A few months ago, when Bharti Airtel’s chief executive officer (CEO) Gopal Vittal spoke about the telco’s impressive turnaround, he hinted that it was on the back of leaner back of leaner Business Standard How Airtel took a long call on profit by focusing on costs and customers Read more cell sites cell sites Cell sites A Cell Site refers to the antenna equipment and ground equipment that is used to transmit cell phone signals to and from the mobile phone back to the receiver. —the smallest unit of telecom operations. Achieving efficiency at nearly 238,000 cell sites was key to the 3X jump in its year-on-year profits.
What he didn’t explicitly mention was the massive macro shift underway at India’s second-largest telecom company. The federated structure of telecom circles—22 in India—nearly each with a CEO, is giving way to more centralised governance at Airtel. The result: a swift exodus of senior- and mid-level executives.
Besides circle CEOs, who are broadly responsible for sales and operations in states or metros like Delhi and Mumbai, several seasoned circle executives are also on the move—some to Airtel’s Africa business and some to its rivals like Reliance Jio Infocomm and Vi (Vodafone-Idea). The Ken has verified this through people close to the company and updates on the professional networking site LinkedIn.
A bunch of circle chiefs have joined Jio, including Sharan Shetty, head of the Karnataka circle till July. Former CEO of the Uttar Pradesh (East) and Uttar Pradesh (West) circles Shailendra Singh joined Vi in May as an operations director.
Some degree of churn is normal when utility-scale companies undergo a metamorphosis. But some executives say attrition at Airtel is as high as 30%—never seen in the company before. The move to trim the circle-level operational leadership is signalling that “people will not grow with the company,” says a former senior executive who quit earlier this year.
Bharti withstood the brutal tariff war with Jio’s 2016 entry by dint of its laser-sharp focus on subscribers bringing high average revenue per user (Arpu) and relentless execution. Much of this success is attributed to Vittal, or GV—as his colleagues refer to him. But the exit of experienced circle heads, say existing and former executives, may impact the company’s execution strength.