Transformation is nothing new to the telco industry; in fact, it’s a huge focus. The industry’s top players have been continuously reshaping themselves to stay viable and thrive in an ever-changing landscape where technology is king.
And the ones that have been most successful are those with strong, future-forward leaders who’ve had the imagination to envision how things can be different and the courage to make that vision a reality, all while inspiring their teams to join the journey. Robi Axiata CEO and Managing Director Mahtab Uddin Ahmed is one such leader.
He joined the company in 2010 as the CFO and continued climbing the corporate ladder, securing the COO position in 2014 followed by the CEO and Managing Director position in 2016. In his relatively short time with Robi, Mahtab has witnessed significant transformation; and he’s played an integral role in much of it.
“When I first joined, the company was on losing ground,” he recalls. “Robi had always been the number two player in the marketplace but, at that time, it fell back to number three. It was going through a transition and wasn’t in very good shape as a result. So when I joined, I knew that I had a massive transformation journey ahead of me.”
The company started in 1997 as Telekom Malaysia International (Bangladesh) with the brand name Aktel. That transition Mahtab speaks of is when the company rebranded itself i, changing its name to Robi Axiata. He had reached his pinnacle at Unilever and was craving a challenge. This was the perfect opportunity for him to shake things up and make his mark on a struggling telco.
“To me, the bigger the crisis, the bigger the opportunity,” Mahtab says. “I came in at a time when the company was very traditional; not much innovation was there. And since then, we’ve seen Robi grow very, very fast. We started investing in the marketplace, and those investments started yielding benefits. We were able to take over the number two position again.”
Little did he know at that time that this wouldn’t be the last transformation, crisis or opportunity he would lead the company through. The next few years with mergers, COVID-19, an unfavourable regulatory regime and more would certainly satisfy Mahtab’s craving for a challenge.
A subsidiary company of Asian telecom giant Axiata Group, Robi is the second-largest mobile network operator in Bangladesh. By the end of June 2021, the company had close to 52 million subscribers; a number that continues to grow.
However, it’s likely that Robi wouldn’t have been in this position today if it weren’t for the keen foresight it had back in 2016 to merge with Airtel Bangladesh – the largest merger for the country and the first ever merger in Bangladesh’s mobile telecom sector. “The merger was a ‘make or break’ kind of situation. If we couldn’t make that merger successful, Robi would have been in a very difficult position,” Mahtab admits.
“That was the lowest I’ve seen Robi go in my entire career with the company, and it’s also when I became CEO. My first task was to make the merger with Airtel successful. And it was. The merger was hugely successful.” It was so successful, in fact, that Robi gained subscribers, a very uncommon phenomenon in the telecom industry during a merger.
“It was a very complex merger. But because of the team that I had at that point in time, we successfully managed to do that. And we also gained market share that year of the merger, despite a lot of challenges. It was another great turnaround story for us.”
The merger with Airtel gave Robi two important things: it made the telco number one in terms of pricing perceptions and it made it number one in terms of being a youthcentric brand. However, in true Robi fashion, the company didn’t follow the crowd – it did the merger on its terms.
“Research shows that when a merger happens between two telcos, a dual brand is not a very successful proposition globally,” Mahtab explains. “So I took a different stand. My philosophy was not to kill the brand, but rather use it to benefit our overall portfolio. And today, we’ve been able to maintain this dual brand quite successfully.”
My first task was to make the merger with airtel successful. And it was. The merger was hugely what we do? Successful.
Following the successful merger, Mahtab focused his attention on turning Robi into a digital company. “We have to be digital. Otherwise, we cannot create a unique proposition,” he says.
“One thing I learned from 3G and my past experience, in terms of technology, is that if you’re not ahead of the competition, then you’ll always be behind and you won’t be considered an innovative brand.
“So, based on this, we made something big happen in 2018 – we took the bold step of undertaking the massive rollout of 4G technology in our network from the very beginning when our competitors adopted a gradual approach. And within a day of its launch, we made it available in all 64 of Bangladesh’s districts.”
The risk paid off – Robi gained the leadership position. By the end of June 2021, it created the 4G network with more than 13,000 sites, ensuring the largest population coverage (98%) in the industry. Continuing to ride the wave, the company also went on to successfully conduct a trial run of 5G.
And later, it became the first operator in the country to launch Voice over LTE technology “Now, anything new that comes, Robi continues to stay number one,” Mahtab confirms. “We’ve transformed in a big way over the past five years. And our performance has been quite good by all means, both competitively and internally. Our people have become digitally minded. And I’m happy to say that this team who thinks digitally has brought us to where we are today.”
BEeing number one
Having been with Robi since 2010, Mahtab was in a unique position to see what was working and what wasn’t. “I’ve been with the organisation for many years, and the mistakes that we were making became quite obvious to me,” he says.
“Robi was not number one in anything. We were number two in nearly everything. But the past has taught me that it’s very important to be number one in something. You don’t have to be number one in everything, but it’s imperative to have at least one thing at the number one position to be successful.”
Mahtab remembers back to when Robi was more of a regional player. It had a strong position in the eastern market and part of central, but its presence in the north and south was practically nil.
“I could see the opportunity in investing in the entire country,” he reflects. When he became CEO, Mahtab started to make it happen, focusing on what he refers to as north and south of Bangladesh and, so far, Robi has received a “tremendously positive” result.
“As a country, we have a massive opportunity because of the low penetration level. True penetration here is around 55%, and the opportunity in the north and south is even more,” he says. “In addition, the economy is growing, which is great news because it will make our services more affordable for the people of our country.”
As Mahtab looks to the next few years, his focus remains starkly on digital. “We believe the future is digital,” he predicts. “That’s why we created a subsidiary to create digital products. As you continue to grow, your challenges become tougher, and you need to keep on changing your goalpost. This is just another way we’re doing that.”
Robi doesn’t do something just for the sake of doing it. No, the company with Mahtab’s visionary leadership is highly strategic with each and every move, contributing to the bigger picture. Like in 2020, Robi changed its slogan when ‘Ignite the power within’ no longer fit.
“It was a very powerful and famous slogan, but we changed it to match the new look and feel of Robi. We wanted a more modern, digital look to further our digital aspirations,” he says. Robi’s new tagline ‘Life-e notun experience’, which uses both Bangla and English, denotes the changing landscape of a society that is becoming increasingly comfortable using both languages.
It comes as part of the company’s long-term commitment to transforming itself into a full-fledged digital company, working towards enabling a better future for all through digital innovation. “In English, it means that we’re giving a new experience to your digital lifestyle,” Mahtab explains.
“With it, we’re making promises to our customers that if they stay with us, then they’ll get new digital lifestyle products. We make the promise, and we stand by that promise. So we will have a factory that will continue to introduce new products to meet people’s expectations.”
In addition to the digital aspect, Robi is also placing bets on the enterprise business, heavily investing in this area throughout Bangladesh. “No-one has really stepped into this opportunity yet. We’ve been on this journey since 2014 and are getting stronger by the day,” Mahtab says. “And we’ve already managed to secure the number one position in SMEs.”
To meet the needs of its business-to-business customers and stay ahead of the competition, Robi continually invests in the latest technological advancements. As such, it has a powerful data centre, replete with security measures, and instead of keeping it all to itself, the company is extending the data centre facilities to its B2B customers.
“It can bring a lot of synergy with little incremental cost, allowing us to serve a bigger customer base,” Mahtab points out. “We have created so many products to meet the requirements of our B2B customers’ end-to-end requirements, starting from data storage in the cloud to selling different software such as Microsoft. And we have industry-specific solutions and an IoT platform, fintech platform and entertainment platform.
We’re just going for a complete range of products in addition to connectivity, and even all of this is only the tip of the iceberg.” It really sets the company apart from its competitors. “Since I’ve taken over as CEO, Robi has taken leadership in technology,” Mahtab says.
“Robi is playing for future play. We don’t focus much on voice because, to us, it’s not the future of telco. The future is data.” Since Robi began its digitalisation journey in 2016, the company has navigated the pandemic with relative ease. “COVID-19 has been tremendously difficult for our country,” he concedes.
“Yet, even with this crisis, we have not suffered. Robi has proven, over the past five years, that whenever it goes into a crisis, it comes out stronger than ever before. “We did not suffer as much as our competition did because we started digitalising early on. So, even with lockdown, our revenue grew steadily because we had all of the enablers already in place. And on top of that, we also managed our profitability quite well.”
Mahtab admits that none of this success would’ve been possible without his team. That’s why Robi invests so heavily in its people. They’re the foundation of its current and future success. “At the end of the day, whatever success we get is driven by our people. If your people aren’t digitally minded, then your organisation won’t be digitally minded,” he warns.
Telco in Bangladesh is a very difficult business proposition, primarily because it’s very highly taxed, unlike many other countries.
“So we have a certification course for AAA that’s all about AI, agility and analytics. As of today, more than 75% of our resources are AAA certified. Even I have 144 advanced-level, course-completed resources in the areas of blockchain, AI, robotics, cybersecurity and more. We’re striving to create a good pool of tech-savvy talent.”
Even more, Mahtab explains that as a growing country, Bangladesh has a lot of young talent. And Robi strives to bring the very best on board by offering plenty of opportunity for the aspiring professionals.
“We have the Robi 10 Minute School, which is the biggest online school today. It’s unparalleled,” he smiles. “We also have bdapps, and five years back when we started this journey, everyone was laughing at us. Then, people didn’t really believe in what we were doing.
“Today, however, Robi is the only one who has it, and it’s successful. More than 34,000 apps are on this platform now and, I’d say, more than 17,000 app developers are contributing to it and making huge money out of it.” The company does 50–50 revenue sharing with the app developers, which is paving the way for young talent to develop apps and sell them on its platform.
“With digital entrepreneurship development platform R-Ventures, we are supporting young talents to convert their brilliant ideas into reality with financial and mentorship support,” Mahtab says.
In Bangladesh, being a telco comes with plenty of challenge, and government over-regulation and regulatory unpredictability is something even Robi can’t innovate out of. However, the company does get by more easily with the help of some friends and, in this case, those friends are its strategic business partnerships.
“Telco in Bangladesh is a very difficult business proposition, primarily because it’s very highly taxed, unlike many other countries,” Mahtab says. “It’s one of the worst in terms of taxation. So it puts us under quite a lot of pressure even though we have been around for so long. A lot of our future growth depends on the government’s policies.
“Therefore, any telco success largely depends on stakeholders. In our case, we currently depend on two big vendors – Huawei and Ericsson. Both of them have played a significant role in our entire journey.”
Mahtab credits Huawei for increasing its 4G network in the north and south, and being proactive, allowing Robi to give customers a better overall experience. And Ericsson, he reveals, did a lot of innovation work with the company in terms of dynamic spectrum sharing. “It was revolutionary,” he asserts.
“These partnerships go beyond the buying and selling of products. We work jointly to create new products, and that’s exactly the kind of relationship you want to have with your partners.” He admits, though, that he doesn’t believe in being too dependent on any one vendor or stakeholder.
A lot of my success with robi today is due to being put outside my comfort zone.
“While you need to have an excellent relationship with them and have them as a learning partner, it’s not a good idea to become overdependent on them to a point where you become vulnerable,” he says. “So I’m a firm believer in developing alternate vendors. It’s also just a matter of responsibility of corporate houses to create opportunity for newcomers.”
A guided aspiration
From “CEO sprinters” (those who reach the CEO role faster than average) to taking the slow-and-steady approach, there’s no single path to becoming CEO of a company. However, research shows that the average CEO tends to put in roughly 24 years before securing this highly esteemed position in a company.
For Mahtab, his journey to the top took a couple of intentional decades. “I always wanted to be a businessman,” he shares – and he put in the work to get there. “I worked 17 years at Unilever and then another six or seven years at Robi before getting to where I am today. It’s been my guided aspiration to become CEO. And that’s the way I was building myself.”
At Unilever, he started off in finance as a management trainee. From there, he shot up through the ranks. “I kept growing very, very fast,” he remembers.
“I thought like an entrepreneur and always looked at the bigger picture. Plus, when you work in finance, you gain a holistic overview of operations and get into the details. So the initial stage helped tremendously in my development.”
Unilever was also a great starting point in that it familiarised Mahtab with processes, systems and governance. The company also gave him experience in different countries, which taught him how to adapt to new cultures and environments. “I received a lot of learning during that part of my career,” he reveals.
“But then I got bored at Unilever, doing the same thing for too long. So, when I joined Robi, I was looking for that big change where I could really contribute, and it gave me that platform. There was a huge transformation going on, and I was happy to be a part of it as CFO.”
Being CFO laid the foundation for Mahtab’s progression to CEO, teaching him important skills to carry in his toolkit. “When you are CFO, you can’t only look at the holistic view. You also have to fix the challenges that might come up in terms of governance, people’s motivations and that sort of thing,” he explains.
“In this role, I worked with the leadership team to change the mindset of the people, bring collaboration into the culture and create the governance in such a way that would allow these changes, that would allow trust. This formed the groundwork for my subsequent journey as COO, which provided another great learning.”
One of Mahtab’s best traits is his authenticity. He never pretends to be something he’s not. Case in point, during his reign as COO, he admits he might not have been the best person for the job.
“I think I was average in terms of performance,” he acknowledges. “It was a challenging time for me. But it did teach me a lot of things about sales and marketing, and the challenges the business faces. And I give a lot of credit to my leaders who pushed me to try my hand at this difficult job. In fact, a lot of my success with Robi today is due to being put outside my comfort zone.”
A comfort zone is comfortable, but it’s no place for growth. And Robi was grooming Mahtab to become CEO. It saw a lot of potential in him and therefore, invested heavily in his growth. “Axiata has a great people development strategy,” he says.
“Even before taking over the CEO position, they put me into the Advanced Management Program at Harvard. That was a real eye-opener that armed me with unbelievable knowledge for taking over as CEO.”
In addition, Robi also gave Mahtab six months to work from the head office, helping him improve his connections with the team members there. “I owe a lot to my group leadership team for developing me and urging me to take on these challenging positions,” he says.
“And I’m extremely lucky to have worked at Unilever and now at Robi, where they put in a lot of effort to develop me, making me who I am today.”
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