My Mentor: Ajit Mantagani. I knew Ajit well from 1973 to 1980 when we were in the same organisation [Asian Paints]
How he has helped me hone my leadership skills: Ajit had a gift of stringing disparate executive actions in a conceptual framework which conferred upon them clarity and logic.
His advice that has stayed with me: That juniors take their cue not from what we profess, but what we do.
More than 30 years after he first heard a friend recite it at Delhi’s St. Stephens College, his alma mater, Sanjeev Aga has finally gotten around to reading T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. One of the great poems of 20th Century, Love Song is replete with allusions to Dante; philosophies of Bergson, Laforgue and talks about weariness, frustration, but most importantly — indecision. This should be interesting because Aga is leading Idea Cellular into a very definitive and decisive phase of the company.
In the last 16 quarters, according to TRAI data, Idea Cellular has increased its revenue market share from 8.8 percent to 13 percent. To be fair, over the last 18 months, its net margins have fallen sharply, much like its peers Bharti and Reliance Communications. Yet, unlike the latter two, whose stocks have remained flat over the last year, Idea has gone up 12.5 percent. In a year when there was nothing but bad news for the telecom sector — price wars, high prices for 3G spectrum, complete mess on 2G spectrum — Idea has been holding out steady. From an also ran in 2004, it has emerged as number one operator in Maharashtra, UP (West), MP and Kerala and a credible No. 3 in circles like Gujarat, UP (East) and Karnataka. Insiders say the turn-about has happened because Aga has been able to push decision making down the line to people who are interacting with customers.
He has developed sales and distribution network that reach out into rural areas, par for the course in FMCG but difficult in telecom. Also, Idea has set up a capital-light approach to sales and distribution which keep overheads under check. This is critical in the industry at this stage because of declining profitability.
“Given the limitations on Sanjeev of both resources and legacy [of earlier joint ventures], he has steered Idea quite well,” says Asim Ghosh, former head of Vodafone and now CEO of Husky Energy in Canada. Though Idea Cellular, a part of Aditya Birla Group, got off the blocks as early as 1996, it didn’t make much progress. Then there was a joint venture with the Tata Group and Birla AT&T. The resulting entity, popularly called Batata(!), too did not take off. There was a lack of clarity and direction inside the company at that time. The one good thing that happened is that in 2002 the company got out of its rather unwieldy moniker and rechristened itself as Idea. “It was Sanjeev who came up with the name “Idea” because he wanted to build a company around innovation,” says R. “Balki” Balakrishnan, chairman and chief creative officer, Lower Lintas (India), the company that manages the Idea advertising campaign. Till about 2004, the company was operating in circles like Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh. In those days all the subscriber action was in the large markets of Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore.
Sanjeev Aga moved out of Idea in 2002 as the managing director of Aditya Birla Nuvo, the holding company that houses most of Aditya Birla group’s new age businesses like telecommunications and insurance. He never talks about that phase. Though people who know him talk about his disappointment with the way Idea Cellular was being directed in those days. Aga is a patient man. Rather than look elsewhere or being confrontational, he simply chose to bide his time. Once Tata group got out of the venture in 2006, Aga returned to manage the company.
And he found out that telecom sector had changed completely. Bharti had launched its outsourced “minutes factory” model, Vodafone had used the classic brand marketing approach to build a premium service and Reliance Communication was using its breadth of service and low prices. What could Idea do? It is here that Aga’s approach to life of deducing things from first principles came in handy. This in spite of the fact that he finished his MBA from IIM, Kolkata and worked in that vanguard of FMCG companies: Asian Paints and later Blow Plast. “Even then he was quiet and perceptive. I tried to push aggressive targets on to him but he would just say ‘You go back to HQ and I will send you my plan’. Very un-MBA like,” says Ajit Mantagani, Aga’s boss at Asian Paints.
(This story appears in the 31 December, 2010 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)