5 business lessons from Sunil Bharti Mittal, the man behind Airtel

Bharti Airtel is now the third biggest mobile network operator in the world

As Airtel grows from strength to strength in its African operations, with numerous national Airtel branches dominating the continent’s markets and the company raking in acknowledgements for excellent practices and contribution to development, the company quickly comes to mind as one of the outstanding driving forces in Africa’s telecommunications industry, a [pivotal element in the economic growth sweeping across the continent. As economies on the continent continue to blossom, shaping prospects of greater  enterprise  and development, one ponders what lessons aspiring African entrepreneurs and corporate bodies can learn from the long and eclectic career of Airtel founder, chairman and managing director Sunil Bharti Mittal.

Evolve your business

Starting out in the business world at age 18 launching Bharti, initially a crankshaft producing business worth 20,000 Indian Rupees ($381) which supplied to local bicycle manufacturers, Mittal knows that evolution is key to business success.  Within two years he diversified, opening one stainless steel plant, and one yarn producing plant.

Mittal also went through a phase as a travelling salesman, and later, seizing upon chance as it arrived, he became the exclusive agent in India for Suzuki Motor’s electric power-generators.  This exclusive contract was whipped from his hands in 1984 as the Indian licensing administration granted licences to two other companies for the manufacture of generators.

Stumbling across the touch-tone phone on a trip to Taiwan, Mittal launched into producing the first touch-tone phones in India, until the government once again granted licences to bigger industry players with which Mittal’s company still could not compete.

Branching out into the manufacture of fax machines, answering machines and cordless telephones, Bharti was on its way to becoming what remains today the biggest telephone manufacturer in India.

Never give up

The good old never give up phrase is never obsolete. Mittal has seen a number of obstacles placed in his way.  More than once, his painstaking preparation to grow his business was undermined at the last minute by private-sector and government initiatives that threw him off the playing field.

Having done all the leg-work to gain exclusive licences, Mittal twice found the government opening up the market to heavy-weight players, ruining his plans to lead innovation in the Indian economy.

However, Mittal never gave up, persevering and knowing that success would finally arrive if he played his cards right and stayed one step ahead of the masses.


By 1992, Mittal had formulated his next plan:  to launch one of India’s first mobile-networks.  With the Indian government inviting tenders for mobile networks in 1991 and 1992, Mittal gained the necessary expertise by intensive learning and global market research, but as the bids rolled in to the government, Mittal sat back and waited.

He also sat and waited as the first mobile-network operators failed miserably and gave up.  It was at this point that Mittal entered the sector.  He reminisces: “But lo and behold, in two or three years the other companies started falling like ninepins. They couldn’t even pay the licensing fee. They struggled, and we were ready”.

With Mittal’s mobile network operations spreading across India, his company rebranded under a single name of Bharti Airtel in 2003.

Bharti Airtel is now the third biggest mobile network operator in the world, and all thanks to Mittal’s ability to wait for the opportune moment to strike, as compared to the many network operators who immediately flashed their cash and drowned in their rush to take the market.

Sometimes you have to sacrifice
Mittal knows that in order to excel in business, priorities need to be selected, and sometimes this comes with sacrifice.  Following 35 years as a dedicated entrepreneur, Mittal now accepts that his time is limited and his pastimes have dwindled over the years – necessarily – giving way to his ever-growing business aspirations and projects.  While not a particularly pleasant thought, it is important to remember that sacrifice always has its rewards.

He admits: “Over the years, I have forgone my favourite pastimes. There was a time when I flew planes, pursued sky-gliding, and played golf and tennis. Slowly, one after the other, all these preferred pastimes have disappeared from my routine because of the pressure of work.”

Know your support network

In a life where business has taken over and pressures run high – and where pastimes have been sacrificed in order to allow business projects to be the sole priority – Mittal knows the importance of having a support network, an escape from the tensions of a dynamic work life.

Mittal will always make time and effort for his other great priority in life: his family.  He names wife Nnya, daughter Eiesha and twin sons Kavin and Shravin as his single biggest treasure and his private support network, saying his family is: “always there to lend support”.

His tactic for unwinding and stealing a bit of alone time?  Mittal says that every time his work commitments allow it, he takes his family away for a private holiday.


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