Yet there’s something that might well be bothering Mittal — something that goes beyond business and beyond Bharti. Once upon a time, he wanted to retire at the age of 50. He was passionate about nation-building and began talking about it long before it became fashionable. Today, that’s the new Holy Grail for successful entrepreneurs. Amassing personal wealth and incredible business success isn’t enough. There’s a yearning to contribute meaningfully through public life. That holds a special meaning for Mittal. “He would have watched Nandan [Nilekani] from the sidelines,” says Tarun Das, chief mentor of Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).
Don’t think of this as management jargon. When we started out, we were an entrepreneur-led, entrepreneurpromoted company. We did a great job. In some companies, this phase lasts forever. Nothing wrong. But in my view, if you do that, you remain small. You can’t manage a large company using this model. So we moved to the next stage — entrepreneur-led and professional-supported. Over the last four years, we’ve moved to professional-managed and entrepreneur-supported. And that’s where we want to keep it. There is one more stage — professional-led and professional-supported. Vodafone is in this mould. To a certain extent, so is MTN. No single shareholder is dominant. Ownership was created among managers unlike Vodafone. I personally believe, the finest way to drive value for all stakeholders is from the position we are currently in.
But there’s nothing like the anticipation of snagging a deal that he almost lost. Imagine talking marriage to someone who ditched you at the last minute, at your terms and at a better bargain. Sweet, huh? For the 52-year-old chairman and group CEO of Bharti Enterprises, this is that moment. One year after being spurned by the African telcom giant MTN, he is now busy sewing up the deal. The two companies are in exclusive talks till July 31. The likely merger will create a $23-billion emerging market giant that will straddle India, the Gulf and Africa — populous geographies with close to 2.5 billion people and 200 million plus customers. It will also make the combo the third largest mobile operator in the world with over 200 million customers in 25 plus countries.
By all accounts, this will be a transformational deal. This will easily be the biggest overseas M&A deal by an Indian company. It will also give Sunil Mittal, the entrepreneur, the next fix that he desperately needs. By now, the domestic telecom business is on auto pilot. For the past five years, Mittal tried his hand at retail, insurance and agriculture. He picked the best companies in the world — Wal-Mart, AXA and Rothschild — to partner him. (Rothschild was later replaced by Del Monte). But the results haven’t come through as yet. Replicating the same Airtel success has proven elusive. So now, Mittal is focussing on telecom all over again. Except that this time, he has an entirely new agenda.