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Akhil Gupta, Bharti Tele Ventures

July 15, 2005
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One of the most satisfying moments in Akhil Gupta's career with Bharti Tele Ventures was not seeing share prices go up or seeing it win one of many awards the company has won or witnessing it jump up the rankings of lists such as "best-managed company" or "best-performing stock".

Not that these achievements were unimportant. They were enormously satisfying and a cause for pride. But they cannot compare with the emotion he felt a few months ago when Bharti rolled out cellular services in Kashmir, the first private operator to do so. A young Kashmiri man who joined the company, told Gupta softly, eyes shining with gratitude: "This is the first job anyone in my family has had in eight years."

Creating jobs in a state ravaged by militancy and unemployment is a very rewarding feeling. Bharti has created about 350 direct jobs in Jammu & Kashmir and around 1,000 indirect jobs, namely, dealers and distributors.

Gupta has had quite a few such moments. One occasion was when a man called him to thank him. He had had a heart attack and called his doctor on his mobile.His doctor advised him to go immediately to a clinic that happened to be just two minutes away. Without that advice, he would have tried to reach a hospital that was much further away and would not have lived to tell the tale.

"Another occasion was during the tsunami. Survivors had no way of knowing whether their loved ones were dead or alive or of letting family know that they were all right. So we set up free calling booths all over the coastal areas affected by the disaster so that people could just walk in and make a call. They functioned for about a month," says Gupta.

Hear him talk about these moments and you can see why he abandoned chartered accountancy –­ even though his practice was doing well and his father was aghast at the idea that he should switch careers –­ because it was not sufficiently "creative" or "satisfying".

He is passionate about Bharti, proud of its incredible achievements and eager to see it marking yet more milestones."When we started in 1994, we were a very small company and our dream was to be an all-India operator. We are now the only private operator that offers services in all 23 circles. Our next dream, looking ahead three to four years, is to be one of the largest telecom operators in the world.Some of the biggest operators in the world have around 23 million customers. We already have 12 million and expect to have 40-45 million in the next few years."

Asked how Bharti has created such a special work culture that seems to inspire those who work for it, Gupta says it's been a conscious effort with one underlying theme. "Doctors say most heart attacks happen on Monday –­ the prospect of going back to work. Well, Sunil (Mittal) wanted to created the reverse syndrome at Bharti where people couldn't wait for it to be Monday."

He says there is a tremendous sense of ownership among employees and they are given a high degree of freedom and responsibility in day-to-day operations, right down to the call centre operator who has the discretion to deal with customers as he or she deems to be right,given the circumstances of the problem or complaint.

Everyone who joins is told at the outset that they will be empowered to follow their sense and judgement. Managers are told that they must empower those below them. "It's empowerment with accountability because we obviously have processes and systems in place to cater to cases where people might make mistakes. But we tell people not to be afraid of making mistakes. As long as it's an honest mistake, it's okay."

Gupta is a Delhi boy through and through, born and brought up in the capital. He has never lived in any other city.His childhood was happy, secure, and affluent. His father was a lawyer, there was no deprivation of any kind and strong moral values were inculcated early on."My parents didn't try to push lots of different values, fortunately. The one overarching value they impressed on me very strongly was to be happy and never to cause unhappiness to anyone else. If you steal, you'll make someone unhappy and if you deceive someone, you'll make someone unhappy so while it might seem a simple moral system, it actually covered the most important issues," he says.

His parents also taught him to be independent. British tycoon Richard Branson tells the story of how his mother, determined to teach him to be self-reliant, drove him in the car when he was around eight or nine years old and stopped at an unfamiliar place a long way from home.She told him to get out of the car and find his own way home and drove off.

Gupta did not experience anything quite so daunting but he was around the same age when, one day, his parents wanted to go and watch cricket at Ferozeshah Kotla but didn't want to wait till Gupta returned from his school in Daryaganj. "They told me to join them there, at the ground. And I did. Some other friends were going too so I went along with them. There were lots of small things like this that forced me to manage on my own," he says.

No one ever asked him what he spent his monthly allowance on. "It was up to me to pace it out over the month. Even that was good discipline. I had to manage my money on my own."

He does not think there has been a decline in moral values in the younger generation. He and his wife Archana are happy with the way their 20-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son have turned out. "I find that the children I meet, the children of my friends, are all well behaved and with a firm grounding. You can't tell children these days what to do, or force things on them but if you explain matters to them, they understand."

A student of "Happy School", he says that he was indeed a happy student. A progressive school by the standards of the time, teachers were prohibited from hitting pupils, no matter what the provocation. He was certainly a happier schoolboy than many children today. "We had no pressure then. It was so much fun. We did sports, drama, music, the lot. No one had tutors then the way they do now. We learnt at school but didn't bring work home and get pressurised."

Having no desire to follow in his father's footsteps, Gupta read commerce at Sri Ram College of Commerce and then did his chartered accountancy. He started his career with his own practice (in fact Bharti was one of his first clients) but got bored with it.

He was only 26 at the time and so he was able to embark on a totally different career. "I didn't discuss it with anyone because everyone would have said I was nuts. But I knew I had to do something more challenging." He ran an electronics business with a friend for a few years and then joined Bharti in 1994.

He has been closely involved from the beginning in Bharti's phenomenal growth, both organically and through acquisitions.He has spearheaded the formation of various joint ventures with leading international operators and financial investors.Gupta has been instrumental in raising over $1 billion in equity and over $1 billion by way of project finance for the group. In his current role as joint managing director of the group, he is involved with a range of strategic and financial issues and mergers and acquisitions.

During his time at Bharti, Gupta has learnt that when managing people, it is important to be honest and fair with them."If you know an employee is not going to be going any further, it's best to be honest with them. We deal with bright young people and they appreciate it when you don't give them any spin but just talk straight."

With travel and work, there is not much time for socialising, not that he is all that keen on it these days. "Maybe it's to do with age, but I tend to find it too time-consuming. We do like to meet our friends on the weekend though." An hour-long morning walk in Maharani Bagh where he lives is a must and so is tennis on the weekends.

An energetic, active man, he does not lie around on weekends dreaming of retirement. Quite the opposite. "I hate having too much time on my hands because I really don't know what to do with myself. Even holidays shouldn't be too long –­ 10 days to a fortnight is enough. I'm glad that people tend not to retire these days but go on working. I'm a firm believer in the saying that you should die with your shoes on."

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