He attended school very briefly. He began working at 16 as a mechanic, repairing trucks for a princely salary of Rs 12 a day in Nagercoil town. Today, Chanbagam Ganesan, 57, owns a business and other assets of around Rs 2 crore, with a personal income of up to Rs 2 lakh in a good month.
Ganesan's father's landholding, a mere half acre in village Thalakudi, nine kilometres from Nagercoil in southern Tamil Nadu - yielding an average monthly income of Rs 100 in the late 1960s - was too meagre to feed his family of 10, including eight children. Ganesan, the fourth child, remembers getting one square meal every alternate day. Education at the village school was free, but he could not attend for long. "I had to drop out after repeatedly facing the teachers' wrath for not having textbooks, and for using the same notebook for all the five subjects being taught," he says. "My father could not afford to buy more." In 1971, when he left home to start work in Nagercoil, he had less than a rupee on him.'
Worked as a mechanic, repairing trucks for Rs 12 a day
Owns a fl eet of 15 trucks, employs 50 people
Even as he was learning the job, the entrepreneurial bug bit Ganesan. "As a teenager, I made up my mind that one day I would be on my own," he says. But it was only in 1986 that he was able to set up his own vehicle repairing shop. He next moved into trading in trucks - buying, refurbishing and reselling them for a profit. As the economy opened up in the 1990s and freight rates began to rise, Ganesan also entered the transporation business. "It was still early days of reform and financing options were limited for people like me," he says. "I had to borrow from a moneylender at 23 per cent interest to buy my trucks."
But the business, called Guruvayoor Mathavan Lorry Service, proved a success. Ganesan bought more trucks. "From 2004, I made it a point to buy two new trucks a year," he says. The practice continued till the global financial crisis of 2008. Currently he owns 15 multi-axle trucks and employs 50 people. He has paid off all his family's debts, given all his three children a good education, and built himself a 2,000 sq. ft. house in Nagercoil. His family owns three cars.
Did he ever imagine he would do so well? "No. All I wanted was a small business of my own," says Ganesan, seated in his air-conditioned office. "It was the opening up of the economy that gave me the opportunity to grow." He now gets vehicle financing at 7.5 per cent interest. However, there are fresh challenges. "Freight rates have risen further over the years, but so have operational costs," he adds.
The climb was not as easy as Ganesan seems to suggest. "Trucking is a risky business," says the manager of a large truck financing company which has financed Ganesan. "Nine out of 10 people go bankrupt. Ganesan succeeded because he reinvested money in the business, monitored operations closely and ensured preventive maintenance of his trucks - something he had learnt as a mechanic - to maximise returns."