Keeping it local: talking business and battles with Grameenphone’s first Bangladeshi CEO

Between pandemics, floods and unprecedented market challenges, it hasn’t exactly been a mundane beginning for Yasir Azman.

Written: Sep 2020

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Some things have changed for Yasir Azman since he went down in company history as the first local CEO of Grameenphone in February this year. For one, he goes to bed earlier. He gets up earlier, too, creating as if from thin air the two and a half hours he needs to prep himself for a day running a company serving 74 million customers.

One thing hasn’t changed, though, and that’s the man himself. “Sigve [Brekke, Telenor Group’s CEO] gave me a piece of advice when he asked me to take on the role,” Azman reflects. “He wanted me to be careful. He said if you change yourself as CEO of a big company as you transition roles, that’s the biggest mistake. Everything was possible, he said, the organisation would support me, but if you change who you are, then you lose.”

No changes, just challenges

Covid-19 took us all by surprise. For Grameenphone and its newly minted CEO, though, it was a sucker punch preceded by a jab and followed by a haymaker.

By the time the virus had forced the company’s more than 2000 staff into home office lockdown and staring into the face of flood season (having already tackled the hit of cyclone ‘’Amphan’’, the aftermath of which can be seen in a Facebook post by Azman below), a period that puts extreme pressure on the supply chain, and leaves a waterworld between sales teams and their customers.

‘সারা বিশ্ব এবং আমরা একটা কঠিন সময়ের মধ্য দিয়ে যাচ্ছি’ কত শত বার যে বলেছি এই কথাটা গত দুইমাস, তার হিসেব নেই। এরমধ্যে…

Posted by Yasir Azman on Thursday, May 21, 2020

“There’s no doubt that the last eight months has been one of the most difficult periods in GP’s history,” he reflects. “We were under pressure from numerous external forces, and then the virus landed. Also, culturally-speaking, home office is not normal in Bangladesh, so being forced into that situation was a serious logistical and technical challenge.”

That didn’t stop the business being the first in the country to mandate home office.

Home office has meant both leading and motivating the employees through video messages and virtual towncalls.

And while no-one would dare describe the pandemic as a positive influence, in certain cases it did engender a sort of Blitz spirit, resulting in pockets of much-needed solidarity. That was the case with Grameenphone, who early on saw the need for a company their size to take on an even greater societal role.

That was the impetus for new collaborations with authorities and the ICT community to support the new demands on the medical community, to amass sizeable donations for much needed food support, and to ensure that connectivity was a viable option for all.

Azman was encouraged by the reaction. “Covid-19 is a disaster, but we’ve seen positives despite that. Collaboration has improved, dialogue with partners and government is better than ever, and we’re seeing increased focus on the vital value of social responsibility. ‘Empowering societies’ has never carried more weight as a company purpose than it has this year.” He believes Bangladesh innovates when Grameenphone is there, a belief cemented by the pandemic.

Close to customers

Speaking to Azman, one thing is clear: sales is in his blood and customers are on his mind. For the past 20 years he has remained close to the market, with five years spent blazing a cross-continental trail in India and Norway preceding four years as CMO. In short, this is the sort of profile you want guiding the company over a Covid-19-shaped mountain. Azman believes in action & progress – that’s the philosophy he is applying in every area in his new role.

Azman speaks to the wife of a fisherman about the effects of cyclone Bubul in 2019

What faced Grameenphone and its CEO when the pandemic exploded was not insignificant: Millions of customers needed to be moved to digital platforms to top-up, points-of-sale made impossible to reach due to necessary social distancing measures, and a supply chain left struggling due to new safety measures to protect from the pandemic.

Azman and his teams knew that digital sales and interfaces were the answer to the sales challenges brought about by the virus, but they also knew getting there wasn’t going to be easy. Their guiding star, as it turned out, was the sort of set-up that would make any CMO green with envy.

“Our situation room was built and developed in-house, and we’re proud of it,” he says of the multi-screened, customer nerve-centre that visualises the company’s customer & performance data in detailed technicolour. “What the situation room gives us is visibility. It helps us forecast, plan distribution and monitor product performance. It’s how we understand our customers and make informed decisions. In our line of work, you will only understand your customer if you’re fact-based.”

With 10 million customers potentially lost as a result of inoperative physical points of sales, the team drove a relentless and targeted push to their apps. Existing partnerships and existing digital platforms through their mobile financial services network enabled Grameenphone to move an impressive nearly eight million customers into digital channels. This move alone resulted in an increase in digital usage of 48%.

More to come

“We have faced a storm, both literally and metaphorically, and we are not yet out of it, but we are becoming stronger. We have built new relationships, we have accelerated our moves towards becoming a more digital telco, and we have been put to the test in terms of ensuring critical connectivity during crisis,” says Azman.

“I’m so proud of this organization, because there’s nothing that stands in our way when it comes to connecting the people of Bangladesh to what matters most. We have accelerated our digitalisation journey, and there’s much more to come!”