Sunday, March 6, 2022

Kutty, which means "kid" in Malayalam, but here it means "eminent"


By a few twists of my career path and through a friend in Chennai, I became appointed as the Director of the Malaysian subsidiary of a UK shipping company headquartered in Dubai. I have heard of the name "Kutty" in several conversations with my friends in Chennai and Bangalore; all of whom have once worked with Mr Kutty, the owner of the shipping company.

The galore of praise for this Mr Kutty accompanies most of our conversations and I had always wondered why most of them left the company despite the praises.

I learned later about the underlying story of one such "patriot" who used money from the company to pay someone else's debt and was shown the door out "gracefully." The others must have left for various other reasons. In any case, it was quite evident from the beginning that this "kutty" was not a "kid" and was nothing small.

As the game unfolded

My urge to meet Mr Kutty was enhanced as some "invisible" hands within the company keeps pushing that opportunity away. Probably, these were people who either did not like my appointment as Director or those who felt threatened by it. 

Considering that I was being entrusted to be the front face of the company in Malaysia, it was absurd that I continue holding the seat without seeing the owner on whose behalf the responsibility was being held. There was an unusual term called "statutory Director" being used by the people who described me and I thought that meant "puppet acting as Director to fulfil the Registrar of Companies requirement."

As time went by, it was quite clear that the people within the local management merely wanted a signatory who would get the visa for them to work in Malaysia and who would take the "statutory blame" if something went wrong. That was all they wanted from this newly appointed "statutory Director". Now, that irked me. I was not looking for a full-time job, but was not ready for a part-time "acting" job either! 

With the mindset of without further ado, I called upon my connection in the system and made it clear that I need to see the owner and get my "script" if I were to continue performing this "acting" job ... and the meeting was hesitantly arranged. We met in Singapore. Lo and behold, this "kutty" was a 6-feet tall eminent personality with a distinguished character. There were no further decorative words required for me to understand that he is a brand by himself.

The meeting

For the meeting, I had 2 outcomes in mind. One, if the chemistry was right, I wanted to go deeper into the game; or two, if the tone felt "grey" I should be out of the game. There was no in-between-the-lines game plan.

TVN Kutty with Ravindran Raghavan

The introducers planted many pearls of fear in describing this person as one who "would look for your weakness and ask questions that you cannot answer ... and that would make you feel small (and useless?)" Given that backdrop to the stage, my "protective shields" were engaged while I decided to take it with a "cross the bridge when you get there" attitude since I have never met him before. It was difficult to pre-judge and create an impression.

By the first 15 minutes into the conversation, I could make out that my grasp of the universe is like scratching the surface when compared to his depth of view. So, there was no need for him to ask a question and make me feel small, I already felt small without that effort!! I knew Malaysia well enough to pitch at the same level, but he had the competency for the whole globe. I enjoyed the chat very much as it took a smooth journey through what I knew and what he wanted to know.

Where do we go next?

Ironically, despite knowing that my "business competencies" were far behind his, I felt at home talking to him. It was as if I have known him earlier and there was a feeling of trust that I cannot define. I am a person who starts with "distrust" and works my way into the trust space as the relationship develops. I do not trust someone in the first meeting. But in this instance there was an element of trust that developed right away, we went into talking about the potential to form a joint-shareholding company in Malaysia.

The meeting ended with a tentative schedule to meet him in Chennai with an action plan about the new company.

A small storm

The day before my flight to Chennai, I received a call from my friend saying that he has just tendered his resignation from the company. This is the friend who initiated my entry into the company as "statutory Director." He was also one of the first employees of the company and the right-hand man of Mr Kutty when the company first started in Dubai. Wow, that was patriotic history and his sudden exit was a storm I did not anticipate.

His advice to me was to decline the joint-company formation and leave the company. That felt more like a knee-jerk response to me and did not feel right at that time. With some unanswered questions playing in my mind, I continued with my travel, landed in Chennai around midnight, checked in to Harrison Hotel at Nungambakkam and had my breakfast the next morning with mixed feelings about the adventure that was unfolding. Nevertheless, my auto-rickshaw ride took me to the apartment where I was meant to have the meeting. 

This time the meeting was more casual though I had a colour document with a summary of my proposed action plan printed on high-grade off-white 100gsm glossy paper. He went through the narrations while clarifying a few points but his mannerism showed heavy inertia in taking that "controversial" step of forming a joint venture company. I could make out that he was no longer motivated to go ahead with the plan. It could be the cloud formed by my friend's sudden resignation or some other events that changed his perspective of the plan.

I continued with the company and gradually my participation increased in the later years, I was an active Director participating in the day to day business, property purchases, and discussions on expansion plans. We had the US$85 million "Logistics Masterplan" blueprint that was created with the help of Frost & Sullivan, vetted by Price Waterhouse, and presented to the Economic Department of Singapore after I wrote an email to Mr Lee Kuan Yew. That "aircraft" remained on the runway without ever taking off as the financial crisis in the Middle East hampered free cash flow and the decision was to hold the horses.

We came a long way since then, with many ups and downs along the way.

The stubborn streak

Remember I said earlier that "he would look for your weakness and ask questions that you cannot answer ... and that would make you feel small"? This is not an overstatement, it was real. 

He operates in the future. Each day, he anticipates the problem appearing on the horizon and sets a solution. So when the problem arrives at the doorstep, he would have already had a solution. When things are quiet his famous statement was "everything seems calm, something is wrong!". When the sea is calm he anticipates the storm that we cannot see. This was not an easy strategy for me to capture or copy. Being unable to copy that strategy could have been a blessing in disguise as otherwise, I would always be in a problem-solving mode instead of grasping the joy of the day.

The human brain is said to have 100 billion CPU cores with the capability of running at 1,000 GHz; while actually clocking an average of only 600 GHz on a normal day. His neural networks must have been running closer to 1,000 GHz most of the time. 

In hindsight, due to his "living in the future" with a "high definition eye for detail" and "1,000 GHz CPU," he notices gaps in proposals, calculations and analysis very quickly. It is a very common outcome where a Commercial Manager prepares a detailed analysis and summarises the proposed action plan, just to be shot down by him in the first 90 seconds. The fatalistic part of this reaction is the Commercial Manager would become a Persian cat and starts to say "meow, meow, meow" without further counterargument.

In my personal experience, around 2008, a request came from our HR Department in Dubai asking for a self-appraisal. The message said, "the company wants to hear your perspective". I spent a good deal of time writing my self-appraisal detailed into different parts of my job scope and in addition, wrote a voluntary appraisal about the company. I remember, my synonymous line "IAL's size is like a Nair Tea Corporation, but our processes are still at the Nair Tea Company level" because "Nair is the one who takes all decisions and initiates action with no self-propelling Managers". Nothing came out of it. I was told later that the paper was not read nor discussed. Maybe the analysis was not deep enough 😊 

Commonly, he would stop absorbing once he finds the first gap in a presentation. In my perspective, if he had allowed a listening ear to the rest of the story while noting the gap to be resolved later, he may have been a more powerful mentor and there would have been fewer Persian cat moments among the key staff. Think about it - the cat has nothing to lose as it is paid a salary to purr, scratch and dream! 

The eminence in the name

Considering the yin-and-yang of his character, he built a brand around him without too much propaganda on social media or news.  His actions spoke for themselves when the company did well and his processes kept a tight lid on the visibility of numbers within the business. Back in 1996, being among the early company to adopt IBM Lotus Notes and coding 167 business applications, it must have been way ahead of the pack in the industry. 

As he approached "retirement" from business and kicked off the "launch" of his personal passions, I was fortunate to be part of the transition. He does not spend time socialising in the business circles or attending "committee meetings" on the political playing field, but it was a common sight to see people trying to see him and get a glimpse of the "eminent" man named "Kutty." 

I still enjoy the rare occasions when I get to sit with him and have coffee under the mango tree in Tiruvairanikulam at his riverside mansion. The conversations still have the magical charm that is hard to explain unless you experience it.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Further journeys through the salt fields of Kutch (Vijay Hariyani) 1985-2010

Kite Beach, Dubai was filled with people enjoying the cool weather while cycling, running, swimming or otherwise, having breakfast while feeling the breeze on our hair. Rahul picked me up from Novotel WTC and we got to Laola which was rated as the "best each facing cafe" by him, but that day's "low-speed service with expensive coffee in cheap paper cups" did not go well with his (and my) reviews of the place! They can do better. 

Laola cafe at Kite Beach

Vijay Hariyani was prudent. He said, "enjoy the scenery and good weather ... small glitch with the service is fine". His engaging conversation of the day took me through a whirlwind of history and I "walked with him on the salt fiends and yesteryears" as I became absorbed in the way he narrated the little stories that connected to each other. It was like small dots that connect to make a big picture ... and I forgot about the annoyance I had when I got my coffee in the paper cups ... Rahul and I ordered another coffee 😊

Vijay's walks on the salt fields from 1985 to 2010 have deep experience and excellent stories right from the point of action. I did not get absorbed by chance, the depth of the story is like watching an Amitabh Bachchan movie with twists that make you want to know more ...  though Rahul may have had a hard time hiding his yawns after having seen the "movie" several times 😉

It turns out that the Maharaja of Kutch, in ancient times, had a close relationship with the palace of Yemen. His frequent trips to Aden and friendship with a businessman from Mumbai gave birth to the idea of setting up salt harvesting in Kutch. His Cowasji Dinshaw* (a Parisi businessman with vast business interests including a large salt field in Aden) encouraged and supported the Maharaja's efforts to set up the first salt field under the name "United Salt Works" in Kandla on the Maharaja's own plot of land. After the independence of India, this land was taken over by the government as part of the nationalisation policy where the royal house had to hand over its powers to the democratic government.

*Cowasji was so well connected in Aden that he was called Adenwala in Mumbai.

The salt fields were run as a business with a Parsi gentleman (let's call him Farzan for the sake of this story) from Bombay, assuming that royalty must have been paid to the Maharaja. The salt fields did well and flourished, but over time yield dwindled and it went into deep financial trouble. While the fields were in trouble waters, workers were unpaid, machinery was left idle and probably a host of vendors had unpaid dues too.

Vijay's connection to this field came when he was invited by Farzan to assist in rescuing the situation by finding a way to generate cash and revamp the operations. Considering the depth of the problem, Vijay who was on his way to retirement, took this assignment as a problem-solving challenge rather than one where business can be restored. 

On the sidelines, as Vijay sat with Farzan to review the "action plan", one vendor appeared and was agitatedly asking for his dues ... "You have not paid me Rs34,000 the last 9 years!! I have gone to your office in Kandla and they keep pushing me around. Will you pay or not??" ... and Farzan was not new to this kind of aggression, so he kept his calm and ... "No problem Saab, sit down, don't get angry ... now you came to me let me check. I promise you I will check and confirm right now" ... followed by a shout to his accountant ... "Baiju, bring the ledger and check if we owe this gentleman his payment"

Meanwhile, Farzan continued his chat and ... "Saab, you came a long way, you want tea? Have some tea ... boy, order one chai for this gentleman"

Baiju went on his search for the "historical records in the Museum of Farzan" and came back with a crumpled, discoloured but legible, loosely bound thick ledger and pointed to the handwritten record with multiple corrections and said, "Yes sar, we owe him Rs34,000"

Farzan was a fair man, he immediately accepted that he owes the dues to the vendor and told him ... "Now, I know I actually owe you. So, don't worry, I will pay you" ... and the vendor being cool by now, but slightly annoyed ... "I need to know when you will pay me" ... and Farzan, "You see Saab, I have a long list to manage and I don't have any money now. I am arranging. And I will pay you, but I cannot commit a date to you now"

The Saab hit the roof and started his retort ... "You have to tell me a date. If not I am going to take you to Court. I will make sure I sue you ... blah, blah, blah ... (maybe) with intermittent use of the words that mean idiot, cheat, bluf, dishonest"

Farzan's eyes broadened and focussed on Saab like inspecting a rough pearl from the ocean and he called out to his trusted accountant ... "Baijuuuu, cancel the tea! Write Saab's name in the list of legal suits. Bring me the list"

Now he shows Saab the list of 48 names, and says "Tikey (means OK) Saab! I will write your name here. You are number 49 suing me in Court. Go to Court and take action. I will manage it. Thank you Saab, go ahead" ... and with a wry smile, he tells Vijay, "I like people going to Court. That way they don't disturb me anymore!"

With that Vijay embarked on a semi-retired mission of trying to find a solution for Salt Field No. 1 of the Maharaja of Kutch that was established in 1920 and has been dormant for the last 15 years.

As he met with the local community and spoke to the leader he realised that the "weight of the whey is much more than meets the eye". The people have been living in the company houses for the last many years while the unpaid wages were mounting. They are irked and exasperated with the situation that they were left with when the field stopped operations. As Vijay struck a conversation with the elders, he realised that the problem is more than just numbers. His demeanour must have been so charming (like Amitabh Bachchan!) that the people took him to their houses, showed him around and went at length to share their side of the story. 

Along the way, as he felt more connected to the crowd, he asked for water ... and they served him a good cup of tea (not the type that we got in paper cups that morning!). It became quite apparent that they are not going to allow any items to be moved out of that place unless they are paid. The company has junk machinery (old abandoned machines that have become junk by this time) and various scrap materials that can be cashed. 

Several visits over the next 3 months, more tea and some talks with the elders yielded some results. The community agreed to allow the scrap to be removed and sold, provided they are settled with the revenue made from the sale. That seemed like a good deal to strike with the people to loosen the knot and move the company agenda. With that the elders helped fix the buyers, scrap was removed, sold and the community was paid some compensation. 

In the historical timeline, Salt Field No.1 still remained undeveloped while the workers are staying in the same area doing other activities to sustain themselves. Salt Field No. 2 has become Friends Salt while Salt Field No. 3 has become Ahir Salts.

Interestingly ...

  • The Rann salt desert in Gujerat is approximately 400,000 acres in area. 
  • This is an area where saltwater comes in with the tide and recedes leaving behind the salt deposits
  • The government has allotted permits to harvest the Rann salt only for bromine production while allowing the local sale of salt only during the salt crisis.

More interestingly ...

  • Japan had been a big importer of salt from India for the purpose of making caustic soda and the downline materials from it
  • North Korea used to trade by selling pulses to India and buying salt ... Vijay has managed loadings to North Korean vessels while having coffee with the Captains and having cautious conversations (cautious because they do not talk about politics!)
On the sidelines ...
  • Land deposits of salt are very rare, however, there is the Sambhar reservoir in Rajasthan where land deposit of salt is harvested
  • Meanwhile, rock salt is found in Himachal Pradesh

And I never realised that ...

  • Salt being a relatively cheap commodity is sold at approximately Rs1 per kg profit by the salt fields which generate 300,000 kg a day on average ... thus making a profit of Rs300,000 per day!!!
  • Man, that is a handsome profit.

Now, going back to Jakko where Vijay hired the contractor the herd of donkeys to transport gypsum ... after the stint of recovering Gypsum, Vijay was engaged by another businessman and friend, Mr Naidu from Chennai to survey the land around Jakko. 

With the help of the local master Mr Hussensha, the area was surveyed on jeep and to the amazement of Naidu, there was a vast land that can be identified for salt harvesting. 

In the later developments, Naidu managed to secure 4,000 acres on one side and another 6,000 acres on the other side of the Jakko salt field that was managed by Vijay previously.

In their expansion of the business, Anantham, the boss of Mr Naidu further expanded to another 60,000 acres that were leased based on the ancient British format salt field lease agreement!

... I need to sit with Vijay again to untie some of the knots in this blog. More updates to come.