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Airtel’s new CEO rings operations in full steam

7 October 2015 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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By Shabiya Ali Ahlam
New CEO of Airtel’s Sri Lankan operations has kicked off his stint by reaffirming the company’s commitment in continuing to be a challenger in the highly competitive telecom industry.

Looking forward to a new experience and keen in bringing about a change, Airtel CEO Jinesh Hegde, the first foreign CEO for the local operations, has been fully involved in the operations since he arrived in the country.

Mirror Business met with the enthusiastic CEO who was easy-going, down to earth and most definitely fun-loving. 

While quipping throughout the interview, Hegde in all seriousness shared his views on the industry, Airtel’s local operations, its commitment and its future plans.


Following are the excerpts of the interview.


Tell us about yourself?
I come from the southern part of India and I have a background of both engineering and management. 

I am very keen on digital space. Personally I am very active on social media. I like observing new trends. Like all South Asians, I love cricket. I am a big fan of Sanath Jayasuriya and Kumar Sangakkara, whereas back home, it’s Sachin Tendulkar. 

I am a fun-loving person. I like to enjoy what I am doing. I like to work hard and also play. This is what I expect from my employees as well. It is important to enjoy our work and it is even more imperative to play on our strength instead of worrying about what we don’t have. Each and every one of us is unique and that should be appreciated.


Would you apply this at an organisational level as well?
Most definitely. Airtel is a challenger and we choose to display what we have. As a company, we play to our strength and we have been successful in that.
In Sri Lanka, lack of resources is a challenge for us but we overcome this by capitalising on what we have - that is making efficient use of what is available. 


It’s been nearly two months since you took over as chief in Sri Lanka? How has it been so far?
My first task was to meet all employees, mostly those at the field level. I wanted to hear directly from them as to what makes them excited and what they feel Airtel should be doing. I also met with retailers as I wanted to hear first-hand what they felt about us, what customers think about the brand and most importantly as to why people are buying our services, and the possible reasons why some aren’t.

I have a fair view about the market. I have covered a large base. It was not only a good opportunity to get familiar with the industry, but Internet penetration is picking up at a rate in Sri Lanka and it is the youth that is dominating this area. We want to be part of this journey. Also, youth is a segment that we understand well and we want to keep leveraging it. In the last few quarters our progress has been commendable. Currently we have about 1800 sites (towers) and of that 1300 are 3G sites. We are now prioritizing in rolling out more 3G sites.

We are currently covering 90 percent of the nation’s population in terms of network, and this we are looking to expand further.

In September we added 30 sites and this month we are adding 50 more. By December we hope to add another 100. 

We are investing on network and distribution. Currently we have about 3000 people promoting Airtel services and this we want to increase as well. We have over 100 partners, 45,000 retailers, four company-owned brand shops, 29 franchise-owned brand shops and 50 Seva (service) centres, which are customer service points in rural areas.

I am satisfied on what I have seen so far. We will continue to invest and expand our services. Airtel services should be available at more tough points. That is one of the key focus areas. 


From a general perspective, what are your observations of the industry?
In the subcontinent, Sri Lanka is ahead of the curve in terms of technology uptake. And I say this having worked in India. The quality of service in the network side is commendable. Lot of credit I must give to the regulator for collaborating with the operators. The latter has contributed to this by investing in the required infrastructure. Airtel alone has invested US $ 400 million since inception to date on network. Operators are looking to invest further largely because we are seeing response from consumers. More and more Sri Lankans want to stay connected and that is an opportunity for the industry.


Where does Sri Lanka stand in terms of technology uptake compared to its regional peers? Where is the room for improvement?
As an industry, it is imperative that we keep the investment sustainable. We need to keep the stakeholders, who are customers, regulators and investors, well balanced. End of the day, customers want excellent services at affordable rates. The regulators, as spelt out in the road map, want us to keep investing to uplift the industry, and investors want returns.  

Tariffs in Sri Lanka are the lowest in the world and that needs to be handled carefully. We should not destroy it with a price war. 

Here I must give credit to the regulators as they have been keeping the interest of consumers and have pushed us to handle the challenge in a cautious manner.


Having spent nearly two decades in the telecommunications industry, what new do you bring to Sri Lanka?
Airtel prefers to keep it simple, not complicate things and focus on our strengths. We want to increase our footprint in the nation. That will be my focus here. 
New I bring to the table is how I engage with my staff. I believe that companies are not built by machines but by human resources.
 
I have an open door culture and I discourage the cabin setup. I prefer to mix with the staff in their day-to-day activities. 

Normally when a new CEO is appointed he is expected to sit with his management team. I didn’t do that. I wanted to sit with the field level staff as they are the ones who are directly interacting with our customers, representing the Airtel brand and delivering our promise. Airtel is divided into seven zones and I spent the first one and a half months meeting our ground level staff working in all those zones.

I must say that the most exciting thing for me during those visits was that our boys wanted to take selfies with me. That feeling was great as I suppose this was the first time they have had a CEO from the company engage directly with them without barriers. From a management perspective this is new.
I have an ambition of developing 50 leaders out of my team who can take future roles. I am currently working on a programme called ‘What’s Next’. I am personally taking this initiative to groom these 50 persons on how to deal with management dilemmas. I am excited.


In what ways can the regulators help in making this industry one of the key revenue earning spheres for the country?
The telcos are already playing a key role in connecting the people of this country. The digital space is contributing a great deal in this regard. As telecom operators, we need to see better ways of bringing in efficiencies and getting in new cost-efficient technologies. 


Many, including the rating agencies have been saying that consolidation in the local telecom scene is a must to survive and improve margins. Do you see
it that way?

A number of views have been shared in this regard. I feel we, as a challenger, have created a space for us. I am not so sure about others, but Airtel has identified areas of opportunities. Internet and youth are some of the opportunities identified. Our focus will be on providing affordable services and in that endeavour, I am confident that our entity has the business scale.


Where does Airtel stand amongst its competitors? On what areas does it stand out?
We are a youthful and vibrant brand. Like in other markets, in Sri Lanka too the youth loves Airtel. We want to leverage on that segment.

We have yet to put this out but I am happy to share that we have launched ‘Smart Cache Technology’. It will help Airtel consumers to download internet 40 percent faster. It typically takes the shortest path to fulfil a search criteria and that helps consumers enjoy improved download speed. For its teaser campaign, which was called ‘Be Brave’, we received one million hits in just three days and the majority was from the youth segment. That I believe is phenomenal and it means that there is much interest in Airtel’s offering and people are looking forward to experiencing new technologies offered by us. 


What areas would need renewed focus? Where is the scope to do better?
Renewed focus on youth is the way forward for Airtel Lanka.
In the recent years we have heard on and off that Airtel was planning on selling its operations in Sri Lanka. What is the exact situation in this regard and why is there so much uncertainty 
around this?
This came from the Indian press. These are some speculations that have been brought to light on and off for the last four years. We prefer not to respond to these speculations, instead focus on improving our efforts in moving forward in the market we serve.

In Sri Lanka, we are one of the few operators who are investing heavily on network. Keeping the speculation aside, we want to keep growing here. 


So there is commitment to stay?
I can’t say that. What I can say is that we are keen on increasing our growth and looking forward to expanding.

It is also noted that revenue from operations in South Asia, which includes Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, is shrinking. If true, from which areas is it losing out?
I wouldn’t say that revenue in the region is shrinking. We certainly are growing.

Since its entry, Airtel Lanka has been running a scale-down operation, though many predicted a telecom company as large as yours could wipe out some of the already established players in the local market. What really happened?

We are one of the latest entrants in Sri Lanka. My team and I are interested in what value we bring to the table, to our customer base. We want to build a sustainable business here and till we have a sizable mass we will continue to operate this way. 


What does Airtel Lanka have in store for the local market?
Internet and smartphone penetration are increasing month-on-month. Airtel is the world’s third largest telco and has an operating model that revolves around outsourcing. Here we continuously focus on bringing down the cost and this global strength we will continue to leverage. 

In India we have launched Wink Music and Movies and it’s our intention to introduce the same to the Sri Lankan market.  They are rich in content which include Hollywood and Bollywood productions. To this we will add some local content as well so it will appeal better to Sri Lankan consumers. This will go well with youth. There are some of the global opportunities Airtel is presented with, which it can extend to its servicing regions. 

This is an extension of our brand promise. 


What is the next wave of growth identified for Airtel Lanka? Is it voice or data?
For Airtel, it is data. Our single-minded focus is on Internet. We observe that Internet penetration is increasing not only in the urban areas, but in the rural areas as well. 


As the new CEO of Airtel Lanka, what is the message you have for the industry, employees and your customers?
For the industry is that each one of us have our own space and Airtel would like to focus in just that.

For employees my message is that when you wake up every morning you should be excited to come to work. When you end the day you should feel satisfied with your contribution.

And for our customers, we will live up to our promise, which is to bring in exciting new technologies at affordable rates.
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