~ Reflections of my inner self ~

Archive for June, 2007

Early years of my career – Rising Sun

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Calcutta is an important entry in my life’s diary. It is here that I started working with the ICI Group and also the place where we set up our first house. Oh! Calcutta! was a film released at that time, which played to full houses for many months. A beginning which always brings back fond and pleasant memories.

I was staying with my brother Ramani in Chennai looking for possible job opportunities after my post graduation, when a letter came from the ICI Group asking me to appear for a preliminary interview in their Chennai office. The date was very close as the letter sent to my home address was forwarded to me by my parents who had no inkling about its content. Call it a very lucky break as they were doing these preliminaries all over India and only the short listed candidates were to go to Calcutta. I was one among 20 they had called for the interview at a south regional level. My record in the college spoke for  itself and I was one of the four selected (one was a staff from their department under consideration for elevation). Ramani was a great source of support, guidance, and help. He gave me a steel gray blazer and a striped tie to wear and I was off on my own to an unknown city, with hope, aspirations and great dreams. I travelled first class for the first time! My mind told me, you are beginning to feel as if you are somebody already, for those days first class travel by trains was something only the rich could afford and I was not anywhere near that category! Two nights and one day travelling appeared to be a very long journey for I was in a great hurry to reach Calcutta.

According to our plan I checked in to a simple South Indian hotel near the Chowringhee office of ICI, a day ahead of the interview date, to get over the travel fatigue and be fresh the next day. A total of 15 candidates had been short listed for the position they called “Management Trainee, Agriculture Division”. The day started for us with a briefing, then some written tests followed by a group discussion, to assess leadership qualities, all in the morning under the watchful eyes of their HR team. I had decided to take a middle path. Neither to dominate nor take a back seat, but to present my views boldly, and clearly, in minimum time (for I knew they would ask me to elaborate further in a personal interview). We were then taken to an executive lunch room. There was a bar too, and many of the Managers were having a quick pre lunch cocktail/drink or two and catching up with gossip! I was quite comfortable with all this (because of my planters background) and pretended to participate in the idle talk. My mind was preparing for the afternoon and for the real interview- to face three of their top managers in a do or die situation! I was called after four candidates and was subjected to a barrage of questions, many of them provoking, but I kept my cool posture and answered them all smilingly. The department Manager asked me in one of his questions “what will be your aim, if you were selected?”. Promptly I replied- “To reach your position in the shortest possible time!”. He wished me luck in return. I returned to my seat, fairly satisfied with my performance. At four thirty pm the staff advised the rest to return home and I was asked to stay back. I was informed by the department head of my selection and was advised to stay back overnight and come next morning to formally meet the Chairman and Managing Director Sri AL Mudaliar! He also enquired whether I was comfortable with the place I was staying (I said quickly – no problem) and also offered any help needed for canceling and re-booking tickets, if so, the travel department of the company would take care of it. I felt I was being treated as a staff member already! I thanked him, smiling broadly, and escaped quickly for I was bursting with excitement thinking all which came in to my mind at that time. After reaching the hotel and changing over to casual dress (for I needed the coat and tie next day, it was my only jacket!), I raced to the telegraph office to send a telegram to my brother Ramani informing him of the news. I knew he would inform my parents. I celebrated with a beer and bhel puri sitting on the lawns of Chowringhee grass maidan. I returned for an early supper, for tomorrow was to be a great and eventful day. In my dreams I visualized how the chairman would look, what he would ask, how his room would be. My sleep was full of dreams that night.

Back in the ICI office the next day, one of Mr. Mudaliar’s secretary told me he would see me around 11.30 am. I could wait or go and return later. I preferred to go out to see the museum close by to keep my mind occupied and returned in time. As expected it was a short courtesy meeting. He greeted and congratulated me and expressed his happiness that a candidate from the southern region of India had succeeded and been selected. He said he hoped that I would live up to the standards of ICI and wished me all the best in my career. I thanked him and promised to live up to the expectations (which I did over a span of 9 years). Sri Mudaliar was the first Indian Chairman in ICI India (A subsidiary of ICI UK) and was a descendant of the famous Mudaliar family from Madras, a pioneer family in the education and industry fields.

Back in Coimbatore, I waited for my appointment letter to come (I still have it) and it arrived asking me to report to the ICI office in Madras. This I did and I soon found accommodation at the YMCA Royapettah, a central area in Madras. I shared a large room with another in a double storied block. I opted for the ground floor, facing our football court and tennis court. The tenants ran the food department and divided the expenses equally. I settled down quickly, anxious to establish a routine, and reported for work in official dress which was a sleeved shirt and tie. I soon settled in to a 9 to 5 routine, Monday to Friday. My boss, the regional sales manager, was an experienced sales veteran who had come up the hard way, rising through the ranks in ICI. A pleasant person with a high degree of humour, strong willed and much admired and respected by our colleagues in Calcutta. The Madras region accounted for more than 40 % of the sales turnover and profits of our division and here my initial training began. There were half a dozen office staff, over 6 senior field representatives, junior assistants and over 50 major distributors and stockist covering the four southern states. There were other divisions like Pharmacy, Paints, Plastics, Explosives, Rubber chemicals and a trading division all supported by similar teams of people, working under the administrative control of a senior sales manager. We worked in a centrally air conditioned building, with two canteens, an executive dining room, and a staff dining hall.

During the initial weeks of orientation I went through all divisions to familiarise myself with their activities before settling down in to my own division routines. Having an Agriculture degree and plantation work background helped in the learning the process particularly from a technical angle, but the commercial and marketing was new to me. I had to learn the hard way, travelling with the field and experienced staff almost 15 days a month, and reporting my observations for validation by the manager. I managed to send money home every month to my parents, and also bought gifts for my elder brothers and sister from my first salary with enough surplus cash to lead a healthy life of a bachelor. I played tennis in the YMCA courts early morning three days a week, went for weekend swimming in Savera hotel, and for films in the nearby cinema, mostly English, and in the process became a well accepted and admired figure at the YMCA.

After six months, I was instructed to report and join at the head office in Calcutta for further orientation and training. This meant I had to pack up just as I was beginning to enjoy my days in Madras! A new phase was about to begin which lasted for the next 9 years.

Now in the management cadre, I was entitled to air-conditioned first class train travel whilst going on a transfer. I boarded the Calcutta mail after a send off party by office colleagues and another by YMCA friends. Ramani and Padma had come to the station, along with a few of my ICI colleagues and travel department staff. I checked in to the Spence’s Hotel Calcutta as arranged by the company, a three star western hotel to stay till I found my own accommodation (a maximum time of 2 months was allowed by the company). I reported to the Manager of the division and started my routines. Certain specific tasks were allotted to me, in addition to assignments given by the manager and General Manager of the division. Writing letters and communicating Head Office decisions to regional mangers was uncomfortable initially as they were seasoned veterans and many years senior to me! However, I acted as a neutral go-between, particularly in sensitive issues giving the devil it’s due. Being at the corporate Head Office I had to learn many things fast and act quickly, for lethargy and delays were not excused. But I managed to overcome any issues, as my approach with seniors in the regional office paid good dividends. Fax and telephone calls came to my help many a time (there was no e-mail at the time!).

I managed to get accommodation in the Central YMCA which was walking distance to the office, sharing a room on the third floor with another. It was a large self contained room with bath and a personal valet (who attended to four such rooms). My chap was a senior man from Orissa named Munda, I liked him from the start. My roommate was a quiet chap named Banegal (a Parsi), many years senior to me. He worked in an engineering company in supply and distribution. I became friendly with the YMCA Secretary, one Mr. Mukerje who had a lot of respect and appreciation for ICI (ICI and ITC were the two majors and Indian subsidiaries of UK concerns). It was fairly easy to get permission to do some cooking and entertaining in the room (quietly of course) at the weekends- some good gifts did the trick! Breakfast was cereals, toast, eggs and coffee. Lunch was at the office, and evening dinner was chapattis, vegetables and a fruit or a pudding. Not bad, for all for we paid was around Rs 600 per month for board and lodging. On week days I spent my free time writing letters, reading, or shopping in the new city market close by. On weekends I played tennis at the ICI lawn courts. Friends and I would arrange to get together in my room where we would cook Rasam and Sambar or go for eat outs in the compact Chinese restaurants or else would have Pani puri, Cutlet/Katchori on the maidan. We would also go to the cinema (there were 4-5 movie houses close by).  I used to send money home to my parents regularly and would also send special funds or gifts for their Birthdays. I bought new clothing on a regular basis – shirts, ties and shoes – maintaining a standard as per office protocol. In addition I had to buy special clothing for the Calcutta winter of four months.

I was never good at saving money all my working life as I was an impulsive and hasty buyer. Perhaps it had a connection to my past. When I was young, fancy and luxury goods were out of bounds and not in my reach. Thus, I acted in a great hurry to catch up! Fortunately this tendency is a thing of the past now. Now I am trying to make amends for that mistake and I feel I am facing in the right direction. My writings will support this faith and belief. Nothing is too late if you are prepared to work at it with all your involvement. In such cases wealth accumulation is only part of the game (to meet your needs and leave a good portion to your children and grand children), where satisfaction and achievement are the true goals.

However I do not want my children, friends and well wishers to commit to this major block (of not saving) and should save a certain portion of their monthly income (at least 25%). It will come handy for your rainy days, retirement, any special requirements and to help the needy too. It is also a fact that I was always happy to allocate some money every month to my parents, my way of saying thank you to them and I am grateful for my wife Geetha who also thought on the similar lines and supported me whole heartedly. She used to push me to buy the needs of our parents whenever we were on a holiday to Coimbatore, much to the delight and happiness of my parents. I am fortunate that my sons are acting and thinking on similar lines and it is our turn to feel delighted! Blessings of our parents are above any expression and comes all the time, any time, to support us. I could not have even dreamed of my present house without my parent’s blessing and I have been  seeking their guidance and support every day, in the past, now, and will do so in the future.

Back to my YMCA days. Some three years of my life rolled by gracefully. I could have easily added an MBA degree by postal course, as my friend Asok Roy in the next room did. He even coaxed me, but I said no, I had had enough of studying for now and ICI, my company, was not going to recognise my MBA knowledge, for they had better practical training methods and systems.

Back to my working life. Trips from Calcutta to regional offices were a regular affair. Problem solving trips, need based assignments and so forth. Such visits called for preparation of notes and background information and I became very busy before and after such trips. This was a “Henry Kissinger” type job, preparing a balanced objective analysis without wounding or finger pointing at anyone. I was always a part of the team when regional managers were called in to Calcutta where accumulated and bilateral issues were involved. Another very interesting session was the bi yearly and annual conferences for reviews, budgets, sales forecasts and plans for the next year. We had very experienced office staff at Head Office who attended to the day to day correspondence, product planning, liaison with plant managers, orders, dispatches, inventory schedules and collections. I was given opportunities to manage the regional functions when the managers went on their annual leave or seconded to overseas assignments in the short term. In such situations, I was accommodated in the posh company guest houses, and was treated to all benefits applicable to staff on tour. These were very interesting experiences for me particularly in the Delhi region (Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh ,Jammu and Kashmir and parts of Rajasthan) and in the Bombay region and East India (Assam, West Bengal, Tirupura and Magalay).

After about 8 years I was transferred to the Bombay region, to help and support the region after the retirement of the then regional Manager Sri Khare, a very good guide and mentor of mine. They filled the gap with the appointment of a more senior colleague of mine and I was shifted to Chennai in a nationwide re-organisation. I was happy (for I could support my parents better), but the happiness did not last, as in a further move they wanted me to take over plantations in Karnataka. I agreed even though it was another shift, and requested to be based at Coimbatore or Bangalore instead of Chikmagalur, an isolated town in Coorg. This became a prestige issue and a point of disagreement with the Management. I resigned, after securing a senior position in a developing company. I had expected my boss at Calcutta to support me, having worked very closely with him for 8 plus years, but for reasons unknown he remained unsupportive. However, I was young, experienced and capable of doing something substantial to many growing companies in my line of profession. This I did, with the support of my wife, and young sons (Vivek was 4 years old and Arjun was just born). I worked hard to increase the sales turn over of the company by ten times and gave them an all India presence. There were plenty of sacrifices, including twenty days travel. In the end the company (a family group), became rich and arrogant and did not fulfil any of the promises made to me. One such person was to become Managing director of a new subsidiary, and at this point I realized that the situation was no good for me and I left the group. In all my following jobs, I decided to do more of a consultancy role with cash down payment offers and in the process helped three groups in the Orchard and Farm sector.

One of my dreams and desires was to become a resident manager based in India or anywhere else for an international company. Two such opportunities came very close but did not click. Call it my destiny, what else! However the positive side of it all was that there were many learning points:

  • Self organisation
  • Planning and preparation
  • Allocation of responsibility
  • Financial planning
  • Organising support systems and backups
  • Central control
  • Review and compliment the performers, encourage the others

Britishers have taught me among other things that to organise others, you have to be better organised first. Perform first and then expect performance. You first set examples and ensure it is followed. Be lavish in giving the right compliment where needed and above all never be afraid of failure. Review, re-look, till you get the right answer and therefore success.

The rising sun also has its descending phase, but only to rise again the very next morning.

Written by Raghuraman

June 3rd, 2007 at 9:09 pm

Posted in yesteryears