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On a warm day in September, a tall, balding 52-year-old white man with electric blue eyes drew crowds of curious onlookers with his antics on the dusty streets of Ranchi in Jharkhand. Passers-by stopped and gawked as the man, clad in a black shirt and blue jeans, and followed by half a dozen young men in T-shirts and jeans, broke into an impromptu Dabangg gig, shouted sabse sasta and halla bol, and strode down the town’s streets, darting into small shops and homes every once in a while. A casual onlooker would have been forgiven for thinking that the heat had affected the senses of a white man unaccustomed to the Indian summer. But there is always a method to the madness that Sigve Brekke, managing director of Uninor, displays from time to time.

As Brekke, who is also executive vice-president and head of Telenor Asia, told me later that evening, his company might have lost its telecom licences after the Supreme Court verdict, but he was not going to let the business that he had built over the years go down the drain. Within 48 hours of the Supreme Court order cancelling 122 2G licences given out in 2008 by then telecom minister A. Raja — which included 22 of Uninor’s licences — Telenor had taken two decisions.

One, it was in India for the long term and would bid afresh for licences and spectrum (as Telewings, a fully-owned subsidiary of Uninor’s parent company Telenor) whenever the government finalised its policy and regulations. And two, it would not let its business wither away because of the interim uncertainties. “In the telecommunications business in India, you are either in or out. There is no going slow. The choice was to quit or go full steam. We decided to go full steam,” explains Brekke.
 
BEST FOOT: Sigve Brekke, with the top management of Uninor, during a roadshow in Ranchi

Its decisions stand in sharp contrast to the actions of  its peers, who had also lost their licences. Some, such as Etisalat, Loop Telecom and S Tel, have abandoned the game and left India. Others, such as Sistema of Russia, are banking entirely on legal recourse before deciding on their next step (Sistema has put in a curative petition in the Supreme Court).

Of all the new players who got into the game because of the 2008 licences, only Telenor is actively working on building its business. This despite having lost Rs 1,320 crore (about $244 million at Rs 54 to a dollar) on the venture since May 2009, when Uninor launched services.

The Ranchi antics were part of a road show meant to improve the morale of his sales people, build relationships with retailers, and send out a message that Uninor was not going to abandon its customers in India — come what may. The fact that it also helped the company pull in additional customers was a bonus.

A Tough Journey
Twenty years ago, Brekke led a completely different life. As the deputy minister of defence for Norway at the age of 32, he was accustomed to discussing grave matters such as NATO, Russia’s proximity and possible threat to Europe using Norway as a gateway, and restructuring and scaling down NATO troops and positions following the collapse of the Berlin wall. He had never imagined that he would ever be engaged in a series of entirely different battles in India — with his local telecom partner Unitech over control of the business; with the Indian government for getting fresh licences; and finally in the market place to preserve and increase marketshare. The last is proving to be a particularly bitter fight.

Within days of the Supreme Court judgment, Uninor customers were receiving messages from rivals with deals to lure them away. Walls of cities in the 13 key circles they serviced were plastered with advertisements that claimed that Uninor was shutting shop and urged customers to migrate to other service providers. Simultaneously, Telenor and Unitech were locked in an equally bitter battle. Telenor wanted its Indian partner out and a new partner in. Unitech was equally sure it would not move out without adequate compensation.

With the auctions for fresh licences and spectrum due next week — 12 November — Brekke has won at least one significant battle. He has reached an agreement with Unitech, which sees the latter exiting the joint venture. Both Brekke and Unitech refuse to disclose the exact amount at which the deal was struck.

Shortly after this agreement, Telenor found another Indian partner, Sudhir Valia (Indian laws restrict foreign direct investment in telecom at 74 per cent; so Telenor cannot cross that threshold in Uninor). Again, Telenor has put out only the bare essentials of what the deal will be about, holding back on details such as how much Valia is investing (except to say that the investment will be in his personal capacity). That is at least one problem crossed off.

Another decision, a painful one at that, was to slowly wind down operations in four of the 13 circles. This was decided shortly after Brekke realised that auctions would not be held in May or even in August, as expected. Brekke says that this was when Uninor reached its lowest point: taking the decision to scale down in four circles. This was done for two reasons: one, the parent Telenor had been funding the entire operation for months and had taken on unsecured short-term debt to the tune of Rs 9,000 crore (taking the company’s total exposure to over Rs 15,000 crore), which was recalled by banks. Two, these circles were responsible for 40 per cent of the overall operational losses.
 
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Brekke travelled to each circle to break the bad news personally; the company has and is still trying to find jobs for all its on-roll employees, 100 of whom have been absorbed within the company.

But, by September, Brekke had regained much of his usual optimism, and Uninor had bounced back to a certain extent. Interestingly, the telecom operator, which traces its ancestry to Norway, has done things right in the Hindi belt. This is one of the reasons why Brekke is holding most of his road shows in this part of India. Uninor, claims one company executive, is now the No. 4 player in Ranchi in terms of market share. The aim is to displace Idea and take the No. 3 spot overall.

Revival Raga
Brekke, who has made 36-odd visits to 16 cities and towns in India in the past six months, came to Ranchi from Kolkata after concluding a similar road show in Durgapur. He strolls in casually — almost as if he happened to drop by — to address the local media, meeting each correspondent personally. He is dressed in his uniform of blue jeans (he changes into black jeans for meetings with Delhi’s bigwigs) and black shirt with a small Uninor logo in blue. Then follows a short briefing, the gist of which is translated for the local media by his team. As soon as this is done, Brekke climbs onto a truck covered with white and blue balloons to unveil a giant gullak on which is printed “pay less and save more” by moving to Uninor. Once the photographs have been taken and he has danced to the beat of drums, it is time for business.

Close to a 100 regional sales executives and distributors from across Ranchi troop in for lunch. Brekke — after a hearty Indian meal — sits down and assures his distributors that the company is totally committed to strengthening ing the network, building distribution throughout the state and will offer the cheapest products vis-a-vis the competition. The distributors are then invited to voice their problems and ask questions. Then it is the turn of the “soldiers”, the regional sales executives (RSE).

Using humour, Brekke begins by telling them what a burden the other men on the stage (his top team) are on the company (taking fat salaries but failing to bring in even a rupee in revenues) and that they, the foot soldiers, were his sole competitive advantage. “If these guys don’t do their jobs, we will be fine. If you don’t do your jobs, we are sunk,” he says to loud cheers and clapping. He goes on to announce a month’s bonus for all RSEs — a job that normally sees heavy churn — who have been with Uninor for two and a half years (his words no longer need translation as the young men lift him up in joy) and a dinner and movie for all the others on birthdays and anniversaries. The idea is to give the RSEs an identity and make them feel part of the company.

Then begins a grand road show. Brekke travels on a truck down the streets of Ranchi, surrounded by RSEs on motorcycles and company staff on foot carrying banners with the sabse sasta slogan and shouting “halla bol” and “sabse sasta Uninor”. The group heads to the middle of Hari Om Mahal, a market area that houses offices and outlets of rival service providers, to hold a promotion activity. There is almost a stampede as Brekke gives away free recharge coupons — mainly to young students, the company’s largest customer base. Unruffled by the crowd, he does his Dabangg routine to surprised onlookers. In what appears to be a return to his old avatar as deputy defence minister,  he leads the group into the market area looking every inch a general at the head of a posse of soldiers. He stops people at random, asks them which operator they use and urges non-Uninor users to “not waste their money”.

Not for a second does Brekke look out of place or uncomfortable as he signs autographs for retail shop owners who have never even met the circle heads, leave alone the managing director, of any of the companies whose products they have been selling for years.

Here To Stay
Unconventional in dress and behaviour, Brekke manages to fit into the Indian landscape with elan. He is on back-slapping terms with his eight circle heads — all of whom report directly to him — unlike most operators where there is likely to be at least two layers between a circle head and the managing director.

Brekke has had a chequered career. After 18 years in politics, he left to study at Harvard at the age of 35. He decided to pursue a Master’s in finance, microeconomics, trade relations and Asia (a premonition perhaps?). Around this time, Telenor, Norway’s largest telecom company, was looking towards Asia for growth. “I asked the CEO of Telenor if there was anything I could do and he said yes, we are considering Asia but we know nothing about it. At least you have (done) some courses!” Brekke spent the next 13 years growing Telenor’s business in Asia; the last two of which have been in India.

India, he says, has been full of surprises for him and Telenor. One being the quality of people and the talent pool. In all other Asian operations, there are almost 60-70 per cent foreigners and Norwegians in senior positions; in India, he is the only foreigner. So he sees India as a recruitment base for Telenor globally. Secondly, he says, he has never seen a more competitive set of people and market in his career yet. As a result, the company has had to use every trick in the book to bring down costs (what with India having some of the lowest tariffs in the world).

In this connection, he says the telecom business globally “is not about technology as one would think; it is about lowering costs”. As the services on offer are very similar, the winner will be the one with the lowest costs. And India has given Telenor many pointers, he adds.

Brekke was instrumental in bringing Telenor to India — a decision taken against the advice of most global analysts. The company has already invested Rs 15,000 crore and is yet to show any returns. Several thousand jobs are dependent on him. Anyone would buckle under the pressure. So how does he stay calm?

He explains that one has to simply live in the moment. “If I start worrying about what may happen, I will never get anything done,” he says, adding that he gets his energy from his people and granola bars — a few of which he carries around with him. “You can only do what I do if you enjoy it.”

He adds that relative to Indians, Norwegians are certainly less emotional (earlier that day, a zonal head was found sobbing and one overwhelmed RSE had given him a hug). He says his countrymen, while pragmatic and reserved, were a tad boring. Staying away from his three boys, he admits, has been the toughest part of his assignment. Married to the youngest parliamentarian in national politics, Brekke says that since February, he has been seeing his Bangkok-based wife and children less and less. This is what troubles him the most. Why not base them in India? Because, he says, he was not supposed to have been here for long. “My being here has always been temporary!”

When he moved to take charge of the business (sales were not going well during the initial days and Brekke was responsible for Asia), he told his wife that the move was temporary. “Then, one year later, we lost the licence(s) and I told her this is just temporary. Then came May and I said that there is a delay but it is just temporary!”

Brekke’s stay in India may not be as temporary as he had thought. India, and his Uninor colleagues, seem to have got under his skin, and he is as attached to them as they are to him. 

As we head to the airport, I try to draw the attention of senior executives to graver matters in Delhi like the upcoming 2G auction. But I realise that the issue is more on my mind than their’s. When it happens, it happens. Till then, it is business as usual.

anjuli(dot)bhargava(at)gmail(dot)com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 19-11-2012)
 
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