How Aditya Birla Capital got a headstart on the lockdown

The company started its contingency plan for the pandemic way back in February. Chief Executive Ajay Srinivasan writes about how they got the early start, and the difference it made to business in part 1 of a series on business continuity

Updated: Aug 6, 2020 08:27:48 PM UTC
Image: Vikas Khot

From the time COVID-19 struck China, Aditya Birla Capital Limited (ABCL) was closely monitoring the situation. The first case in India happened sometime around the end of January 2020, which caught the company’s attention and it started its contingency planning to deal with COVID-19 in the first week of February.

Based on the happenings in China, ABCL’s Risk Teams activated its functions and reviewed their Business Continuity Plans (BCP). As part of this exercise, the risk teams asked every business to map their processes, basis their criticality, and prepare a BCP for the most critical ones.

In the third week of February, I travelled to New York to meet investors. As I interacted with people there, it became clear that businesses in many places were planning for a lockdown. I immediately wrote to ABCL’s Senior Management Team from New York, asking them to scale up the company’s BCP to prepare for a complete shutdown.

This ask was a big one because the BCP was not designed to work under the assumption that offices would be completely shut and the entire country would go for a lockdown. All the functions across ABCL had to then upgrade their BCP to assume that their offices would be shut completely, and business would have to operate from home.

ABCL’s Risk, IT & Operations teams went into overdrive.

The IT Team started looking at tech requirements. The team ensured that all the critical functions had access to the core systems for transacting or processing cases, while working at home.

The IT team rented over 700 laptops within three days, and started configuring those for employees, who used desktops in office.

Along with this, virtual desktop solutions were set up for all core operating teams. This enabled employees to virtually and securely access office network and core systems. VPN licenses were increased from 3,000 to 10,000. All call centres were moved to the cloud.

Simultaneously, a BCP from a people standpoint was also developed by the HR team, which included identifying 800 'Flu Prevention Managers' across all offices. Their role was to check in daily with each employee and report whether they and their families were safe and COVID-free. These managers were also empowered to send people home if they were displaying flu-like symptoms and take decisions to shut down a branch in case of an emergency.

Separately, a health document containing precautionary measures and steps taken across the organisation was created and circulated among employees. An advisory was issued for work, travel, events/meetings and visitors, keeping in view health and safety of all employees.

By the second week of March, the WHO declared Covid-19 as a pandemic. This created a significant amount of volatility across markets and a lot of panic. A lockdown seemed imminent. In response, ABCL’s marketing teams started reaching out to all customers and distributors to tell them that all communication lines would be open, in the event that offices were closed. The sales teams started planning on how to acquire customers digitally and stay connected with distributors and channel partners.

Well before the lockdown was announced, ABCL and its subsidiaries had scaled up their BCP and started testing work from home for core functions. While putting the IT and other infrastructure in place is one thing, ensuring that it works is quite another.  I anchored a meeting with senior management to discuss whether this would work well at all.

It was decided that we would test it in parts; to start off by getting 20 percent of the critical functions to work from home. The learnings were then used to scale up to test for 50 percent, and then 70 percent, and finally 100 percent of our staff was working from home. All this testing was done within a week. There were a few hiccups in the initial phases but for the most part, the company managed to keep its functions going. Thus, by the time the lockdown was announced, ABCL and its subsidiaries were largely working from home.

For instance, in ABCL’s securities business, the desktops used by dealers were shifted to their homes, while also ensuring that all information security protocols were retained on their home networks. This helped them ensure that customers could continue trading without any disruptions. The company tested whether their dealers could execute trades securely using their phones too.

At ABCL’s health insurance business, we tested whether critical processes such as claims could operate seamlessly from home, so that their customers in hospitals wouldn’t have a problem getting their cashless claims processed. For life insurance and AMC businesses, processes to check if policies could be underwritten from home, and if the fund managers could seamlessly monitor the markets and place their orders. The AMC business tested if its SIPs could be digitally issued and redeemed, without creating any inconvenience for the customers.

ABCL’s first learning from this phase was that while one must hope for the best, hope by itself can never be a strategy. When I look back, I think that the early start ABCL got on this helped us test and upgrade our BCP and prepare for a full pandemic before the lockdown. Starting early made all the difference.

The second learning was that people are capable of doing anything once pushed to the precipice. The amount of collaboration and speed ABCL witnessed during this time, was just fantastic.

How did ABCL's businesses fare through the lockdown? Find out in Part 2 of the series, out next week

The writer is Chief Executive of Aditya Birla Capital

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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  • Akash Jain

    Being a newcomer here, I feel they\'re fully prepared for a long haul even if pandemic were to last very long

    on Aug 16, 2020
  • Srinivas kasaraneni

    Very nice imagination about future. Leader must see and change the the hole setup behind is awesome. We are proud to have a leader like Sri. Ajay sir. Thanks for making us ready to face thx situation.

    on Aug 16, 2020
  • Rasendra D. Desai

    While doing payment of Insurance premium online by credit card or through bank outing the date of birth Is not very user friendly it should be improved . Also the premium received is not reflected in our policy and the company is showing as default and writing letters of cancelling the policy

    on Aug 16, 2020
  • Mallavelli seshubabu

    true sir..the greatest lesson learned by this extraordinary conditions how we have to overcome...regards.

    on Aug 16, 2020