Pursuit of Happiness

Always up for tee time

Be it in a boardroom or on a golf course, J Walter Thompson South Asia CEO, Tarun Rai, always plays to win

The energy in the room is that of a vibrant Monday morning. Some of it could be attributed to the occupant of this corner office. Even at four in the evening in the middle of the week, the South Asia CEO of J Walter Thompson (JWT) has the enthusiasm of a sprightly young man. He attributes it to an intensely competitive game of squash that morning that has left a barely visible scar on his nose. However, the sport that has got most of his attention is a lot less aggressive but one that he claims is as competitive as any other. “There are a lot of misconceptions about golf being a leisure walk in the park. While it might not be as strenuous as the other games, it is competitive as hell,” says the advertising veteran with 25 years of experience in the media profession.

Rai, who first set foot on a golf course way back in 1999 has fond memories of the greens at his actual learning ground, the Tollygunge Club in Kolkata. While heading the city’s JWT operations around 2002 as a managing partner, he found himself on the teeing ground of “Tolly” as it’s affectionately referred to by its patrons, with a rented set of 14 clubs and a new-found enthusiasm to master the game. It’s a known fact that the first tee is the hardest but Rai describes why this was one was particularly more intimidating, “Hole no. 1 is just outside the club’s coffee shop, then called Shamiana. There are a lot of golfers sitting there, sipping tea, having breakfast and watching you. The first time I stepped on to the first tee was with a lot of trepidation”. Fortunately, he found a few other amateurs like himself on the driving range including the current VP of Tata Steel, Sunil Bhaskaran.

For about three months, since he move to the eastern city, Rai lived in a cottage at the club. And that’s how he managed at least nine rounds every morning. Back in Mumbai, he reaches the Willingdon Sports Club every Sunday morning at 6.30 am. “I am part of a group of 16 golfers, mostly senior corporate guys. We play for about five hours on a Sunday and we have one rule – you always land up at the course even if it’s pouring. On a good day we get three to six holes, otherwise we just have breakfast and leave if we can’t play. It started off with a much smaller number that has now grown to 16 and we go on an annual golf holiday for three-four days some place in South Asia,” he explains. Be it China or Mauritius or Vietnam, sightseeing takes a backseat and the group follows a Ryder Cup format with eight players on each team complete with logos printed on polo shirts and a handsome cup.  

Apart from the annual sporting event, Rai makes time for corporate golf tournaments when he can. He recalls a memorable victory in 2014 at the Turkish Airlines Open which became even more special when he received his appointment letter from JWT. But earning a winning point on the scorecard has come with several years of practice. “Picking up golf requires a lot of patience, ball after ball on the driving range, can be very frustrating,” he adds. But the result of the relentless pursuit has taught the media professional that while talent will get you somewhere, you won’t get ahead if you don’t invest in practice. “I am reminded of a quote by Gary Player, who when asked about the role of luck in golf said, ‘I realise the harder I practice the luckier I get. So, that’s another thing we need to remember at work that luck can only get you this far but practice makes you perfect”, he adds. Another important lesson he picked up on the greens that now finds its way on the last slide of all his presentations is the importance of team spirit and the right attitude. “Don’t be a sore loser. Even in advertising, we make 20 pitches a week and they all may not go your way but you must always play to win. And trusting your teammates is important. Like in sport even at work, if you don’t give a chance to the young employee or the rookie out of fear that he will make mistakes, how is he going to grow? So, one must learn to support each other in the team and build the right strategy,” advises Rai.

The ad man has managed to re-introduce several players to the course and one such name is the current CEO of PepsiCo India, D Shivakumar. He credits sport including both the daily squash routine and the weekly golf practice for his energetic self. He’s all game for a session of badminton when mentioned in passing though he doesn’t play anymore. He confidently boasts of defeating another player on the court despite not having had much practice in the recent past. And that gets him excited again about sport as he sums up, “See that competitive spirit, that’s what sport does to you. I can never do something like running for a marathon but call me for a set of squash at 5.30 in the morning and I’ll be up.”