The first entrepreneur in my family was my paternal grandmother. She got widowed at a very young age, 21, with two sons — my father, who was two-years-old then, and his younger brother, who was one. My granny began tailoring in what was then Pakistan, where my father was born.
My dad never had an easy childhood. Yet, he educated himself — lived on a scholarship from the age of five — to finally qualify as an engineer. He, eventually, joined the Indian Railways. Given the modest background that he came from, my dad valued money and held the principle — never borrow money. That learning has stayed with my sisters and me, so much so that even as an entrepreneur I’m debt averse. Even if I had had to borrow, I have been focused on mitigating any risk arising out of it. I am happy to accept a lower return on equity as long as the risk is commensurately traded off.
Unlike my father, my mother came from a far more privileged background — her dad was a Colonel in the British army. My mother was a doctor and had also joined the Indian Army. She was a captain when I was born. As it turns out, I was an uncontrollable kid and as a four-year-old I would often run on the parapet of our house on the top floor. Things came to such a pass that my mom had to quit the army because it was either my life or her job! She still believes that had I not been such a brat she would have had a glorious career. In fact, 30 years later, too, it came to fore when one day an ex-army colleague came to meet my mom, and I happened to be visiting her that week. Boy, the glare that my mum gave me after her friend left was like “If it wasn’t for you, I too would have had risen through the ranks!”
Thanks to my dad, from a very young age, I have been comfortable with numbers. When I was three, he used to make me multiply 2 digits by 2 digits. And when I was four, it was 2 digits by 3 digits. He was very keen that I get admission in St Columba’s School in Delhi. It was not easy, but he convinced the principal to give me a chance. On the day of the interview, my dad told the principal, “Call any kid from Class 11 and let’s have a math competition.” So, in walked a 16-year-old, who was a bright kid, and my father asked the principal to give us any two 2 digits to be multiplied. The principal said 23 and 42, and I answered first. I got admission!
I finished my studies at St Columba’s, but I did not know what to do with my life. My mother pushed me towards medicine and my dad, towards engineering. I could not stand the sight of the blood, so it was an easy decision — I applied for IIT. I was 16 when I joined IIT-Delhi.
At IIT, the big challenge was to work hard for respectable grades and, at the same time, have some fun. I discovered that collaboration works best. We were six batchmates and we decided that each guy would master one subject — I was responsible for physics. So, I would attend every physics class, make copious notes, and, eventually, master that one subject. We would enjoy ourselves during the week and, every Tuesday night, in an all-nighter, each would train the others in a particular topic for the next day’s quiz. By adopting a collaborative approach, we made the best of both the worlds — I became very good at bridge and snooker. But the big takeaway for me was how to work smart and not too hard. There were other colleagues of mine who used to slog for eight to nine hours, but eventually it didn’t make a huge difference to their lives.
In some sense, my entrepreneurial journey began at IIT because my father had me on a tight leash as far as pocket money was concerned. I used to play bridge at the Delhi Gymkhana Club where my father was a member. I used to go with 5 in my pocket and play high stakes, which was 5 a point. I would win even 100 or even 150. So, every week, I would go on Saturday and play with the same principle — have enough working capital to survive a bad streak. I put together a decent kitty, which I later converted into a capital asset, by buying a motorbike for 2,700 from my batchmate.
In our wing of IIT-Delhi, there were 18 students and, eventually, all went abroad except me. I could not make it because a severe bout of jaundice and paratyphoid left me bedridden for seven months in my last year and I had to give my final exams in a wheelchair. I was left with two options — joining Philips as an engineer, which was considered a good job, or pursuing higher studies. But I wanted to postpone my entry into working life, so I applied to IIM Calcutta. From ’81 to ’83, IIM Calcutta was a great time, and I also ended up learning how to play ping pong very well.
Post IIM, I applied for a few jobs and, it so happened, my elder sister Lillete had married an employee of the Tata Administrative Services, which was considered one of the best private jobs in India, equivalent of an IAS in some ways. I, too, applied to the TAS, and I was lucky I made it there. I learnt an interesting life lesson during my interview.
Given that Tatas are value focused, I remember the vice president of HR, VS Mahesh, asking me a question at the interview: “Would you ever give a bribe?” I said, “Absolutely not.” This was the principle that my parents followed and so, under no circumstances, would I yield. He probed me further by saying, “Okay, I am going to give you an example, and tell me whether you would give a bribe in this circumstance or not?” He said, “Suppose you are with your sister on a bike and, god forbid, there’s an accident and your sister is lying bleeding on the ground. No vehicles are stopping by. Along comes an ambulance and you ask the driver to take her to the hospital. He says, I won’t unless you give me a bribe of 100. Would you give the bribe?” So, I thought for a moment and I said, “Yes, I would. Saving a human life would take precedence over any value system.” That episode made me realise that one cannot be too certain in life. In spite of my answer, the Tatas did hire me and I joined TAS in 1983.
Over the next few years, even as I worked with various group companies, the big learning came during my stint as an executive assistant to the late Russi Mody, the-then chairman of Tata Steel. I used to double as his caddy since he loved playing golf. Russi was arguably the most charismatic leader I have ever met in my life and also the most unconventional. I loved being his caddy even though I myself knew how to play golf reasonably well.
So, one day we were golfing at Tollygunge, when two youngsters walked up to him and said, “Mr. Mody, we want a job.” So, he asked them, “Do you know how to play golf?” They said, “Yes, quite well.” He then decided that all four of us would play golf and, eventually, he hired them as they played quite well. Since it was the days of pre-liberalisation, steel was in short supply and the job of a sales guy back then was, primarily, to allocate steel among different customers. The two were posted as sales officers in Bihar. They were a little foolish: despite being entitled to first class rail fare, the two guys used to travel by third class and bill the company first class. They spent 60 and billed the company 200. As expected, they were sacked on the spot. The two, however, pleaded for an appointment with Mr. Mody and this was in Jamshedpur.
Mr. Mody asked me to come in for that meeting. At the appointed time, the two entered the room and fell at Russi’s feet and said, “Mr. Mody, please help us. What happened is that we both are engaged to two sisters who are from a family that is financially better off than ours. The only reason their parents agreed to the jodi was because we are sales officers at Tata Steel. Please forgive us and take us back.” Here, I learnt another lesson. Russi said, “Russi’s heart bleeds for you but Mr. Mody can do nothing.” It was an eye-opener for me on how to separate personal and professional relations and, no matter how you feel personally, the value system and ethics at work were paramount.
After working at Tata Steel for a couple of years, I moved to the Taj Group. In typical Tata style, they made me a resident manager at the Taj Mahal Hotel, Delhi. I hadn’t a clue on how to run a hotel.
Here awaited another learning. The same gentleman who had interviewed me, Mahesh, was the-then senior vice president of HR at Taj. So when I got transferred, I approached him for advice: “Mahesh, I don’t understand how anything works here. I know nothing about hotels and I have been made the No. 2 of a premier property. So, what should I do?” He replied, “In the first month, just observe and, over the next two months, only ask questions. Don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed in admitting that you know nothing.” So for the first three months, I precisely did that and it was a great piece of advice. It was a life lesson that never let ego come in the way of learning. Till today, when I talk to people, if they show curiosity and no shame in admitting they don’t know something, I see it as a big plus.
Yet another lesson was during my initial days of working with Ronnie Lobo, the-then general manager. On the first day that I joined the Taj, he offered to take me around the huge hotel. As we were walking, he would often bend down on his knees and pick something off the floor and put it in his pocket. It seemed rather weird for a GM to be doing this. Then I realised that, in fact, he was looking for litter and putting it in his jacket pocket! And then I realised, actually, how clean the hotel was. It was an example of a leader setting the standards.
Incidentally, my days at the Taj coincided with the last phase of Mr. JRD Tata’s active involvement with the Tata Group. He was another amazing gentleman and his management style was walking around and meeting his people. One day I happened to be sitting with two people, when Mr. Tata walked into my office. He just came in and sat down. Since I didn’t know him well, it was nerve-wracking for me and for the other two guys. They soon got up and rushed out. Even I wanted to but since it was my office, I couldn’t! Mr. Tata then looked at me and in a very endearing tone asked, “What were you doing right now?” I replied, “Oh! Mr. Tata, we were discussing a hotel operating procedure which had failed.” He asked, “What were you trying to achieve?” I said, “We want to be excellent in the process but we are not.” What he told me then has stayed etched in my memory: “Always aim for 100% perfection because you are always going to fail. But in the process you will become excellent.” That is the philosophy that I follow even today. I always give my team stretched targets. I know very often that we are not going to achieve it, but in the attempt to achieve that we achieve the real target that I have internally set.
Years later, I remember sending JRD a birthday cake when he was in the mid-90s, and he sent me back a formal thank you note. But in the note somebody had made a grammatical error and, with his turquoise blue pen, he had made a correction. That attention to detail is admirable.
I worked in Taj till 1999, but I did not interact very much with Ratan Tata. I met him a couple of times but my boss by then was Krishna Kumar, who was also a TAS officer. He eventually became a friend. KK, as he was called popularly, became the managing director of Taj and, in similar Tata style, he knew nothing about hotels but was the guy with the right value system and leadership style. So he promoted me as the chief operating officer and I was put in charge of their business hotels.
In my new role, I applied my mathematical, engineering and operations expertise by disaggregating the hotel industry into hundreds of parameters and then re-aggregating them into 180 ratios. I felt these defined the essence of any hotel’s operation and financial performance. I sent the sheet to the GMs of the 22 hotels, asking them to fill up the ratios. I am sure they would have thought I was out of my mind asking them to fill this massive sheet which had 180 ratios on the Y-axis and 22 hotels on the X-axis. In three weeks, I had all the data and could identify the best performer in each ratio. There was always one hotel which was an outlier, which had better ratios out of the rest, and I created a hypothetical 23rd hotel which had the best ratios of each.
I came to the conclusion that if you have the right culture, inspire people and the right ratios embedded in a business model, one would actually have a very, very successful hotel; in those days, it was a single unit hotel. So I started implementing bits and parts of this when an outing with my friends changed my trajectory.
This is part 1 of a three-part series.