There is no dearth of business-oriented profiles of Sandip Das in the media. From them, you learn a great deal about his dazzling career with its many peaks. But what they omit is his striking persona: impeccable manners and gentlemanly courtesy of the kind that is becoming as obsolete as the pager.
He waited outside the Magnolias Club in Gurgaon where we were to meet (locals call it “Mongolia” and have corrected his pronunciation so often that he jokes about living in Ulan Bator) in the heat to greet me, plied me with cappuccino and biscottis to fortify me after my gruelling two-hour drive through the Delhi-Gurgaon concrete jungle and, after a long and pleasant conversation, walked me some distance to my car.
Das and his wife Purnima moved into the Magnolia complex two years ago. “My wife is happy here and if she’s happy, that’s half my happiness taken care of,” he says with a smile. Das is one of Asia’s most respected telecom professionals. He was the first employee of Hutchison Max Telecom (which became Vodafone) at the dawn of the telecom revolution in India in 1994. Over the next 13 years, he launched brands such as Orange and Hutch, and created an iconic company that was worth $20 billion by the time he left in 2006.
Then came Maxis Communications. He was the first Indian to be hired to head a foreign telco when he was appointed chief executive officer (CEO) in Kuala Lumpur. Das oversaw the transformation of Maxis, the largest telecom operator in Malaysia, into a $20 billion company and increased the number of subscribers from 8 million in 2007 to 100 million when he left in 2013.
Das forged his managerial skill in the smithy of DCM Shriram’s graduate trainee programme. He joined the company as a trainee after graduating in mechanical engineering from NIT, Rourkela. His choice of first job bewildered his father, an aviation specialist, and the rest of the judges, civil servants, poets and doctors that populated the family. “A private sector company?” they questioned sceptically, echoing the common view then that a public sector job was the best.
“A lot of my leadership style has been influenced by my time at DCM. It was very structured, disciplined, process-driven, with strong values, honesty and attention to detail. There was fairness and transparency, with respect for the order of command but without being hierarchical,” he says. The training was so rigorous that the mortality rate among trainees was high. Those who survived were treated like “sons-in-law”, says Das. He recalls seeing vice-presidents and executive directors who were in their 30s. That is when he realised that he should never let his youth get in the way of taking on responsibility, provided he had the “strength of knowledge and performance”.
“The next phase is going to be doubly exciting because video will become the new voice. When data starts flowing like water, uninterruptedly and at low cost, we will enter a new era – the death of distance, the miniaturisation of SIMs, the internet of things… What we can do will be limited only by our imagination.”
DCM forced Das and the other trainees to spend time immersing themselves in the most mundane work of every department so that when they took command, they knew exactly what people did, from the godown to sales. “The manner in which DCM built you – they were moments of gold dust,” he says.
After DCM, the next big formative experience was with Toyota in Dubai, where Das stayed for six years as marketing and franchise manager. But before we come to what he learnt at Toyota, first, the fun at Toyota. Das was the lucky person who, every week when a new car was delivered, had the “job” of driving it around for a week, turning heads as he sped past in a purring Lexus or Celica. “I got used to the intoxicating smell of new leather,” he says with a laugh.
One day he took out a bright orange Celica onto the streets. A young Arab driving a BMW 7 Series swerved past him, stopped, got out, and handed over the keys of his BMW to Das. “You take my car. Let me drive this one over the weekend,” he said. Das had to politely decline.
At Toyota, he learnt how to handle intense competition. “While Toyota dominated the automobile market, every other brand was almost as good. So, if someone didn’t buy a Toyota, they bought a Honda or a BMW. A lasting lesson of this time was the importance of quality. The Japanese were fanatical about it, with superb quality systems. The general manager of quality assurance worldwide reported to the chairman, not to the managing director. You could drive down the Abu Dhabi roads on any day and see the debris of other cars left on the road because the air conditioning or something else had failed. Every brand was on that road – except Toyota,” he says.
The other great thing he learnt was marketing. He found the Japanese very empirical and focused on research. At a meeting once in Dubai, he sat with some youngsters from Japan. He asked them where they were going in the evening. A girl in the group said they had a busy evening ahead of them, in a disco. “I laughed and said, ‘Oh, so you Japanese do relax then.’ To which she replied that they were going not to dance but to observe young people because, in a few years’ time, they would be Corolla buyers and they wanted to understand them.”
After the Dubai visit, moreover, the group was going to Paris to see what colours the haute couture designers planned to use for their outfits a few years down the line. That way, Toyoto could make sure they manufactured cars in the same colours. “They were systematic and detailed. It was a continuation of the rigour I learnt at DCM. The Japanese were always down to earth, never flamboyant. It was facts, facts, facts,” he says.
After Toyota, Das gave up the social whirl of Dubai where he was feted, to return to India to help pioneer the telecom revolution. But that is a story so fascinating, it cannot be contained in this article. Today, Das is chairman and senior partner with Maitreyi Capital Advisors, a private equity and venture capital firm focused initially on digital funds. In addition, he is a senior adviser to the UK-headquartered telecom consultancy Analysys Mason, for India and emerging markets, and a member of the board of advisers at Astrum, India’s first reputation management advisory.
At the café where we sat, Das spends many mornings mentoring young entrepreneurs on their start-ups or helping them to scale up. He smiles: “Just as you should always keep your enemies closer to you than your friends, I tell them to keep their failures closer to them than their successes,” he says.
He enjoys sharing his expertise with young people, and what could be more inspiring than the story of the fledgling Hutchison Max to the behemoth that Vodafone is today? Or how, while he was CEO of the Maxis Group, overseeing their operations in Malaysia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, he led Asia’s largest IPO in telecom history for Maxis, raising nearly $3.5 billion. Or what he did to be voted best CEO in Malaysia by Finance Asia in 2012? And how he came to appear four times on the Global List of the 100 Most Powerful People in Telecom, compiled by the Global Telecom magazine?
Das marvels at how much India has changed, from the days when a father used to apply for a cooking gas and telephone connection when his daughter turned around 15 so that they would both come through by the time she got married, to the insatiable appetite for broadband today. “The journey has been nothing short of a miracle. If someone had told me in 1994 that we would reach 1 billion subscribers, I would have scoffed at it as science fiction. The next phase is going to be doubly exciting because video will become the new voice. When data starts flowing like water, uninterruptedly and at low cost, we will enter a new era – the death of distance, the miniaturisation of SIMs, the internet of things, telemedicine, analytics predicting consumer behaviour… What we can do will be limited only by our imagination.”
Das says India will leapfrog an entire generation, much as the Bedouins jumped from camels to Mercedes, skipping the bicycle. For Das, the future, when mobile technology will be used to improve education and health and to uplift people, is thrilling. “The impact technology has on the poor is how the 21st century will really judge what it has achieved,” he says.
His leisure habits are those of someone who has grown up among erudite people in drawing rooms reverberating with the sound of stimulating conversation. Das reads voraciously – history, culture, business; he is learning how to play the keyboard; he is a keen photographer; he writes newspaper columns; he draws; he loves browsing in museums; he enjoys singing old Hindi numbers with his daughter; and he collects old maps (a love that goes back to his childhood days when his father, Sourya Ranjan Das, used to get out a map every time he was teaching his children any subject and introduce fascinating connections between the subject being studied and the places on the globe).
His father, Das’s hero, passed away a few months ago. An example of his character was the way he treated his wife, who was a matriculate, whereas Das senior had pursued his higher studies in England. “Instead of being condescending, my father taught her English and she blossomed. He treated her almost like a father bringing up a young girl. She became so good that she used to help us with crossword puzzles,” he recalls.
There’s one more thing. Das is learning his mother tongue, Oriya. “It’s on my bucket list. My grandfather was a famous Oriya poet and a scholar of the Pali language. I can speak it but can’t read or write it, and I have promised myself to make good this deficiency.”