In his extraordinary career as a mover and shaker in the wireless industry - including playing a key role in creating the world’s largest telecommunications company, Vodafone/AirTouch — Arun Sarin has managed to apply his core strengths at the helm of global conglomerates as well as at Silicon Valley startups. Combining his engineering and finance skills, passion for corporate strategy, and deep belief in the human element of business, Sarin has built a legacy as a strategist, operations genius, and visionary at the forefront of the budding wireless industry.
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. Recently named the new CEO of Vodafone (as of July 2003), Sarin also is a member of the Haas School Advisory Board, has served as the Alumni Fellow, teaching at the Haas School in the spring 2001, and has frequently shared his experiences with the student and alumni communities of the school. He and his wife, Rummi, endowed a Chair in Strategy and Leadership in 2002 to foster the Haas School’s training of tomorrow’s business leaders and CEOs.
“Success is a thing one beholds in one’s own mind; there is no common benchmark,” Sarin said in a recent interview with CalBusiness about his career achievements. “For me, success means the ability to influence my world, whatever that world may be, and to make it a better place.”
Sarin has influenced the global expansion of the wireless industry over the past 20 years. Born and raised outside the US – in India – 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. In the process he has brought wireless technologies to 25 countries around the world. “I believe you are the product of all the minutes and hours that you have spent on the planet,” says Sarin, retracing the steps from his youth to his international career.
“I lived in India, which is on one end of the economic spectrum, and I lived in the US, which is on the other, and I’ve visited 20-30 countries in the middle,” said Sarin. “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.”
Sarin grew up as the second son of a well-to-do family in India. Following the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, 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 neighboring countries, Sarin’s mother encouraged her younger son to pursue a different career. Gifted in math, he was accepted to the highly prestigious India Institutes of Technology (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.
“I’m not an engineer’s engineer,” said Sarin, who won the prestigious B.C. Roy Medal for the best all-around student and remembers being very athletic and active in boarding school and college. But the discipline and analytical skills he learned in this field led to a successful career in finance and corporate strategy. “Having passion for what you do is tremendously important, or you won’t put in the work it takes to be successful,” he explained.
Sarin discovered this passion at UC Berkeley after graduating from IIT. A resident at the International House, while pursuing a master’s degree in engineering on a scholarship, he met his future wife, Rummi, who was an undergraduate student at the business school (BS 77). At her urging, he enrolled in a finance course and did so well that his (now retired) professor, Fred Morrissey, convinced him to enroll in the MBA program.
Armed with two UC Berkeley graduate degrees – business and engineering – Sarin embarked on his career in management consulting, which led him to Pacific Telesis and later Pacific Bell. There he identified acquisition prospects and managed mergers in the cellular industry, where his talents quickly came to light. At 35, Sarin became PacTel’s youngest officer, serving as vice president of corporate strategy under then-CEO Sam Ginn. In 1994, he played an instrumental role in creating – and in naming – the old Bell’s spin-off AirTouch, of which he was named president and CEO of AirTouch International.
“I think Arun in the AirTouch days was the key person driving that company,” said Paul Hazen, MBA 64, the former Wells Fargo Bank chairman and current Haas School Advisory Board member, who served on the board of Airtouch at that time. “Sam [Ginn] was the chairman with Arun running it day to day. He was the key person making the decisions, negotiating the transactions, and running the operating people.”
It was Sarin’s aggressive entrepreneurial focus and participatory management style – open offices, a casual dress code, open communication policy inviting dissenting views, and a stake in the company’s performance for employees – that helped AirTouch navigate the contentious waters of the wireless revolution and the regulatory upheaval of the 1990s.
“Sarin was very early in the process of strategically analyzing the acquisitions we made,” Hazen recalled. “Strategically he had real clarity as to the economic potential and acceptance of the wireless phone and was an early visionary of what has evolved as a staple of what we use today.”
Sam Ginn would be the first to agree. “Arun Sarin is one of the most talented managers I have ever had the pleasure of working with,” said the now retired chairman of Vodafone, who has been working with Sarin since his early days at Pac Bell. Sitting on the boards of four public companies, Sarin frequently works with some of the top CEOs of the country and compares what these leaders have in common, why they are at the head of their companies: “I see that they all have the people skills, the vision skills, and values and integrity.”
For Sarin, these are the core principles of management success: “One, the ability to lead people is a very core skill, one that is often undervalued. Two, you need to be able to have a vision and be able to implement it. Whatever industry you are in, you have to be able to look forward and see what it will look like five years from now and then track back and set the goals that will take you there. Three, you have to have personal integrity. Having values and personal integrity is hugely important, because people like to follow good people.”
The same principles held true in Sarin’s international success. In 1999, Sarin played a key role in the merger of AirTouch with both the British company Vodafone, which created the first global wireless enterprise, and later the German company Mannesmann.
“When you do business internationally you have to put yourself in the shoes of the people in whose country you prepare to do business. You have to be empathetic – not just riding rough shod and saying ‘we’re from America, we’re the best country and you guys are going to do what we want you to do.’ You can’t do that; they will not respect your views. People worked with us because we had a genuine interest in their economy and their people.”
Sarin’s track record in the industry has not made him immune from the economic pressures that have plagued telecommunications, however. In 2000, InfoSpace offered Sarin his first opportunity at a truly entrepreneurial company. The company, based in Seattle, Wash., provided the infrastructure services for wireless devices, merchants, and Web sites.
At Infospace, he experienced first-hand the implosion of an industry that was a few years ahead of its times. “In some ways it reminded me of when I started in the cellular business in 1984 - there was a lot of skepticism with critics saying that this will only be for rich people and that it is never going to be widespread,” he recalled. “I think my mistake was that I called it three to five years too soon. My learning, once I got there, was that customers were not coming in droves. They were quite happy with their cell phones.”
In 2001 Sarin formed a new company, Accel-KKR Telecom, a San Francisco firm that invests in and manages budding telecom ventures and technologies around the globe. KKR recently invested $2 billion in the leading Canadian Yellow Pages company.
Sarin does not regret the experience of leading startup ventures. “Large organizations and small organizations have very different leadership styles,” he said. “It’s kind of like being a tri-athlete: you can swim and bike and run, rather than just being a marathon runner.”
This summer, Sarin will take on a new professional opportunity that had eluded him in his career so far: to be CEO of a major, international corporation. In December 2002, he was announced the new CEO of Vodafone, where he had remained a non-executive director since he left the company two years prior. He will start in his new position as CEO designate in London in April 2003, once again working side by side with long-time CEO Chris Gent until Gent’s retirement on July 30.
But Sarin won’t have to make the transition by himself. His wife, Rummi, and son, Neal (13), currently a seventh-grader at Bentley School in Berkeley, will join him in London, while his daughter, Nina (18), will complete her studies at Stanford University.
“To be successful you have to work hard, have passion, do as well as you can, but make sure that you are not messing up what makes you a complete human being,” remarked Sarin. “If you win on the professional side but lose on the family side, I’m not sure that looking back over a 20-30-year career that you would find it entirely satisfying.”
“You have to have balance in your life,” he concluded.