Voice&Data Life­time Con­tri­bu­tion 2016

Voice&Data - - CONTENT - —Sandip Das

Sandip Das comes from a very il­lus­tri­ous fam­ily of Odisha that in­cludes some of the coun­try’s most well known doc­tors, dec­o­rated mil­i­tary of­fi­cers, a top notch aero­nau­ti­cal en­gi­neer, high court chief jus­tices, phi­lan­thropists, a Padma Bhushan, a poet, and a nu­clear physi­cist. In that sense he has a lin­eage of achiev­ers in di­verse fields. And the en­vi­ron­ment that he was brought up in was very vi­brant and in­tel­lec­tu­ally stim­u­lat­ing. Though his fa­ther had a fiery tem­per, he was a very strict dis­ci­plinar­ian (he had Sandip’s trouser pock­ets stitched be­cause he once saw him talk­ing to a se­nior un­cle with his hands in his pocket) and wanted Sandip to be the per­fect boy who was a good sports­man, a good stu­dent, a good singer, good writer, and a good speaker. On the other hand his mother was very calm and like the glue of the fam­ily who was loved and re­spected by ev­ery­body, and made sure that it was al­ways val­ues and in­tegrity first. The kids were never spoilt with pocket money; and were scrubbed with the com­mon man’s Lifebouy soap rather than the gen­teel Lux. Money was very pre­cious and the kids were al­ways re­minded to spend it wisely. The par­ents per­son­ally took care of the kids’ stud­ies. Das sum­ma­rizes that the net re­sult of this kind of up­bring­ing was that he grew up to be a very dis­ci­plined, hard work­ing, fo­cused in what he was do­ing, and at the same time car­ing, aes­thet­i­cally aware, and an artis­tic young man.

In a tete-a-tete with Voice&Data, Sandip Das, who loves mu­sic, movies, sports, spe­cially foot­ball and cricket, so­cial­iz­ing and has re­cently started learn­ing Urdu, talks about some facets of his life, his ca­reer, and what he thinks of tele­com now.

Voice&Data: Was there any par­tic­u­lar dream about a ca­reer or a pro­fes­sion you wanted to pur­sue?

Sandip Das: I ac­tu­ally wanted to be a doc­tor, but un­for­tu­nately in school I had to make a choice be­tween maths and bi­ol­ogy. And I chose math­e­mat­ics, be­cause my fa­ther also wanted me to. And af­ter that, like a good son, I did my me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing. While do­ing my en­gi­neer­ing I re­al­ized that while I was good at tech­nol­ogy, I did not want to do a full en­gi­neer­ing job be­cause I had a nat­u­ral flair for meet­ing peo­ple, study­ing brands, peo­ple, or­ga­ni­za­tions, and mar­ket­ing.

Voice&Data: How did your fam­ily back­ground, and your ed­u­ca­tion shape your val­ues and your think­ing about life as well as work?

Sandip Das: I have never con­sid­ered the com­pa­nies that I have worked for as ‘com­pa­nies where I work’. They were al­ways ‘my com­pa­nies’. I have al­ways been very fo­cused and aligned with the goals of the com­pany. I also un­der­stood very early in life the power of peo­ple. All the suc­cess that I have had in my life was on the back of great teams. I was very for­tu­nate, dur­ing my ca­reer, to have some ex­tra-or­di­nary set of bosses, and some ex­tra-or­di­nary col­leagues too, and over a pe­riod of time you learn a lot from them, and their qual­i­ties rub-off on you. And you also learn from them what not to do. I had seen my fa­ther’s very bad tem­per and how he suf­fered on ac­count of that, so I be­came very calm. Voice&Data : You are al­ways very calm ? Sandip Das: I also have a bad tem­per but it comes out only when the wa­ter has crossed the mark. Also, I have been a very cu­ri­ous per­son, and I think on ac­count of my cu­rios­ity I was able to learn more. I do not feel any shame in ask­ing any team mem­ber, even if that per­son is a ju­nior, about things I don’t know. The per­son I ridicule the most is my­self. I have an enor­mous self-be­lief, but at the same time I do not take my­self very se­ri­ously. Some­times op­por­tu­ni­ties come your way, and those op­por­tu­ni­ties al­low you to suc­ceed. If you grab them with both your hands and are sin­cere about it, you get where you want to get. I had a de­vel­oped a high sense of aes­thet­ics per­haps in­her­ited from my par­ents, and if you ap­plied aes­thet­ics to your work and brands, you cre­ate beau­ti­ful work. It be­came very im­por­tant for me that the qual­ity of any work I cre­ate was good, and it has to be like my brand. I be­lieve that one has to make solid con­tent, make it into a beau­ti­ful pre­sen­ta­tion, and then present it beau­ti­fully. My fa­ther used to teach me cal­lig­ra­phy, where I learnt the fine art of bal­anc­ing be­tween sym­me­try and cre­ativ­ity. At the same time, what

is im­por­tant is to think dif­fer­ently and chal­lenge sta­tus quo. That still ex­cites me a lot.

Voice&Data : How were your early work­ing years and what did you learn there?

Sandip Das: Af­ter my en­gi­neer­ing I did my MBA, and that is when I started lov­ing my sub­ject. That is why my first as­sign­ment was with a mar­ket­ing firm, Usha In­ter­na­tional, and not any en­gi­neer­ing firm. At that time the Usha Man­age­ment Train­ing pro­gram used to be ranked as high as the Tata Ad­min­is­tra­tive Ser­vices of the Tata’s and the Hin­dus­tan Lever’s trainee pro­gram. The Usha Man­age­ment Train­ing pro­gram cre­ated a very strong foun­da­tion for my work and life. In that com­pany, I han­dled godowns at Kash­miri Gate; learnt 5-colour print­ing at a print­ing press where I had to spend the whole night some­times; worked in the HR de­part­ment do­ing tick­et­ing for can­di­dates; and also worked in the Ac­counts de­part­ment fill­ing ledger books as there were no com­put­ers at that time. That is how I learnt a lot. When I be­came a di­vi­sional man­ager at 27, there were 40 plus year old man­agers in my team, who were vet­er­ans. But no­body could chal­lenge me on my work knowl­edge or my com­mand over the sub­ject. Dr Charat Ram was an out­stand­ing trainer - very par­tic­u­lar, very rig­or­ous and de­manded a lot from his peo­ple. He was able to put to­gether a team of very young ‘Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tors’, most of them in their early 30s. Ac­tu­ally, Usha’s trainee pro­gram has pro­duced a lot of CEOs in In­dia. In my life­time, if I can also leave be­hind me about a dozen of my peo­ple who be­come CEOs, it will be great. Now my dream is to build in­sti­tu­tions, which will then build lead­ers of the fu­ture.

Voice&Data : But you moved on. From con­sumer durables to au­to­mo­biles…

Sandip Das: When I left the Usha Group I was head­ing one of their big­gest di­vi­sions and man­ag­ing dis­tri­bu­tion, deal­er­ship, man­ag­ing the P&L, and so on. Af­ter that, I moved to Toy­ota in Dubai, and I was very ex­cited about the job over­seas. For­tu­nately, I got an op­por­tu­nity to work with one of the most pro­fes­sion­ally run com­pa­nies in Dubai, the Al Fut­taim Toy­ota group. There I learnt about plan­ning, dis­ci­pline of em­pir­i­cals, and be­came nu­mer­ate. I learnt from them how to be metic­u­lous, and how to in­sist on sys­tems and pro­cesses. What was in­grained the most at Toy­ota was the sense of ‘qual­ity’. There were ob­sessed and fa­nat­i­cal about qual­ity, and it has been in my blood ever since. While Usha taught me han­dling of ground op­er­a­tions and prag­ma­tism, in Toy­ota I learnt how large cor­po­ra­tions work.

Voice&Data : What took you to­wards tele­com ? It was not a very hot and hap­pen­ing sec­tor then.

Sandip Das: In 1993, my friend Ash­wani Wind­lass, who used to be a se­nior man­age­ment trainee to me at Shri­ram, came to me in Dubai and said you are wast­ing your time here. It is a very small mar­ket, and that In­dia is open­ing up with eco­nomic re­forms com­ing in. He asked me to come back to In­dia and said that some­thing very ex­cit­ing is hap­pen­ing here. Ash­wani, who is like my el­der brother and men­tor, and Analjit Singh (of the Max Group) did not tell me any­thing but just parked me in their elec­tron­ics di­vi­sion. While in Dubai I was driv­ing brand new Toy­otas and Lexus ev­ery week, I was given a used 118NE car here back home. One year later, Analjit said that from today we have de­cided to give you our new busi­ness which is Pag­ing, and here is a copy of the li­cense. And the next day I was off to Bangkok for my train­ing.

Voice&Data : Were you a very tech­nol­ogy in­clined per­son?

Sandip Das: Ac­tu­ally, when I was in Hong Kong for my ini­tial brief­ing at Hutchi­son, some­one gave me a gad­get, and asked me to use it for mak­ing phone calls. It was the first time I had a mo­bile phone in my hands, and I was very ex­cited. I made the first calls to my wife and my fa­ther, and told them that I am walk­ing on the street and call­ing you. In that sense, I stum­bled into tele­com. I must give credit to Ash­wani and Analjit SIngh, they gave me a li­cense, they gave me a great brand, and left it on me com­pletely to cre­ate a com­pany. So, what­ever I had learnt at Usha and in Al Fut­taim Toy­ota, I poured ev­ery­thing into the job. Within a year, and I was just 35 years then, I was made the CEO of the com­pany. It was a ter­rific mo­ment for me, and from there on my real tele­com jour­ney started. Af­ter some­time, Ash­wani moved on, and joined Reliance, and Asim Ghosh came in as the MD of Hutchi­son Max. We hired some very bright peo­ple in­clud­ing Harit Nag­pal who now heads Tata Sky, Su­nil Sood who is the MD of Voda­fone, San­joy Mukarji, Naveen Cho­pra the present Voda­fone COO, Ra­jiv Sawh­ney… and

started build­ing the com­pany brick by brick from there.

Voice&Data: You have worked with fam­ily run con­cerns like Usha and Maxis, and also with a multi­na­tional names like Voda­fone, and fi­nally with a sin­gle man driven ven­ture like RJio. What were your learn­ings there?

Sandip Das: Some­times in large multi­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions peo­ple can hide un­der the cover of sys­tems and pro­cesses, and th­ese or­ga­ni­za­tions tend to hang on with peo­ple a bit longer, giv­ing them more op­tions and op­por­tu­ni­ties. But own­ers are ac­tu­ally much more de­mand­ing, and do not suf­fer fools for long. At the end of the day, you work well with own­ers when you are com­pletely aligned with their goals. And as I have said, I have al­ways con­sid­ered my com­pany as my own busi­ness. You might not have the same style as the owner but the busi­ness goals must be fully in sync. At the end, a per­son with high trust, high in­tegrity, high per­for­mance and in­tel­lect is highly re­spected and val­ued by the own­ers, and they are more than gen­er­ous in re­tain­ing and nur­tur­ing that as­set. Th­ese own­ers are very coura­geous peo­ple, sit­u­a­tion­ally very bright, have the abil­ity to iden­tify and pick op­por­tu­ni­ties, have cre­ated com­pa­nies and brands, and have made it big dur­ing their life­time. It is a great learn­ing to work with them. I think, I was very for­tu­nate and ben­e­fited hugely while work­ing very closely with such bright minds like Analjit Singh, Ma­jid Al Fut­taim, Mukesh Am­bani, Li Ka-shing, and Ananda Kr­ish­nan. Th­ese are out­stand­ing busi­ness­men.

Voice&Data: Who have been some of the tele­com heroes for you, peo­ple in this sec­tor you have ad­mired and learnt from?

Sandip Das: I had a brief stint with Analjit Singh (Max Group) but he had a great sense of aes­thet­ics and pro­pri­ety. He is a man with an ex­tremely high emo­tional in­tel­li­gence. I have great re­spect for Su­nil Mit­tal be­cause I have watched him from the time I was 20, and I have seen his growth and vi­sion. I have seen him evolve into a true global leader, wag­ing his own bat­tles. I am deeply in­debted to Ash­wani Wind­lass who brought me into tele­com. Then, Asim Ghosh, who was a hard­core MNC guy, and for me ap­pren­tice­ship with Asim was a great ex­pe­ri­ence. He was my men­tor in the true sense. I learnt a lot from Ananda Kr­ish­nan also be­cause his way of think­ing was very prac­ti­cal, and had an al­most in­tim­i­dat­ing IQ level. I also ad­mire him be­cause he has shared his wealth with his em­ploy­ees, much more than many oth­ers I have seen. I ad­mire Mukesh Am­bani a lot for his sheer in­tel­lect, drive, grandeur and scale of the vi­sion, and the abil­ity to get af­ter that vi­sion ir­re­spec­tive of what hap­pens. And his at­ten­tion for tech­nol­ogy and en­gi­neer­ing acu­men, be­sides busi­ness acu­men… I have learnt a lot from him too.

Voice & Data: You un­der­stand In­dian tele­com, know the chal­lenges, op­por­tu­ni­ties, the strengths and the weak­nesses. If you were given charge of In­dian tele­com, what would you do to turn it around?

Sandip Das: Most im­por­tant is to put out a roadmap, maybe a five year or a 10 year roadmap about what we want to achieve as a nation in tele­com. I don’t think that is on any­body’s sight. That should be drawn and put out in pub­lic to share with the peo­ple. While there is a lot of talk of broad­band and Dig­i­tal In­dia, I am not sure even CEOs of tele­com com­pa­nies are aware of what is our na­tional tele­com vi­sion so that they can align with that. It is very im­por­tant to form a deeper part­ner­ship be­tween the op­er­a­tors, the gov­ern­ment and the reg­u­la­tor. They should see them­selves as three part­ners who have to join hands to achieve this na­tional goal rather than be­ing in a con­fronta­tion sit­u­a­tion cen­sur­ing each other all the time. This re­la­tion­ship should be in­cen­tivized. Also, there needs to be a cross pol­li­na­tion be­tween the gov­ern­ment and the in­dus­try. Why can’t we have an in­dus­try per­son as the TRAI head, or a se­nior gov­ern­ment ex­ec­u­tive on the op­er­a­tor’s board? We have some of the finest minds in the gov­ern­ment ser­vices, so why can’t we bring them to­gether to work along with the in­dus­try. This way you will be able to bring down the walls be­tween them.

Voice&Data: What is your rec­om­men­da­tion to the Govt of In­dia?

Sandip Das: First and fore­most, I be­lieve that tele­com should not be seen as a silo min­istry in it­self. Tele­com, broad­band, dig­i­tal, and IT has to be seen as a seam­less plat­form for the en­tire nation to cat­a­pult it­self. So, there must be an in­te­grated role of this func­tion with the other min­istries. For in­stance, the ap­proach should be such that if gov­ern­ment has a vi­sion for health­care in In­dia, then we should see how tele­com can en­able health min­istry achieve that vi­sion. Sim­i­larly for ed­u­ca­tion and agri­cul­ture. Does the agri­cul­ture min­istry have a broad­band plan? I am not sure. We should ad­dress the min­is­ters, the par­lia­ment and tell them this is what we can do as an in­dus­try.

Voice&Data: But of­ten spec­trum al­lo­ca­tion, and high cost, is cited by op­er­a­tors as the rea­son for not be­ing able to do a lot of things?

Sandip Das: Yes, spec­trum has prob­a­bly been un­der­sold in the 2G stage, and over­sold later. How­ever, there should be a con­certed ef­fort to see how we can man­age tran­si­tion to dif­fer­ent tech­nolo­gies from time to time with­out hurt­ing the in­dus­try, and ul­ti­mately with­out hurt­ing the con­sumers per se. Con­sumer’s in­ter­est should be the top pri­or­ity for ev­ery­body. For in­stance, ev­ery­body knows that tak­ing tele­com to ru­ral and far-flung area is a costly propo­si­tion. So, ei­ther a pol­icy for pro­mot­ing re­gional MVNOs should be for­mu­lated, or the gov­ern­ment should take a call for build­ing a na­tional broad­band back­bone. Why should each pri­vate op­er­a­tor spend so much time and money in dig­ging the whole coun­try? Let there be a pri­vate-pub­lic con­sor­tium with each side con­tribut­ing and then let there be free ac­cess. That will al­low David to chal­lenge Go­liath. It will keep Go­liath from mo­nop­o­liz­ing and on his toes.

Voice&Data: You have of­ten spo­ken about the in­volve­ment of aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions in na­tional tele­com build­ing.

Sandip Das: I would cer­tainly want to up­grade the level of in­volve­ment of aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions for real life busi­ness sit­u­a­tions. This is the sad com­men­tary on the ed­uca-

tion sys­tem in our coun­try. We still have out­dated syl­labi. In the US for in­stance, when­ever the in­dus­try has a chal­lenge, it throws it to the uni­ver­si­ties, and the uni­ver­si­ties of­ten come out with the so­lu­tions. That is how No­bel Prize win­ners are cre­ated. Why are In­dian col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties not cre­at­ing cheaper tele­com tech­nolo­gies or ap­pli­ca­tions and busi­ness mod­els? Why are we not cre­at­ing nurs­eries in th­ese aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions? Make it com­pul­sory for the in­dus­try to men­tor and spon­sor th­ese nurs­eries. Why can’t we em­u­late some­thing like an In­dra Nooyi’s Chair at Yale at our IITs and IIMs, or other in­sti­tutes? Nei­ther the in­dus­try here, nor the gov­ern­ment or the ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions are get­ting there.

Voice&Data: You have given so many ideas and sug­ges­tions. Do you think some of this will be taken up ei­ther by the gov­ern­ment or by the in­dus­try? Or is it that we will meet again af­ter 5 years and you will make the same sug­ges­tions again?

Sandip Das: We in In­dia tend to get dis­heart­ened very quickly be­cause we be­lieve that his­tory is a great in­di­ca­tor of the fu­ture, but I am an op­ti­mist. We must have the pa­tience to un­der­stand that the di­vide is deep. It takes time to heal and the most im­por­tant thing is trust. So, if the three part­ners (Govt, op­er­a­tor and the reg­u­la­tor) do not have a com­mon align­ment, there will be a prob­lem. For in­stance, COAI is al­ways seen as whin­ing and ask­ing for more from the gov­ern­ment. The gov­ern­ment does its own cal­cu­la­tions and says we have given enough. Each party does its cal­cu­la­tions on the ba­sis of the re­sults they want to see. My ques­tion is that why should there be two cal­cu­la­tions within the same in­dus­try? That is why I am say­ing that cross-pol­li­na­tion is es­sen­tial. Also, the gov­ern­ment has just too many things to set right. It is dif­fi­cult for one man or a hand­ful of men to do this. It needs mass in­volve­ment. Here the lead­er­ship will have to be taken up not at the apex level, but maybe all the way down the line. Voice&Data: Can po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship drive this in In­dia? Sandip Das: I will share with you a story from Malaysia. The Malaysian tele­com min­is­ter was pulled up in the Par­lia­ment by his Prime Min­is­ter for low broad­band pen­e­tra­tion in the coun­try com­pared to some neigh­bors like Thai­land and Sin­ga­pore. The min­is­ter im­me­di­ately sent a text mes­sage to the reg­u­la­tory head shar­ing the PM’s con­cern and an­noy­ance with him, and ask­ing for a din­ner meet same night with the op­er­a­tor CEOs. The reg­u­la­tor called me, as I was the big­gest op­er­a­tor there and I said: Sir, we will be very happy to come, and we will work to­gether to find a so­lu­tion. That night we met the min­is­ter, and promised to present a plan soon. Three days later we pre­sented a plan, and told the min­is­ter to prom­ise the PM that we will have 50 per­cent broad­band pen­e­tra­tion. We ac­tu­ally de­liv­ered 75 per­cent. This hap­pened be­cause all the three part­ners worked to­gether on it with a sin­gle goal and mis­sion. It all hap­pened in real time - is­sue in the par­lia­ment, din­ner set up with the min­is­ter in real time, and plan pre­sented within 3 days in real time. In In­dia, if all the three stake hold­ers had worked to­gether as a team then I think In­dia could have skipped 3G and moved di­rectly to 4G, and thus saved huge amount of re­sources. I will also add here that the in­dus­try cap­tains will have to close ranks and think of the coun­try. Let me tell you, there will be some sac­ri­fices, but then in the end ev­ery­body will win and reap the ben­e­fits. If In­dian op­er­a­tors sit to­gether and see this as a sin­gle mar­ket of 1.2 bil­lion peo­ple and pos­si­bly bil­lions of IoT en­abled ma­chines, they can dic­tate terms to the global tech­nol­ogy ven­dors about an In­dian model, price and tech­nol­ogy that suits the In­dian mar­ket, and also reap the ben­e­fits of economies of scale. Why can’t the In­dian op­er­a­tors get to­gether and ask the net­work ven­dors to give a com­mit­ment of mov­ing to 5G, with the least in­vest­ment, on the guar­an­tee of 1.2 bil­lion sub­scriber busi­ness. It is pos­si­ble in today’s sce­nario. We have to con­sider our pop­u­la­tion as an as­set. Voice&Data: What would be your ad­vice to this gen­er­a­tion of tele­com lead­ers? Sandip Das: My ad­vice to them will be break th­ese shack­les and get into the free mar­ket mind­set. And see how they can hold the gov­ern­ment’s hand in mov­ing for­ward. Make the min­is­ter suc­cess­ful by mak­ing telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions in the coun­try suc­cess­ful. Do not talk to him about sub­scriber num­bers but show him this is what we will do in ed­u­ca­tion, this is what we will do in health, this is how we would be bet­ter than China, and this is how we will be bet­ter than Amer­ica. For the in­dus­try, I be­lieve that tele­com as an in­dus­try is chang­ing its char­ac­ter from a tech­nol­ogy-based ser­vice in­dus­try to a dig­i­tal in­dus­try. Tele­com lead­ers will have to align with this change, re­think their busi­ness model and there­fore the CEOs will have to press the re­fresh but­ton much more fre­quently. All the dis­rup­tions hap­pen­ing in the in­dus­try today are be­cause the in­cum­bent op­er­a­tors were sim­ply hold­ing on to their older mod­els, leav­ing a lot of un­ad­dressed gaps, and not do­ing fun­da­men­tal in­no­va­tions. An­other thing, I must share here is that I have al­ways thought about my com­pany from the cus­tomers per­spec­tive. Only when you do that you will want to change prod­ucts, trans­form them, and when its value for the customer goes away, de­stroy that prod­uct and cre­ate a new prod­uct. You must al­ways keep the can­ni­bal in the fam­ily and not make him the com­peti­tor. Be­cause the com­peti­tor will al­ways come with a dis­rup­tive idea, a dis­rup­tive model, and a dis­rup­tive ini­tia­tive to fill the gaps you have cre­ated in your mar­ket. Great busi­ness lead­ers know when and how to de­stroy their own mod­els.

Voice&Data: Any re­grets in life, or any­thing you missed out on?

Sandip Das: My health. For some­one who was a very ac­tive sports­man, I think I have been very neg­li­gent about my health. Dur­ing my very hec­tic 30 years in tele­com, I have ig­nored my health. I have to fix that now. The sec­ond thing is that I am very fond of and want to start writ­ing again. I hope that at some point in time, I will be able to write ei­ther short sto­ries or books.

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