Softbank India head Manoj Kohli's journey from 'Mr Dependable' to rainmaker

Softbank India head Manoj Kohli (Illustration by Ajay Mohanty)
For telecom czar Sunil Mittal he was always “Mr Dependable,” whether the job involved expanding Airtel’s network in over 600,000 villages as its managing director or replicating the low-cost network model in over 17 countries of Africa after the takeover of Zain Telecom. A balanced risk taker, he convinced Mittal to take the plunge in an uncharted area — renewable energy — setting up operations from scratch in SB Energy in collaboration with Japanese investor SoftBank. 

After a five-year stint as executive chairman of SB Energy, Manoj Kohli will be SoftBank boss Masayoshi Son’s rainmaker. Kohli, who took charge as country head on January 1, will steer SoftBank’s government relations and public policy issues across the group including the Vision Fund. The appointment comes at a time when Son is facing multiple challenges globally with his investments in WeWork and Uber. In India his investment in Oyo has come under scrutiny recently owing to rising losses, questionable practices and layoffs. 

The Shri Ram College of Commerce graduate plunged into the corporate world when he was 20, joining DCM Shriram as a management trainee. His first call was to learn the ropes in Daurala and Mawana sugar plants. In his 16 years with the Shrirams in areas as varied as refrigeration and fertiliser and a stint in Kolkata (he understands Bengali) he also studied part-time for a law degree and then an MBA from Faculty of Management Studies in Delhi. 

After his long stint in manufacturing, Kohli was looking for new pastures. Although he had offers from several big corporate houses, including the Tatas, the most exciting choice came from Escorts boss Rajan Nanda. He was given three alternatives, work in tractors, JCB or telecom. Kohli bet on telecom and joined Escotel. 

The Nandas later sold their telecom business, and in 2002 Kohli joined Bharti where rose at meteor speed. This was a time when Mittal expanding massively and Kohli was the man of the hour. He claimed in interviews that he travelled to over 100,000 villages, putting up towers, pushing shop-owners to be part of the retail chain, meeting the panchayats and farmers over hookahs and chai. His associates say he was replicating the ITC and Hindustan Lever model, but in his mind he always wanted to reach deeper. 


When Mittal bought Zain, it was Kohli who convinced his boss to send him there to oversee the takeover. He clocked the air miles over 17 countries as diverse as Nigeria and Congo, with different regulatory regimes and consumer behaviour and sell a brand no one had heard of. He brushed up his limited knowledge of French, which he had learnt in his youth, which worked wonders in eight African countries that were former French colonies. 

But Kohli had anticipated it would be an easy ride, which it was not. For one, each state was dramatically different, so his one-size-fits-all strategy came a cropper. Expectations that consumers in developing countries in Africa would behave the same way as in India was, again, a misreading of the reality. Airtel realised that unlike in India, tariff cuts did not lead to an increase in usage in such a way that revenue would again go up to the same levels. The integration and path to profitability took a much longer time, though Airtel did get there eventually. 

The entry into renewables was in many ways a convergence of circumstances and planning. Kohli and his boss had been discussing the huge potential of the renewables as a possible diversification for the group. He even travelled abroad to see how the business operated. At the same time, Mittal’s friend Son had promised Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015 that they would put in 20 GW of renewable power and invest $20 billion in India. It was an ambitious commitment and Son was looking for an Indian partner. The Mittals were roped as a minority partner and Kohli selected as the new boss to build the new business. SB Energy has a long way to go still but at the helm of SoftBank in India Kohli could be useful for negotiating government relations and identify a few more entrepreneurial jewels for the SoftBank crown. 

The 60-plus Kohli is a fitness freak who spends an hour every day exercising. His friends say he is a relationship man, hard working with a single-minded focus on the task. Kohli recently send a fitness videos to his close friends, especially those above 60 years, extolling the virtues of vegetarianism, a good sleep and staying fit. And he even demonstrated the spider walk in the Spiderman. He believes in work-life balance for young people, and is worried that it is missing amongst the millennials. 

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