I am willing to bet that every businessman in India, irrespective of sector or size, lost something in the global financial meltdown. The loss could have been of revenue, profits, margins, customers or employees. In cases where it was none of these, businessmen simply lost some sleep. When institutions like Lehman Brothers disappear into thin air almost overnight and the likes of Citibank, AIG and GM are brought to their knees, even industrialists whose businesses are unscathed had to worry how the seismic changes were going to impact them.
With this in mind, we reached out to the who's who of India Inc., asking them for the lessons that the recession in the West and the downturn in India taught them. After all, as the old adage goes, when you lose something, don't lose the lesson. What we got in response was an abundance of riches. Never before has so much of wisdom been put between the covers of a business magazine as in this anniversary issue of Business Today. And this isn't wisdom culled out of textbooks, it comes straight from the heart of the CEOs and Chairmen, who have braved one of the biggest economic challenges of their lives. By asking practitioners to be preachers, we were able to gather lessons that, as an industrialist told us, you won't learn in Harvard or at the IIMs.
So, Kumar Mangalam Birla tells us how Novelis, his $6-billion acquisition in 2007, turned from a volumedriven business into one focussed on delivering customer value. Captain G.R. Gopinath, who launched all his three businesses during recessions, recounts how an insidious combination of arrogance, optimism and stupidity had blinkered his vision. "The cloud on which I was sailing evaporated and I saw that I had no parachute…," he says. Kishore Biyani, who in my view built India's first truly customer-facing business, shares how little things like better temperature control can save crores. Learn also about an innovative and uniquely Indian categorisation of his employees into Ram, Krishna, Duryodhana and Ravana and his strategy of dealing with each.
G.V. Prasad of Dr Reddy's Labs explains eloquently why one should choose excellence in execution over brilliance in strategy, while Azim Premji of Wipro, known for his penny pinching ways, advises that the best time to build frugality is when there is no need to do so. RPG's Sanjiv Goenka shares how the downturn helped him complete a project five months ahead of schedule, setting a national record. The common thread running across these disparate lessons is employee engagement. CEO after CEO drove home the point that no amount of capital and business vision can make you a winner in the downturn if your people aren't with you-with their hearts and their minds.
This only reinforces one of my long-held beliefs - that bad times are the ultimate test of leadership. A leadership that is based on honesty in purpose, clarity in vision and transparency in action will not only outlast any downturn, but will even benefit from it. If this downturn helps corporate India identify and acquire the kind of leadership it needs to claim the place it deserves in the global economy, we will have lots to thank the Lehman Brothers for.
Happy New Year!
- Aroon Purie