Pen, paper & plainspeak: Akhil Gupta on his debut book, WFH, Covid-hit biz

Akhil Gupta, Vice-Chairman, Bharti Enterprises (illustration: Binay Sinha)
It’s a pleasant break from all the Zoom meetings when Akhil Gupta, the numbers man at Bharti group, opts for a face-to-face lunch meeting. His first choice is Belvedere, a by-invitation club at The Oberoi in Delhi, but we finally settle for 360°, a multi-cuisine restaurant in the same hotel, for a real eating-out experience after a long time.

It’s early Saturday afternoon, and there’s no car whizzing into the driveway. The extraordinary silence at the hotel’s entrance comes as a reminder that there’s no such thing as rush hour anymore.

In the foyer, a lone family is trying to confirm a booking, while the usually busy sofas by the swimming pool — and for that matter, everywhere — are vacant. In the restaurant, I pleasantly find a couple of tables occupied. Gupta arrives soon after, armed with a mask.

Our corner table is meant for an easy conversation. We take our face covers off, only to be quickly put through the sanitiser ritual and a form-filling exercise to declare that we have no signs or symptoms of Covid-19. A digital menu is on offer, but Gupta asks for a physical one, and I go with it. The vice-chairman of the Bharti group is a regular here and quickly makes up his mind. Lemon iced tea, with very little ice for him, and then California maki (also called “a roll”). I order homemade ginger ale and a vegetarian risotto.

The reason we’re meeting is the book he’s written — his debut actually. Some Sizes Fit All. I have many questions but these days no conversation can begin without exchanging notes on the pandemic. It’s a no-brainer, but it must be asked. How badly has the industry been impacted? ‘’Telecom didn’t get so affected,’’ Gupta says. But overall, the impact on businesses has been unprecedented, especially in the travel and hospitality sector. However, everything returns to normal eventually, is his belief. “In 2008, it had looked like the world would end, but it didn’t.’’

Our drinks arrive as we discuss the revival chances. Except travel, hospitality and a few others, businesses have started to recover, says Gupta. For hospitality, the next six to eight months are likely to be bad, he believes. “In infrastructure, it will depend a lot on how much the government invests.”

Continuing with the pandemic, Gupta, who’s also the executive chairman of Bharti Infratel, the group’s tower and infrastructure company, talks about the likely cases of insolvency and takeovers because of it. So, are bankers ready to redraw the business lines in a post-Covid situation? “There’s time still for that. Everybody is anticipating (what may follow). But surely there will be opportunities in stressed assets.’’

Recently, a family-owned firm of Gupta’s had made a bid for Videocon Industries that’s facing bankruptcy proceedings over default. He says his son, Anubhav, who wants to turn around firms like these, bid for Videocon. And Gupta’s backing him as some 50 per cent companies could go into insolvency after Covid.

We pause to sip our drinks. It’s a relaxed weekend and Gupta, in a semi-formal crisp white shirt, is dressed for the unhurried setting. Our conversation turns to his book. How long did he take to write it? Two-and-a-half years, he says. All written in longhand, with pen and paper, on international flights. “That was the only free time I had and I made use of it.’’ We laugh and joke that thank God the book was done before the pandemic effectively grounded international flights. How many note pads did he fill? “Can’t remember that but I like to write; I’m old school that way,’’ he says. Quite a contrast for the man who has spearheaded many innovations at Bharti.

I ask him about a chapter in the book — “Fix it when it ain’t broke”. Was he inspired to write it from his experience at Bharti? Peace time is the best time to innovate for tough times, or war; else, you are busy coping with problems and stress, he explains. “At Bharti, we were doing extremely well in 2007-08, and we decided to go asset light by setting up a tower company. That was innovation.’’ Hasn’t Jio been like a war?

The food arrives as if to punctuate the Jio moment. My green risotto and his American rolls look good. The rolls are vegetarian, I’m sure, I ask. I’m promptly told they have crabs and tuna packed in them. I continue bravely with my risotto.

We return to Jio, the state of telecom and, of course, Vodafone Idea. On Jio, he says this is not the first time the group has gone for deep discounting and super-low tariffs. “We are familiar with it,’’ he says, adding that such price points are not sustainable for the industry. There’s no question about it that ARPU (average revenue per user in a month) must go up. He doesn’t mince his words that the regulator should have intervened to stop predatory pricing.

The main course almost done, I’m looking forward to dessert. But Gupta wants “plain coffee’’ and asks for an Americano as I go for masala tea. He argues strongly when asked about the general narrative that Jio connection is better than the rest. Call drops and network congestion would be there for all operators, including Jio, he says. But, isn’t it true that telcos have not invested enough in infrastructure? “That’s not true. This is a sector making the highest investment — around Rs 20,000 crore a year.’’ He adds that operators need more spectrum. Will Bharti Airtel bid for 5G auction? “Of course, we will.’’ Indeed, the timing of the auction will be important. His guess is 5G auction won’t be held before early 2022.

Are we staring at a duopoly in telecom? Gupta’s answer is a firm ‘’no’’. Vodafone Idea is not going anywhere, it’s quite clear after the fund-raise announcement by the telco, he points out as he digs into the rolls.

We can’t discuss telecom without talking about Sunil Bharti Mittal. Referring to his book, he says, “People wanted me to write the story of Bharti.” But his response has been clear: “That privilege must belong to only one man—Sunil.’’

The talk veers to the new normal: WFH. He finds working from home a bad idea. “We have to find a middle ground. An office away from office perhaps… People must get out of home.’’

I can’t resist the final question. Bharti versus Jio: Will Bharti find its place back? “Let the best man win. Our approach towards competition shouldn’t be like that between Coke and Pepsi,’’ says the man who claims to never carry work home. It’s believed a Coke employee will never have Pepsi even at a social gathering. Will he use a Jio connection, I ask. “Of course, I will if I have to.’’ But quickly adds: “I will prefer Bharti though.”

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