Vodafone chief basks in India's adulation after purchase

PRODIGAL SON: Indian-born Arun Sarin was hailed as a hero on a four-day trip, but he said the deal for a 67 percent stake in Hutchison Essar was a good one for his British firm


Mon, Feb 19, 2007 - Page 5

Vodafone chief Arun Sarin enjoyed a triumphant homecoming after wrapping up the US$11.1 billion purchase of India's fourth-biggest mobile operator Hutchison Essar.

"This kind of deal is what we all dreamed about when we were students," a beaming Sarin, who studied at the Indian Institute of Technology [IIT], Kharagpur, told reporters on a whistle-stop trip to his homeland last week.

Sarin was greeted by congratulatory front-page headlines and was trailed by the media on his four-day visit, during which he met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, government officials and executives from Hutchison Essar.

Sarin, one of a slew of students who have studied at one of India's highly rated IITs and moved into global boardrooms, said he was "personally delighted" by the deal struck just over a week ago, in which Vodafone knocked out rivals, including India's Reliance Communications, for Hutchison Essar.

But the Indian army officer's son, who is now a US citizen, made it clear that whatever his own feelings, he believed the purchase -- Vodafone's biggest since he took over the reins three years ago -- was in the firm's interests.

Sarin, who left India late on Friday, was mindful of the need to allay any investor concerns that the world's largest mobile operator might have paid too high a price for its controlling 67 percent stake in Hutchison Essar.

Britain's Vodafone has been accused by investors in the past of overpaying for its purchases, most notably with its US$4.55 billion acquisition of Telsim, Turkey's second-largest mobile phone company, in 2005.

Vodafone paid around US$500 per subscriber for Telsim, while it is forking out more than US$900 per subscriber for Hutchison Essar, according to analyst estimates.

Sarin, who has been under investor pressure to lessen Vodafone's dependence on saturated European markets, said he had no doubts about his decision to make a major move into India's burgeoning cell phone market.

This is "very much strategically what the company wants to do," said the engineering graduate, whose talent when playing sports was recalled by former IIT schoolmate Partho Datta as "his ability to be first off the block."

With mobile market penetration of just 13 percent among its population of 1.1 billion people and the number of subscribers expanding by more than 6 million a month, India has become the world's fastest-growing cellular market.

By comparison, in China, the only other country with a billion-plus population, mobile penetration is 40 percent, while in Europe it is 100 percent.

"There's a lot of headroom to grow in the years to come," said Sarin, who declared he wanted to turn Hutchison Essar into India's biggest mobile phone company by 2010, growing its customer base to 100 million from 23 million now.

Vodafone aims to increase its Indian subscribers by pushing into the rural market and has signed an infrastructure-sharing pact with market leader Bharti Airtel, saying it is the fastest and cheapest way to expand the cellular network in India.

"We want every citizen to have the choice to have a mobile phone," the 52-year-old Sarin said.

"We've found that when you give people the chance to talk, they do," he said.