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A TRUE CALLING

Ajai Puri

-Ajai Puri, Director – Marketing Operations Airtel Center, Gurgaon.

“My father worked in a transferrable job in the banking sector and so I was educated in various cities. School was in Agra, college in Jamshedpur and post-graduation studies (M.Com) in Delhi.

In 1981, at the age of 20, I joined VST (Vazir Sultan Tobacco) a British American Tobacco associate in India, in its sales & marketing division. In a job that lasted 19 years, I grew rapidly and was the youngest in almost every role – as sales manager, regional manager, and finally as a board member.

In 2000, the world was changing millenniums and I began to consider doing something different. The two growing industry sectors in India caught my attention – Food and Telecom. Soon after, I received a call from ‘Cargill’, the largest private corporation in the world and the fifth largest food supplier to several food companies like Nestle, Hershey & McDonalds. They wanted to create their own food brand in India. I joined as the Director of Sales & Marketing and we created a brand called ‘Nature fresh’.

I ran the ‘Nature fresh’ business for four years and it did exceptionally well, but despite the success, I felt disconnected with Cargill because at heart they were processors and brands didn’t come to them naturally. So when an offer from Airtel floated by in 2004, I immediately accepted. I must confess that the reasons I joined Airtel was also because I needed a break from my own ambitions. I was aware of a looming burn out which would have consumed me had I not made the switch. I joined the Orissa office, which had only recently received its network license and my family & I moved to Bhubaneswar. I was in Orissa for little under two years. In the first year I worked on everything to build the network – we identified tower locations, got the civil work & infrastructure in place, climbed up towers to check signals and strategised marketing plans. Launching some 17 or 18 sites was a big deal and the deadline to get the network ready was non negotiable.

We launched on December 16, 2004 amid huge fanfare and to an exceptionally wonderful welcome. There were queues outside the stores, and people had pre-booked, as if we were selling gold. We sold one lakh connections on the first day, and ten lakh connections in the first four months. By the end of the first year, we held a 48% share of the market. Reliance, BSNL and TATA were established players in Orissa but I think we caught them sleeping. They hadn’t invested in newer technology and also underestimated us. Nobody had envisaged what Airtel would do and the Orissa launch was an eye opener. Then came the launch in Bihar. It was a much larger region than Orissa with a larger population. We enjoyed an even mightier launch and that got everyone’s attention as Bihar was not considered economically viable. West Bengal too was launched soon after Orissa, but of all the assets that we had launched, somehow it wasn’t doing too well.

Airtel had bought the West Bengal operations in 2001 from an existing operator, but in the next five years we slipped down. By 2006, we only had a 13% share of the market and were the fifth operator with only a few properties. Flying high on the success of Orissa and Bihar, we were no longer used to being number five. I was then transferred to Kolkata to head the West Bengal operations. The correctional measures in West Bengal were simple. We implemented logical solutions, simplified the processes, re-motivated our people, and most importantly we got the marketing proposition right. Strategically, we understood that to get West Bengal right, we first had to get Kolkata right. The strategy worked, and in three years, West Bengal began to respond and we became number one again. I don’t think till date a turn around like that has ever happened in the telecom business. By 2009, we rose to a 27% market share.

Airtel and I have been a good match. The company thrives on executional excellence, intensity, innovation, speed and adventure and what most people don’t know, so do I; particularly when travelling to rough and unfamiliar terrain in India on work. Even in times when my own life has been in danger, it has been a rush to survive it all. I suspect that this has inspired me to do more with my life. My favourite part of the country, to experience while on work, has been the North East; it is even more beautiful and interesting than Kashmir, and with a ruthless terrain, there is no dearth of adventure.

Today, my role at Airtel is to guide, mentor and support each of the marketing units in 18 circles. All these milestones, and opportunities, one may say, is good luck, but life is 50% good luck and 50% keeping it simple and executing it right. Strategies are great, but strategies don’t work if you don’t execute them well and poor strategies work if you have excellent execution. At Airtel, we are a good combination of great platforms and the right execution. We keep it simple.”