I am the son of immigrant parents. I was born in Neemuch, a small town about 60 km from Chittorgarh. My grandfather was running an oil mill as peanuts were in abundance in Neemuch. I still remember the large compound where we as kids used to play and Baba would go about his work. He was never afraid to get his hands dirty, sometimes carrying large oil tins all by himself on his shoulders. He was always in his dhoti, kurta and cap. The oil stains didn’t bother him. Even as a kid running around in the compound, I knew buying the peanuts at the right price was the most important thing for Baba. Not that he ever sat down and taught the business to us but we pre-internet kids had few distractions, so we paid attention.
In small towns, your role models were always closer to home. Baba was one of my strongest influences growing up. I would notice there was a constant stream of employees leaving and new ones joining. That didn’t faze him and his unique interview process left a mark on me. Whatever was the problem, he would ask the guy who turned up for the interview to solve it and then judge him on how he fared. I was all of 10 when this happened. Three guys had turned up for an interview. Baba sent them to the mandi to find out the prevailing price of peanuts. The first guy came back and told him that on an average, one kilo was being sold for 20. The second guy told him while prices ranged from 18-21 per kilo, he was informed by tea suppliers that prices fall to 18 per kilo towards the evening, which was the best time to buy. The third guy, who was the most enterprising, asked Baba, “Why don’t you make them your partners? You don’t know the oil content and if their peanuts have good oil content, we can share a percentage of the profits with them.” Baba patiently listened to all of them and in the end he hired the first guy. He was clearly impressed with the third guy so I asked him why he didn’t pick him. He told me, “When you are hiring for a waiter, you don’t hire a chef. You have to pick the right guy for the right job.” This is one lesson that has always stayed with me. All through my career, I would see a repeat version of these men. There will be ‘doers’ who will do things they are told to do, there will be ‘improvers’ who will go two steps beyond the brief and there will be game changers who will go way beyond what’s required. Unless you put the right guy in the right role, things won’t work out.
My father was an honest, hard working senior officer in the Central Bureau of Narcotics. Neemuch and Nimbahera, which was about 30 km away, were traditional opium-growing areas, so I spent most of my childhood in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Since he was very straightforward, he would constantly get transferred. While growing up, my sister and I would always be ready for one line “Okay, pack up. We are ready to go”. And this would be followed by this lecture, every single time. He would say, “You are moving to a new city, neighbourhood and school. Remember your neighbour was living just fine without you. The school team was good without you being a part of it. The other kids in school were doing just fine without you. They don’t need you. You need them so make an effort to get to know them. Nobody owes you anything.” While the constant transfers helped us adapt to any new situation, he never lets us forget that the world does not owe us anything. So, that stayed with me and I have always made an effort to get to know the people who work with me and be a part of their life and dreams.
My mother was always in this constant battle trying to run the house on a single government salary. The mill would have kept us comfortable but Baba had a paralytic stroke and my father had no interest in running it. So, things were always
hand-to-mouth at home. I recall her saying, “If the fever comes on the 27th, I am going to ask it to come on the 1st because I can’t afford it right now.”
She was very frugal and would always do her ground work before she spent any money. I remember we were in Bhilwara and I had joined a new school so I was required to get a blue blazer. It was a small town so there was a maximum of five to six stores in the market and she and I went to all of them. We found out everything about the quality of the fabric, wool content and the prices. Armed with all the information she made the guy who offered the best value an offer he could not refuse. It was informed buying at its best. One would see her do this with monthly groceries, vegetables, everything you can think of. Mother was not conventionally educated, yet she ran a tight ship — she was always on top of things. A barrage of questions would rain down on the shopkeepers: “Where did you procure this from?”; “Why so much?”; “Why is it not available now?”; “Where’s the choice?”. My mother taught me that no question is ever unimportant. Answers only enrich you. She improved her own judgment with the answers she got from the shopkeepers, was in touch with the market and used all that information to drive a hard bargain the next time around. She was learning on the job and that’s what I do even today. I have never stopped asking and seeking answers from those around me.
It was also my mother who taught me to always think ahead and plan for the future. The lessons were always from the simple things she did. For instance, she could stitch but invariably the shorts that she would make were always tailored up to to my knees with a margin inside to increase the length further. I would complain that I looked like a joker but that wouldn’t bother her. It taught me to always account for the future. As a result, when I built a house I would account for the modular expansion or when I was building a business I would hire for future growth.
As a child, I was not easy to manage. I was rebellious. I questioned everything. I was also very adventurous. In other words, I grew up on tetanus injections thanks to all my stunts. I managed to break my cycle and if that was not enough I broke my father’s most prized possession — his scooter. Not that I did that on purpose, but if I could take a turn on the scooter at an impossible angle, I would try. I was curious. Sometimes, I would get it right; at other times, it meant knee scabs, torn shorts and breaking your dad’s most prized possession. But that didn’t bother me because even in a two-room house I learnt how to hide from my father. My parents were a little worried about my future intentions.
When my dad heard of a Dutch lady at Rajasthan University, who was regarded as a great student counsellor, dad used all the influence he had to get me an appointment with her. He wanted her to give me all those psychometric tests. Not that he knew what the tests were all about but I guess he wanted to know if his son had a future. Sunil Batta, my childhood friend and I went to meet her and after a series of tests, she asked me why I wanted to do engineering when I was better suited to become an administrator. I couldn’t tell her the truth. My father was getting transferred to another small town. This time it was Pratapgad. Dad was all set to get me admitted to the local government college there. I was 16-years-old and I had my fill of small towns. My dream was to study in the Maharaja College and chase the girls in the Maharani College. But I couldn’t tell her that now, could I! I became an engineer to run away from the Government College of Pratapgad. Today’s kids choose their colleges based on a lot of factors, back then my criteria was simple —Where can I meet girls?
I finally got into an engineering college but not the one I planned to get into. And that’s thanks to my Mama. It was summer and like all middle-class families, our vacations were at my maternal uncle’s house. Poor Mama and Mami never really had a vacation. All of us — his four sisters and their kids used to land up there every summer but that made us cousins a very close-knit bunch. My Mama helped me with the college applications because we had very little time left. He challenged my thinking and took on the role of my mentor and counsellor. By the end of it all, I found myself at the National Institute of Technology Rourkela.
There were all of eight girls in my class but that didn’t stop me from making the most of my stint there. Some of my best friends were from Rourkela. By the time I left, I knew almost everyone in town and that was mainly due to Rotaract Rourkela, where I began as founder president and ended up being the district governor. While working with different teams in Rotaract I realised for the first time that I was good with people and getting teams to focus on a common goal.
I didn’t want to work for anyone else after graduation. I wanted to be an entrepreneur. Coming from a limited means background, there was a strong desire to create a larger impact and I thought starting my own business would help me do that. I wanted to continue where my grandfather left off but there was one major difference. He had nothing to lose when he started. He had lost everything when he left Pakistan. He didn’t even have money to buy a ticket on the train. So he sold snacks when he figured out hawkers weren’t required to have tickets and also made some money in the process. I had a business plan ready and had even looked for a few possible locations. We didn’t have the entrepreneurial ecosystem that we see today. My dad would have bet all his savings on me. Unlike my grandfather, I did have something to lose. I couldn’t bring myself to risk his capital and in addition to that I was also acutely aware of my parents’ aspirations when I became an engineer. Six months after I graduated, I put my entrepreneurial plans on the back burner and got a job as a trainee engineer at JK Synthetics in Kota. A few months into the job, I realised it wasn’t my life’s ambition to watch the pumps being primed and there were no changes I could bring about there since a chemical plant works according to a process and we have to simply follow it.
I told my supervisors that I was getting restless so they transferred me to the design department. I was never afraid to speak my mind and while it may have gotten me into trouble growing up, it was something that helped me get noticed. The first design I questioned was one by Lloyd Insulations and I felt it was over-engineered and didn’t require so many parts. I went to my supervisor and told him. He agreed with me .So I called up Lloyd Insulations to ask why they had used so many parts and to cut a long story short, they also agreed with me. But they told me they were just following client instructions and we should have done a design check before we sent the specifications to them. My questioning ,however, attracted the attention of the GM at Lloyd Insulations who offered me a job there! I was so bored here that I jumped at his offer. I was a project manager at one of their thermal plants. I was enjoying my stint where I was managing cash flows and labour.
Everything was going smoothly till someone told me that Fenner India was giving a car and a far more generous salary to their sales engineers. A multinational and a car to boot! The lure was just too strong. So I applied and did everything I could to get the job. Coming from a family where the most prized possession was a scooter, I felt very privileged to be the first member of the family to own a car in 1983. And when they sent me on a flight from Delhi to Chennai and then later by train to Madurai to visit Fenner’s plant, I felt like I had finally arrived!
Soon I figured out that the industry was not growing and if the industry wasn’t growing then I couldn’t go far in my career. My supervisor Anil Dhingra couldn’t agree more. “I would move on if I were you”, was his advice. For the first time in my job, I went back to the drawing board to figure out what I wanted to do in life. Until then I hadn’t given it any thought, I kept taking whatever came my way.
The good part was that I had worked long enough to know how different industries function. It was 1986 and IT stoked my interest. It was a relatively new industry but one I thought offered a lot of growth opportunities.
I zeroed in on three companies where I would try my luck — Wipro, ICIM and HCL. HCL made me an offer. Mr Bakshi, the HR director then, told me that there were two openings on offer. One was for an area manager in Lucknow and the other was for a territory manager in charge of strategic accounts who would be based in Delhi. Mr Bakshi warned me that if I took up the Delhi position, I would have to handle a rather difficult boss and that most people who chose this territory earlier had failed. I had already been an area manager and I was up for the challenge. This would go on to become the doctrine of my life. Wherever I had better chances at success, I would pass them up for ones where I was challenged and achieved success against all odds.
This is the first of a two-part series. You can read part two here.