M K M Pillai cooks up a profitable business in supplying meals to offices.
It is ambition and innovation that turn opportunities into success stories. M. K. M. Pillai knows this only too well. He was just 25 when a strike crippled the catering services of the factory near Vadodara where he worked. Encouraged by his mentor, Pillai stepped in to take over the contract to provide meals for the 2,800-strong workforce. And thus began his journey as an entrepreneur in 1984.
Today he heads his own catering company, Noidabased PYX Industrial Caterers, which provides meals to more than 8,000 employees of corporates such as Airtel, Birlasoft, GlobalLogic and Tech Mahindra. “With more and more companies willing to go that extra mile to retain employees, providing basic amenities like good food has become an important issue with most of them, and a boon for me,” says Pillai.
Wasn’t catering an unusual profession to choose in the 1970s? “Oh yes, it was,” he says, “But it was easy to get into a catering institute and it was a good way to get a job in the merchant navy which paid handsome salaries.” From a desire to travel to starting his own enterprise, Pillai has certainly had an interesting professional journey.
While doing his specialisation in food and beverages and working part-time at a three-star hotel, he was offered a job at cigarette manufacturer, GTC Industries located at Sayajipura, as catering incharge. Quite a few people dissuaded him from joining, since there was little scope in industrial catering whereas his prospects would certainly be much better in the hospitality sector. But the thought of earning a four-figure salary was a big temptation for the young Pillai and he agreed to take up the job. “Back then in 1982, a salary of Rs 1,000-plus was a princely sum.”
Little did he know that two years later a strike at the factory would force a drastic change in his career. By the time the situation was brought under control, the canteen contractor had left. It was then that Sudhir Shukla, the personnel manager at GTC, asked Pillai to take over the contract.
Wasn’t he worried about such a huge responsibility? “Not really”, he says, “When you are 25 you like challenges. You think you’re invincible; you have a goal and the thought of failure does not even cross your mind.” Of course, financially there wasn’t much risk involved since he was unmarried and also continued to draw a salary while retaining his job as catering in-charge at GTC.
His new responsibilities were a good training for his future course of action. One of the things he learnt was not to be fazed by problems. “No matter how big the roadblock, you can always find a way around it. All you need to do is take a slight detour,” he says. And it is Pillai’s ability to innovate that has pulled him out of some tight situations.
His second big contract came from ONGC at Vadodara. It was a lucrative contract, but the biggest obstacle was lack of finances. With a bank balance of merely Rs 90,000 out of which he had to pay Rs 50,000 as earnest money to ONGC, he hardly had any funds left to buy basic grocery items for the kitchen. His years at GTC helped him out, since the suppliers trusted him and were willing to provide him with the provisions on credit. As for his employees, they were willing to take the risk and go without salaries for a month and a half. His mentor, Shukla, too stood by him and provided him with funds whenever he needed, no questions asked. “I could walk up to Mr Shukla and ask for whatever amount I wanted and he didn’t hesitate even once. He believed in me and I’m glad that I’ve proved myself to him,” says Pillai.
Pillai’s innovative abilities were stretched to the limit when he came across a unique problem at ONGC. The employees lived within the premises and brought food from home. They had no interest in using the canteen coupons provided by the company. Since Pillai would only get paid on the basis of the coupons that he received, the contract seemed to be a total loss. But Pillai didn’t think about getting out of it. Instead he began to sift through various options.
His solution was simple and profitable. He began to stock up on biscuits, jams and ketchups. “People began exchanging their coupons for these products which they also found easy to carry home. Once they began visiting the canteen more often, they began sampling the food too. I finally had a business turning out a profit.”
His mentor joined the Escorts Yamaha manufacturing unit in Faridabad and faced major problems with the workforce. The employees’ main grouse was the quality of food that the organisation provided. Shukla asked Pillai for help. Pillai decided to open a catering unit in Noida and took up the contract for the canteen at Yamaha. Within a fortnight the complaints had dwindled to zero.
Soon he began taking up contracts at other firms. “Coming to Noida made me aware of the potential in the software firms and call centres which work 24X7, which means you provide all three meals. It’s tougher no doubt, but also highly profitable,” he says.
Pillai is now negotiating with three more organisations and is girding up to increase the capacity of his kitchens to provide more than 11,000 meals a day. For someone who was impressed with a “princely” sum of Rs 1,000 as salary, it’s a major achievement to be able to provide higher salaries to his own employees.