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.
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.
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.