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October 15, 2010

Unconventional ...The Journey maketh the Man !

Exactly 16 years ago around this time in the morning (7:00 am) I set sail on an incredible voyage that took me thru L&T, Voltas, Philips, PentaSoft, Compudyne, Genpact and Cognizant. This day every year I introspect the decisions, risks, successes, failures, struggles, heartburns and some-times on “the road not taken” thru this journey. Time to reflect on all the relationships build and in many cases lost over time.

As I was approaching the work-day anniversary some years ago thought of penning down this epic voyage of self-discovery.

Early days.... the beginning

Armed with an Engineering diploma in hand, all of 19 years of age, I started my career --- Date: 15th Oct / Year: 1994

For a Mechanical Engineer, L&T is the Holy Grail - the ultimate organization. Having landed my first job at L &T Cement, I could not have asked for a better start. But destiny had some other plans!! Within a week of working at the L&T greenfield project site in Rajula, Gujarat, it dawned upon me that I wanted to work with people not machines.

Thanks in part to erstwhile Prime Minister late PV Narsimharoa and then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh; policy of liberalization started in 1991-92 (Though started more as a reaction to the Balance of Payment crisis, as Government of India was close to default on its foreign currency loans) the results of that policy were making itself visible. An entire generation suddenly discovered that there was more to life than just being an engineer or a doctor. STAR TV launched in 92 (With 5 Channels - BBC, MTV, STAR Plus, Prime Sports and Star Movies) beamed into our homes from Singapore, showed to Indians what the World outside was like. For a young impressionable mind, the World was calling!!!

So to the utter disappointment, disbelief and amazement of my parents, (Especially my father who is a design engineer by profession himself) I resigned from L&T without consulting anyone, and a week after my parents had seen me off to Rajula, was back in Baroda. Till this day I don’t know what prompted me to take this remarkable decision other than it was some inner voice.

(Today the cement plant in Rajula is the largest cement manufacturing facility in India. In 2004 L&T sold off its Cement business to Birla group and it was re-christened UltraTech Cement)

My real Alma Maters - Voltas / Philips

Fortunately I had a back up offer from Voltas as a Service Supervisor, which to me was more in line with my aspirations. In 1995 Voltas was rated by A & M magazine amongst the top 20 brands in India- Rank- 17. In addition it was a blue chip-public limited company with its stock being included in the prestigious 30-stock BSE Sensex. Being a part of the Tata Group also meant a certain respect in the market place.

For over 2 years I worked at Voltas, traveling extensively - Mumbai, Nagpur, Ahmedabad and almost every known city in Gujarat. Started using the Motorola pager in 1995 (I used to wear it with pride earlier not realizing that within a year, pager would become ubiquitous, than I started hiding it in my office bag and changed the alarm from tone to vibrate!)

Voltas being a corporate patron offered me access to British Library (Ahmedabad). My initial interest in joining British Library was to meet ‘interesting’ people, but the time I spent at the library had a huge influence on developing my interest in reading, which still lingers on.

I started pursuing a PG Diploma in Marketing Mgmt albeit thru correspondence. Philip Kotler’s mega theses on Marketing Management became my travel companion.

(In the years to come, further liberalization would lead to LG, Samsung, Whirlpool, Electrolux entering the Indian white goods market, unable to compete Voltas sold off its refrigerater business to Electrolux in 2000. Tata Chemical replaced Voltas’s scrip from the Sensex in 1996, the year I left . And I Completed the PG course eventually in 1999)

By 1996 I was ready to take a plunge in Sales.

Arvind Mills was hiring a sales team for the launch of their entry-level denim brand 'Newport' and after the initial screening in Mumbai wanted the short listed candidates to come to their Corporate HQ in Bangalore for a final interview. They paid for the flight tickets. Today in the day & age of low cost airlines, it sounds naive to talk about air-travel but 16 years ago " it was a big deal" that too flying at company expense. It was a thrilling experience but I could not accept the job offer, the salary they offered was not competitive (tempting!!) enough.

My interview at Philips was a experience in itself. At their Bandbox office in Worli, Mumbai the day of interview- the Union had organized a rally, shouting all sorts of derogatory slogans against the managers who at that very instance were conducting my interview. Though shaken by such a ‘close encounter of third kind’ I accepted the job offer.

I started working as a Sales Officer at Philips in Dec of 96, aged 21,at that time I held a unique laurel of being the youngest sales officer in Philips Worldwide. For that era Philips was ultra professional - JD Edwards ERP, separate warehousing & distribution division, quarterly sales reviews, and outsourced transportation. The only thorn (which remains till date) was their highly unionized work force, as Philips had their registered office in Kolkatta, WB (an labor union paradise). The legacy of an era when Kolkatta was the nerve centre of European businesses in British India. Listed on BSE, it had annual revenues in excess of Rs. 1500 crore.

Crushing of the Ego

As part of my training “I went to market” (phrase commonly used in sales lexicon to mean meeting retailers) with the sales rep of our distributor in Mumbai. Imagine walking thru Nariman Point, Colaba, and Breach Candy areas of Mumbai from one retailer to another to understand how our products (Philips Lighting) were being sold, competition strategy, impact of merchandising, pricing etc. As if it was not enough, traveling in the Mumbai suburban trains killed whatever else was left of my ego. When you get pushed & squeezed along with millions of other commuters, crushed to the bones, there is no ego; you realize how insignificant you are in this vast humanity. Whether you earn a dime or a dollar, it really doesn’t matter.

Bought my first cell phone (Nokia 2110) in 1998. Those days, AT&T charged an exorbitant Rs.12 / min for both incoming & outgoing calls. Same year also got my first opportunity at international travel – traveled to the Land of the Sleeping Buddha – Thailand as a company reward for having increased the market share of Philips Lighting in my territory from 5 % to 22 % in 1997.

My first serious brush with the impact of globalization came in 1998, how unrelated events thousands of miles away could impact our future (Either way). I was responsible for achieving sales numbers in South Gujarat. Surat, Navasari were some of the big markets in this territory. And both of them had significant diamond polishing units employing lakhs of immigrant workers.

In 97-98 two events shook the diamond industry to the core, reports that many of the diamonds could be blood diamonds (money earned by sale of diamonds fuelling civil wars in Sierra Leone, Congo, Liberia) kept potential customers away from buying diamond jewelry and the break up of a agreement between Argyle (Australian mining major) and De Beers (Worlds largest diamond business), which allowed Argyle to sell its rough diamonds in the open market instead of selling it to De Beers. Unfortunately Surat and Navsari were dependent on roughs from De Beers. Fearing unemployment, the immigrants went back to their farmlands in UP, Bihar etc. Overnight entire suburbs of these cities become ghost towns. It had a huge domino effect on the local economy. The same year, devastating floods on river Tapi in Surat, ended any hopes of quick economic recovery. Sale of almost every product plummeted. And at the end of my 2-year tenure at Philips (Dec –98) my promotion got put on hold. Instead I was sent on a punishment posting to Bhopal.

3 years later, another event thousands of miles away, would impact my life again, and that time with far reaching consequences.

In between I made a valiant effort to break into the advertising industry. A & M and programs like “The Dream Merchants” on Zee hosted by Adman Alyque Padamsee fired my imagination. I thought I had a right balance of working with numbers and ideas; so client service function in an ad agency would have been an ideal outlet. I was so convinced that I personally wrote & spoke to Sunil Lulla, then General Manager - MTV India to give me an opportunity in their Media wing. But destiny had so such plans !!

(Philips continues to dominate the lighting market in India but has lost the battle in the consumer electronics market. In 2004, Philips NV acquired a majority stake in Philips India by buying back all the outstanding shares and subsequently de-listed the company from the BSE. The Pimpri plant near Pune where I went for training was closed in 06. The fears of the diamond industry were not well founded and the industry is ‘raking in the moolah’ once again)

The Future is already here...

Having worked for close to 5 years I could almost sense the world changing. ‘The Third Wave’, that Alvin Toffler had so passionately wrote about in 1980, seemed to have finally arrived – the future had arrived.Though I bought that book on a pavement in Pune during my initial days at Philips, did not have enough interest to read it for a year. When I did read it in the summer of 99, it helped confirm my suspicion that the changes I was observing around me were not sporadic but rather a part of a larger, more fundamental transformation. A transformation being driven by Information Technology & the Internet.

In an issue of Computer Today the same year, Ganesh Ayyar, erstwhile CEO of HP India posed an intriguing question: "Is information technology driving business processes or are business processes driving information technology?" It was a profound question that resonated with me. (And still does). In his visionary book ‘Technovision II’, Charles Wang described the organization of the future having two employees a security guard and a dog. The security guard to feed the dog, and the dog to stop the guard from touching the computer.

I realized that Information Technology & the Internet were the future and they were not just changing our economic landscape, but also accelerating the pace of change. Every management concept was being rewritten or updated to reflect this new reality. It was already changing the dimensions of the 5 forces of competition as propagated by Michael Porter. Within a year of starting, was competing with Barnes & Noble a 100-year-old established book retailer. Now owning a prime location was not an entry barrier for selling books.

I started browsing in 97, set up my yahoo email ID in 98 (, it was not until the start of 99 (after all my efforts to get into advertising failed) that I took a serious look at the IT Industry and began to systematically reengineer myself: C++ & UNIX Shell Programming -NIIT, Networking Certification - Microsoft, Multimedia - Arena, Ebusiness Professional - IBM.

In Sep of 1999 finally I summed up enough courage to pursue my dreams (This time after consulting my parents ) and resigned from Philips. I traveled to Bangalore, in pursuit of an unknown future and went to work for PentaSoft. I vividly remember, walking on the streets of Bangalore, on the eve of the New Year in 1999 expecting something to happen as the Millennium switch over occurred(But Y2K bug was nowhere to be seen!!)

Bangalore – city I fell in Love with

Bangalore in year 2000 was a city like no other. The excitement and hope for the future was palpable everywhere. Investment in the IT field was spiraling. It was a period of Great Expectations. I was able to successfully transition from the Old Economy to New, from bits to bytes (As Nicholas Negroponte refers to the revolution in his book -Being Digital) to the extent that by 2001, I was talking about this new frontier at Corporates and Universities. I attended several seminars and got an opportunity to listen to visionaries like Narayan Murthy & Azim Premji.

(Bangalore today is a city under siege. The infrastructure of the city is crumbling and has not kept pace with the massive inflow of FDI it has received. But the city has been immortalized by Thomas Friedman in his book “The World is Flat”. To be bangalored has became the catchword for ‘the work being offshored’.)

With PentaSoft unable to invest in growing its IT business ,in June 2000 I accepted an offer in a managerial position at Compudyne as a Project / Business Manager. (Compudyne was a Tier 3, Public limited (listed on BSE & NSE), IT company. Dataquest reported it amongst the Top 50 emerging IT companies in India in their 2001 issue.

The same year, University of Western Sydney, Australia launched an offshore Executive MBA program with an option for students to complete their last semester on campus in Sydney. They accepted my application on the basis of my experience. Though expensive it allowed me to study without leaving my job. I was attending classes in evenings and weekends, which meant no free time, but I loved every moment of that intellectual renaissance, more so because of some great teachers.

Starting of 2001 a unique challenge (or lets call it opportunity ) confronted me. I was to drive ISO 9001 implementation for Compudyne. It was quite an experience for a professional with very limited software proficiency to train & lead all the software developers on ISO procedures & requirements. But it gave me confidence in my ability to convert complex concepts (ISO 9001 Requirements) into an easy to explain & implement - Grid or Matrix and drive a project to closure. TUV Rhineland was our auditor and we got certified in the very first attempt in August 2001.

(Was awarded the Australian MBA Degree (Major in Finance) in 2003, though my dream of completing the last semester in Australia did not materialize, for real good reasons. And I continue to convert whatever is thrown at me into grids, graphs, diagrams, tables and matrices!!)

May 2001 at an uncertain age of 25 I got married.

Meanwhile in early part of 2001 as part of the strategy to leapfrog Compudyne into the future, we acquired a visual effects (VFX) business – Vision Art Studios in US from Santa Monica Studies for a consideration of Rs. 20 crore. It was a high-risk strategy as we were taking a lot of debt on our balance sheet to finance the acquisition. The strategy could have failed only under the most strenuous of circumstances.


But year 2001 was going to be anything but ordinary.

The World Changed forever....

In the wake of 2001 September 11th terrorist attacks in US; all the large production houses as a sign of solidarity, put on hold movies depicting violence (the mainstay for any VFX company). What could have been a spectacular strategy becomes a case study in acquisition going wrong. Well actually nothing wrong with strategy it was only bad karma.

The bust in 2000 prior to 911, the attack on the Indian Parliament in December. The financial scandals that resulted in the collapse of Enron & World-com that followed in quick succession. The World economy was staring squarely in face of a looming recession. ‘The bubble had burst’. And a phrase ‘Irrational Exuberance’ originally used by Alan Greenspan became the epitaph to the bygone era of stock market excesses. After a decade of super growth, the Indian IT industry in general and Compudyne in particular had hit an air pocket. A black hole from where Compudyne was never to recover. ( And in my life, "history repeating itself" is not just a cliche , 7 years later in 2008 world economy will plunge into yet another recession and almost have equally devasting impact)

The discovery of faith…

As a strategy to offset lost revenues overseas we increased our business development activities in India, but years of high profitability had attracted thousands of entrepreneurs and there was glut in the domestic IT sector. Though we had some successes it was evident that it was a flawed strategy. Like any other emerging economy, India is primarily a product market and not a project market, while we were primarily a project company and had no IT products worth their salt.

For me 2002 was the longest year in living memory. (Until 2008 that is) Cash reserves of Compudyne had all but dried up and we had to borrow money every month to hand out salaries. Though as a Manager I had kept the spirit of my team, I could not insulate them any further. To protect the company from going bankrupt we had to reduce our fixed cost (headcount – salaries). It was probably the worst part of my life, having to tell people they were no more required and with a tacit understanding that it could be my turn someday. I felt like ‘Andrea Gail’ in the eye of the perfect storm.

That October, it was a Diwali to remember; my parents had come to celebrate with us in Bangalore. And not to worry them I had not shared any information about the challenging environment that we found ourselves in, hoping, that it will sort itself out by than. But once they understood the hard realities, they become my pillars of strength. They showed me the path of faith. This traumatic period was to be a turning point in my belief system. And it was this ‘new found faith’ that kept me going inspite of every conceivable odd in the years to come. But this period did leave its vestige, emotional scars, deep enough that they might never heal.

(Compudyne today is in a state of insolvency and has a debt of over Rs. 32 crore. Their shares stopped trading in 2005. Whenever I go to Bangalore and see the Compudyne building, I cannot help but wonder, what if?)

We bring good things to life...

In all this gloom & doom of the international financial turmoil, there was one silver lining - the Indian rupee. Over the past 2 years the rupee had consistently got devalued to almost Rs. 48 to a dollar by 02. Globally organizations still reeling under the economic slowdown were looking for cost reduction. At then prevailing exchange rate along with cheap bandwidth, STPI tax sops and millions of young English speaking Indians - presented a great opportunity for significant labor cost arbitrage. What followed was nothing short of a gold rush to offshore work to India. Therefore though the IT sector was still gradually recovering, it was ‘opportunities galore’ in ITES.

In Dec 2002 came a break thru - a right type of job opportunity at GE Capital in Hyderabad. In those days GE had probably the most rigorous regime of hiring managers. 6 Interviews and several telephone conversations later; 16th Jan 2003 I started my third innings at GE Capital and relocated to Hyderabad. With motley of feelings I left Bangalore, a city where I came, I saw, I conquered and I lost. ( 6 years later history would knock on my door once more, I would leave Hyderabad for Chennai under almost identical circumstances)

the GE Capital / Genpact Years


Anonymous said...

Amazingggg Samir... Your so far journey doesnt seem to be a smooth going but yes one thing i want to say : " For better or worse, our future will be determined in large part by our dreams and by the struggle to make them real."

Your write ups are really being a source of Inspiration in various ways..

Rohini Navaratna

Samir Konnur said...

Thanks so much Rohini .. all these cheers go a long way in keeping us motivated .. to keep walking :-) and you are so right .. if you have dreams, ambitions, struggle is inevitable .. thanks for your cheering Rohini.. Samir

umesh said...

Samir, there is an "Author" hidden in you. Amazing!:)

Samir Konnur said...

Thanks Umesh,, for your generous compliment ;-)

Akash Srivastava said...

Good one Samir, amazing to see how couple of unrelated events could affect a life so much... very nicely written..this write up is a commendment on your perseverance