scorecardresearch

'The best advice I ever got'

BT asks the who’s who of India’s corporate world—as well as some professionals and leaders from other fields for good measure—to jog their memory and recall the best advice they ever got. What the advice was, who gave it to them and when, and how it helped them.

With India’s economy and business transfixed by the global financial crisis much as a Dooars elephant is blinded on the tracks by the headlight of a rushing train at night, the one thing everybody—from CEO to a call centre worker—needs desperately is advice. Not money, not receptive markets—even though business is all about following the money. They come later. First, some advice, please, lest we find ourselves on the wrong tracks and are run over by the train. So, bankers and (lucky) cash-rich corporates seem to be saying, as they hang on to their funds.

Culling the sources of advice, a startling fact: Behind every successful man is his father! Wives do figure on the advice-giver’s list, but the results are 50:50. One ignored his wife’s advice, another heeded it: both struck pay dirt.

But where does one go to get that advice? To the world’s leaders? To the world’s best B-schools that produced the graduates who are being blamed for the crisis in the first place?

Advice at current prices has no value; it is only after it has been implemented (sometimes at the cost of derisive comments from peers) and has succeeded that advice turns golden.

So, BT decided to ask the who’s who of India’s corporate world—as well as some professionals and leaders from other fields for good measure—to jog their memory and recall the best advice they ever got. What the advice was, who gave it to them and when, and how it helped them.

As you read the following content, the first thing that could strike you is that very little of the advice will directly help you make money. There is no hint of a ‘how to...’ manual that can be drilled into your legions as standard procedure.

As for the sources of the advice, the surprising finding was that a large number of successful people quoted here cite family sources (father, mother, grandfather and even the odd aunt or two) for the advice that put them on the track to greatness and success —and kept them there.

Then, there is a large complement of people who got priceless advice from a mentor (the factory manager who took under his wing the owner’s son) or a boss (yet another factory manager who would later head the country’s largest FMCG multinational).

Religion plays no role in this selection—but at least two adjusted their life’s course on the basis of compass bearings given by Mother Teresa. Then there is the man who sparked India’s retail revolution, who admits that he got his best “advice” just by watching how another successful store worked.

There is no rocket science, no theory of derivatives—but the diversity of the advice is amazing. From the sublime to the practical and the selfish, the advice is laid bare for you. One thing— as a very senior business baron pointed out rather drily— Indians have a habit of giving advice even when it is not wanted. So, don’t for a moment think that BT is preaching: it is just offering a menu.

Jamshed J. Irani
Jamshed J. Irani
Jamshed J. Irani, 72
Director, Tata Sons

Out of every 10 men born in this world, nine work for the tenth. Prepare to be the tenth

“I left home at 16 to study abroad. I was very close to my father, who was also an executive in a Tata company. He was the best mentor that I had and he told me something that is ingrained in me: ‘Son, out of every 10 men who are born in this world, nine men work for the tenth. So, prepare yourself to be the tenth.’ It enabled me to plan my future as a leader. If you want to make an impression on the world, you need an army behind you. Leaders must have that credibility which will enable their legions to follow them to achieve anything… You have to be a leader all the time. You can’t say that at night I am going to sleep and I am going to be a leader tomorrow morning. To be a leader, you have to get the team behind you, and that has always been my motto. Under pressure, you must still realise that you are the leader. If you reflect your discomfort or your inability to take a decision to your team, that is disastrous.”

As told to Clifford Alvares

L.N. Mittal
L.N. Mittal
L.N. Mittal, 58
Chairman & CEO, ArcelorMittal

Reach for stars with foot on the ground

“One of the best pieces of advice I received was to reach for the stars, but always keep one foot on the ground. I have always tried to follow this and I believe it stands you in good stead. It creates a good balance between being ambitious and challenging yourself whilst retaining a sense of integrity and remembering where you started from. I think this also helps you deal with things when they don’t go your way. Success is not a reason to lose sight of reality.”

—Source: Money Today, Dec. 2007

R. Seshasayee
R. Seshasayee
R. Seshasayee, 60
MD, Ashok Leyland

Listen to your inner voice

“The best advice I got was from R.K. Talwar, a former chairman of State Bank of India and then IDBI, who set exalted value standards both in personal and professional life… It was in early 1990s. I was in a particular dilemma involving a moral conflict of interest and was finding it difficult to decide what was right and what was wrong. Talwar was then the Chairman of Ashok Leyland Finance and I sought his counsel. His response was simple: ‘Whichever decision that will give you peace of mind and help you to go to sleep peacefully is the right decision. Listen to your conscience. Most often we put on ear plugs and don’t listen to our inner voice.’ Since then, whenever I have had a problem, I have taken decisions based on what is right for my conscience—be it taking a stand, or speaking my mind, dealing with employees or government.”

As told to N. Madhavan

Lord Swraj Paul
Lord Swraj Paul
Lord Swraj Paul, 77
Chairman, Caparo Group

You can’t build a successful business without a successful family

“Lots of things go back to one’s early experience. I lost my parents much too early in life, but in the time they were with me, my mother taught me the value of family and my father taught me that there is dignity in work. His office was on the ground floor while we lived on the first floor and the factory was in the backyard. At that young age he would make us clean his office. That learning has come out more useful than anything else that I can think of. And you can’t build a successful business without a successful family. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I learnt never to compromise on quality and to aspire for excellence. From Mrs Indira Gandhi, I learnt courage in adversity. After she lost in 1977, she didn’t change as a person.”

As told to Shalini S. Dagar

Anand G. Mahindra
Anand G. Mahindra
Anand G. Mahindra, 53
Vice Chairman & Managing Director, Mahindra & Mahindra

Uphold your family tradition

“In 1984, I had completed three years at Mahindra Ugine Steel after returning from Business School in Boston. I was assisting in bids for large government contracts, and had worked hard on a particular initiative, which we lost to a competitor on less than transparent grounds. I was extremely demoralised and I recall spending an evening complaining bitterly to my late father-in-law, Premnath Khandelwal, head of the eponymous group. I told him that I was contemplating returning to the US, since we at the Mahindra Group seemed to be playing according to the conventional rules of the game while success in India seemed to require following a completely different set of ‘rules’. He listened patiently and let me vent my ire, and then said: ‘Anand, you would be making a big mistake if you quit now. Let me tell you that your family tradition is worth upholding first because it’s the right thing to do; but also because in the long run, you will enjoy a lower cost of doing business in every sense of the word.’ Ever since that day, I’ve never had doubts about why we do business the way we do. And in addition, we’ve never found that approach an impediment to succeeding in the areas where we choose to compete.”

Jignesh Shah
Jignesh Shah
Jignesh Shah, 41
Executive Chairman & Managing Director, Financial Technologies (India);
Vice Chairman, MCX

Results matter, efforts don’t

“At 24, as a fresh engineer, I had joined the Bombay Stock Exchange as part of a team building the online trading platform. We were all working overtime... I vividly remember an old wooden signboard proclaiming ‘Results Matter. Efforts Don’t’, in the settlement system room where we were given training. These words really woke me up. The second piece of advice came years later from the then managing director of National Stock Exchange, R.H. Patil, when the commodity bourse promoted by us was in direct competition with NCDEX, promoted by NSE and others. I knew Patil from my early days when he had given FTIL a break. When I told him about our rival’s tactics, he said to me: ‘Do the right thing the way you are doing and one day, the world will notice.’ The rest is history. MCX overtook NCDEX in market share, and is now among the world’s top ten 10 commodity exchanges.”

As told to Anand Adhikari

A.M. Naik
A.M. Naik
A.M. Naik,66
Chairman and Managing Director, L&T

Be successful, but not at the cost of principles

“I have always been my own man and my Gandhian father had always encouraged me in this. When I ponder on the moment that truly changed my life, I have to go back to my college days when I was an engineering student. An all-rounder, I was an extrovert with unconventional study hours, and had a happy habit of giving classes a miss. Word got around to my father, and, as expected, he was concerned. He sent me a letter. It was not a reprimand, it was just a gentle reminder about our family’s value system, and how life was not just about living on one’s own terms, but also about thinking about others. He told me that he trusted that I knew what I wanted to do with my future. He told me to follow my heart, but never at the cost of others. He told me to be fearless and to be always empathetic to the cause of the underprivileged; and to be successful, but never at the cost of my principles. These words were etched in my mind... and have inspired and guided me over the years.”

As told to Suman Layak

Prasoon Joshi
Prasoon Joshi
Prasoon Joshi, 39
Chairman, McCann World Group

Difficult path leads you to destination, beautiful path is destination in itself

“One of the best pieces of advice that I have ever got was from my father when I was just 10 years old. He read out a verse from the Kathopnishad, which talks of ‘Shreya Marg and Preya Marg’. He said: ‘There is a path which is beautiful and there is a path which is difficult. But you must always take the path that is difficult because the difficult path leads you to your destination and the beautiful path is a destination in itself.’ As I grew up, I have taken this advice very seriously.... It takes a lot of courage to do so, but I can tell you, I have never been disappointed with my decisions. Another advice I took very seriously was from (music director) A.R. Rahman, when I first worked with him four years ago on the music of Rang De Basanti. As we got chatting and talking, he told me: ‘Believe in the present and do justice to it.’ That’s precisely what I do. I concentrate on the present and try and do a good job of it.”

As told to Anusha Subramanian

Aamir Khan
Aamir Khan
Aamir Khan,43
Actor

It’s better to go wrong with your own instincts than somebody else’s

“I think I was around 14 when, during the course of a conversation, my uncle Nasser Hussain told me to follow my heart—and that has kind of stayed with me ever since. Quite often in life, he said, you are faced with situations where you may tend to go wrong— but even so, if you follow your heart, it’s always better to go wrong with your own instincts than on somebody else’s. I believe following this advice has been instrumental in my choice of profession—especially since many of my well-wishers were against it. Their fear was not entirely unfounded…. they wanted me to have something to fall back on in case I didn’t succeed in tinseltown, whereas I was very clear that I wanted to dive right into filmmaking and acting rather than study commerce. Since then, pretty much all my decisions have been based on this philosophy of trusting my own instincts. While I was close to my uncle, I did not seek regular advice from him…. It was my own path and my mistake to live and learn from. That’s exactly what I advise my nephew Imran.”

As told to Tejeesh N.S. Behl

Deepak Parekh
Deepak Parekh
Deepak Parekh,64
Executive Chairman, HDFC

Work for a homegrown start-up

“The best advice I ever got was from my uncle Hasmukh Thakordas Parekh, when I was working with US-based Chase Manhattan Bank in the mid-’70s. I was running around in New York, Hong Kong, Singapore with stints at Ernst & Young, Grindlays Bank and Chase. I had spent nearly three years with Chase as Assistant Representative for South Asia (Mumbai, Singapore and Hong Kong) when my uncle was stepping out to start his second innings in 1977 after retiring from ICICI as Chairman. His idea was to set up a housing mortgage company for the middle class… I had a good offer to head the Chase office in Saudi Arabia during the Middle East boom. My uncle asked me, why don’t you settle down and work for a homegrown start-up rather than run around. He asked me to join him as Deputy General Manager. At 34, I was married, with kids. It was actually a difficult decision since I had a cushy job with a foreign firm… I was a fairly senior guy at Chase and I had to take a 50 per cent cut in my salary to join my uncle’s company. Even after joining, I never regretted my decision as the company had a good initial start, though my uncle died a few years later, but he saw the company was moving in the right direction.”

As told to Anand Adhikari

Nimesh Kampani
Nimesh Kampani
Nimesh Kampani, 61
Chairman & Managing Director, JM Financial

Never borrow for personal needs

“For me, it’s my self-consciousness and intuition that have been the guiding force. But I have inherited the value systems and principles from my parents. My father followed the golden principles—never borrow money for personal needs and don’t ever give guarantees. He would always say: ‘The repayment liabilities are yours. You can’t disown them. On the other side, the asset that you believe belongs to you, may or may not remain of that value always. So, the value of assets goes down but the liabilities stay with you. Live within your means.’ So, he would also explain to us by saying: ‘Liabilities are like taxi meters, which keep running 24 hours, even when you go off to sleep. The interest meter runs all the time. If you do business with your own money, you can withstand any bad time.’”

As told to Rachna Monga

Venu Srinivasan,56
Managing Director, TVS Motor Company

Take risks but one at a time

“I have received much advice that has had a profound impact on me both as a person and as a leader. My personal friend and philosopher, Prof. Lord S.K. Bhattacharyya, Head of Warwick Manufacturing Group, has had an enormous influence on my growth as a business leader. His advice: never take more than one risk at a time. He typically classifies risks into people, markets and money—three legs of a tripod. If you take more than one risk, the tripod loses balance. For instance, he would say only when you have a strong team and a stable market, can a financial risk such as an acquisition be attempted successfully. In the early part of my life, my father and uncles played an important role in teaching me the TVS values—trust, integrity, discipline. Ramnath Goenka, whom I had known from childhood, helped me understand the social and political milieu in which we operate. He often said: ‘Venture into areas that you can handle coming from the TVS family.’ In the early stages of my professional career, Prof. Washio and Prof. Tsuda, Japanese TQM experts, revealed the importance of building a TQM organisation in a contemporary manner. Without their advice, we could not have built an organisation that created ‘the TVS way’ effectively. Dr V. Krishnamurthy, former Chairman of Maruti, S. Ranganathan, former Auditor General of India and former Chairman of Ashok Leyland, Glaxo India and TVS Motor, and J.E. Talaulicar, former Vice-Chairman of Tata Motors, all helped me with their valuable inputs and advice to handle the great challenges that I faced early in my career.”

As told to N. Madhavan

G.M. Rao
G.M. Rao
G.M. Rao, 59
Chairman, GMR Group

Focus on one category

“I started my entrepreneurial venture through a small trading business. Simultaneously, I also got engaged in the running of a jute mill. In those days, businesses were primarily driven by licence Raj. My friend, an astute banker, advised me to stay focussed on one category of business. I took his advice and chose to focus on the jute mill, leaving the trading business to my brothers. From then on, I stayed focussed with passion and perseverance, prioritising issues and avoiding procrastinating on decisions. This has helped the GMR Group to successfully complete challenging projects ahead of schedule and set benchmarks. These qualities have helped us build the GMR Group from a small single jute mill to a major infrastructure developer, now building the New Delhi International Airport, which will be the second-largest terminal building in the world.”

As told to K. R. Balasubramanyam

Naresh Goyal
Naresh Goyal
Naresh Goyal, 58
Chairman, Jet Airways

Be better than the best

“Naresh, if you cannot make Jet Airways better than the best, then send these two aircraft back today,” J.R.D. Tata told Naresh Goyal in April 1993. The father of Indian aviation was receiving Jet Airways’ first two aircraft on Goyal’s request. Goyal says these words inspired him to make Jet the best airline in India.

Puja Mehra

Rama Prasad Goenka
Rama Prasad Goenka
Rama Prasad Goenka,78
Chairman Emeritus, RPG Group; Chairman, CESC, Saregama, Phillips Carbon Black

Be honest with your banker, lawyer and doctor...

“I think the best advice I received was from my grandfather, in 1951. My education was over and I was supposed to enter business. Father had taken some interest in Duncan Brothers and I was to join it. So, the first day I was to go to Duncan Brothers, as usual I went to my grandfather (Sir Badridas Goenka, the first Indian chairman of Imperial Bank of India in 1931) to do my pranam in the morning. He said: ‘You are joining business from today?’ I said, ‘Yes’. He said, ‘Remember three things. One, a written agreement can be negated by another lawyer, but what you speak, what you utter, what your lips have said, that nobody can dismiss. They can challenge it. Two, never hide anything from your doctor. Three, be 100 per cent honest with your lawyer.’ Years later, he said: ‘I have something to add: ‘Be honest with your bankers.’ I have followed his advice and I have gained immensely from it.”

As told to Somnath Dasgupta

Piyush Pandey
Piyush Pandey
Piyush Pandey, 53
Chairman, Ogilvy & Mather India

Take your work seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously

As a young lad, Piyush Pandey had dreamt of making it to the Indian cricket team. But while Arun Lal, his buddy from St. Stephen’s, did, Pandey got into advertising. And the best advice he ever got was on the cricket field from Arun Lal. “In 1974, we were playing against Hindu College and were down 53 for 6. Arun had just got out and I was entering the field. Arun told me: ‘53 for 6 is a problem for ordinary people but an opportunity for stars’. I concentrated on the game and made 71 runs to win the match. That’s when I realised what Arun had told me… it meant in adversity lies opportunity. My second piece of advice came from S.R. Iyer, my first Managing Director at O&M India. One day over lunch, he told me: ‘Boy, take your work seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously….’’’

Anusha Subramanian

Shelly Lazarus
Shelly Lazarus
Shelly Lazarus, 61
Chairman & CEO/ Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide

Pay attention to your people

“The best advice I have ever got was from the legendary founder of O&M, David Ogilvy. Just before becoming the CEO of this company, I spent three days with him at his château in France, discussing and talking business. I asked him if he had to say just one thing to me, what would that be? And he said: ‘Just pay attention to your people—that’s the most important thing you need to do. No matter how much time you spend thinking about, worrying about, focussing on, questioning the value of, and evaluating people, it won’t be enough. If your people are happy, they are productive and feel successful, then everything else works well. People are the only thing that matters, and the only thing you should think about.’ So, I devote some amount of time every day asking myself: Am I doing enough? Are my people happy?”

As told to Anusha Subramanian

Motilal Oswal
Motilal Oswal
Motilal Oswal, 46
CMD, Motilal Oswal Financial Services

Aim for the highest education in your field

“I grew up in a joint family of 20-odd members, so cost-consciousness, importance of hard work and power of relationships are some of the virtues I learnt while growing up. But the advice that turned around my approach was from Vijay Tater, a distant relative who was a chartered accountant. He said: ‘Always aim for the highest-ever education in whatever field you choose.’ I was 16 then. In our community in those days, children usually studied till VIII standard. But Vijay helped me create my vision and I realised that education can impact one’s life in a big way. That’s how I could go for higher studies, away from my family and home and that’s how I could do my CA. I picked up the habit of reading books—Jim Stovall, Jack Welch, Ram Charan are my favourites—from my friend and partner, Raamdeo Agrawal.”

As told to Rachna Monga

Sanjeev Bikhchandani
Sanjeev Bikhchandani
Sanjeev Bikhchandani, 44
Founder & CEO, Info Edge

It’s better to have cash in your account than in your clients’

“After I graduated from St. Stephen’s, I joined Lintas’ Delhi office where my branch head, a man called Atul Sharma, told me: ‘Always remember that cash is king, and it is a lot better to have cash in your bank account than in your clients’ account.’ It sounds almost prophetic today, but you have to remember that other than short spells in the late ’90s and until recently, India has usually been a very cash scarce economy. This advice served us very well during the dotcom burst when we were a very young company, as it does this time round.”

As told to Kushan Mitra

N. Sankar
N. Sankar
N. Sankar, 62
Chairman, Sanmar Group

Ultimately, management is common sense

“The best advice I ever got was from my only boss, S. Ramaswamy, who was GM of Chemplast in the 1960s. I worked as his assistant to learn the business. He used to tell me that all management decisions boil down to common sense and logic, but most organisations get lost in all kinds of models and accepted practices. In 2002, our flagship, Chemplast, faced a shortage of alcohol, from which we make ethylene di-chloride (EDC) and then polyvinyl chloride. EDC imports were costly. The option was to set up a cracker to get ethylene to make EDC, but that would require a huge investment. Importing ethylene and transporting it by road to our Mettur plant was not safe. We looked at the issue through the prism of logic. Why not import ethylene by sea, convert it to EDC at a coastal plant and then transport EDC (a safer product) to Mettur? In 2006, we did this. Had we gone with conventional wisdom, we probably would have been bankrupt by now.”

As told to N. Madhavan

Sam Balsara
Sam Balsara
Sam Balsara, 57
Chairman, Madison Communications

Job must be done and nothing is impossible

“In 1972, when I graduated from Jamnalal Bajaj, I learnt my first lesson: ‘You got to maximise output with minimum input.’ My second major lesson came during 1984-88 when I interacted with the Ambanis while I was working with Mudra Advertising. I learnt that ‘the job must be done and nothing is impossible’. These learnings helped me a lot in being an entrepreneur and running my business. We are a small home-grown advertising agency with limited resources and yet compete with large multinational agencies by making optimum use of our limited resources.”

As told to Anusha Subramanian

Anu Aga
Anu Aga
Anu Aga, 66
Director, Thermax

Invest in yourself

“From my mother, I learnt to be authentic and not to pretend, which came in handy when I took over as Chairperson after my husband’s (Thermax founder Rohinton Aga’s) demise. I didn’t know anything about the business and admitted as much to the senior management when I sought their help in running the company. My father advised me to invest in myself and to live within my means, which is a philosophy we follow at Thermax where we’d rather be understated than ostentatious. From my husband, I learnt not to be afraid and have meaningful relationships. I owe my involvement in Thermax’s CSR initiatives to my son Kurush’s (who died in an accident) advice. My daughter (Meher Pudumjee, Chairperson, Thermax) taught me to accept people for what they are, rather than try and mould them into what you want them to be.”

As told to Tejeesh N.S. Behl

Harsh Mariwala
Harsh Mariwala
Harsh Mariwala, 57
Chairman and Managing Director, Marico

Invest in people and empower them

“It is about investing in people and empowering them. This advice has come to me in various ways from various people and has been critical to my success as an entrepreneur. It is through right people that innovations happen. When I first started Marico, there was no capital investment and we had unbranded products. Then, slowly, when I started investing in people and innovation, the whole business got transformed in the ‘80s. I also learnt a lot about people relations during my battle with union leader Datta Samant… I realised how important it was to have a win-win relationship in negotiations with people in achieving what you want for the benefit of all. Professor Ram Charan is a person whose writings and teachings I follow keenly. In the mid-‘90s, when I was fighting it out with Hindustan Lever, which was vying to buy us out, he told me: “Come what may, you need to protect your resource generating engine.” For us, this was the Parachute brand. Those words gave me lot of courage to battle with Lever and ultimately succeed in keeping the company and brand with ourselves.”

As told to Anusha Subramanian

Akhil Gupta
Akhil Gupta
Akhil Gupta, 54
Senior MD & Chairman, Blackstone India

Every problem can be traced back to failure of management and leadership

“In 1974, when Dr Ashok Ganguly was the General Factory Manager of the Garden Reach factory of Hindustan Lever in Calcutta and I was a management trainee, there was a strike by the workers… and we were stranded inside the factory for 48 hours. I was criticising the workers, when Dr Ganguly—who would later become Chairman of HLL—said: ‘Every problem can be traced back to failure of management and leadership.’ That was such a strong lesson that I have applied it in all aspects, including my personal relationships. As a responsible person you don’t look for excuses or find people or situations to blame, but focus on what you can do to achieve desired results.”

As told to Shamni Pande

Uday Kotak
Uday Kotak
Uday Kotak, 49
Managing Director, Kotak Mahindra Bank

The most important principle in life is humility and conservatism

“The best advice I ever got was actually some 35 years ago from two sources—my grandfather, who is no more, and my father. I used to stay in a joint family and we had a middle-to-higher-middle class upbringing. Those were the days when India had only Fiats and Ambassadors and there was also a fashion of showing off by way of differentiated cars. My grandfather said: ‘Never have a multi-coloured car.’ The innate message was: don’t try and show off or try to be different for the sake of being different. I also learnt from my grandfather the value of money. The second advice came from my father who said the most important principle in life is humility and conservatism. Never give up the plank of stability. If we all think of our own life in the ’70s, ’80s and ‘90s, we have grown in a completely opposite fashion… greater branding, aggressive marketing, overleveraging.... Today, the world is getting back to basics.”

As told to Anand Adhikari

M.V. Subbiah
M.V. Subbiah
M.V. Subbiah, 69
Former Chairman, Murugappa Group

Understand your true strength

“It was 1957 and I was studying mechanical engineering at Birmingham University. Though I excelled in tennis, the same could not be said about my subjects. My teacher, Prof Mucklow, asked me why I wanted to be an engineer. I said, ‘It is because my family is in the engineering business.’ I failed in a few papers. At the beginning of the second year, he put the same question to me. I said the same thing. Finally, as I was preparing for my 2nd year exams, he asked me whether I wanted to take the exams. By then, my marriage was fixed and quitting midway would be embarrassing. He prodded me to realise my strengths—in our hostel of 150 students of which just 15 were foreigners, I had become hostel representative. ‘You are a man manager,’ he said. He helped me get out of engineering and into a two-year diploma in industrial administration (there was no MBA then). What impressed me was the way he kept a close track of me, let me run my course and then got me to take my own decision. This is something I studiously followed to nurture talent at the Murugappa Group.”

As told to N. Madhavan

Kishore Biyani
Kishore Biyani
Kishore Biyani, 47
CEO, Future Group

Just watching Saravana Store

“Some of the best advice I ever received was unspoken. I never had mentors who would advise… I got it from books and plain observation. Probably the most breakthrough and decisive ‘advice’ came from watching a store in Chennai’s Ranganathan Street sometime in 2000, when we were working for an idea of starting a retail chain that would sell almost every merchandise that an Indian household consumes and offer them at a discounted price”. The consultants would tell Biyani to study hypermarkets in the US and Europe, but Biyani who had not been abroad much couldn’t relate. “Local businessmen would say it will not work here. That’s when I came across Saravana Store… I noticed hordes of people walking in through the day. The store had five floors and a basement. To many, it may be a shopper’s nightmare, but lot of customers just loved it. Saravana served as a template to build upon the idea of Big Bazaar. We developed a model that could be replicated and turned into a pan-Indian chain. Some of the best advice for Big Bazaar has often come from just watching customers and how they behave.”

As told to Anusha Subramanian

Vikram Akula
Vikram Akula
Vikram Akula, 40
Founder & Chairman, SKS Microfinance

Poor know a lot more than us

“When I first started working in the field of development, I had the view that the poor were ignorant and uneducated. I imagined I would help them improve their lives.... Most people admired my aspiration... but not Biksham Gujja, my first boss and director of an NGO. ‘You really can’t help the poor. They know a lot more than we do.’ I was puzzled... (and) wrote off his response as simply an attempt to show outward humility. So, I started my work driven by the notion that I was going to help the poor. But I soon saw what happened when the ‘educated’ tried to ‘help’ the poor—how bureaucrats gave subsidised loans for highyielding buffaloes and how these buffaloes died in tough drought conditions, leaving the poor worse off.... how education failed to prepare poor children for getting a job, yet alienated them from their traditional economies.... I realised that Biksham was right. I put away my books and immersed myself in the rhythms of villages... learning from the poor. I was able to understand their lives... (and) design programmes that worked.... I started SKS Microfinance, which today provides financial services to over 3.5 million poor households.”

As told to E. Kumar Sharma

Venugopal Dhoot
Venugopal Dhoot
Venugopal Dhoot,57
Chairman, Videocon Industries

Live and let live

In 1997, Venugopal N. Dhoot, along with one of his friends, was searching for a friend’s lost son in Calcutta and came in touch with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, which found and rescued the child. Dhoot and his friend were so overwhelmed that they wanted to meet Mother Teresa and help the charity. Mother Teresa told him: “Live and let live.” That advice touched Dhoot and changed his way of thinking towards life. It was similar to what his guru Dongre Maharaj says. Within a year, he started a hospital in Aurangabad in Maharashtra that treats the poor free, and a free school for girls. “You have to help the poor and needy with interest and affection,” says Dhoot.

Virendra Verma

Jaspal Singh Bindra
Jaspal Singh Bindra
Jaspal Singh Bindra, 47
CEO (South East And South Asia), Standard Chartered Bank

Remain in Asia

“Probably, the best advice has been to remain in Asia. I had several options at various points to work in Europe and the US. After working for 14-15 years with Bank of America and UBS investment banking, almost all roads led to a career in the West. However, I had this constant advice from my wife to remain in Asia. I don’t know whether the advice was a function of her vision or selfish interest, but she has always resisted my global move—her argument was that I should develop domain expertise in Asia rather than spread thin my working in various geographies. So, I took the Standard Chartered India offer in 1998. I’m sure many people thought that I was pretty dumb to give up UBS investment banking and shift to commercial banking…. I think the advice turned out to be most valuable— in today’s financial crisis, you are much better off being in Asia than in the West… to have responsibility for India and China at this point with an institution like ours, which is highly prioritised in these two countries, I couldn’t really ask for more.”

As told to Anand Adhikari

Malvinder Mohan Singh
Malvinder Mohan Singh
Malvinder Mohan Singh, 36
Chairman, CEO and MD, Ranbaxy Laboratories

Go with your gut

“My father, the late Dr Parvinder Singh, has always been a constant source of inspiration for me… (his) advice was always to be bold and to believe in your gut. In late 2007, I had my initial meetings with Daiichi Sankyo. Our intention was to scout for a strategic partner. But as the talks evolved, it became clear to me that to realise the full potential of our vision, we would need to have a deeper relationship beyond just a minority stake. On the one hand, there was an opportunity to clearly lead the agenda in terms of the future dynamics of the global pharmaceutical industry…. On the other hand, the only way we could do it was if our family were to sell its entire stake. We would have the first mover advantage, do the deal on our terms and have the opportunity to create a pharmaceutical powerhouse. I decided to go with my gut feeling. In retrospect, it was a good decision. The environment has become tougher and other familiar companies are being forced to consider similar deals. I believe ours was the game changer.“

As told to Shalini S. Dagar

Deepak Puri
Deepak Puri
Deepak Puri, 67
Chairman and MD, Moser Baer

Be fair in life, work and relationships

“Around 1984, Moser Baer, which was registered in 1983, was making timekeeping devices and I was looking to diversify into computers. I was asking my friend Om Oberoi, the head of IDM (erstwhile IBM, which was thrown out of India by the Janata government), about ideas. We realised that almost everything related to computers required technology. Then, he held up an 8”x8” floppy disc and said: ‘Why don’t you make this?’ I asked him for a defective piece and about manufacturers. One of them was Xidex, in California. My brother, who was staying there, fixed up a meeting and I sought technology. Moser Baer moved into IT manufacturing. I never looked back after that. And my advice to myself is that if there is an agreement that is 60 per cent fair to you and 40 per cent fair to the other, as soon as the other gets an equal offer it will walk out. It is important to be fair in life, work and relationships. That is why we have benefited immensely from our partnerships.”

As told to Shalini S. Dagar

Vikram Kirloskar
Vikram Kirloskar
Vikram Kirloskar, 50
Vice Chairman, Toyota Kirloskar Motor

Keep your family priorities ahead of everything else

“After I passed out of MIT in the US in May 1981, I joined Cummins Engine Company. Irwin Miller, its owner, told me: ‘At some time, as you go through life, you may have to take a decision that may affect your career or your family. You should keep your family priorities ahead of everything else.’ As a 22-year-old, I was immensely enjoying my days at Cummins. One day my grandfather, S.L. Kirloskar, who was on a visit to the US, asked me not to miss my cousin’s marriage in India, and after that to stay back and involve myself with the family business. Miller’s advice came in handy. I now tell all my staff members that they cannot perform well in office unless they have settled their family priorities. I received another equally powerful piece of advice. My grandfather always advised us that if ever we had to make a choice between business profits and business ethics, we must stick to ethics. This sometimes did not benefit our business during the pre-reforms days, but paid off handsomely later. Our partnership with Toyota is very fruitful because it is built on ethics and mutual trust.”

As told to K.R. Balasubramanyam

Dilip Chabbria
Dilip Chabbria
Dilip Chabbria, 54
Founder, DC Design

When you risk everything, you get courage to succeed

“With a large family business backing me up, I realised that I could build my passion for cars with the resources at my disposal. And one day, my ever-sosupportive family sat down for dinner and very bluntly discussed my business ventures. The way the conversation went didn’t make me very happy to say the least, but one statement shone more light on the matter at hand. It’s something that came from my parents and often, while teaching at the IIMs, I impart this advice to students. ‘When you allow yourself no choices and risk everything, the survival instinct in you will build up an obsessive passion. It’ll give you the courage to be successful.’ This has kept me going since 1993—15 years—in my business.”

As told to Anamika Butalia

Azim Premji
Azim Premji
Azim Premji, 63
Chairman, Wipro Technologies

Some of the brightest advice comes from our junior-most employees

It was standing-room only for the keynote speech by Wipro Chairman Azim Premji at the TiE Entreprenuerial Summit 2008. For good reason, too: Even though Wipro is majorityowned by the Premji(s), the business is very much like an entrepreneurial activity, with 100 profit-and-loss units and the leader of each given a free hand. Premji says that his own entrepreneurial spirit was kindled by his mother, Gulbanoo M.H. Premji, when he was beginning to transform Wipro from a struggling vegetable oil maker into a technology company. “Go against the grain and don’t be afraid to listen to advice from across management. Some of the brightest advice comes from our junior-most employees,” she said. When most of its peers stayed focussed on software services, Wipro entered the products business first and then expanded its domestic and Asia-Pacific operations. In the case of Premji, mother certainly knows best.

Rahul Sachitanand

Salvatore Ferragamo
Salvatore Ferragamo
Salvatore Ferragamo, 37
Owner and Manager, Il Borro Vineyards

If you keep at it, results will come

“I come from a very close knit family and the best advice I ever got came from my father, Ferruccio Ferragamo. I’ve always held him in high regards—the way he handles the business and the home front, too. He is very inspiring— not just as a father but as a competitive businessman. When I was beginning to enter the family business, as the head of Ferragamo, he said to me: ‘Perseverance pays. Do not give up, if you keep at it, results will come.’ That is a piece of advice that I cherish. If it wasn’t for his endurance, the business wouldn’t have reached these heights! As a family, we fight against hardships and work with dignity—and his advice is about continuing to grow in a healthy fashion. In fact, with the way business is working, we’ve grown from the mentor-protégé phase to far more friendly and enterprising business partners.”

As told to Anamika Butalia

Kalpana Morparia
Kalpana Morparia
Kalpana Morparia, 59
CEO, JPMorgan India

You are too young to give up your executive post

“The best advice I ever got was: ‘You are too young to give up your executive post.’ After I retired from the ICICI Group in 2007 as Joint Managing Director, there were a number of people within and outside the bank who kept advising me to come back in an executive post. It was a difficult decision as I had worked for 33 years with the group and was still engaged as Vice-Chair of the bank’s non banking subsidiaries in insurance, AMC and securities.

It was like leaving your mother’s home. But the executive role at JP Morgan Chase fitted well as it offers a huge opportunity to grow the business in India. We are not really impacted by the slowdown as we are really at a foundation stage.”

As told to Anand Adhikari

Sanjay Nayar
Sanjay Nayar
Sanjay Nayar, 48
Outgoing CEO, Citi South Asia

This is the best job you will ever do

“There are two pieces of advice which I count among the best I ever received: The first was from Victor Menezes, then Chairman of Citibank, who advised me to move back to Citi India in 2001, when I was comfortably settled in New York. To move from a developed, sophisticated capital market job and a place like New York to a promising emerging market, which India was then, was, indeed, a challenging idea. Victor outlined the advantages—in fact, his exact words to me, which now sound prophetic, were: ‘This is the best job you will ever do.’ The second advice I got in the mid-‘90s was from my father. Aware of my job in the UK and the US, which required active involvement in the capital markets, he advised me to be risk averse in managing my personal savings. I made investments largely in bonds and FDs and till today continue to do so... the returns from the debt markets in the US and fixed deposits in India have been more than satisfactory, giving me ample time to focus on my work.”

As told to Rachna Monga

Ashok Soota
Ashok Soota
Ashok Soota, 65
Chairman and Managing Director, MindTree Consulting

Be willing to pay a little extra for a worthwhile deal

As a 12-year-old student at the La Martiniere in Lucknow, Ashok Soota had a tendency to make impulsive and seemingly wasteful purchases. Noticing this, his father, Col. Ramlal Soota, an army doctor, told him one day: “Don’t waste money on a bargain purchase if you have no immediate use for it; instead, be willing to pay a little extra for a worthwhile deal.” Ashok Soota has used his father’s advice across both his business and personal life. MindTree has made four acquisitions to grow its business over the last few years, and every time he has heeded his father’s advice. “We have walked away from, perhaps, the same number of deals that we’ve agreed to, simply on pricing concerns,” says Soota.

Rahul Sachitanand

G. Madhavan Nair
G. Madhavan Nair
G. Madhavan Nair, 65
Chairman, ISRO; and Chairman, Space Commission

Share the credit for success, take responsibility for trouble

“In the late 1960s, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, with whom I had worked almost all my career, told me that when we handle major projects, we must involve in all our tasks even those who may be not rated as high performers but can contribute their best. This advice held me in good stead when I led major projects such as the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, the Liquid Propulsion System Centre and the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre. The result is evident from the success of Chandrayaan-1, too. He said if a project is successful, the leader must share the credit with all team members. If it runs into trouble, then the leader must take the responsibility.”

As told to K.R. Balasubramanyam

G.V. Prasad
G.V. Prasad
G.V. Prasad,48
Vice Chairman and CEO, Dr Reddy’

Always raise the bar

“My mother taught me to always raise the bar and never be content with the status quo. My father is a very detailoriented person, whereas my father-in-law, Dr Anji Reddy, is a big-picture person and a visionary. From him, I learned to look at the forest, and from my father, to look at the trees.

As told to E. Kumar Sharma

Aditya Puri
Aditya Puri
Aditya Puri, 58
 Managing Director, HDFC Bank

First know what you really want from life

“The best advice I ever got was from my grandfather. After a lot of thought, I had opted to study commerce even though my parents were unhappy with my choice— in those days, every boy wanted to be an engineer or a doctor or join the IAS. One day, my grandfather told me: ‘What you need to know first is what you really want from life.’ Those words made an enormous impact on my life. It set me thinking all over again about what I really wanted from life. I decided to stick to my decision. I firmly believe that if you let other people decide for you, you just cannot reach anywhere. I wanted to be happy. I didn’t want to be at the top of my profession. I wanted to be well-respected... a balanced life with time for my family. I started as a chartered accountant, moved to Citibank as CEO in Malaysia and came back to start a private sector bank from scratch.”

As told to Anand Adhikari

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw
Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw
Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, 55
Chairman and MD, Biocon

Failure is temporary, it’s giving up that’s permanent

Kiran Mazumdar had always wanted to be a doctor, but when she failed to make the grade at the medical college entrance exams, her father, R.I. Mazumdar, a master brewer with UB, told her: “Every failure opens up a new vista. Learn to fight failure with a spirit of challenge that will make you stronger.” Kiran decided to lean on her love for sciences, especially zoology and other biosciences, to become a brewmaster. But she discovered that Indian companies did not want a woman brewmaster. Her father said: “Remember failure is temporary, it’s giving up that’s permanent.” Kiran then put together a team of scientists and technicians and, persuaded by Leslie Auchincloss, of Biocon Biochemicals, Ireland, started a business in Bangalore in 1978. That company, which started off by extracting enzymes from papaya, has today grown into Biocon, India’s largest biotech firm. “I would not have started Biocon had I not failed to get a job in a brewery,” she says.

Rahul Sachitanand

Rashesh Shah
Rashesh Shah
Rashesh Shah, 44
CEO and Chairman, Edelweiss Capital

Make sure your employees are your partners

“In the early 1990s, when Venkat Ramaswamy and I were working with ICICI Bank, we often used to meet N.R. Narayana Murthy of Infosys, who was our client at the bank. Murthy would often talk about entrepreneurship. Once, he said: ‘Always make sure your employees are your partners.’ In 1995, when we started Edelweiss, we met him again and he said: ‘Make sure you are profitable, otherwise you will share other people’s dreams and not your own.“

As told to Rachna Monga

Capt G.R. Gopinath
Capt G.R. Gopinath
Capt G.R. Gopinath, 56
Vice Chairman, Kingfisher Airlines; Founder, Deccan Aviation

Have total shraddha

“My father, the late Ramaswamy Iyengar, repeatedly told me to have total shraddha (involvement, devotion) in whatever I do. That was the overarching philosophy, guiding thought. We were a lower-middle class family, but my father always showed me those who were less fortunate than us. After I left the Army in 1979, I faced many difficulties, including the refusal of banks to lend to me for my businesses. But I always immersed myself in action. Whatever I do, everything begins and ends in losing myself in action, not in despair, cynicism or frustration.”

As told to K.R. Balasubramanyam

William P. Lauder
William P. Lauder
William P. Lauder, 47
CEO, Estee Lauder

If anybody else gets control of your calendar, you are going to be a victim

“Most valuable advice? When I was a student at Wharton, I got an opportunity in 1982 to work with Donald Regan, Treasury Secretary under President Reagan. On the first day, I realised I was in a very high profile job at age 22. A former head of Merrill Lynch and an ex-Marine, Regan had a direct, and directive, style. Marching into a meeting two minutes early, he found I was slightly unprepared. He glared at his watch and then at me. ‘Lauder!’ he screamed. ‘If you’re not in control of your calendar, you’re not in control!’”

As told to Anusha Subramanian

Vinita Bali
Vinita Bali
Vinita Bali, 51
Managing Director, Britannia Industries

Don’t give unsolicited advice

“The best advice I ever got was from an aunt who said: ’Don’t give unsolicited advice to anyone, because they will ignore it anyway.’ I have learnt over the years that advice has selective traction—works best for those who are ready to receive and also do something with it.’’

As told to Rahul Sachitanand

Ashish Dhawan
Ashish Dhawan
Ashish Dhawan, 39
Senior MD, ChrysCapital Investment Advisors

The psychology of investing is often more important than the fundamentals of investing

“If there is one advice that I have imbibed over the years, then it is that it is important to have an independent mind when investing. The psychology of investing is often more important than the fundamentals of investing. It is important to be focussed on the basics and to be detached from what Warren Buffett calls Mr Market and not be affected by what the market rumours and speculation are. The investment in Shriram Transport is one where the advice was followed well. This was at a time when nonbanking finance companies were hardly in favour with either the banks or the regulator. Investment in publicly listed companies, too, was not popular. The investment had great value proposition, which others, too, saw at a later stage.”

As told to Shalini S. Dagar

Chetan Maini
Chetan Maini
Chetan Maini,38
Deputy Chairman & Chief Technical Officer, Reva Electric Car Company

Do what you really love doing, and nothing less than 200 per cent

“As a child, I always tinkered around with remote-controlled cars. It is this irresistible love for cars that led me to car-centric universities in the US (Michigan/Stanford), where I spent more time making solar and hybrid electric cars than studying. After completing college, I could have either joined our profitable family business of making automotive components, or taken up private job offers with huge salaries. But that was not where my heart lay. My father, Dr Sudarshan Maini, nurtured my ambitions when he said very clearly: ‘Do what you really love doing and nothing less than 200 per cent.’ I have always gone by this advice. My entire life work has never been work for me; instead, it has been a passion. This has led to starting Reva Electric Car Company.”

As told to K.R. Balasubramanyam

Harsh Goenka
Harsh Goenka
Harsh Goenka, 51
Chairman, RPG Group

You have no right to the fruit of your actions

“If I could single out one outstanding piece of advice, it would be one from the Gita: ‘… You have a right to your actions, but never to the fruits of your actions… Selfpossessed, resolute, act without any thought of results, of success or failure.’ When I first read it, I was a young executive and was in the midst of a fairly delicate business negotiation. I was determined to wrest control of the direction it was taking… Any other outcome was just not acceptable to me. This phrase struck a deep chord, and... I decided to use it for my current dilemma. Amazingly, the result exceeded my earlier expectations.”

As told to Suman Layak

Gautam Adani
Gautam Adani
Gautam Adani, 46
Executive Chairman, Adani Group

Trust your intuition

“The corporate credo of Adani Group is based on a piece of advice that even I do not know where it came from. ‘When everything gets really complicated and you feel overwhelmed, trust your intuition.’ There are times when we find that we are caught in a maze…. Our strategy is threepronged. First is survival, for which I often trust my intuition…. After getting out of this, we study why it happened and how we can avoid such a contingency or adversity when it does occur again. Third, we think out of the box for ideas that take us forward.”

As told to Anand Adhikari

B. Ramalinga Raju, 53
Chairman, Satyam Computer Services

If something takes three months to complete, ask yourself if it can be done in a week

“I was just back from the US in the late 1970s after completing my business administration and was in two minds on the way forward. I had all the enthusiasm and passion to do something… of being an entrepreneur. A friend told me about parttime teaching opportunity at the Administrative Staff College of India (ASCI). This really appealed to me. But, in late 1977, over dinner one night, my father (Byrraju Satyanarayana Raju) told me: ‘It is always important to stay focussed and to avoid distractions.’ I followed his advice and decided to stay focussed, giving up the option of part-time teaching. He also talked of an approach towards doing something. ‘If something takes three months to complete, ask yourself if it can be done in a week without compromising on the outcome or quality.’”

As told to E. Kumar Sharma

M. Rammohan Rao
M. Rammohan Rao
M. Rammohan Rao, 67
Dean, Indian School of Business

Be confident but not arrogant

“Late in 1969, as I was completing my thesis, I was talking to my teacher, W.W. Cooper, Professor of Accounting & Operations at Carnegie-Mellon then, about career options and why despite competence many people do not seem to make it. He told me: ‘Competence alone is not enough... one needs an ability to convince others and be confident without being arrogant.’ This advice helped me broaden my interests. My pet line to my students is that the dividing line between confidence and arrogance is very thin. You should appear to be confident, but not arrogant.”

As told to E. Kumar Sharma

Dr Devi Shetty
Dr Devi Shetty
Dr Devi Shetty, 54
Chairman, Narayana Health City, Bangalore

Hands that help are holier than lips that pray

“It was sometime in 1990 when I was working at BM Birla Heart Research Centre in Calcutta. Mother Teresa had had a heart attack, and I was the doctor attending to her. That was truly an interaction with the divine. With her, I could experience the feeling of seeing God in flesh and blood. The best advice that I ever got was from her. She said: Hands that help are holier than lips that pray. That left a great impact on me. Today, everything that we do at Narayana Hrudayalaya revolves around what she had said—helping the people. All our business models centre on just that. In India, there is this vast majority that either can’t pay or can pay only partially to access health care. That’s why we have packages that suit every pocket. Those who can’t pay get it free.”

As told to K.R. Balasubramanyam

G.V. Krishna Reddy
G.V. Krishna Reddy
G.V. Krishna Reddy, 71
Chairman, GVK Group

Cash in on opportunities at home

“I prefer working in an economy where there is a free environment. This led me to set up a facility in the US to manufacture laminated particle boards with operations in India in the mid ’80s. In 1990, M. Channa Reddy, the then Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, happened to visit the US for a kidney transplant operation. He invited NRIs to consider investing in his state and India, which was beginning to liberalise. He took a liking to me and told me to leverage the opportunities that India offered, particularly in the power sector. I studied the developments in India and after talking to some of my friends finally decided to come back and enter the power sector. We set up the first independent power plant (IPP) in the country, which became operational in 1997. Around that time, K.V. Kamath, Managing Director and CEO, ICICI Bank, who has been my friend for 35 years, advised me that this was the time to get into other areas of the infrastructure sector in India. I took his advice and have acted accordingly!”

As told to E. Kumar Sharma

S. Sivakumar
S. Sivakumar
S. Sivakumar, 48
Chief Executive (Agri Businesses Division), ITC

Reinvent the wheel

“In 1998, the topline of ITC’s decade-old agri-commodity export business was smaller than the bottom line of the company, and its risk-return profile did not fit ITC’s portfolio. My recommendation as the head of that business was either to invest large sums into processing and logistics infrastructure to take it to a different plane, or to sell the business to a global agri major. In a day-long conversation with Y.C. Deveshwar, Chairman, ITC, I was pushing my view when he advised reinvention. He said commodity trading may not fit into ITC’s portfolio, but a reinvented agri-business could. He challenged me to change the rules of the game. He invoked my personal aspiration to make a difference to rural India—and eChoupal was born. The advice helped me and my team to rework the agricultural supply chain by integrating digital technologies and co-opting social capital…. Today, eChoupals cover 40,000 villages and benefit four million farmers across 10 states.”