or management skills, but maybe in market understanding and customer understanding,” he says.

Saxena was with Motorola till 2003, handling the Apac region. That year, through a chance meeting with two young and energetic entrepreneurs (who were brothers) from South Africa, he faced the hard choice of whether he wanted to leave Motorola. His son had graduated in the US and was working as an intern in Motorola. His daughter was also studying in the US. It was a big move to return to India. But return he did. He, along with the two brothers, started Oxigen in a two-room office in Safdarjung Enclave, Delhi.

“The idea of Oxigen came from what was happening in South Africa. They were digitising prepaid for big-format stores like Carrefour. So, while you’re buying your groceries, you can also buy a prepaid recharge, or pay your electricity bill. It struck me that India was on the way to economic growth and services had to grow. Post-paid was out of the question for any mass service in India. So it occurred to us that if services had to go to the masses, it could only be on a prepaid platform. And prepaid payment access across the country would require huge infrastructure. So we thought, can we digitise it? In 2000, Microsoft showed interest in the idea and signed on. Earlier in 2006, Citigroup Venture USA had also invested. We had a great time working with Microsoft. It even allowed us co-branding, at first. Although Oxigen did not have high margins, it was not a money guzzler. We were not doing consumer acquisitions, we were not doing fancy advertising,” he says.

In 2006, the Oxigen team decided to create a value-added service (VAS) aggregation platform. It was already doing service aggregation, so why not another aggregation platform and link VAS with the new platform? “There was no other channel to pay VAS providers, so they had to go through telecom companies. We signed up with a company in Spain for its technology platform. We created another entity, Oxigen Online, and a VAS platform and everybody – TV channels, Disney, Sony – joined us. We branded the VAS platform Bugsy and it was very fancy. CitiBank liked the concept and gave us the seed money and we started building the platform,” he says.

In 2007, they created a wallet called Oxicash, which did not quite take off. “The problem was that the concept of a wallet was too ahead of its time in India. GPRS services were paid at a premium and people were not mobile/internet savvy. Then, when the right time came, we missed the opportunity. Had we seized it as the broadband ecosystem was getting established, there would be no Paytm today,” he says wryly. “The lost opportunity notwithstanding, I still believe there is great potential for online commerce; what is needed is the enablement of the last mile. If this country has to progress, you can’t do it with 200 million people. You have to get the rest of them into the mainstream. And how do you do that? They didn’t have bank accounts until Mr Modi drove that campaign. They will not do savings, because they have only small amounts. They will not spend Rs 200 to go 30 km to deposit Rs 500. So we felt that enablement of the last mile, creating banking access, would become the biggest game changer over time, and I still believe that,” Saxena says. Oxigen has created a payment ecosystem that can support cash, credit cards, debit cards, Aadhaar Pay, UPI, wallet, everything. “We are looking to work the payment space differently. We will spend less money, we will create value. And the chances of us creating huge losses are less because we are not putting money in your wallet and saying, now use it.”

Saxena’s father was in the railways. He did his high school from Moradabad and then went to Roorkee and later Delhi. “My father was instrumental in driving me to think big. He would always tell me to be number one in whatever I do. So I did not have the choice not to be number one in my class. One year, I came second and it was a huge disappointment for my father. I was also reprimanded by the department head. Those days, the opportunities were less and the environment was different. Unless you made it big, you didn’t really make it. That said, I was never a 24-hour kind of student. I used to watch movies and not only bunk classes but also organise mass bunks,” he recalls. For his own children, Saxena adopted a fairly relaxed approach. “I never had the time to pester them for grades or tell them what to do. They were never in the top five,” he says with a smile.

With the DCM Group, he had to travel a lot but his wife and his parents, who lived with him, were always supportive and understood his ambition. “One of my biggest passions is to develop new businesses – on the side, I have developed two to three new businesses just because I could sense the opportunity,” he says.

Retirement? No. Saxena isn’t interested in retirement. Work is adrenalin for him and he cannot imagine living without working. People are his other passion. He has a rich social life and loves meeting new people and mentoring young talent.

The next big thing? “India is at an inflection point in financial services and in digital growth in every sector. Data is going to be a game changer. We have not even scratched the surface in terms of the data revolution. There’s artificial intelligence, software services, algorithms. I think the opportunity is going to be something we may not have even imagined.”


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