Sunil Bharti Mittal: Transforming Challenges Into Opportunities

Chairman and Managing Director of Bharti airtel, Sunil Bharti Mittal, poses after unveiling the brand's new identity in New Delhi on November 18, 2010. Bharti airtel unveiled its new youthful and dynamic identity globally and announced that it has crossed the milestone of 200 million customers spanning across nineteen countries in Asia and Africa. AFP PHOTO/ MANAN VATSYAYANA (Photo by MANAN VATSYAYANA / AFP)

From starting a bicycle parts business with ₹20,000 at age 18, to worldwide acclaim spearheading technological advancement in satellite communication, telecom tycoon Sunil Bharti Mittal continues to go forth and conquer.

By Nichola Marie

In yet another shining acknowledgment of his stellar contribution, Sunil Bharti Mittal, visionary founder and chairperson of Bharti Enterprises, was awarded Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by King Charles III in the United Kingdom. The KBE is amongst the highest honours conferred by the British Sovereign to civilians and is awarded in an honorary capacity to foreign nationals. “I am deeply humbled by this gracious recognition from His Majesty, King Charles,” Mittal responded, adding, “UK and India have historical relations, which are now entering a new era of increased cooperation and collaboration. I remain committed to working towards strengthening the economic and bilateral trade relationships between our two great nations. I am thankful to the Government of the UK, whose support and keen attention to the needs of business has been critical in making the country an attractive investment destination.”

Last year, Mittal had made waves speaking at the 7th edition of the India Mobile Congress, where he revealed a significant technological leap. “A new technology is now available for our country,” he shared. “Satellite communication is here to serve every inch of our country and, of course, the globe.” He went on to unveil the innovative OneWeb constellation, in which Bharti holds the largest stake, which is poised to serve the nation and the world. Announcing an impending era of unprecedented connectivity, he revealed, “Anybody anywhere in the country, however remote or far or in difficult areas, can be connected from our satellite ground station that has been set up in Mehsana, Gujarat.” 

Bharti Airtel has so far rolled out its 5G services in 5,000 towns and 20,000 villages across India. By March 2024, it aims to cover the entire country with its 5G network. “Airtel has been at the forefront of the telecom revolution. We will keep on dutifully doing our job,” Mittal affirmed.

Success Unparalleled 

The billionaire businessman and philanthropist, ranked the 10th richest person in India by ‘Forbes’, with an estimated net worth of US$14.8 billion in 2023, is indeed ‘dutifully doing his job’ and doing it exceedingly well. His ‘baby’ – Bharti Enterprises – is one of India’s foremost first-generation corporations with interests in telecom, space communications, digital solutions, real estate and hospitality. Bharti has joint ventures with several global partners like SingTel, SoftBank, Del Monte, and the UK and French governments, amongst others. Bharti Airtel, the flagship company of Bharti Enterprises, is a leading telecommunications company with operations in 17 countries and ranks amongst the top three mobile operators globally. Airtel is India’s largest integrated communications solutions provider and Sub-Saharan Africa’s second-largest mobile operator, serving over half a billion customers across its operations.

Mittal is also Co-Chairman of Eutelsat Group, a global leader in satellite communications, delivering connectivity and broadcast services worldwide. Eutelsat Group is listed on the Euronext Paris Stock Exchange, with Bharti as its single largest shareholder.

Having served as the Chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce and of GSM Association concurrently from 2016 to 2018, he has been a trustee at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace from 2009 to 2021. He served as Chair of the B20 India Action Council on African Economic Integration during India’s G20 Presidency. He is also a serving Commissioner at the International Telecommunication Union/ UNESCO Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development. A member of the World Economic Forum’s International Business Council as well as of the Global Board of Advisors at the Council on Foreign Relations, he has served on the boards of several multinational companies including Unilever PLC, Standard Chartered Bank PLC and SoftBank Corp. 

Closely associated with spearheading the Indian industry’s global trade and investment initiatives, he has served as the President of the Confederation of Indian Industry and has served on the Prime Minister of India’s Council on Trade and Industry. He is Co-Chair of the ICT and Emerging Technologies Working Group of the India-US CEO Forum and a member of the India-UK, India-Japan, India-Sweden CEO Forums. He is Co-Chair of the India-Africa Business Council.

The Chairman and CEO, Soft Bank Corporation, Mr. Masayoshi Son, the Chairman, Bharti Enterprises, Shri Sunil Bharti Mittal and the Senior MD of the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, Mr. Tadashi Maeda call on the Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, in New Delhi on June 22, 2015.

A staunch believer in a responsible corporate’s duty to give back to the community in which it operates, he founded the Bharti Foundation, which currently runs more than 173 Satya Bharti Schools and supports over 800 Government schools under its Quality Support Program to ensure holistic education.

A recipient of the Padma Bhushan, one of India’s highest civilian honours awarded to individuals for demonstrating distinguished services of high order, Mittal is also a recipient of the Harvard Business School’s Alumni Achievement Award, the highest alumni honour given by the institute. He is on Harvard University’s Global Advisory Council and has served on the board of Dean’s Advisors at Harvard Business School. He received the GSM Association’s prestigious Chairman’s Award and has been conferred honorary doctorates by several leading universities in India and Europe.

Bright Spark

Born on October 23, 1957 in Ludhiana, Punjab, Mittal — like his brothers — was given the middle name Bharti (from the Hindi name for India – Bharat), by his father, to indicate their Indianness. His father, the late Satpal Mittal, had been a Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha (Indian National Congress) from Ludhiana, Punjab. Joining the Wynberg Allen School in Mussoorie, he later attended Scindia School at Gwalior and graduated in 1976 from Panjab University, Chandigarh, with a Bachelor of Arts and Science for which he studied in Arya College, Ludhiana.

From a young age, he not only showed great promise but the ability to roll with the punches, think on his feet, and adapt to the situation. Sensing something special about him, his father told him he had the vision to accomplish great things in life. “I aspired to achieve great things in life; admittedly, I wasn’t sure about what these great things would be!” he shared in an interview later.  A first-generation entrepreneur, he started his first business at the age of 18, with a capital investment of ₹20,000 borrowed from his father. His first business was making crankshafts for local bicycle manufacturers. This period, during which he had to fend for himself, travel at the back of trucks and in trains without much in his wallet, made him realise how tough life could be. And then when the business just didn’t take off, after mulling over other possibilities, he changed track. 

In 1980, along with his brothers Rakesh Mittal and Rajan Mittal (both are currently Vice Chairmen of Bharti Enterprises), he started an import enterprise named Bharti Overseas Trading Company. Selling his bicycle parts and yarn factories, he moved to Mumbai. In 1981, he purchased importing licenses from exporting companies in Punjab, and went on to import thousands of Suzuki Motors’ portable electric-power generators from Japan. After the sudden ban on the import of generators into India, in 1984, he was compelled to change track again, and started assembling push-button phones in India. Mittal used to previously import these phones from a Taiwan company, Kingtel, replacing the old-fashioned, bulky rotary phones that were in use in the country until then. Bharti Telecom Limited (BTL) was incorporated and entered into a technical tie-up with Siemens AG of Germany for the manufacture of electronic push-button phones. By the early 1990s, Mittal was making fax machines, cordless phones and other telecom gear. 

In 1992, he took another leap of faith, successfully bidding for one of the four mobile phone network licenses auctioned in India. As one of the conditions for the Delhi cellular license was that the bidder have some experience as a telecom operator, Mittal clinched a deal with the French telecom group Vivendi. One of the first Indian entrepreneurs to identify the mobile telecom business as a major growth area, he launched services in Delhi in 1995, when Bharti Cellular Limited (BCL) was formed to offer cellular services under the brand name AirTel in 1997. Before long, Bharti became the first telecom company to cross the 2-million mobile subscriber mark. 

In June 2010, Bharti acquired the African business of Zain Telecom for $10.7 billion (enterprise value), making it the largest-ever acquisition by an Indian telecom firm. In 2012, Bharti tied up with Wal-Mart, the US retail giant, to start a number of retail stores across India. The same year, Mittal took Bharti Infratel public with an IPO that raised $760 million. In late 2013, Mittal announced the acquisition of Warid Congo, making Bharti Airtel the largest telecom provider in the Republic of Congo. After making changes at Bharti Airtel in 2016 to enable the company to compete against the launch of Jio, in 2017, Mittal announced a ‘war on roaming’ by scrapping charges for outgoing and incoming calls within India as well as international roaming charges. In 2022, Google announced a $1 billion investment in Bharti Airtel, of which $700 million would be for a minority stake in the company. No wonder, Mittal had been dubbed a ‘once-in-a-generation man’ by the media. His vision, the ability to boldly plan ahead — and follow through — is at the core of his personality.

Personal Insights
Come rain or shine, Mittal’s disposition is unfailingly sunny. Always immaculately turned out, he favours sharp suits and shoes, crisp shirts and contrasting ties. Known to never speak about his personal life, his wife Nyna, though no recluse, keeps a lower profile compared to other CEO wives. Through the Bharti Foundation, she focuses on the education of the underprivileged. The couple has a daughter and twin sons. Mittal’s daughter Eiesha Bharti Pasricha, a lifestyle investor, lives in London with her husband, businessman Sharan Pasricha, and their two children. Mittal’s son, Kavin Bharti Mittal is an entrepreneur and the Founder & CEO of Hike, a New Delhi-headquartered tech and internet startup. His son Shravin Mittal is the Founder & CEO of Unbound, a London-based venture capital and private equity firm, and a director of Bharti Global Ltd, a London-headquartered firm in the Bharti corporate family. He was reportedly instrumental in the successful acquisition of OneWeb. 

Window Into His Inner World

“Everybody nurtures dreams but few manage to realise them,” Mittal says, admitting that sometimes he himself finds it difficult to believe the position he has attained. A believer in divine intervention, he says he has faith in a power which has always guided him through thick and thin. This power infuses him with a positive spirit and provides encouragement. To those seeking business advice, he shares, “One should sense opportunity at the beginning of a curve and venture into hitherto unexplored fields. Yes, there will be difficulties on the way… but everything in life is possible.”

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