Voice&Data Lifetime Contribution 2016
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.