Succession planning at Bharti, with a difference

Succession planning at Bharti, with a difference

There’s a new chief executive officer at Bharti Airtel Ltd, the second in its history, and there are mutterings in some sections as to whether this is a leg-up for the new man in the post—Sanjay Kapoor; and it most definitely is—or a sort of let-down for the previous occupant of that position, Manoj Kohli (he is to now head international operations; and this writer really doesn’t know the answer to this).

I have known Kohli for a long time—since his time as HR head of US conglomerate Allied Signal in the mid-1990s to be precise—and he is a sound operations man, which could be one reason why Bharti chief Sunil Mittal picked him. Bharti had around three million subscribers then and I remember that Kohli’s choice was a surprise but then, Mittal has always known what he is doing.

Even then, Mittal would talk of institutionalizing management at Bharti Tele-Ventures, as the company was then called. We must build a team that can manage a telecom company that has 25 million subscribers, he told me once. The company had around 10-12 million subscribers then; it has 116 million (in India) today.

Kohli, clearly, had been hired for that purpose, a selection that showed the use of more science than Mittal had used when he identified someone to head the group’s entry into the mobile telephony business in the early 1990s. Bharti had initially won a licence for Mumbai, not Delhi, and I remember Mittal telling me once that he selected N. Arjun—another of those fine managers who always seem to be around in the Bharti stable—because he was the only bachelor in the senior team and could move to Mumbai. That, though, remained a false start; and when India eventually became a “mobile" market, Bharti ended up with a licence to operate in Delhi.

It could probably be similar logic about finding the right man for the job at the right time that has driven Mittal’s decision to have Kapoor head the local operations of Bharti Airtel and Kohli head the growing overseas operations. I last met Kohli last week— ahead of the announcement —and while he didn’t tell me what was in store, he did speak passionately about Bharti doing in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh what it has done so well in India.

Mittal once told me that he saw Bharti as a once-in-a-generation kind of company. In the 1980s, it was Reliance Industries Ltd, he said. In the 1990s, it was Infosys Technologies Ltd. In the 2000s, it would be Bharti. In some ways, he may have actually outdone both those companies. For instance, Infosys continues to be headed by a succession of the company’s promoters (not to say that they don’t deserve to do that). Mittal’s own succession planning efforts in Bharti present a contrast.