Optimising the energy costs of telecom towers through renewable energy and storage solutions is the single biggest focus of Ardom Telecom right now. Ajit Shankar, one of the company’s three directors, says that given that energy costs represent about 25 per cent of a telecom company’s total costs and given that tariffs are falling, this is one cost that has to be made more efficient.
To this end, Ardom is installing solar panels at its clients’ towers. The panels are cheaper – by about half – than the diesel that is used by generators when grid power vanishes. Solar power brings down the operational costs of operators by more than 50 per cent, not to mention being cleaner than diesel.
Apart from this focus, Shankar says he has two other priorities. One, since the company has succeeded in establishing itself as an efficient service provider (the company maintains over 6,000 towers across eight telecom circles), it is now looking to expand overseas. Oman is the first target, followed by Myanmar and then Africa – Kenya and Angola to be precise, and maybe even Nigeria. “In Africa, the telecom story and the trajectory of the industry have been very similar to India’s. So whatever we have learnt here can be applied there,” says Shankar.
Second, the company is going to embark on a pilot project where it will use the same solar panels being installed for the towers to provide energy to nearby villages through a microgrid, to mitigate long power cuts. The pilot project is coming up in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh.
“In areas where grid power is available for less than 12 hours, we will install solar panels so that when the power goes in the evenings, when families want to watch TV and children need to do their homework, homes have electricity. Even if we can provide power for just four to five hours, it will improve the quality of their life,” he says.
Earlier, the company didn’t have the resources to do something as substantial as this for the local community. Instead, it used to participate in community festivals and sponsor cultural events. Now that it is wellestablished, it sees an opportunity to provide sustainable energy for local villagers.
“In the government, system and record maintenance is good. In the private sector, you need to learn speedy decisionmaking in a dynamic business environment.”
It has already been providing villagers with LED bulbs and explaining what the solar connection will cost. “People are prepared to pay Rs 1,400 a month for the sake of power on a prepaid basis. For us, it’s relatively easy. The caretaker, who would in any case maintain the tower’s solar panels, can look after the extra ones too,” he says.
A former Indian Engineering Services officer (1992 batch), Shankar has worked with a whole gamut of different employers, ranging from the government to the private sector and from MNCs to his own start-up. His career began with Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL). Later, he worked with Nokia India, XCEL Telecom, ATC India, and Viom Networks.
The early years with BSNL were a great learning experience. He was part of the team that restored the communications infrastructure in the Kutch district of Gujarat after the 2001 earthquake. “We were one of the first to get there after the devastation. We couldn’t sleep in the few buildings that were standing because there were still aftershocks. We had to sleep out in the open,” he recalls.
“The secret of our success is in ensuring that we have satisfied customers who give us repeat business, besides winning new business. The operations and maintenance business is perennial, for as long as the infrastructure is there.”
Then, after the 2004 tsunami, BSNL sent him to the Andaman Islands to restore the lines there. “The trees, the forests were destroyed. Most of the infrastructure was unusable. The port area was ravaged. It was quite an experience,” he says.
Later, Shankar worked with Tower Vision India as its first employee, as project/commercial director. He then moved to XCEL Telecom, which was later acquired by ATC India. In fact, he was a core team member from the XCEL side in the ATC-XCEL deal when ATC acquired XCEL Telecom. “We closed the deal at a value that was one of the highest during that time. As one of the three people leading that, it was a high point for me,” he says. Post the acquisition, he served as chief of operations/CBDO of ATC India. His last assignment before Ardom was as senior vice-president and head, marketing strategy at Viom Networks.
Shankar says he learnt something from every sector he worked in. “In the government, system and record maintenance is good. In fact, when I first joined the private sector, I was afraid of taking a decision because it didn’t have a trail. In the private sector, you need to learn speedy decisionmaking in a dynamic business environment. I don’t agree that there is more appetite for risk-taking in the private sector. People at the middle and lower levels of private companies often don’t take risks, but at the same level in a government company, you are often empowered to do so,” he says.
Shankar’s career has seen many scorching achievements. When he joined Tower Vision as its first employee, he personally recruited the first 200 employees in just one year. “Working at a sizzling pace can be quite addictive. You get a real high,” he says.
He left Tower Vision after only a year though, because he got a better offer from XCEL Telecom, which was incubated by a US-based fund. Here, owing to the ownership structure, he enjoyed a lot of decision-making power in his capacity as head of business development.
But it is his current job at Ardom that he has enjoyed the most in his 24-yearlong career. “It’s been six years and never a boring day. In six years, we have created 1,500 jobs. It’s come a long way from the early days of the company when we used to celebrate getting an order,” he says.
It was hugely satisfying, he says, when, after just three years the company was declared the fastest growing technology company in India by Deloitte. The secret? “Ensuring that we have satisfied customers who give us repeat business, besides winning new business. The operations and maintenance business is perennial, for as long as the infrastructure is there,” he remarks.
Luckily, Shankar’s rapport with the other two directors who founded the company with him – Ravdeep Singh, head of operations, and Pankaj Sharma, head of business development – is excellent. “The chemistry is good. We were colleagues earlier at ATC and we are all experts in our own fields and we complement one another,” he says. He also makes a point of thanking Larsen & Toubro Equity, which invested in the company and helped it set up systems, processes and transparent corporate governance.
Shankar went to Metarhat Public School in Bihar. A boarding school was thought useful by his parents because his father was posted in different places as an IAS officer. Some of the values he still cherishes today, such as honesty, kindness and decency, were first imparted to him by the school.
His father was a great influence on him too, not just for the way he rose through the Indian Administrative Service from modest origins but for how, after retirement, he worked free of charge for an NGO that was helping tribals in Bihar and Chhattisgarh recover land that had been illegally seized from them. “Since he was an expert in land revenue laws, he knew how to help the tribals get their land back,” says Shankar.
From his mother he has inherited a passion for astrology, astronomy and mythology – or rather, not mythology as such, but interpreting the old classics so that they can be relevant to modern life. “The old texts need to be updated. Even astrology needs to be updated because society and occupations have changed so much,” he says.
If there is one ancient text that needs updating, he says, it is the Manusmriti. He laughs, saying it is a “villain” among books for many poeple when the truth is that there is not a single line in the text that says a person’s caste should be determined by birth. “These texts are first not translated well from Sanskrit and then they are not interpreted well. Since people don’t have direct access to them, they get the wrong impression about these important works,” he says, adding, “and of course, they have been politicised.” If he ever has the time, Shankar says he would like to clear up some of the misconceptions that have clung to Hinduism in recent times.
The work culture at Ardom is relaxed. A big room with a small café, games and table tennis so that employees can take a break to beat stress. Shankar says the effort has been to build the culture of a family. “We try to participate in the joys and sorrows of our staff and that only comes from a sense of belonging,” he says. Staff enjoy a range of benefits and have been given stock options too.
Shankar loves studying. A gold medallist from IIM Calcutta, he likes to go deeply into subjects. He is currently also pursuing a Ph.D. related to telecom engineering (more specifically telecom strategy). He decided to undertake the research because he felt he was on to something new and the only way to be sure of its validity was to define it, put it down on paper and do rigorous research that was tested and validated by experts. In short, a Ph.D. Later in life, he expects to continue studying.