Chief executive officer, Vodafone Group
Nationality: Indian, American.
Born: October 21, 1954, in India.
Education: Indian Institute of Technology, BS, 1975; University of California at Berkeley, MS, 1977, MBA, 1978.
Family: Son of Krishan Sarin (military officer) and Ramilla (maiden name unknown); married Rummi Anand (homemaker); children: two.
Career: 1978–1981, management consultant, environmental analyst; Natomas Company, 1981–1984, corporate development manager; Pacific Telesis Group, 1984–1994, various positions including corporate development, chief financial officer, chief strategic officer, vice president, and general manager; AirTouch Communications, 1994, vice president of human resources; 1994–1995, senior vice president of corporate strategy and development; 1995–1997, president and chief executive officer; 1997–1999, president and chief operating officer; Vodafone-AirTouch, 1999–2000, chief executive, U.S.-Asia Pacific region; InfoSpace, 2000, chief executive officer; Accel-KKR Telecom, 2001–2003, chief executive officer; Vodafone Group, 2003–, chief executive officer.
Awards: University of California at Berkeley, Haas School Business Leader of Year, 2002; University of California Trust (UK) Award, 2003.
Address: Vodafone Group, Vodafone House, The Connection, Newbury, West Berkshire, RG14 2FN, United Kingdom; http://www.vodafone.com.
■ Arun Sarin spent almost his entire working life in the telecommunications industry. He built an enviable professional record by combining various talents and skills: his technical knowledge, his business strategy, and his financial acumen were all legendary. He held several senior-executive-level positions in major U.S. companies in the telecommunications industry. At times, his ascension into top-management positions appeared almost meteoric. Described by superiors and industry analysts as possessing determination and drive, he received
high marks for his work in the preparation and financial analyses for business mergers and acquisitions in the growing telecommunications industry. His July 30, 2003, appointment as chief executive officer (CEO) of Vodafone, a multibillion-dollar British international wireless-communications company, was a tribute to his life's work and testimony to his broad appeal and respect among various constituents.
Arun Sarin was born in India to a once-wealthy family. When the British granted sovereignty to India in 1947, his family lost its wealth. In order to sustain a solvent financial position for their families, Sarin's father and uncles joined the Indian military. His father held the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Indian military. Sarin attended a military boarding school in Bangalore, India, as a young boy. Early on he proved himself to be a very disciplined student. School played an important part of his life and set the tone for his future career. While in high school Sarin excelled in scholarship and sports, including field hockey, gymnastics, and boxing. His accomplishments gave him a sense of purpose and discipline that continued into adulthood. He wanted to follow his father's footsteps into the military by pursuing a career as a pilot, but his mother vehemently protested this choice fearing that he could be killed in a future military conflict. To appease his mother, Sarin, an extraordinarily gifted student, especially in mathematics, applied to the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), a highly competitive elite university in Kharagpur, India. He was accepted at IIT and chose engineering as his major. He graduated in the top 10 percent of his class and received the B. C. Roy gold medal for academic excellence.
Upon graduation from the IIT in 1975 with a bachelor of science degree in engineering, Sarin received a full scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate College of Engineering. For the Indian-born Sarin, California would become his adopted home and the United States his adopted country. While pursuing his engineering degree Sarin met his future wife, Remmi, also an Indian and a graduate student. She persuaded him to enroll in a finance course in the business school. He performed so well that he decided to pursue an MBA majoring in finance concurrently with his engineering degree. In 1977 he was awarded a master's degree in engineering, and the following year he received his MBA. The dual degrees gave him a competitive edge in seeking employment and bolstered his career over time.
Sarin started his professional life in 1978, working as an environmental analyst for a Washington, D.C., consulting firm. In 1981 he returned to California to join the Natomas Company in San Francisco as a corporate development manager. A few years later Sarin entered the telecommunications industry, a field he chose by design: "When I graduated I went into the energy industry because it was hot … the consultancy I worked for was acquired and in 1984 I looked at the world and saw that telecoms was hot so I joined Pacific Telesis" ( Communications Week International , September 11, 2000). At Pacific Telesis Group, a Bell spin-off, Sarin met and started working closely with Sam Ginn, the legendary telecommunications entrepreneur, who helped steer Sarin's management career in the industry. As a new employee in the industry, his background in finance facilitated his work on cellular-business acquisitions.
Sarin worked with Pacific Telesis in various professional and executive positions for 10 years, receiving several important promotions, assuming increasing levels of administrative responsibility, and expanding his executive experience. He strengthened the internal financial controls at the company, and Ginn promoted him to chief financial officer after the company completed a major acquisition. Soon he was appointed vice president of corporate strategy, and at the age of 35 he became the youngest corporate officer at Pacific Telesis. Sarin left the company in 1994 when it split its mobile and paging businesses. He followed his mentor Ginn to a newly formed wireless-communications company, AirTouch Communications.
Sarin had a unique opportunity to hone his executive talents at AirTouch Communications, one of the largest cellular companies in the world. His initial appointment was as vice president of human resources. In less than a year he was promoted to senior vice president of corporate strategy and development, a position that fit him exceedingly well. His responsibilities included working on corporate acquisitions, developing partnerships, and forming strategic alliances with other companies throughout the industry.
Sarin's dedication and commitment to AirTouch were demonstrated by the following incident: While celebrating his 40th birthday at a party, he received word that a major deal was brewing between corporate competitors that had serious implications for AirTouch's future existence. Despite being the honored guest, Sarin left the celebration to assess the problem and to try to influence its outcome. As a result of his direct intervention, the deal was compromised.
Hard work and company loyalty paid off well for Sarin. He continued moving up the corporate ladder very quickly. In less than a year as corporate vice president he was appointed president and chief executive officer of the company. Under his leadership at AirTouch, the company established cellular and paging businesses in more than a dozen countries. In 1997 Sarin was promoted to president and chief operating officer of AirTouch, a position he held for approximately two years.
In 1999 AirTouch and Vodafone, a large British wireless communications company, decided to join forces to create Vodafone-AirTouch, which produced greater financial and human resources and enabled the company to compete more effectively in the international wireless-communications marketplace. Sarin was named chief executive of the newly formed corporate entity, responsible for managing operations in the U.S.-Asia Pacific region and for some 20,000 employees. In order to expand services, Sarin, with his years of experience partnering with other companies, created a strategic alliance with InfoSpace, an Internet infrastructure company based in Bellevue, Washington, "to deliver wireless Internet services to mobile customers" who resided in some two dozen countries (Advisor.com, January 11, 2000).
Sir Christopher Gent, the fairly young CEO of Vodafone, had always expressed the greatest respect for Sarin's financial abilities and managerial and leadership skills. He understood Sarin's value to the newly formed company and wanted Sarin to continue to his employment. Sarin wanted to add the position of chief operating officer (COO) to his corporate resume as a step toward becoming the CEO of Vodafone one day, but Gent decided that there was no pressing need to create the position of COO at the company. Faced with this decision and the fact that the youthful Gent would likely remain CEO for many years, Sarin concluded that his path to top was blocked, and he was unwilling to take a lesser role in the company's hierarchy. On April 15, 2000, Sarin resigned from Vodafone-AirTouch and took the CEO position at InfoSpace. Hedging his bets, Gent then offered Sarin a nonsalaried position as a member of the board of directors at Vodafone-AirTouch, a position that Sarin willingly accepted.
InfoSpace's founder, CEO, and chairman, Naveen Jain, by several accounts "badgered" Sarin until he accepted the CEO position at the company. Said Sarin: "Naveen kept coming up and bugging me. This is classic Naveen, he comes at you and at you and at you…. I'm 45, there's a time in life when you have done what you're going to do; it's time to take a bigger chance" (TheStreet.com, April 19, 2000). Despite his easy transition into the CEO position at InfoSpace, however, Sarin expressed concerns about his ability to balance work and family life. He was worried that his new position might impact negatively on his family, which chose not to move from their home in Piedmont, California, to Bellevue, Washington, the headquarters of InfoSpace.
Jain had the utmost respect for Sarin's abilities in the global telecommunications business, and Sarin complemented Jain's knowledge of the Internet. As CEO, Sarin had an external role, developing partnerships with global companies, and an internal role that focused on recruiting and strengthening the management team at InfoSpace. Sarin led the merger of InfoSpace and Go2Net, a consumer-portal company, for approximately $4 billion in a stock swap.
After a short eight-month tenure at InfoSpace, Sarin resigned, citing family obligations, which included weekly travel from his home in Piedmont to InfoSpace headquarters in Bellevue. Although family matters undoubtedly played a significant role in his decision to leave the company, there was talk among industry analysts about discontent at the top. Jain asked Sarin to remain at the company in a nonexecutive capacity, as vice chairman of the board of directors, a position that he accepted. Sarin agreed to meet with customers and not to seek employment at another company for 180 days. Despite his willingness to stay with InfoSpace as a nonexecutive director, several industry analysts raised strong concerns about Sarin's unexpected early departure from InfoSpace and the future of the company without his leadership.
After leaving Infospace in January 2001, Sarin spent some time collecting his thoughts. Despite the fact that he was quite wealthy by now, he refused to lead a simple sedentary life outside of corporate life. On July 18, 2001, having honored his agreement with InfoSpace, Sarin joined Accel Partners and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR) to lead a new telecommunications venture called Accel-KKR Telecom. As CEO of this new venture, Sarin was responsible for identifying and working with established companies in the telecommunications industry seeking financial and human capital.
Upon Sarin's appointment, Paul Hazen, chairman of Accel-KKR Telecom, described Sarin's management and leadership traits: "His ability to manage, operate, and achieve real world, hands-on results will be invaluable in attracting significant investment opportunities and distinguish Accel-KKR from other investment partnerships in the telecom space" (Accel-KKR press release, July 18, 2001). As with earlier appointments, Sarin's background in finance and his broad experiences in the telecommunication industry made him a natural choice for this new position. Under his watch as CEO, Sarin assessed potential global business opportunities and worked on the acquisition of the Yellow Pages (Bell Canada) business. In addition, he served as a nonexecutive director on several major corporate boards of directors, including Charles Schwab, Cisco Systems, The Gap, and Vodafone. After approximately 18 months at Accel-KKR Telecom, Sarin resigned to become CEO designate his old firm, now called Vodafone Group.
Under the leadership of Sir Christopher Gent, the Vodafone Group made a number of significant and strategically important corporate acquisitions. In 2002, while only in his early 50s, Gent decided to retire as CEO to spend more time with his family. On December 18, 2002, Lord Ian MacLaurin, the chairman of Vodafone, called on Sarin to rejoin the company. His appointment as CEO designate began on April 1, 2003. MacLaurin said of Sarin's appointment, "I am delighted that Arun Sarin has made the commitment to take the Group forward to the next phase, and that we have identified an individual with the ability, stature, and knowledge of Vodafone which make him the ideal person for this role" (Vodafone press release, December 18, 2002).
Sarin's appointment drew mixed reviews from telecommunications analysts. Andrew Darley, an analyst at ING Financial Markets, raised concerns about Vodafone's financial picture: "We would like to see a continuing cash flow from existing operations as opposed to a continuing acquisition strategy." Sarin's finance background undoubtedly gave him the ability to work on maintaining a positive cash flow. On the other hand, despite his many excellent leadership attributes and his wealth of executive experience in the telecommunications business, one analyst questioned his appointment as a replacement for the retiring dealmaker Gent. Damen Maltarp, a telecommunications-industry analyst at Bank of America, commented, "I wouldn't class him as the ideal replacement for Chris Gent…. I think a lot of people will be asking who he is." Other analysts gave Sarin high marks as Gent's successor due to his education and experience, his previous experience at Vodafone, and the seamless leadership succession and transition that his appointment created for the company. Darley commented that "effectively he has been part of the global business strategy. This means continuity in strategy and we like the company as it is" (BBC News, December 18, 2002).
After several months as CEO designate, Sarin was installed as the CEO of Vodafone on July 30, 2003. After only a month in office, he returned to the business of mergers and acquisitions. He engineered the acquisition of Singlepoint, a mobileservice provider who offered services to Vodafone customers, for $652 million. Several months later, as part of the corporate strategy to move Vodafone into the U.S. market, Sarin vigorously pursued the acquisition of AT&T Wireless Services, but he lost a bidding war with Cingular.
See also entry on Vodafone Group Plc in International Directory of Company Histories .
"Accel and KKR Form New Telecom Venture; Name Arun Sarin Chief Executive Officer," http://www.accel-kkr.com/news/releases/release_071801.html .
"Deal Boosts Wireless Internet Services," Advisor.com , http://accessadvisor.net/doc/05933 .
Galambos, Louis, and Abrahamson, Eric, Anywhere, Anytime: Entrepreneurship and the Creation of a Wireless World , New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Johnson, Cory, "InfoSpace Lands a New Pilot," TheStreet.com , April 19, 2000, http://www.thestreet.com/ .
Malin, George, "The Art of Starting Small But Thinking Big," Communications Week International, September 11, 2000.
"Vodafone Chief Seps Down," BBC News, December 18,2002, http://bbc.co.uk/ .
"Vodafone Selects Its Next Chief Executive," company press release, December 18, 2002, http://www.vodafone.com/ .
—Joseph C. Santora