“It is like shorthand,” is how Barney Harford, COO, Uber, describes the understanding between him and the company’s chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi. Having known each other for almost two decades, during which they competed as well as worked together, the two share not only similar ideas about running a company but also about competition. Harford, who’s on a short visit to the country, told Karan Choudhury and Nivedita Mookerji in an interview that Uber had no interest in doing minority deals, when asked about merger talks with rival Ola. Edited excerpts:
Does it help that you and Dara Khosrowshahi worked together earlier at Expedia?
Well, we have not only worked together, we have also competed against each other. I actually sold Expedia to Dara, back in 2001. I think that relationship means we have seen how each other behaves, there is a lot of trust. We do not need to fully explain everything as we know how each other would think about things. This allows us to be more efficient and, effectively, to be clear about which bits of the business I would double click on, where he would pay more attention. So, in a business where there is a lot of complexity, it allows us to move faster.
There has been a lot of talk around a possible merger of Uber and Ola. What is happening on the ground?
We are always open to having conversations with potential partners around the world. But as we look at the India market, we are in a clear position of strength in this market. So, we have been very clear that we have no interest in doing minority deals going forward in India or in any other core markets where we operate today. The transaction that we announced in Southeast Asia with Grab is very different from India. Also, that transaction has freed up substantial resources, which means we can now double down on investments in core markets including India.
What is the role of an investor like SoftBank Group on the negotiation table for a merger?
SoftBank is a shareholder in Uber, but the decisions we make in the company are driven by Dara and his leadership team. Even the Grab transaction was taken to the Uber board for approval. SoftBank does not have a substantial say, board members get to vote on resolutions at their level. Dara makes the calls around what happens in this company. The idea is to maximise the interest of all shareholders as well as stakeholders.
Do you think after Travis Kalanick’s exit, Uber has changed significantly?
Very much so. I think what is clear is that Uber has a new CEO, leadership team, a new ethical compass. We have a new commitment to doing business the right way, doing the right thing, a deep commitment to working in partnership, with the cities, states and countries where we are present.
What does India really mean to Uber when you call it a core market? Where is it in the pecking order?
It is very high (in the pecking order). India by 2025 is going to be the most populous country in the world. As we think about the landscape of the markets we play in, we look in particular at emerging markets as being incredibly important growth engines of the future. And India is quite high on that list. The scale, the growth opportunity of the business we have here today and the partnership that we have with the government are all very important for us.
Other than UK, this is really our high-focus market. Our CTO and head of products would also shortly visit here. India is also among our most important centres for technology development around the world.
Your competition, Ola, has entered the Australia market and might even go to UK. How difficult is it to operate in these markets?
We have invested substantially in Australia and UK markets. There was a brand affinity with businesses and deep partnerships with drivers, we are confident of our position in these markets. We have been in these markets for a long time and are deeply committed there.