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Manoj Kohli, a key force behind Bharti Airtel

March 20, 2007 12:19 IST

In October 2002, when Bharti boss Sunil Mittal hired Manoj Kohli from Escotel, the mobile telephony venture of Escorts Ltd, where he had spent five years, the news did not go down well with Rajan Nanda. Nanda was apparently so worked up over what he saw as a "betrayal" that he threatened a court case.

Some months later, I asked Mittal about the scrap. Without batting an eyelid, the Bharti supremo said the matter had been sorted out and Kohli had his full backing.

Less than five years later, Mittal has once again underscored Kohli's importance and strategic relevance to Bharti Airtel. You wouldn't guess this by taking just a casual look at the latest Bharti Enterprises organisational structure -- the one that went out to the media last week lists every key executive by their initials has M K right at the left hand bottom corner.

It isn't yet clear whether Kohli will retain the designation or will have a new title once there is some further announcement. His current designation is President, Bharti Airtel, with responsibility for India and the SAARC region.

But what has changed is that Mittal will pass on his operational responsibility in Bharti Airtel's operations from 1 April, 2007. Group CFO and long time Bharti hand, Akhil Gupta will now be one of the two managing directors of Bharti Enterprises, as well as the Group Lead Director of Telecom.

Kohli will continue to report to Mittal, with Gupta being the head of the telecom business and responsible for reviewing the performance of the business.

And while Kohli may be in the left hand bottom corner, telecom remains the mainstay of the Bharti group in terms of overall revenues and profitability. Nearly every other group business is recent (which is saying a lot, given the group itself has only been around since the mid-90s) and is in the process of being rolled out.

A sharp dresser, with a prominent jawline, Kohli will now have to contend with aggressive competition from Vodafone-Essar, perhaps the toughest so far in his career. His rival Asim Ghosh (another sharp dresser and the man who Arun Sarin has publicly tasked with beating Airtel for the top slot) will be gunning for marketshare.

Ghosh now has formidable backing and money, and the year's association with Bharti has probably given Sarin some extra insight into how the firm works.

The coming months will be interesting to watch. Not just because consumers can expect more goodies, but because many corporate reputations will be built or broken during this time.

A year-and-a-half younger than group chairman and CEO Sunil Mittal, the 48-year old is a masters in business administration from Delhi University, and attributes his rise to hard work. But he makes no bones about the fact that he also considers himself lucky.

Refreshingly, he says he is a believer who knows that success would not have welcomed him with open arms only because of hard work. "To me, having a family that is extremely supportive is the key," he had told me in a meeting some months back. In the months ahead, he'll need the support.

Siddharth Zarabi in New Delhi
Source: source