Best Buddies 2017

Nirmal Jain and R Venkataraman

The IIFL Holdings founders discovered their passion for stocks over numerous cups of chai and vada pav

It has attracted some of the best names in the investment world — be it Prem Watsa, well-known PE investor Ashish Dhawan or the UK government’s Commonwealth Development Corporation that has £3 billion worth of assets under its portfolio. A large part of why some of the biggest institutions trust Mumbai-based financial services powerhouse, IIFL Holdings, with their money has to do with the pedigree of its founders — Nirmal Jain and R Venkataraman. The IIM alumni, who met through a common friend, discovered each other’s passion for stock markets over numerous cups of chai and vada pav. To get the first-mover advantage in the fledgling world of the Internet, the firm invested heavily in technology So when the dotcom bubble burst, it threatened the very existence of the firm. But, the founders stuck by each other amid the crisis as overall market volumes revived and new-age broking style gained popularity. IIFL Holdings has effectively diversified itself, and has successfully ventured into other services such as wealth management, AMC, institutional equities, home, CV and gold loans, investment banking, project financing and investment advisory. Never shy of taking risks, Jain always looks for the next big thing. Although he admires Jain’s risk-taking ability, Venkataraman finds it unsettling at times and goes for Bhagavad Gita classes to remain calm. With a cherished vision and an undying partnership, the duo is looking forward to further expanding IIFL’s footprint.

How were you two introduced to each other?

Venkataraman: I started my career with ICICI, which, at that time, was at Backbay Reclamation, and Nirmal used to work in Hindustan Lever. My boss in ICICI was his dorm-mate at IIM Ahmedabad. The three of us would meet at this well-known vada pav vendor near Ramon House and most of our discussions revolved around stock markets. So, over vada pav, chai and stock markets, we started to bond.

Jain: We worked across the street. Stepping out of office after lunch also became a routine either because of a boring lunch at office or for the want of some fresh air. So, this vada pav vendor became our meeting point. 

What was your first impression of each other?

Jain: We met each other through a common friend whom I trusted, and he spoke fondly about Venkat. Eventually I started meeting him in his dormitory in Amboli; we’d also meet over drinks or dinner or snacks. A friendship that began with vada pav grew thicker. 

How would you describe each other?

Venkataraman: I wouldn’t waste time talking about his intellect or his number-crunching prowess. But, even today, he can take a 36,000 ft. view of an idea and simultaneously go into minute details, when it comes to implementing a strategy or decision. He also has this incredible ability to take risks. 

Jain: Venkat is very good with people and can execute a plan perfectly. Despite his intelligence, he is humble. He can easily get along with people and is a good team player. He can get the team to work together and make sure that things are delivered. It is very easy to dream big and have a 36,000 ft view, but it is important to deliver. 

What is your idea of a great business partner?

Venkataraman: I don’t want to flatter him, but, without a doubt, someone like Nirmal. I have my reasons for that, too. When I first joined IIFL many years ago, somebody had described to me what it was to be an entrepreneur — someone who gets the residual of any function. After everybody does his or her bit, whatever else is left comes to your desk; you can’t say no to that. This describes Nirmal perfectly. When we were going through difficult times, he never said no to anything. Whatever be the situation — an HR problem or a legal problem — he was there. 

Jain: I have not found a person who is as trustworthy as Venkat. When times are difficult and the outlook isn’t bright, that’s when you are the most vulnerable. Your competitors will try to move ahead by identifying your weak spots. That’s when having someone trustworthy by your side, someone who is there for the cause and not for the monetary gains, makes all the difference. Partners should complement each other. I am, at times, more aggressive but he balances it. Another thing I admire about him is his honesty and integrity. I have so many good friends, but he is exceptional. 

What is it like to work with him?

Venkataraman: I would say fun, but it also gets a little stressful. There is a constant pressure of deadlines. The focus is on execution and getting the task done. 

Jain: He can work with different kinds of people, especially those who are weak and need a lot of support. At the same time, he can also work with high-performers and tactfully handle big egos. He can connect with people much lower in the ranks like a relationship manager or sales executives and is equally at ease with CEOs and promoters. Everybody likes him, more or less, because he comes across as a gentle, humble and nice person.

How often do you spend time together? Do you have a favourite hangout spot?

Jain: We spend a lot of time together apart from work. Sometimes we watch cricket or tennis matches together. We also go out for dinner with our friends. We also go for dinner together occasionally at places close to our office. Our favourite hangout places include Manchester United Cafe Bar, Hotel Four Seasons, The Bombay Canteen, etc. Apart from this, we have offsites with our co-workers every year. We go to different places in India and abroad. This time we went to Goa. Usually, at these offsites we get a chance to interact with our colleagues in an informal setting. We have lot of fun as competitions are held where employees get a chance to show their entrepreneurial acumen and knowledge of their field.

What’s the one thing he hasn’t stopped pulling your leg about?

Jain: Venkat is very spiritual. I am also spiritual, but my interest is only in the ‘spirit’ bit and not in the ‘rituals’. Sometimes I pull his leg about the rituals he does when he goes for his Bhagavad Gita classes. I believe in God; I am not an atheist, but I am not so ritual-driven. 

What is the one thing that he can talk about for hours on end?

Venkataraman: He can talk about entrepreneurship for hours on end. Among the two of us, he is a born entrepreneur. He can also go on about investments; he has a good understanding of the markets.

Jain: He can go on about sports, music and people in general. We also talk about markets. 

Where do you concur with each other and where are you poles apart?

Venkataraman: What we agree to disagree upon is speed. Nirmal has an incredible ability to take risks. Although I agree that one should take risks, but the pace with which I will take risks may not be the same. 

Jain: Suppose there is an employee-related issue and we need to remove somebody, we tend to always agree on the aspect of integrity. I don’t think there have been disagreements on critical issues. Our disagreements are generally lie in terms of approach; we typically agree upon the goals. 

Have the two of you influenced by each other — personally or professionally?

Venkataraman: Professionally, I needn’t say much — he is like a mentor to me. On a personal front, I have learnt that if there is a bad news, one needs to deliver it fast. Earlier, I’d used to procrastinate and delay taking tough decisions, especially when it came to people. 

Jain: Personally, I also started… 

Venkataraman:Bhagavad Gita classes. (chuckles)

Jain: I am not going to Bhagavad Gita classes. (chuckles) I have just read the scripture. But, yes, Venkat keeps himself physical fit, and that has rubbed on to me — I have participated in two marathons. Professionally, I try to be more patient. Many a times, one can end up being over-aggressive and miss the big picture. I have learnt from Venkat that it is also important to give time and space for people to blossom and keep giving them positive feedback to keep up their morale.   

How you know when the other person is extremely upset or angry? How do you resolve the situation?

Jain: That is his weakness. Venkat, sometimes, gives away his feelings and it becomes a problem, especially when we are negotiating. One can easily read his face. I am not saying that I have a brilliant poker face, but you shouldn’t let everybody know how you are feeling through your body language. I can sense it right away when something is upsetting him and we talk it out. 

Who, among the two of you, has better intuition? 

Venkataraman: I will give it to him. I would say he has a better intuition. 

Jain: As always, he is being polite and humble.

Do you bet on each other’s gut feeling?

Jain: I never ignore him; I always listen to him. I understand where his gut feeling comes from and most of the times we agree to it and work as a team. 

What is the one skill you learnt from each other?

Venkataraman: I am trying to implement this — it is about maintaining a task tracker, that is, keep a list of all the tasks and tick them off one by one. 

Jain: I have learnt to master patience. You need to have patience and a long-term approach rather than getting upset over small things. 

What do you admire about him the most? And, if there is one thing that you wished to steal from him, what would it be?

Venkataraman: It is his ability to think big. Everybody sees opportunities, but to bet the house on that one opportunity is a skill. When we were going through difficult times in 2002-2003, we had bet on technology. Significant portions of the company’s cash flows were bet on it and, in the end, it paid off really well for us. 

Jain: I wish I could have his people’s skills. He has this ability to please and befriend anybody and everybody. 

What’s the one thing you’d want to change about him?

Venkataraman: With Nirmal, you get what you see; many people are not able to handle this direct approach. If he wants to get something done, he will just instruct the other person saying, ‘I want this to be done in the next couple of minutes.’ People may find this approach confusing. He should communicate in a gentler way.

Jain: …And I feel he should assert himself and become more of a taskmaster. Not that he has to give up his qualities of being gentle, but he needs to make sure that people are accountable and deliver on time. Being soft is good, but he needs to be more assertive.

What role does he play in your life?

Venkataraman: He plays a very important role; I have learnt a lot from him. He is a friend, philosopher and guide. 

Jain: I spend most of my time with him. We are best friends and that reflects on everything — our ideology and our thoughts. We are like each other’s sounding board. 

What’s your most memorable milestone that you achieved together? 

Jain: Getting the company profitable, the listing, and expanding our existing business to wealth management and institutional equities. 

What’s the secret to your successful relationship?

Venkataraman: Shared values and mutual respect.

Jain: Also, honesty. 

Do you address each other with any nicknames?

Venkataraman: I don’t have one for him.

Jain: Earlier, I used to call him thambi, but now it’s just Venkat.