Rarely do progeny of politicians become very successful businessmen. Sunil Bharti Mittal, the second of three sons of former Congress politician, Sat Paul Mittal, is among the few first-generation entrepreneurs who made it to the big league. He started Airtel mobile services in Delhi and Himachal Pradesh in 1995, and as Bharti Tele-Ventures gradually expanded its reach to cover the entire country, Mittal emerged as India's undisputed telecom leader. The company was renamed Bharti Airtel in 2006.
Mittal, who started his first venture at 18, is a serial entrepreneur who tried his hand in multiple businesses — bicycle parts, import of generators —quite unsuccessfully.
Things changed when on a trip to Taiwan he discovered push-button telephones. That's where his love for telecom started. Push-button phones began to start displacing rotary dial phones in India in 1982. In 1992, he bagged licences to operate mobile telecom services in Delhi and Himachal Pradesh and started Airtel mobile services in 1995 and Himachal in 1996.
The launch of mobile services in Delhi was a game-changer for Mittal. As Bharti gradually expanded its reach to cover the entire country with mobile services, Mittal emerged as India's undisputed telecom leader.
Sunil Mittal's favourite number is 23 — he was born on October 23 — around which all important things revolve for him including his car number. There are some things that do not change as far as Mittal is concerned. All major projects that he started over the years — be it mobility, fixed lines, broadband services — are initially housed at the Sat Paul Mittal Centre in South Delhi. Only a few months down the line are the offices moved from there.
While today it is common to hear about private equity funding in start-ups, New York-based private equity firm Warburg Pincus acquired a 19% stake in Bharti Tele-Ventures (which was renamed Bharti Airtel in 2006) way back in 1999. Warburg was there when Bharti Airtel went public in 2002 and exited over a period of time making reportedly about six times its original investment. As of end-June, Bharti Airtel had 496.9 million subscribers across 17 countries — India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and 14 African nations. Of that 362.9 million are in India accounting for 31.6% of the country's 1,147.39 million mobile subscribers. At home, the once market leader is now just behind Reliance Jio, which has 413 million subscribers.
Mittal went global when Bharti acquired the African operations of Zain Telecom in 17 countries for an enterprise value of $10.7 billion in 2010, making it the largest takeover ever by an Indian telco. The foray became a drain on the resources and the group has exited three countries since 2016.
Among Mittal's prized possessions is his bungalow on Delhi's tony Amrita Shergill Marg in Lutyen's Bungalow Zone, which he bought in 2002 for an estimated ₹38 crore. Today, the 64-year-old Mittal spends much of his time in London, where his daughter Eiesha lives with businessman husband Sharan Pasricha, who runs lifestyle hospitality company Ennismore. Also in London is son Shravin Mittal, founder and CEO of Unbound, a globally focused long-term technology investment arm, along with wife Sakshi.
Being in London also helps Sunil Mittal drive OneWeb. In July 2020, Bharti invested in the UK-based satellite company. OneWeb is the world's second-biggest satellite operator which plans to provide broadband connectivity across the globe using 648 Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, of which 450 are already orbiting the Earth. It will cover the needs of maritime, aviation, government and private enterprises by providing connectivity to rural and hard-to-reach communities across the world where laying optic fibre cables is not possible.
In January this year, Google agreed to invest up to $1 billion in Bharti Airtel via an equity purchase of 1.28% for $700 million and $300 million on mutual terms over the next five years.
While Sunil Mittal is best known for his telecom ventures, he also has a presence across a diverse set of businesses that include insurance (Bharti AXA Life Insurance); real estate (Bharti Realty); Beetel Teletech (devices) and Indus Towers (telecom towers). After providing mobile services across India and large parts of Africa, today Sunil Mittal has set his sights much higher on being a global service provider. That should happen over the next 12 months.