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Showing the way

Pramod Saxena
Chairman, Oxigen
P BalaKrishna | 05/12/2007  

Pramod Saxena needs no introduction. He is by far the most popular professional and entrepreneur in the industry. He started Qxigen in 2004 from a small office in Safdarjung Enclave in New Delhi. Total investment in the company was $2 million. This financial year, Oxigen is expected to close with a revenue of Rs 1,500 crore and it is valued anywhere between $90 and $100 million. Oxigen is the largest payment company in India catering to 6 million customers every week. Those who know Pramod Saxena are not surprised; he has had successes all through his professional career of 27 years.

Saxena grew up in a typical middle class background. His father was a government servant who started his career as a clerk in the Indian Railways. No one in his family had ever tried his hands in business. Saxena, however, always dreamt of becoming an entrepreneur since his student days in IIT (Roorkie). When he left Motorola in 2004, after a successful stint of four years as its Asia-Pacific president, he was among the highest paid executives in India.

As Motorola chief, he was getting a salary of half a million dollar per annum. Only few top class executives in India could dream of such a high salary in 2004, says Ashutosh Garg, CEO of Guardian Pharmacy. When Saxena left Motorola, he had offers from big corporate groups. However, he decided to go ahead with his own project.

But how did he enter the business of prepaid services? “It was an accident. One of my close friend’s father met some South African entrepreneurs in a cruise. They were into prepaid business. My friend’s father doesn’t understand telecom business. So he introduced them to me,” recalls Saxena. In less than one year, he was able to create India’s largest prepaid company. He is a pioneer in this field.

Today, Oxigen serves more than six million customers every month. It is present in more than 50 cities in 15 states. By next financial year, the company would have national foot print. It started as a payment company for telecom sector as the telecom revolution was sweeping the country. Saxena soon realised its potential in other sectors. Oxigen is now diversifying into entertainment and is offering services to the subscribers of Tata Sky, Dish TV and World Space radio. The company is also tying up with electricity companies for bill payment and are exploring possibilities of offering services in other sectors. It has alredau got IRCTC approval for ticketing services.

Oxigen is in an expansion mode. Currently, it has 50,000 touch points. “In next three to four years we will reach 500,000 touch points,” says Sunil Kulkarni, president of Oxigen Services India Pvt Ltd.

Was it difficult for Saxena to set up a new company from the scratch? Not really. “During my working career as a professional, I was exposed to the entrepreneurial elements of business. I worked more as an entrepreneurial manager than as someone involved in day to day activities. I enjoyed setting up new projects,” says Saxena. Though trained as a Chemical Engineer, he had set up Greenfield projects in different sectors and in varied atmospheres. In telecom, people know Saxena as a pioneer of mobile telephony in India. He was the first CEO of Essar’s cellular operations in Delhi. He built one of the first cellular networks in India from the scratch. How Essar entered into telecom sector is an interesting story. “Entering telecom was an accident. The opportunity came through C Sivasankaran who wanted to sell his Delhi licence and exit. Mr Sivasankaran approached Essar and rest is the history,” says Saxena. He left Essar in 1998 when Hutch was introduced as a significant partner in the company who would run the business. “After spending four to five years in telecom I could realise that teleom would be a great opportunity. When Essar’s involvement reduced to mere investor I left the company,” said Saxena.

It was the time when Motorola was looking for an Indian to lead its operations in India. The company was struggling to establish itself in India. “I thought it was a good opportunity and a great challenge,” says Saxena. He worked in Motorola for six years and during this period he turned around the company. It was his charisma and personal relationship with the people that he managed to bring all the operators with Motorola. He managed to make all the telecom operators, barring Idea, as its customers. When he left the company, in 2004, Motorola’s business had grown by 400 per cent.

Oxigen is not the first venture that Saxena launched. He was not averse to taking risks. He left his stable and secure job at DCM to work with unknown group and later on launching his own firm when his children were small, his father had just retired and younger sister was studying.

“I tried my hands in business long back. When I was working with DCM an opportunity came as some NRIs wanted to set up business in India,” recalls Saxena. At that time he had an experience of only 10 years as a professional. He left the NRI group when bankers raised some doubts on their source of funding. He started a consultancy company of his own, in 1987-88, and got contracts from several big corporates.

It was during this period that Essar contacted him for some project. Then Essar was not a very big group. After working for Essar as a consultant, he joined the group in 1989. “I was impressed by entrepreneurial nature Ruias,” said Saxena. He again worked for Essar as an advisor when he left Motorola and was launching Oxigen. He managed and restructured a large BPO operation for Essar. Then Essar got a very good opportunity of acquiring BPL. He handled this project. Therefore, when he was working on developing Oxigen, he was handling operations that were sufficient to keep hands full of three CEOs.

Two people who have influenced his professional life are Charat Ram of the DCM group and Shahsi Ruia of the Essar group. He worked with CDM group for 10 years out of which he worked closely with Charat Ram for five years. With Ruias, he worked for 10 years.

Any new business faces two kind of challenges – Finding right people and funding. For Saxena, finding right people was the easiest thing. People in the industry had faith in him. Those who have worked for him at any point of time vouch for him. For example, Sunil Kulkarni was heading marketing and business development of Motorola India’s Global Telecom Solution sector when he joined Oxigen at a much lesser salary. He had options of joining various corporate at a much higher salary. “We protected his future and gave stock options,” said Saxena.

The biggest challenge for a new business is to quickly find funding and scale up operations. Unless one creates a large volume one can not achieve big,” says Saxena. When Oxigen was launched, the first resistance was faced from operators. They were penetrating marketing through their own distribution channels. It took time for them to appreciate a neutral platform that Oxigen offered. Oxigen offered alternate channels to them. Now all of them see benefit in it.

One of the reasons for success of Saxena is his strong relationships with people. He believes in building relationships. People know him as someone whom they can approach anytime for any kind of help. “I have gained a lot from relationships. I have helped people, people have helped me,” says Saxena. No wonder, during his daughter’s marriage who’s who of the industry was present.

Born in May, 1954, Saxena has a son and a daughter. His son is technocrat and is in the core team of Lamco, a US-based company. His daughter is settled in Dubai.

Editor’s Note:
About 2 years ago, I was joking with a friend who was at the helm of a multinational that he had achieved whatever he could achieve in the corporate world. Now, the next step for him would be retirement. “The next step would be to become a successful entrepreneur,” he replied. He was serious. In my over 14 years of career as a business writer, I have closely observed the Indian corporate world and the telecom sector in particular. I have noticed that almost all the successful professionals have great desire to become entrepreneurs. One of the reasons for their success is that even as professionals they work with entrepreneurial zeal. In these columns we will write about successful professionals who decided to become entrepreneur.

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