Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

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.)