Three Men, Three Eras

Challenges facing executives are changing; but the solution lies in core values

25 July 2008
When power leads and wisdom follows, the face of wisdom is veiled and she stumbles; but when wisdom leads and power follows, they arrive safely at their destination.

— Bowl of Saki, by Hazrat Inayat Khan
Parvez Vatcha watched the two men sitting across the table from him unobtrusively, taking in their every flutter and blink. Somewhere a small sadness may have touched his heart — difficult to say, for Parvez Vatcha had a face that was inscrutable. For the most part, he always looked pleased and contented and polite.
The two men dining with him at The Chambers, were Athanu Deb and Raghav Vijaychandran; both men were his blue eyed boys when he was managing director at Delaware India. At 75, Parvez Vatcha is fit, healthy and wears a clean, homegrown fresh look. At 54, Athanu is on statins, stress has deposited psoriasis on his skin and he must take his coffee without sugar. At 52, Raghav wears an emaciated look, has no viewpoints and mistakes his dispassion for life, for disinterest. Both men had begun their careers as management trainees at Delaware and had been in Vatcha’s inner circle of hi flyers.

Parvez was narrating anecdotes from a visit to Sweden, the dairy farms he had visited, the milk processing plants he saw and the state of technology he felt India should invest in soon. His mind was soaring with delight in the new world he saw before him…
...while Athanu, looked on, seemingly interested but, in fact, unable to take the flights of imagination and ambition, mentally urging this drift of conversation to end soon, grounded by his what-if anxiety over his future…
...and Raghav, lay mentally supine, buried in his mental grave of failures, losses, defeats, grounded by his why-me anxiety over the past.

In 1993, when Vatcha retired from Delaware, various things happened to India. It was also the year when Raghav quit, to join Cambert Inc. as their CEO, at the age of 37. The era of very young CEOs had begun, and Raghav set India on fire by doing the never before.
Raghav was an engineer from a regional engineering college. He was from a small town off Madurai where his father was a jeweller — not the granite and glass kinds, but a box shop under the staircase of a building. But Raghav had been put through REC and soon through campus interviews found himself in Delaware.
Delaware India was a strong, successful, FMCG company and had carved a name for itself; but when the waves of liberalisation swept India in 1992-93, Delaware, like other strong Indian MNCs began to find its senior managers poached by the cowboy cult. The first to bite the dust had been Raghav, who quit the successful Delaware to join a new entrant Cambert, as its country head at a salary that was seven times what he was then earning. Vatcha had talked to him at length; Raghav presented the opportunity as his key to growth and whatnot, and Vatcha had wished him well.
Athanu had envied him his courage. He believed that the liberalisation wave was mystical and refused to be ensnared, although when he heard of the packages being doled out, Athanu deeply wished he had the nerve too. But then Athanu’s father dissuaded him from pursuing glory and money, reminding him of his own contribution to the country as a teacher. So, Athanu returned to his lot and remained in the belief that he was wise.
Raghav went from power to power, glory to glory. He became a media favourite; for the next three years everyone wanted to quote him, interview him. Raghav was seen as a missionary, who had beaten the others to growth. And he was talking relentlessly about strategy — nay, his strategy… the media loved him. The next year, India was no longer strategic for Cambert’s parent company; there were losses; no doubt, it was factored into the entry strategy, but back home people griped, and asked for explanations. Cambert in India lobbied for the opening up of imports and it happened; trading now became more profitable.
Raghav was being eyed closely by Kaushalnath Singh, the head of an Indian group. Dreading the impasse at Cambert and without a convincing script, Raghav quit Cambert and joined Singh’s Aarbo group. As such things go sometimes, he became a close associate of Abhimaan, Singh’s youngest son. Hansa Limited, as his business was dully known, hired Raghav to make a winner of Hansa’s foods business.
Far away on Gandhi street in Madurai, young boys crowded at newsstands during the school recess to read for free, the story of Raghav. Newspaper stalls pasted ‘namma ambi’s (our son/brother) picture on their fluttering plastic-sheeted walls, along with Aishwarya Rai, another budding Indian fantasy.

And like so many other businesses of that era, Hansa foods was bought out by a large shark, and the brand killed. Abhimaan’s father comforted him and appointed him CEO of a new venture, while Raghav was given a warm farewell dinner in the family silver.
The exit of Raghav and the sale of Hansa Foods whipped up more storms. Speculation, interviews, gossip, pointless reporting, exaggerated banter, armchair management expert viewpoints… all these dotted the pages for many days. Then even the headlines lost dignity, ‘whither Raghav?’ they asked artlessly.

“He is the phoenix, he is a builder, he is a survivor” went the prophecy. As for Raghav, he was untouched, unruffled. He was picked up by a cola company, then by a candy new entrant — each stint lasted a year to 18 months, for that was the fever pace of business in the 1990s. Each time, it was not Raghav who left the organisation, it was the organisation that changed tack. India was certainly a madhouse.
Raghav started an online supermarket called ‘paisa vasool’, which caused the public to whoop with delight. But liberalisation doled out success to some and utter disaster to others, while encouraging new behaviours, new definitions and new successes. In the face of that, ‘paisa vasool’ died a loud sonorous death. Raghav had miscalculated his merchandise, his inventory logistics and his costs. While he wanted to tweak the parameters and reiterate, the closure of Garware’s Supermarket in Mumbai, shook Raghav’s promoter, MattGold Media who misread consumer behaviour and threw the baby out with the bathwater. This was the same MattGold which had once seen Raghav as out-of-the-box and now could not deal with his maverickness. He was becoming a bit dandy, they said; a tad bit arrogant too they said. Some said it was the arrogance of success but some others said it was a cover for failure.

Initially, Raghav stayed in touch with Parvez Vatcha, sending updates of his escapades and victories. But when the failures repeated, Raghav felt ashamed; failure as he saw it, took him apart; he coiled into a shell and played dead.
In 1999, Athanu too quit Delaware to join a cereal company, then within a year a telecom company, booking hefty salary increases on the way. Today, he was the CEO at a successful white goods major. But Athanu was unhappy, and had waited for this day to meet Vatcha, so he could air his heart to him. Of late, he had been having many ideological differences with his chairman and now the chasm was widening. “The comfort of frank airing of thoughts which I enjoyed under you is no more my privilege,” he said. “I am about to resign over serious differences with my chairman. I am immensely disturbed; I feel incapable of dealing with this...”
The feelings that assailed him were disquieting; at one level Athanu felt strongly about some issues; yet quitting would mean loss of income, prestige… “I want to stay on the crest! I am actually having a lot of fun with work. And how am I going to feel when that six-figure pay packet is not winking at me from my bank account, month after month? Do you know what a lot of assurance and comfort lies in that?” Then looking at Raghav he said, “Hey, sorry, but this is all confidential, ok?” Raghav smiled a bitter twisted smile and said, “And who wants to listen to me or court me?!”
Sharp as ever, Vatcha said, “Oh, but don’t you have some words of counsel for Athanu? After all, he is closer to your world and its ways!”
And Raghav spoke. “The only thing hurting you about quitting is the comfort of a money pillow on which you rest. But quitting itself does not worry you? And what nonsense ideology? Work is work. Ideology is of the ego. Pay attention to organisational ideology! Is your effort going waste? Is there a covert buy-out destroying you? You are sitting in a stable organisation; profits are there, top line there; growth there; market share tops. Damn ideology!”
Athanu was disturbed. “You get me wrong Raghav. There is a huge war for power and Page 3 space. The seeming battle with competition is not over quality, is not for growth. We have no new story to tell; cost efficiency is what is bringing home the bottom line; top line is all a bunch of gimmickry... in short we are treading on mediocrity — consciously; we are fooling around with quality, playing the short term. Of course, I need the ideology to manage the environment. Ideology is what gives us rooting… but if I hang on to ideology, the guy next to me is willing to compromise, and then he gets my chair! I live looking over my shoulder, fighting competition at personal and organisational level!”
Raghav was pensive… he does not see life through my eyes, what a glorious world he lives in! The 2000s are for the blessed! Yet he cries! Just 10 years ago, opportunity had such a short shelf life… nothing lasted, nothing could be grasped. You realised you are not immortal anymore; you sought your immortality through the brand or process you were creating post liberalisation and the hype and hoopla buoyed you, kept you floating and relevant.

But that was the disconnect — time was becoming transitory. Raghav wanted it to be continuous but was afraid he would fall soon, because he was watching icons being built and destroyed. 1990s was full of such examples: from V.P. Singh onwards to Silk Route, Indian Ocean, Azharuddin... icons built one day and destroyed the next. You became a somebody for a brief period and then had to vacate the spot. Not like Parvez Vatcha or Ratan Tata or Kurien or Ashok Ganguli or T. Thomas who became icons, stayed icons and were invincible.

Stepping out of his thought world, Raghav spoke, “Mr Vatcha’s era too worshipped values and ethics and ideologies. How did they do it?”

Athanu: Their pressures were different, I suppose. They were responsible for building the very knowledge base of India; they had organic intelligence born out of watching and reading history, not fossilised management theory or formatted by a crash course in business administration! Their iconic image was grown not built and they kept it pure!
Vatcha: I think every era has its special difficulties, strengths, and special opportunities. Each era extracts whatever is needed by businesses and economies. People are the medium for this, no? Some rise to great heights, some fall by the wayside, but those who fall also serve.
Athanu: I agree. Today’s era is ripe for entrepreneurship — if you have the capital, both financial and intellectual! And I believe I will be successful if I set out to set up on my own. I am being wasted in these jobs; I need to use my intellect for myself; become an entrepreneur.
Raghav: It is grand talking about entrepreneurship and innovation when you are sitting on a readymade infrastructure and someone else’s capital. Innovation succeeds when it comes on the foundation of an implementing agency like your employer. That’s what made you successful in your organisation. When I came in with my ideas at Cambert, there was a whole existing process that tried and tested my ideas, that could take my idea forward and implement it. When I set out independently, I did not have the patience to first create the implementing process, and then launch the idea.

That marked my failure. Do you have the emotional stamina to live like a hermit? To work at things with your own hands? To do without parties and champagne?
When an idea comes to your mind, you will unwittingly hasten to have parties to celebrate it, not waiting for the process to take shape! Don’t I know? I did not want to look at the what-ifs; worse, half way through the idea, I gave up, or got bored because the challenge was gone, because once I have taken it out of my mind shared it, it is for the other people to complete it; for me the challenge is gone.”
Vatcha: You are right. Very true! My observation is that this current era is not about financial risk taking, but moral, emotional risk taking. You are right about ready-to-use infrastructure. I don’t see that being an obstacle because more and more young are willing to experiment, and therefore, willing to work at development level.
Managers who leave their organisations because of changed value structures are typically those who are willing to say — if we can’t see eye to eye, let us part ways; somewhere there is financial comfort; it is becoming easier too to say my values are important; neither are you saying that mindlessly. At the same time, somewhere the calibrations are happening and you are saying I will find another job, I will have money.
Athanu: But how do I make that decision; how do I live a life without continuous revenue? Just recently a close friend who was working in Jakarta was to be transferred to Lagos; he didn’t want it as his older daughter was about to graduate; his organisation said, too bad, then you can go! Yes, his wife was doing well. So he quit. But it was a very tenuous decision… it has killed something inside him irreplaceably. It is four months now, he has not found a job. Difficult to deal with it. For men — they have been traditionally the bread winner — it is difficult to recast their mind and accept living off their wife.
Parvez, can’t you see this is tough! Maybe if I was 30, I wouldn’t lose sleep over it. But at 54?
Vatcha: You must not think so much. All this is happening to everyone. When change comes, it does not differentiate by age and gender. You must be ‘cool’ as my grandson says, and run with it. Each period throws up newer issues deeply linked to economics. That triggers sociological, psychological and moral dilemmas.
We had our share. We faced the frustration of dealing with a government policy that shackled us. Raghav here dealt with a transient era; you, for your part, have ethics and ideologies to deal with. Your sons and daughters may face lack of skillsets in the market or high costs of production or an unhealthy workforce if one were to go by the WHO’s forecast for India. Anxiety as an energy should be expended carefully. What is bothering you? Is it losing a livelihood?
Athanu: It’s losing out on a sense of purpose, of control, of belonging.
Raghav: You lose much more. You lose dignity, you become helpless, purposeless, directionless. Unwanted. Isolated…

Vatcha: Oh! I don’t see how resigning from a job can cause loss of dignity or purpose! Yes you lose opportunity, but never purpose! And if you lose opportunity, you do lose access to purpose and dignity, yet you don’t lose purpose…
So I ask you, in these last 15-20 years have you created anything sustainable for yourself? Is it possible to change opportunity in order to have dignity, etc.? Can you do that? But the worry that you might not is the biggie, isn’t it? How do you decrease this worry? Every livelihood helps you build assets apart from monetary, emotional assets — courage, confidence, patience, desire to learn; but we get focused on the monetary only. We gain emotional assets from our work, but don’t reflect on it; when we reflect on it, we establish it. Instead, we let our emotional assets fritter away, our successes fritter away. We don’t build our asset base!
Tell me, every year you assess your team. You do the 360 degree, the balanced score card and whatnot. Have you evaluated what assets they generate for themselves? You evaluate them only for assets they generate for the organisation. But that never was enough to sustain a human! So what is that which propels him into the next level of better performance? Money? No!
And tell me, can a CEO abandon a ship because he didn’t have a way ahead? Think before you reply. I have often confronted myself with this question, and trust me it was not easy. If I abandon a ship, I also break the various personal assets under construction — the team’s!
When I was 44 — you two were just out after your management training — I was sent away to head Delaware Kenya. Eight months after I moved, Sobhan Pundit was appointed MD here. It was clear to everyone that I had been moved to create a case and context for someone else’s appointment. That was an ideological issue for me too! Not because someone else got appointed, but because of the way it was done. People I trusted, to be fair and frank, had behaved in a manner that conflicted with my faith in them. I was filled with many disturbing thoughts — chief among them was to quit.
We had a very nice company secretary those days, good old Nana Kelshi. Remember Nana? He was 59 to my 44. He said to me, ‘If going away will help build your ship, go. That is not going to happen. What is, is. What has happened, is. It won’t be reversed. So, next level is to think about those who are growing, holding your hand.’ I debated a lot with Nana, but I also developed a vision for things other than myself.
Ideology and all that, yes, it’s there. But having recognised it, move on, work around it. Unless your MD plans to take someone’s life!”
'casestudymeera (at) gmail (dot) com'
(Businessworld Issue 29 July-4 Aug 2008)