Syed SafawiChairman & CEO of Viom Networks

Syed Safawi has proved to be an exceptional turnaround artist. After successful stints with Amul, Coke, Airtel, Reliance Communications, when Syed joined Viom, the situation looked grim. With a debt of INR 8000 cr and a annual loss of INR 350 Cr, the jury was out on the outcome of this strategic hire made by the promoters. Cut to June 2014, Revenues at INR 5000 Cr, net profit crossed the Rs 100 crore-mark and debt has reduced by Rs 1,500 crore and the company is looking to have its maiden listing on the bourses.


1. What was the mandate given to you by the Board when you took over in your role?

The mandate from the Board of Viom Networks was precise: Turnaround the company, both financially and operationally and help take it to a value unlocking event. At that time, the external and internal challenges were significant. Due to the Supreme Court judgment of February, 2012 , almost 122 telecom licences had just got cancelled causing Viom to potentially lose almost 20% of its business in one shot . With debt of well over Rs 8000 cr , cash flows inadequate to manage business and debt repayment, operationally uncertain , customers unsure and employee morale at an all time low, well, it was the ‘perfect storm’ or looking at the bright side , the ‘perfect opportunity’ to test ones leadership skills , supposedly honed over the years .

2. How much of that has been achieved? What were the challenges faced?

The turnaround is complete. While the preceding two years were the most challenging for the industry, Viom Networks utilized the testing phase to mark 2012-13 as the turnaround year for its business through operational transformation and delivering its first ever profit-after-tax (PAT) . It is a very satisfying achievement since we were able to turn the company around in spite of the fact that the year 2012-13 was the most turbulent one for the entire Telecom Industry. In the last fiscal, we further built on this turnaround and grew net profits by 25-30%, thereby making the turnaround complete.

There were several challenges which required ‘maniacal focus’. We kept it simple: focused on cash, re-balanced the portfolio and drove operational excellence. Today, we have stability of cash flow, manageable level of cash opex, radically reduced net debt levels and a motivated and proud team.

To make the turnaround sustainable into a transformation, we co-created and communicated our vision and road map called ‘Viom NEXT’. This clearly articulates our way forward in terms of vision, objects, strategies and goals along with the key enablers. The core pillars and foundation pillars are clear to one and all and a great leadership teams leads by example.

We radically innovated the industry model itself to make ‘each tower profitable on a single tenant’ vs. the earlier concept of attaining profitability through sharing of tenancies. This is a game changer and future proofs the business.


3. What are the key challenges your organization is facing currently? And what are the steps you are taking?

There has been a paradigm shift from where the company started 6-7 years back. Initially, the company focused on organic growth as well as merger and acquisition. This was the ‘asset growth’ phase. We grew quickly but were not profitable. Currently, we are going through an optimal ‘asset management phase’. The single minded focus is on asset sweating by increasing efficiencies, streamlining systems and processes. We are profitable now. The next phase of growth beyond 2014 will be driven through ‘knowledge based management’ marked by excellence in operational services, technology-enabled success and knowledge-based differentiation.

Viom Next is our three year vision which we are delivering against. Our vision is to become an end to end ‘innovative telecoms solution provider’. With the radical ‘model shift’ we have recently made, the sustainable profitability of our business would be ensured.


4. What is your talent strategy? How do you draw the balance between home grown vs lateral hiring at the leadership level?

We believe in spotting talent at an early stage. We focus on adding skill sets we did not have internally by bringing in fresh leadership talent and upgrading internally. Essentially, right skill sets for the right roles. This calls for a fine balance. We have increased our talent development efforts through a concerted talent development programme. This also enhances our position as an attractive employer.

My leadership colleagues and I are in regular contact with high-potential employees. We make it point to meet our colleagues wherever we travel to our regional and circle offices. We know who is performing particularly well in a country and might be ready for the next steps. This system works very well—over 80% of managerial positions at are filled through internal job-market posts and career planning.

We have been able to achieve a results-driven performance culture at Viom Networks. Great emphasis is put on internal talent development. Hence, our attrition levels are coming down constantly.

5. How does your organization identify and develop future leaders?

My belief is that great organizations ‘ hire attitude and train skills’. We try and to do that. We are evolving and constantly improving.

We have institutionalized a CEO’s Club. This club identifies 25 young bright professionals every year from various functions and geographies, who posses high potential to take on leadership potions at a later stage. What we have done is to identify budding talent at an early age and map them to our organizational requirements – now and for the future. For the mid-to-senior level leaders, we have training and mentorship programmes throughout the year to update their skills. Through job rotations, we ensure that monotony does not set in and our people are trained to handle a variety of roles. For senior roles, we provide customized development, personalized coaches and mentors.

6. What are the 3 key aspects you look at when you hire your direct reportees?

Managers provide stability while leaders drive change . To me , a leadership team member has to believe in and internalize change and then drive it relentlessly . This is the most critical aspect I look for , change agents and partners in progress. Ability to take on responsibility and accountability is the second . Evolved on the EQ and IQ frame, to be able to become a follower at times is the third . A rock solid set of values and integrity is of course a given.


7. How does the growth prospect of your organization look like for the next 12-24 months?

We are experiencing a healthy order book and robust monthly execution, highest in terms of tenancy growth in the last 2-3 years. The industry is at the start of the next phase of telecom growth and we are already witnessing the first reflection of that in terms of order pipeline and the operators need to roll out new towers. Post the spectrum auction, there has been a spike in demand for new sites. Enabled by our new business model, we at Viom Networks are looking at sustainable double digit growth. Over the next three years, we would be looking at adding another 12,000 to 15,000 towers. Through continuous innovation in infrastructure, it would help ensure that the growth in the telecom sector continues and we soon witness the second wave of telecom growth in India.

8. In a world full of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity & Ambiguity (VUCA), innovation has become one of the most important factor to transform a crisis into an opportunity. How do you promote Innovation?

In some respects, tower companies are one of the most innovative in the telecom ecosystem. We have the ability to go back to the drawing board and change the very way we conduct our business and even the form and function of our offerings. In order to promote innovation, you should be open to exposing your team to external developments and the changing landscape of our customers. It is only with the sensitization and alignment with the market demands that one can think about innovating. Innovation is no longer a vanity; it is the key for sustenance. And the moment, you are able to either convince or drill down this realization in your team, innovation starts happening. The way we are evolving in our approach towards managing energy and transformation of our information technology architecture, are solid testimonials of employee-led innovation rather than top-driven. Also, as part of the leadership team, we should be able to take calculated risks as some innovations succeed while others may never see the light of the day. We must trust and give freedom to our employees so that they can innovate without the fear of failure. The model change in tower cost is a great example of team work led innovation at Viom Networks.


9.What are the 3 most pivotal moments in your career that you either learned from and/or that got you where you are today?

There have been several pivotal moments in my career, each one extremely exciting and rewarding professionally.

  • The first key one would be my move to The Coca-Cola Company where I spent almost half my career. The move to Coke International to head the Indo-China operations as part of that was a huge learning.
  • The move from FMCG sector to telecom was the next defining moment for me. Heading one of India’s largest operators in telecom was a game changer in terms of scale and diversity of learning.
  • The third would be the move to Viom Networks to start the turnaround and transformation journey two years back.

10. What key lessons have you learnt from any mistakes, if any, made in the past? How would you do it differently?

I have made way too many mistakes to even try and list here. The only thing I have done is learnt from each one and evolved personally and professionally. You have to have the philosophy that you come to work every day to do the best for the company, for the employees, and all the stakeholders.

11. How do you define & practice leadership?

Leadership for me is of the spirit, compounded of personality and vision. Its practice is an art. I try and practice what Ronald Reagan nicely articulated, I hire the best people, delegate authority and do not interfere.

12. What message would you like to share with young professionals at the start of their career?

We live in a world of endless opportunities. The entrepreneurial aspirations of young professionals haven’t been this vibrant since the industrial revolution. However, there are times when we lose sight of market realities or are compelled to take shortcut routes to success. This needs to be avoided. We must stay grounded, clued into reality, stay the course and do what is right for the world around us.