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Ruza Sabanovic, Senior Vice-President and Head, Development and Delivery, Uninor

August 30, 2013
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Ruza Sabanovic, senior vice-president and head of development and delivery, Uninor, enjoys being in the middle of all the action. She knows exactly what her customers want and makes sure she delivers on It.

For Ruza Sabanovic, it was a toss-up between teaching and telecom at the outset of her career. She decided to do both, at least for some years. After graduating in civil and construction engineering from the University of Montenegro in 1994, Sabanovic taught at a university for a couple of years when she got an offer to work with Telenor Montenegro.

It was an exciting opportunity. “Telenor came into the country in 1996 and a new era of telecommunications began. It was a greenfield situation for the company and I was made responsible for the roll-out,” she recalls.

She worked with Telenor Montenegro till 2007 in different roles, in the areas of technology and sales, before moving to the Telenor Group to head the CTO Forum and later, network operations. Concurrently, from 1994 till 2008, she continued to teach at a university.

In 2011, Sabanovic made a huge leap by joining Uninor in India with what she calls “a lot of faith, excitement, scariness and expectations” because the Indian market was seen as the most challenging and she knew she had to do her best. It meant moving from small and quiet Montenegro on the Adriatic Sea (formerly part of Yugoslavia) to its exact antithesis in teeming, noisy and chaotic India.

“Moving to India was a daring step to take; at the same time, it was really inspiring for me. I thought that if I could work, contribute and make an impact in a country with 1.4 billion people (compared to the 600,000 population in Montenegro), it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience anyone would be grateful for,” she says.

Working in India with Uninor, where she is taking care of technology (networks and IT), development and delivery, sourcing, regulatory and the project management office, has been challenging yet exciting. “India is definitely the most demanding and inspiring place to be in and, along with my determination and passion, that is a deadly combination. I am having a fantastic learning experience here that I will always carry with me,” she says.

Elaborating on her experience in India so far, Sabanovic says that the country is currently where Europe was a few years ago. The telecom sector has been through a very challenging time over the past 18 months and the Indian market is emerging fast and becoming very dominant, diverse and customer centric.

For her, the task now is threefold: to make data as efficient as the voice model to enable growth; to make data affordable for the mass market, building on the “internet for all” concept; and to focus on new, simple and relevant service offerings.

“As we see it, in the time to come, telecom is set to go through a major shift. The growing number of smartphone users will drive the focus towards data, be it 2G or 3G. Another trend that can be identified is that instead of aggressively acquiring new subscribers, operators will now concentrate their efforts on extraction from the available subscriber base,” she observes.

“This is primarily because of growing teledensity and competition. For us at Uninor, this is the time for both focusing on and maximising what we do best and enhancing investments in the circles we are present in,” she says.

Uninor’s work culture is something she is proud of. Its biggest strength is that it combines an open and transparent work culture with “great daring” and a drive to continuously improve, from the top down to every individual. “In a word, Uninor is a people’s organisation. The culture that we deliver is outstanding, even under extremely tough conditions.”

Apart from the work culture, the fact that the company has positioned itself as a “sabse sasta” mass market service provider and constantly delivered on this promise also speaks volumes about its efficiency.

Sabanovic describes Uninor as “highly innovative” and able to bring out new products to satisfy new needs. “Another major positive that Uninor has is that it is a zero debt organisation, which is looking forward to achieve break even in all six circles by the end of this year. In an industry reeling under financial pressure and debt, we therefore hold a very strong position,” she says.

That does not mean that she and her team have not spent a lot of time in the past thinking of survival strategies while focusing on their next level of expectation for different stakeholders. But currently, she says the company is in a very strong position and is very optimistic about its future.

Asked whether it is a misconception in India that data services are synonymous with 3G/4G, Sabanovic says that instead of technology, companies should talk about the service they are delivering to customers – its relevance, experience and value.

“For average Indian consumers, in addition to voice, what basically matters is if they can access their mail, check and update their social media profiles, download ringtones, watch videos, etc. on their handsets. That is even possible on EDGE and 2G. We do not require a 3G connection for this. What our consumer really wants is mobility. The consumer wants affordable mobile voice and data with good speed and that is what we can offer even today,” she says.

Sabanovic’s strategy is clear: deliver “the best in basic” services to the customer in the most efficient and affordable way.

As to her own personal strengths, she mentions the fact that she never gives up and is very work oriented. “My weakness is that I want everything to be perfect and that becomes a bit challenging and demanding,” she says.

She is not one to mince her words – a habit she says comes from her “cultural background”. Her style is to be direct, not diplomatic, and she likes to get the best out of her team by showing them her trust and elaborating on her expectations.

In Montenegro, her upbringing was quiet and cultured. She and her sister Eva were raised by their mother Olga after their father passed away when they were very small. In school, Sabanovic learnt  to play the piano. As part of a student exchange programme, she spent one year in the US after which she enrolled at a university in her home country. She did her master’s from Serbia. Her academic aspirations continue even today – she is currently working on her Ph.D.

Sabanovic’s core values and cornerstones of life are based on the following maxims: everything you expect in life, you need to deserve and it will always stay; if you want something and you work hard towards it, you will get it; and you need to believe in yourself and rely on yourself throughout your life. Equally important are values like doing unto others as they would do to you, being honest and respecting others.

In her spare time, Sabanovic likes to walk and ski and spend time with her sister, her nephew Vanja and niece Anika, both toddlers. “The two of them play the most special role in my life,” she says.  After all the meetings and strategising at work, being with them refreshes her. She also travels extensively to meet the teams in the circles, and partners and stakeholders, but she enjoys the travel. “I like to go and be where the action is,” she says, “so that I am in touch with progress and feel the heat on the ground.”

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