Everyone should have a Brother Eric D’Souza in their lives. He was a rockstar at St Columba’s and I was fortunate to have him as one of my teachers. Dad wanted me to go to St Columba’s in Delhi and Mom wanted me to go to Modern School. I am so glad I got into St Columba’s — not only was it one of the best schools in Delhi but it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. If you excelled in studies or extra-curricular activities, St Columba’s was a great place to be and I excelled in both. I was in the quiz team, the swim team, the table tennis team and in the top 10% of my class.
Brother D’Souza invested a lot of time in understanding the potential of a student and unlocking it. Being the youngest, he was brimming with new ideas, so he was in charge of a lot of the extra-curricular activities. I will always be grateful for the two things he instilled in me early on in life: one, discipline was above all and two, the relentless pursuit of excellence.
I was in my 10th standard. Our pre-board marks had just come. I remember Brother D’Souza called all of us to the auditorium. He had a cane in his hand. He said, “Today we are here to congratulate those who have done well, compliment those who have exceeded their own expectations and chastise those who did not.” Names were called out one by one with the marks scored. Those who didn’t do well got whacked. That was another thing when you studied in a Christian Brothers school in those days, you got caned whenever you slipped up or broke the rules. It was either your hand or your butt. And boy in winter, you couldn’t sit when you got whacked on your butt nor could you tell your parents about it! Brother D’Souza said, “Last but not the least, we have a special prize for this student” and he called out my name. I was the last one to be called on stage. I had done well scoring 99 out of a possible 100, so I happily went up on stage. Imagine my shock when he pulled out the cane and gave me a nice whack! Everyone burst out laughing. I was half-laughing thinking it was a joke. But there was no smile on his face, he was serious. He told me, “I saw your paper, you had no business losing that one mark. It was such a careless mistake.” In his eyes, I hadn’t lived up to my potential. It was not that he wanted every kid to score a 100, but not giving it your best was unpardonable. Back then, you didn’t always agree with everything. You even wondered why it was such a big deal. Before you know it, the pursuit of excellence becomes a habit. It rankles within till you get it right or till you are at your best. Today, when it comes to product design or a copy, presentations, even designing our new office, I am relentless till it is perfect. It takes several iterations but I don’t stop till I get there and that percolates down to your team as well.
I got into St Stephen’s and was majoring in economics. I chilled out throughout college but I was sure about what I would do next. I wanted to get into a good management school, so I focused on the IIMs. My efforts paid off and I got into IIM Ahmedabad. Initially, you think you are the cat’s whiskers since you managed to get into the best B-school in the country. But you realise very soon that you maybe a big fish in your little pond but out in the ocean, you are nothing. The first MANAC (management accounting) quiz brought me down to earth with a thud. It was the only D of my life. I was miserable because I had never got marks like this. I knew it was time to pull my socks up. Quickly enough, I found my groove.
After my MBA, I joined ABN AMRO. I wasn’t cut out to be a banker. I was in corporate banking and found it to be very dry. Suhail Chander was my immediate boss and he reported to Romesh Sobti. I still call Romesh ‘Boss’. He was the most efficient and disciplined person I had ever met. He would be in the office at 9 am or before every day. He didn’t use a computer. He would leave the office at 6 pm on most days. Any proposal you gave him would be returned with his handwritten notes by the end of the day. I always aspired to have a desk like his. Decades later, I am still nowhere close. But man! Did he have a temper! Suhail was his perfect foil. He headed corporate banking and was one cool customer. It was from Suhail that I learnt how important it was to keep your cool, especially during a crisis. I remember one of our corporate customers got a letter of credit revoked on a technicality. We were staring at a hit of Rs.20 crore and our balance sheet wasn’t large enough to absorb that blow. There was panic in the bank. Romesh was furious. He was pacing up and down. I really thought he was going to pop an artery! It was Suhail’s account and he was watching all this ensconced in his chair, popping one channa after another. That was his thing — you would always find a jar of channa on his desk. He calmly went through the contract to find the clause that would save us. He asked the operations head to call the correspondent bank and tell them that if they revoked the letter of credit, they would dishonour a particular clause which would render the contract null and void. Obviously he knew the subject inside out but more importantly, I realised only when you are calm in a crisis can you find a solution. When I turned into an entrepreneur, while tackling one crisis after another — be it when the top two airlines cut us off and we had to win them back or the last-minute hiccups during our Nasdaq listing — I always remembered how Suhail would react.
It was three years since I had joined. I loved the bank and the culture but it was starting to become a drag. You only made proposals for pre-approved companies. If you made proposals for some new interesting companies that weren’t on the approved list, they were invariably rejected because banks were traditionally risk averse. And it was the days of consortium lending. So SBI would get the lion’s share and then you would have Citibank coming in. ABN AMRO would get a 5-10% share of the pie. I was starting to feel restless. I knew it was time for a change when I started looking at the clock frequently, eager to get home. By then, I was certain that I wanted to be closer to the consumer and in marketing. Luckily enough I managed to get two offers, one from Ajay Banga, who was then with PepsiCo Foods. They were launching Pizza Hut at the time. The second was from the Arvind group, which had just launched Lee and Arrow brands. I was leaning more towards PepsiCo. Around the same time, my childhood friend Sanjay Bansal who was with KPMG told me about a client of his, AMF Bowling. An American company with a billion dollar revenue, they had set up bowling alleys in China and wanted to enter India. They were looking for someone to head the India business. Bowling was still not as popular then. There was one bowling alley in Qutub Hotel — four lanes and no automatic equipment. It was a treat to go there and bowl but it was expensive even back then. It was Rs.100 for the first game and Rs.75 for the second. Ajay Bijli and Shahrukh Khan were regulars. Sanjay told me that Chris Brown, head of international development, was in town and suggested I meet him. The one-hour meeting stretched to more than three and a half hours at the Hyatt Delhi. Brown told me they had set up 10,000 lanes in China and India had the potential for at least 1,000 lanes. We had no multiplexes and malls back then, but I was really excited. I was 25-26 and at that age, you had no fear of failure. You felt you could do anything. So I went back to Sobti and told him I was quitting. He was livid that I would give up banking for something as bizarre as bowling. He was so angry that he didn’t speak to me for a year. Thankfully, all is forgiven now. At AMF, I tried every trick in the book to make bowling a success. But during those four years, India got all of 200 lanes with only Phoenix Mills in Mumbai where we laid a 20-lane bowling alley, coming close to the kind of projects we wanted to do. Even that we signed at a 30% discount. There was no large-scale development and the hardest lesson learnt was that I would never back a business in India based on real estate. I think I met almost every real estate developer in the country and almost double the number of people who claimed to own real estate. Many agents passed the property as their own. In my first year at AMF I was taken for a ride many times. But soon, the business made me street-smart and it was something that would help me throughout my life. Soon, over the first chai, I was able to tell when a person was the real owner or an agent, whether the property was encumbered or had a clear title.
I enjoyed being my own boss even though the money was not too great. In 1998, we signed a three-way MOU with Rajiv Singh of DLF and Ajay Bijli of PVR to set up a world-class bowling alley with 24 lanes, multiplex, video games and the works in Delhi. I was excited because we finally would have our showcase. We signed the deal and were waiting for government approvals to get started. I got a call one day from Rajiv’s office asking me to come over. He asked me if my career depended on this project because I was at their office every Monday or called them frequently to check for status on approvals. I told him, this is our biggest project which we hoped to complete in the next three years. He told me it could take six months or six years or it could never happen, because we were trying something new and could never be sure about government approvals. Nothing moved in my business without real estate and on top of that if government approvals were going to be a challenge even for the likes of DLF, we were fighting a losing battle. The other thing that started to worry me was the fact that I had stopped learning. All my colleagues were moving ahead. Money was never an issue but AMF made and managed bowling equipment, and there was no great learning happening at the end of the day. So, I decided to move on.
My senior and friend Monty had just moved to GE. He told me it was a great place to learn. So I met Nitin Gupta who was heading GE Countrywide (later GE Money & now Clix Capital) and then Pramod Bhasin. They offered me the role of VP – business development. Pramod is a dear friend but I always tell him he was a terror of a boss. I reported to Nitin who was one of the sharpest minds I had ever met. He believed in total delegation and would always challenge us to come up with the best. I had the choice to do customer relationship management (CRM) or find new avenues to distribute auto, personal and consumer loans. I chose a new avenue, which was basically the Internet. A couple of days after I joined, I went up to Nitin and asked what he wanted me to do. He made the biggest eyes he could, at me and said, “I have no clue and if I knew what you had to do, I wouldn’t have hired you. I would have gotten someone to just execute. You take the next two to three weeks and figure out what we have to do.” So I did. I went to meet people like Sanjeev Bikhchandani and Ajit Balakrishnan. I got GE to look online for their overall business and Pramod set up a 13-member team with the smartest guys across all businesses and gave them $1 million to explore all options. I wasn’t a part of it, so I was kind of upset. But more importantly, it was becoming more of a weekend project since their bread and butter was coming from commercial financing.
I did learn a lot of things while I was at GE, but it was a short stint. I was only there for 16 months because I had already been bitten by the dotcom bug. Life was good. It was a well-paying job, but I was convinced that the Internet would change everything we did, like never before. I realised in a large organisation, the Internet would always be on the sidelines and it would only work if it were your raison d’etre. So I quit in April 2000. I was 30. I wrote two business plans, one for online stockbroking and one for online travel. My logic was clear: whatever was getting done on the phone would move on the Internet soon. I was doing a far bit of trading but all my transactions would happen on the phone and if forms were needed to be signed, my broker would send somebody home. Similarly with my travel, I had a small-time agent who did all my bookings, but again, everything was sorted out on the phone. Two incidents convinced me to eventually take the plunge. I wanted to sell my wife’s car. It was a Maruti Zen. One of my friends who was in the auto trade told me that he would put me in touch with some good guys. We were getting offers for Rs.110,000. Just on a whim I listed it on Mahindra Automart. It was a Friday and by Saturday morning, there were calls from two serious buyers. One of them came by later that day and offered Rs.20,000 more. Clearly, disintermediation was happening. Around the same time in July 1999, Amrita and I had our last freedom break. We were allowed to travel for one last time before the baby came in November. We decided on Phuket for six days. The tickets were done in a jiffy but the hotel bookings kept going back and forth. I was checking rates online and found the same hotel cheaper! I decided to take the plunge and charge my card. Those days you weren’t sure of online bookings. But Amex had a policy that if things went wrong, you would get a refund, so I went ahead with my booking. It was a hotel called Coconut Lagoon and thankfully, it was pretty much how it looked in the pictures. As we were checking in, I saw a lot of other guests too had booked online since the rates were cheaper. I knew I was on the right path. I chose to go with travel and there was no looking back after that.
This is the first of a two part series. You can read part two here.