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Global Arun plugs into local Sunil
- Vodafone-Bharti deal symbolises drama of past decade’s transformation

London, Oct. 28: One the face of it, Arun Sarin, 51, chief executive officer of Vodafone Group plc, who today announced he had bought 10 per cent of Sunil Mittal’s Bharti Tele-Ventures Ltd (BTVL) for $1.5billion, is yet another example of an upwardly mobile Indian corporate leader.

His investment in India seems pretty safe. Compared with Europe, where the market for mobile phones is very nearly saturated and the struggle is to persuade customers to buy the latest fad, the sky is the limit in India where the penetration is only 6 per cent, according to Sarin’s London spokesman.

If things go according to plan, Vodafone’s entry into the rapidly expanding Indian market can only be good for the desi customer though 3G (third generation) technology is some way off.

“I am delighted to announce this strategic partnership with BTVL, the leading national mobile operator in India,” Sarin commented today. “Together, we will take this venture to a new level as clear leader in this market.”

He also told a news agency: “Now we are getting into a youthful country with very early penetration and high desire for using phones.”

Asked whether he wanted to increase his stake in Bharti, he responded: “We are satisfied with 10 per cent, but if there is an opportunity we could.”

But who exactly is Sarin ' which is the question which some sceptical Brits asked when the Indian was brought from America to replace the sahib Sir Christopher Gent as CEO of Vodafone in London in July, 2003.

“I wouldn’t class him as the ideal replacement for Chris Gent,” Telecoms analyst Damien Maltarp at Banc of America said sniffily at the time.

“I think a lot of people will be asking who he is.”

If one is fair, Sarin may have been born in India (October 1954, Pachmari, Madhya Pradesh ) and shone at IIT Kharagpur (he won the prestigious B.C. Roy Medal for being the best all-around student), but he was made in America (an MS in Engineering and an MBA from the University of California at Berkeley).

The Evening Standard’s diary column hinted that Sarin might be bringing un-British brashness to Vodafone’s car park at the company’s Newbury headquarters in Berkshire: “The days of Sir Christopher Gent’s Bentley lending an air of gravitas to the Vodafone car park at Newbury are long gone. The exec spaces are now said to be a lot racier, with chief executive Arun Sarin’s Maserati gleaming among a smattering of Ferraris and Porsches.”

But Sarin has proved to be a low-profile, conservative man. Before coming to London, he had been chief executive of AirTouch Communications, a US mobile phone group bought by Vodafone in 1999. He had been a non-executive director of Vodafone since that acquisition.

Sarin came to London with a basic salary of '1.1 million plus incentives similar to those enjoyed by Gent. Vodafone shareholders had reacted angrily to Gent’s pay package of '1.2 million salary plus '3.9 million in shares and bonuses.

Sarin arrived in London with his wife, Rummi, whom he had met at Berkeley, and son, Neal, then 13. His 18-year-old daughter, Nina, remained behind to complete her studies at Stanford University.

But soon, there was this announcement to suggest Sarin was being accepted into the high reaches of the City of London: “The Queen has approved the appointment of Paul Myners (chairman, Marks and Spencers) and Arun Sarin (chief executive, Vodafone Group) to the Court of Directors of the Bank of England. The appointments are for a three-year period.”

After Lakshmi Mittal, Sarin is today probably the most senior Indian corporate man in London. With 28 countries to look after, he cannot have too much time for tennis or golf, nor it seems will he be able to make India his priority.

His university paper in California revealed: “In 2002, Arun Sarin was named the Haas School’s Business Leader of the Year for his outstanding contributions to the business of telecommunications and to the school.”

The paper said: “Sarin has influenced the global expansion of the wireless industry over the past 20 years. He has infused the corporate ranks of Pacific Telesis, AirTouch, Infospace, and Vodafone with an international perspective and global sensitivity that are still rare in US firms.”

Sarin told the paper that being Indian helped. “My growing up in India was a huge advantage when I became part of corporate America; there were not a lot of people who had that worldview.”

There were some personal insights in Sarin’s upbringing: “His father embarked on an officer’s career in the Indian military, which allowed him to send both sons to a military boarding school in Bangalore. Afraid that she might lose both of her sons in a war with neighbouring countries, Sarin’s mother encouraged her younger son (Arun) to pursue a different career. Gifted in maths, he was accepted to the highly prestigious IIT in Kharagpur near Calcutta, one of the countries most rigorous academic institutions and a well-spring of some of the world’s finest engineers.”

Sarin is optimistic about the future of 3G phone, one of which he withdrew from his pocket during a lunch with a journalist at the Savoy Hotel in London. He demonstrated the clarity of an excerpt from a Bridget Jones film and then played a track from Blur from beginning to end, reproducing sound as good as a CD. “Look, it is not a question of whether 3G works, because as you see, it does,” he laughed.

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