From their favourite films to silent fears, India Inc’s brightest minds revealed much at the fourth edition of the Forbes India Leadership Awards (FILA) in Mumbai on Tuesday evening. Business honchos exhibiting candour is rare, but at FILA 2014, top entrepreneurs, bankers and chief executives of companies let their guards down.
FILA’s nine awardees hail from different sectors of the industry, but have faced (and overcome) similar challenges — wrong strategies, fear of rejection by customers, social dogmas, apprehensions of failing a new client base, problems of scaling up, keeping personal and institutional independence aligned, and even something as nerve-wrecking as a terrorist attack. What unites them is their perseverance.
For Naveen Tewari, whose InMobi won Outstanding Startup, the highs haven’t come without deep lows. InMobi started in 2007 as an SMS-based search platform, and then changed its business model. Today, it is the number one independent mobile advertising company tapping into 800 million mobile users every month in 165 countries. Its 2013 revenues stood at $200 million. For a company that eyes 100-200 percent growth every year, the challenge lies in giving up ideas as quickly as possible if they don’t have the potential to be billion-dollar-businesses in two years.
“In the mobile internet world, we look at the opportunity at a very different scale and pace. Therefore, the failure for us is a lot more about giving up small opportunities for the larger ones. We hope that we fail more often because that’s when we will look at larger opportunities,” said Tewari, who was accompanied by his wife and InMobi co-founders Abhay Singhal, Amit Gupta and Mohit Saxena. The young promoter is not very fond of wearing formal suits but made an exception for FILA. “It also feels a little different because we have been forced to wear a suit for the first time. But it’s all right,” he said, on a lighter note.
For Shriram Transport Finance, which won the Conscious Capitalist award, the challenge has been to rise above social dogmas and lend capital to a community of people who are doing great service to the society, but are not adequately financed. “There was a lack of financing opportunities for those entrepreneurs who have no access to formal financial system. They couldn’t even get into a bank because the doorman would not allow them in, and those were the people we were able to help to build a sustainable business,” said Arun Duggal, chairman, Shriram Transport Finance Company.
Simplicity seems to be hallmark of the bespectacled Chandra Shekhar Ghosh, founder, chairman and managing director of Bandhan Financial Services. Clad in a sea-green shirt and brown trousers, the unassuming Ghosh received the loudest applause when he went on stage to receive the Entrepreneur with Social Impact award. At Bandhan, he has managed to create a source of living for India's underprivileged, and is now looking to bring over 58 lakh unbanked customers under the banking purview.
“In my 13-year journey, I have not forgotten my roots. So, even when we become a bank, I will stick to my roots. Along with them [13,000 employees], I would like to serve other people who are still not introduced to banking services and are unbanked in this country,” Ghosh said.
FILA 2014 was not just about awarding people. There was a fair bit of brain-picking too. Harsh Mariwala, chairman, Marico, initiated an interesting three-minute Oxford-style debate on the topic: ‘Jugaad is innovation’. Novartis India country president Ranjit Shahani spoke against the motion, while Pawan Goenka, executive director and president – automotive and farm equipment sectors, Mahindra & Mahindra, spoke otherwise. Goenka said, “Jugaad is the concept of making the best in all limitations.” Seventy percent of the house agreed with him.
For Arup Roy Choudhury, chairman and managing director, NTPC, keeping a track of the end goal and not getting wavered along the way is the success mantra. Roy Choudhury won Best CEO – Public Sector for shaking NTPC out of its complacency and increasing its power-generating capacity from 1,000 to 3,000 MW annually, in less than five years — the fastest ever in the history of India. Roy Choudhury, who came with a convoy of about eight people including one uniformed guard, believes there is no difference when it comes to working for a private firm or a public sector undertaking. "In the public sector, you are not working for one lala [bureaucrat], but many lalas,” he said, adding that as long as one is clear that one is working for a lala, and is answerable to him, a company will grow.
For film buff Shikha Sharma, who heads Axis Bank, Casablanca has been most inspirational. Sharma won Best CEO –Private Sector and revealed that she manages to remain “a romantic at heart in the hard world of business”. She also called Casablanca the “ultimate romance”.
Keita Muramatsu, president and chief executive, Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India, was declared the Best CEO – MNC. He said that gaining customer satisfaction would be Honda’s ticket to success in India’s competitive auto market. “Our drive is to improve customer satisfaction and make them choose our product against competition,” he said.
The evening’s second Oxford-style debate moderated by Mariwala saw speakers assess the need for an exit policy for company managements. Anil Singhvi, chairman of Ican Investment Advisors, spoke for the motion, while Bobby Parikh, chief mentor and partner at BMR Advisors, said exit policies are already in place and need to be enforced rather than new legislations created. Sixty-eight percent of the house agreed with Singhvi on this.
The new darling of private equity investors, Yogesh Mahansaria (founder and chief executive, Alliance Tire Group) was NextGen Entrepreneur for the Year, for having scaled up a niche, B2B business worldwide. Mahansari has also been successful in getting on board blue chip investors like Warburg Pincus and KKR. On being asked if he would like to change anything about PE investors, he said he has only benefitted from them in terms of gaining a global vision, increasing execution capabilities and building strategic partnerships.
While most promoters grapple with business strategies going haywire and markets turning kaput, Prithvi Raj Singh 'Biki' Oberoi, executive chairman, EIH, the flagship company of The Oberoi Group, faced something almost shocking. His hotel, the Oberoi Trident in Mumbai, was the target of a devastating terror attack in 2008. “When I went to see [the hotel] after the attack, I was horrified. We didn’t show the building to anybody outside because it was such a disaster,” the octogenarian recalled, adding that till a month after 26/11, they didn’t know how to begin the rebuilding and renovation. The iconic hotelier, FILA 2014’s Lifetime Achievement awardee, received the sole standing ovation of the evening.
The last (but in no way the least) award went to Dilip Shanghvi, managing director, Sun Pharmaceuticals. He was anointed Entrepreneur for the Year. The soft-spoken Shanghvi asserted that he isn’t preoccupied with being the number one pharma company in the world. “If becoming number one helps us manage our future better, we will do it,” he said. Shanghvi, who’s India’s second-richest man, remembered his father. “He used to say that if you make more money, you will become a richer person, but not a better person. Try to be a better person,” he said. And that, in no small measure, became the perfect note to end the evening on.