Young & Restless

Claris Lifesciencesí Arjun Handa, the youngest visitor to Zen Garden, says, in the absence of experience, one can still learn through introspection

Published: Jul 5, 2010 06:58:05 AM IST
Updated: Oct 3, 2011 04:52:57 PM IST
Young & Restless
Image: Dinesh Krishnan
Arjun Handa, MD & CEO, Claris Lifesciences

Name: Arjun Handa
Profile: MD & CEO, Claris Lifesciences
He says: Frustration in dealing with people is a very dangerous quality to have. If you are ambitious, you need to have the art of dealing with people.
When the right deal comes along, you need to listen to your gut. And the gut is trainable. 

You probably do not know him.  That is because the man has not been around for that long. At all of 31, he is my youngest visitor ever to the Zen Garden. His grandfather, a Punjabi migrant, came to Ahmedabad in search of work and started life as a worker in a textile mill. His father studied costing and after getting recruited by a young, Gujarati, IIM Ahmedabad alumnus, ended up marrying her. That is how Arjun Handa inherited the best of two great lineages: One strong, ambitious and expansive and risk taking; the other, soft, creative, introspective and emotional.

“For as long as I can remember,” says Arjun, “my father has been trying his hand at things; he has always been an entrepreneur. In 1984, my father and uncle started a pharmaceutical business called Core Healthcare. The company did not do well. It took on a lot of debt and dad and uncle had to sell off the company and they had to split. It left behind a lot of emotional toxicity. Later, dad started Claris. But it remained small and low profile with its own share of struggles.”

After finishing school, Arjun went on to study commerce. After finishing college at 21, he joined Claris as a director. That was exactly 10 years ago. Claris had 45 employees and a turnover of Rs. 35 crore. Arjun worked hard, really hard — sometimes three consecutive shifts to understand how quality could vary when shifts changed. In the injectables business, quality is a matter of life and death. Then one day, he decided to go to Northeastern University in USA to do his MBA. In 2004 he returned, and from then on the real story of Claris starts.

“I focussed on new product development. I had to ramp up people, invest in training, set up clear-cut processes and so on. New product development was my first technical department in Claris and even today, it is the biggest growth driver for Claris. After that, I became the COO and went on to sales. I travelled from Sudan to Sri Lanka, to Africa, US, Europe and understood sales thoroughly and then took it over in totality. Between me and my brother Aditya, we really took over the company. He was the CFO and I was the COO. Growth was our top priority. In 2008, Aditya decided to start his own renewable energy company. Dad moved on and I took on the reins.”

Claris flourished. In the year ending December 2009, sales touched Rs. 759 crore with profits of Rs. 124 crore and its injectable products — from anaesthesia to blood, nutrition to anti-infectives — got to 78 countries, making it a dominant player in the business. But Arjun Handa’s coup was the day he bagged a deal with Pfizer through which his products would now be branded and sold by Pfizer worldwide.

I want to know from him what goes into building the capacity to cut such deals.

“Two things clearly come to my mind. For one, I have always wondered why companies like Glaxo can sell something at $100, whereas I could sell it at only $3. I was curious about these large companies and I used to go and meet people in these companies. I was in touch with these industry leaders and constantly analysing their business strategies. I would read every analyst report and listen in to their quarterly earning calls. Because of this, I came to understand them and could even make out what they were thinking.

“The second learning is about the deal making process itself. When the right deal comes along, you need to listen to your gut. There are inherent apprehensions in any deal. Answers to questions like ‘Should I do it or not, is it worth doing, what would happen next’, are all about the gut. I have come to believe that the gut is trainable. In making critical choices, you need an emotional evocation.”

Hmmm. Very wise. My mind shifts to another question. Here is a man who studied commerce; I wonder how he is able to herd the geeks and the nerds in a science-intensive business.

“Geeks are motivated by things that might not be entirely conducive to business. So one has to play a balancing role; one needs to navigate them towards the fact that only certain ideas can be invested in. It does sometimes cause consternation in people but I learnt early in life that frustration in dealing with people is a very dangerous quality to have.”

Okay, that makes sense. But I wonder how does he know so much? Where is his reflective space and how does he stay above moments of self-doubt that must come with the size of his responsibilities?
“Sometime back, I started the practice of a reading holiday. I get away to an unusual new place for a few days, all by myself and just read there. Nothing else, just read. I took a book and spent a few days in Paris sitting by a roadside café and reading. Another time, I went off to Macau. I am not caught by the touristic attraction of such places. It is amazing how the mind quiets down, how from that silence, unusual new thoughts, ideas and directions take shape. Now I have decided to do it twice a year.”

And what about the balance?

“When you are an ambitious person, but are at an age when you have not seen life enough, you get things thrown at you without your knowing how to respond to them. I learnt that it is important for you to have scale to be able to absorb these issues without your business and your life being adversely affected by them. I also learnt that one can grow and learn through introspection also. It is a faster and surer way to grow if you think right.

“To balance life and perform consistently and sustainably, you need to do what you like, you need to do it right, and you need to understand the inherent contradictions of life and build excellence regardless. Given the dynamic changing world and India today, it is very easy for a person to go into the wrong direction.”

It is time to go. I look into the soft, determined eyes. Like Arjun’s in the Mahabharata, his seem set on the right thing.

Subroto Bagchi is co-founder & gardener, MindTree and a best-selling author. His brief:  Every fortnight, exchange tales of the road with successful entrepreneurs

(This story appears in the 16 July, 2010 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Harish Assudani

    Excellent coverage of what COO of a company thinks and what is his pastime. 90% of young generation uses their free time ruthlessly wasting in chatting, gizmo discussion and so on.

    on Aug 21, 2010
  • Vijay. M

    Great Interview! I hope Arjun reaches much higher peaks and becomes a role model for everyone!

    on Aug 6, 2010
  • Raj

    Interesting one Mr. Bagchi. Its interesting to note how those who havent read science "navigate" or dictate (putting it bluntly!) the scientists. I think scientists should learn from this and realise that science is just a means to an end and not an end by itself. Let passion not become indulgence and lead to someone (boss) dictating terms.

    on Jul 7, 2010
  • Hari

    Wonderful.. Keep it up

    on Jul 6, 2010
  • ajay naik

    Do you know that Handa's father was bankrupt and his company Core Labs closed down with many dues to various banks? A publication like you must check past history. I strongly condemn your story.

    on Jul 5, 2010
    • Prasad

      Hi Ajay, Whats their to condemn. Is it a crime to have a father who ventured into some business which didn't do well? Do you think a Criminal's child should never be successful business person? In fact at this age Arjun should be complimented for his achievement . I liked the idea of reading holiday . Good to know people who teach us so many different things. Zen is a way of life. Zen garden has many fruits to offer to better our lives constantly. Thanks Gardener.

      on Jul 9, 2010
      • Lubna

        Thank you, Prasad. I agree with your perspective. Further, I may be wrong, but I think Core Labs, which Ajay Naik has mentioned is different from Core Health Care. I did a quick google search and realise that Core Labs, is a US company has filed for bankruptcy. Whereas Arjun Handa states that Core HealthCare, an Indian company, did not do well and was sold. Perhaps all debts were cleared through the sale. But as you say, an entrepreneur takes risks and learns from these risks. I am sure the difficulties and challenges which the father faced, taught the son a lot.

        on Jul 9, 2010
      • Nishith

        Dear Mr.Prasad There is a lot of truth in what Mr.Naik says.One of my classmates was an employee of Core Health .In the early 90's this co.was the darling of punters in the stock market.Core used to give out bonus share every 2nd year.Slowly the promoters siphoned off all the money from the co.as well as reduced their holdings in the co. as more and more investors were lured in to investing in the co. As usual ICICI Bank was one of the biggest investor in Core's equity(ICICI repeated this mistake in case of Subhiksha). Also an alleged inside story is that a few of the ICICI Bank's senior manager made a packet for themselves in the process. One fine day Core Health collapsed in the mid 90's. How a co.which was coming up with excellent set of results year after year suddenly collapse financially. Even I did not bother to check as I had not invested in this share. But at least the regulators should have checked.Nobody did as I think our economic liberalisation was still at a v.nascent stage. The moral of the story is if one is caught - one lands up in jail (ie.Raju of Satyam). One who escapes rebuilds the empire based on the recycled money from their Swiss banks accounts and reappear in the media as management savvy entrepreneurs. Today both the Handa brothers are well settled. One runs a Co.called Core Packaging the elder brother owns Claris Health Sciences.Both are privately held companies.

        on Aug 2, 2010
  • Amit R Verma

    I wonder how you find such off-the-track people for the Zen garden. Nice read, as always.

    on Jul 5, 2010
  • Pritam Bhandari

    As always, enjoyable and inspiring. Thanks, Pritam

    on Jul 5, 2010