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MAJESTIC RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF INDIAN ICARUS

From billionaire liquor baron to two-time Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament to fugitive from justice living in London, life has come full circle for Vijay Mallya.

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On 18 December 2015, the sky in Goa erupted with a million sparkles. Did the New Year celebrations come early in the party capital of India? Of course not. The King of Good Times, liquor baron Vijay Mallya, was celebrating his sixtieth birthday. Four hundred guests comprising the rich and famous, the super-rich and the infamous, politicians and actors, sport stars and fashionistas, singers and entrepreneurs and, of course, top models, flocked to the palatial Kingfisher villa on Candolim beach, often compared to Elvis Presley’s Graceland or Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion.

‘It’s bigger than most hotels. It’s cooler than any house. It’s James Bond, it’s Playboy Mansion, it’s the land of plenty in white concrete and glass,’ described cricketer Chris Gayle in his biography Six Machine: I Don’t Like Cricket… I Love It. The 12,350 square feet villa hosted a majority of the guests for his birthday bash with the rest staying at the ultra-luxe Taj Holiday Village Resort & Spa, from where one could walk along a beautiful private stretch of the sun-kissed beach to get to Mallya’s abode. Star performers for the evening included hugely expensive pop sensation Enrique Iglesias who was flown in especially to take everyone’s breath away with his vocals and Bollywood’s Sonu Nigam who sang the ever-popular Hindi birthday song: Tum jiyo hazaaron saal… saal ke din ho pachaas hazaar (May you live for thousands of years… and every year have 50,000 days).

The bash cost Mallya a whopping $2 million or Rs 14 crore. This even when he had avoided paying the employees of his defunct Kingfisher Airlines their salaries and dues for many months citing financial troubles. The irony of this was not lost. ‘We are still not able to understand what you meant when you said “I don’t have money to pay your salaries”,’ the disgruntled employees wrote to their boss.

Mallya was in trouble. His prized Kingfisher Airlines that he had launched with much fanfare when his son Siddharth turned eighteen was defunct since 2012. He owed the banks Rs 9,000 crore and had been declared a wilful defaulter. The taxpayers were getting angry. The politicians were feeling the pressure. The press had few nice things to say about him.

But for those three days in December, Mallya was determined not to let anything upset him as he laughed and danced with his guests. ‘My biggest assets are my friends and they are all here tonight,’ said a beaming Mallya to the crowd wishing him a happy birthday.

LIFE AS A FUGITIVE IN BRITAIN

To understand what Mallya continues to miss will require going back to 18 April 2017 when he was first brought to Westminster Magistrates’ Court. Mallya was bailed on a £650,000 bond, debarred from travelling outside England, and from applying for travel documents. Mallya may have access to all the comforts and riches, but with his wings clipped and movement curtailed, he is just a shadow of his former self. He would have liked to attend F1 races across the world, but now the only option he has is the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. The cricket matches he attended and the odd public appearances he made in London could provide him with neither comfort nor pleasure. This was a case of fame coming back to haunt him across the seven seas.

During the ICC Cricket World Cup in June 2019, as India took on Australia at the Oval in London, the media had expected cricket-crazy Mallya to make an appearance. And so, it seems, had many Indian cricket fans. Dressed in a light blue suit with an opencollared white and blue striped shirt, Mallya accompanied his beau, Pinky Lalwani, looking splendid in a hot pink jacket trimmed with fur and sporting dark shades, and his aged mother Lalitha to the VIP entrance gate at the Oval. He often wears blue suits at the matches, which he says is his way of showing support to the Men in Blue.

No sooner had they got out of their car, than the crowd chanting ‘Chor! Chor!’ (thief, thief) and ‘Paise de!’ (give our money back) began heckling him and his family. A defiant Mallya took out his phone and began recording selfies with the hostile crowd. He later tweeted a picture with his son inside the stadium with the caption: ‘Great to watch cricket with my son and even sweeter to see India’s emphatic victory over Australia’. A similar incident happened in January 2017 during the ICC Champions Trophy when Mallya had gone to watch the match between South Africa and West Indies at the Oval.

Though Mallya tries to have a nonchalant attitude towards people calling him names, in his less guarded moments, the hurt and pain this causes him is obvious to see. On less stressful days at the court, Mallya is happy to indulge in light banter about cricket with journalists outside the court.

Public appearances have never been easy for Mallya since his escape to London. In June 2016, Mallya made an appearance at the launch of Suhel Seth’s book at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) where the high commissioner of India, Navtej Sarna, was a panellist along with UK cabinet minister Jo Johnson, brother of Boris Johnson. Journalist Rishi Majumdar, who was at the LSE event, remembers seeing Sarna quickly make an excuse and leave after spotting Mallya in the audience. Mallya, who was sitting at the back near the exit, came into the room just after the event started. Many like Majumdar found it quite ironic that an event on best practices by CEOs was attended by a man who was believed to have done the exact opposite.

To have an Indian diplomat and a (un)popular offender in the same room was a blunder that sent the ministry of external affairs into a frenzy. Statements were quickly issued that the event had two segments—first, a book launch event where the invitees were determined by LSE, and the second was a reception by the High Commission for a select few guests. ‘Mallya was certainly not an invitee to the reception at the High Commission for which the invitations were issued by the High Commission, and was not present,’ the MEA statement said. LSE also clarified that Mallya was not on its list of invitees.

Mallya was extremely upset with all the fuss created by his simple presence at what was a public event as each organiser denied ever inviting him. He took to Twitter to hit back: ‘Never gate-crashed in my life… I am not a gatecrasher and would never be one; I went for my friend—the author. Sat quietly with my daughter and listened. Headline news and unfounded speculation followed; No evidence, No charge sheet. Before claiming all this, should I not be given a chance to pursue my legal remedies? Most unfair.’

On 18 December 2020, Mallya spent his birthday attending court proceedings in his bankruptcy case, albeit virtually, requesting the judge to release funds from assets frozen by the courts. His counsel told the court that, failing this influx of funds, there was a good chance that Mallya would go unrepresented in the next hearing. The court then agreed to release £240,000 (plus 20 per cent of the value added tax on that amount), a sum that only covered his legal costs until December 2020. Mallya was back in the court in January 2021, requesting further funds. He claimed he had lost his income from the consultancy services that he had provided in recent years. With his life’s earnings frozen by the authorities, he claims he was now facing penury.

There was no sign of Mallya’s return to India when this book went into print in early February 2021. But what is clearly evident is that a man whose life was much celebrated just five short years ago, is now a mere shadow of his larger-than-life persona. There is no doubt that the party king has disappeared from public celebrations just like the fireworks that once lit up the skies, soon melt into the darkness.

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Is white always right?

Uday Singh

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When the Native Americans first came across white people on their land, they assumed that they were sent by God. And, when the same people first came across black people, their reactions were far from welcoming. The Mayans and the Aztecs exhibited similar reactions when they first saw white people, and that was one of the main reasons why the Europeans were so successful in making significant initial inroads into their territories, before eventually overpowering them. If native communities had different reactions to the white people or treated them as just another tribe that they were used to seeing on a regular basis, then they would not have allowed the Europeans to gain such a stranglehold on their lands. 

That prompts the question as to how different world civilisations would have evolved if the color of the skin, along with hair and eyes, was consistent across geographies. In an alternate universe, if the skin color was white across all continents, then poems such as Rudyard Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden (exhorting the United States to assume colonial control of the Filipino people and their country), loaded with twisted and self-serving logic (giving the colonisers the license to kill with impunity and without any guilt all under the guise of serving a higher calling), would have still been written but would have been based on some other readily visible trait, say the straightness of nose or shape of the chin. Once enough of the population begins to associate a broader set of attributes, such as intelligence, bravery, strength, and power to that trait, then the rest of the population would follow implicitly. From that point on, all those with a straight nose (for example) would be considered intelligent, strong, or courageous, regardless of the real makeup or personality of that individual. 

Let us look into a few examples — from ancient Greece, with very little awareness of other skin colors; from the Middle Ages, with moderate awareness of different skin colors; and from more contemporary times – to shed light on the ascent of the white color.  In the History of the World, written around 300 BC, Herodotus talks about black people being similar to the Hellenic people, that is white people, except for the fact that their seed is greyer in color. He can be excused for being wrong on that front, about the color of black people’s seed, but he can be commended for the fact that he did not regard black people as inferior or consider them barbarians. Note that this interpretation is based on an early 19th-century English translation of Herodotus’ book; there is an outside chance that the translator might have tried to be politically correct and sanitized Herodotus’ actual words. 

In Prince, written in the early 15th century, Machiavelli talks about Italians being the black people of Europe. It provides a glimpse into gradations of white, with the northern Europeans regarded as whiter than the southern ones. In the more recent A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, Nicholas Wade proposes opening up the notion that there are three different races, or five, depending on the level of granularity one wants to get into, based on the readily discernible skull shapes—Afrikaans, Caucasians, and Mongoloids. Scientifically that is a fact, but does it have to lead to the immediate next question that pops up in most minds as they read that fact—if the skulls are different, does that mean one of them is better than the other? If no special attributes are implicitly assigned to any of the skull shapes, and they are just accepted as different skull shapes, no more, no less, then people of all skull shapes can coexist and each individual interaction is judged on a case-by-case basis rather than on stereotypes based on skull shapes. 

In India, a country of over a billion people, with a diverse population in terms of hair colour (ranging from black to light brown), and of eye color (shades of black, brown, and green), there is one product that almost every Indian is aware of—Fair & Lovely, produced by Hindustan Lever, an Indian subsidiary of Unilever Corporation. Aside from the fact that it is a huge testament to the marketing geniuses behind that product, Fair & Lovely has carved out a huge market selling “fairness” — another term for white skin in India — to the population. It promises to make the skin a couple of shades lighter through its use over just a few weeks. This may seem like a politically incorrect statement in the United States (and potentially in some European countries) but it does not cause any controversy in India. Everybody accepts it as part of life and mostly, girls with darker complexions continue to use it in the hope of making their skin tone lighter. Do these 1.1 billion people validate that white or fair is the desired colour? Are we instinctively wired to regard white as good and black as bad or is there something else going on here?

The excerpt is from the book ‘Inconspicuously Human’ (published by The AlcovePublishers).

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‘AGNIBAAN WILL HELP INTROSPECT HOW WE ARE DESTROYING THIS PLANET AND WAYS TO ADDRESS IT’

S. Venkatesh opens up about juxtaposing ancient mythology with present-day science and politics in ‘AgniBaan: Guardians of the Fire Chamber’ and how he is managing a demanding career in the financial markets with his passion for writing.

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 Q. Share a glimpse of your latest book ‘AgniBaan: Guardians of the Fire Chamber’.

A. It has two stories running in parallel. One, set in 535 CE, begins in the Great Pyramid of Egypt and culminates in India, and centres around an ancient mystical connection between the two countries. The other, set in the modern day, is a global conspiracy involving geopolitics, assassinations, electronic warfare, and climate change. Is there a link between the two stories, and how is it connected to a plot that will bring the world to its knees? You need to read the book to find out!

Q. How difficult it has been to juxtapose ancient mythology with present day science and politics?

A. That is one of the main ‘aha’ experiences of writing for me. To be able to connect seemingly disparate events, often tens of centuries apart, and bring it all together in the form of a compelling narrative was one of the high points of writing ‘AgniBaan: Guardians of the Fire Chamber’ (published by TreeShade Books). By way of the process, I spent around 10 months reading and learning extensively about certain topics around science, history, and geopolitics but did not try to force-fit any of these into a plot. Over time, the facts started blending together into a story. I have realised that when the subconscious mind is left free and unfettered, it is able to join the dots much faster and more effectively than the conscious mind. 

Q. Tell us about the main characters involved in your story and their role?

A. As I mentioned, ‘AgniBaan’ has two stories running in parallel. The modern story has two protagonists, Dhruv Ralhan and Megha Rao. Dhruv is a commando from an elite secret unit of the Indian Army. He is bold and fearless, but he is on forced leave from the army, the culmination of a dark turmoil that continues to haunt him. Megha is a historian, known for her discovery of an ancient manuscript. She is an empath, someone who embraces life, connects deeply with people, and never gives up on those who are close to her.

The other story, set in 535 CE, has an Egyptian warrior, Aphotep, as its main protagonist. Aphotep is the last surviving member of the Guardians, a group which protects an ancient secret. 

As the story progresses, Dhruv and Megha find themselves in the midst of a global geopolitical storm, as an audacious plot hatched by a clandestine organisation threatens to bring the world to its knees. They need to deal with their inner demons and find a link between seemingly unrelated events, even as time is running out.

Q. Can you elucidate on the nature of research work that has been undertaken in the making of this book?

A. The research for ‘AgniBaan’ was quite extensive, involving elements of science, history and geopolitics, and spanning topics as diverse as superconductivity, nuclear reactors, climate change, cryptography, and Indo-Egyptian trade. A lot of the research was concentrated in the first ten months of my work on ‘AgniBaan’ when I read books, academic research, and white papers on these topics, and also spoke to subject-matter experts. During this phase, I did not put pressure on myself to come up with a story. I just allowed my subconscious mind to join the dots and spot patterns. Once the facts started coalescing together into a story that is when I put pen to paper and actually started writing.

Q. What does the word AgniBaan symbolise in your book? 

A. AgniBaan means fire arrow. In the book, it is the name of an ancient secret for which wars have been fought over the centuries, for which men have staged the most ruthless massacres. The AgniBaan has a figurative meaning as well, as it represents the balance of the elements, the delicate equilibrium of the universe. It forces us to introspect on how humankind’s excesses have ravaged the planet and disrupted the balance of nature. This is echoed, both in the book and in real life, in the imperative to combat climate change. 

Q. How content are you with the response of your first book ‘Kaalkoot: The Lost Himalayan Secret’?

A. One of the most gratifying experiences about writing ‘KaalKoot’ has been to see the love it has received from readers. While getting the bestseller tag has been good, it is infinitely more satisfying to see it resonate with readers up to this day. A few weeks ago, almost three years post-publication, I received an email from a reader at 3 am. He had stayed up finishing the book because he could not put it down!

When ‘KaalKoot’ was published in 2018, one of my objectives, based on my research for the book, was to highlight the dangers the world faces from potential pandemics and biological agents. With ‘AgniBaan’, I hope to stir up introspection among readers about how we are destroying the planet and the urgency with which we need to address climate change. Gauging by the reviews so far for the book, it looks like introspection is happening. 

Q. How did you develop a passion for writing?

A. I have nurtured a desire to write since my childhood when I used to bury myself in books from my grandfather’s library. But my writing was limited to school and college forums. After studying at IIT Delhi and IIM Calcutta, I took up a demanding career in the financial markets, with the likes of Credit Suisse, JP Morgan, and Macquarie. During this phase, while the urge to write would surface periodically, it got buried amidst the blur of corporate travel, deadlines, and targets. But my work and extensive travel also gave me a huge reservoir of ideas that I could tap into for inspiration. Over time, I learnt to channelise my passion more effectively and used the time I spent on flights and in airport lounges to retreat into a quiet space in my own mind. That is how I penned my first book ‘KaalKoot’.

Q. With the growing influence of digital media, how do you perceive the future of book reading?

A. A big psychological factor we are all dealing with today is the shortening of attention spans and the increase in the amount of noise around us. We are deluged with information and choices so books compete with Netflix shows, WhatsApp messages, and political debates for attention. But there are positives too. Social media has given readers the tools to share thoughts on books with other readers, and authors now have more avenues to connect with their readers. I do not see book reading suffering per se, though I do see it potentially morphing into different formats to match audience and media preferences. 

Q. Tell us something about your upcoming books on which you are working currently?

A. I am working on two books in parallel. One of these is a thriller set against the backdrop of the high-octane, take-no-prisoners world of the Indian stock markets. The other is a thriller that examines the deadly implications of certain recent scientific discoveries and links them to certain ancient secrets.

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THE INCREDIBLE FLIGHT OF INDIA’S PARACHUTE MAN

Harsh Mariwala, founder and chairman of Marico and author of ‘Harsh Realities: The Making of Marico’, opens up about the challenges he faced in his entrepreneurial journey and much more.

Utpal Kumar

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Harsh Mariwala is an Indian entrepreneur, who is the founder and chairman of Marico, a Fortune India 500 company. Mariwala has penned a memoir of his business journey, Harsh Realities: The Making of Marico, covering everything from his successes and failures as an entrepreneur to how he built a consumer brand, value of culture building in a company via openness and transparency, and key learnings. It is also a story of grit and redemption. He opened up about the complexities of running a business with family members and much more.

Excerpts:

Q. Tell us about this book and what made you write it?

A. I could write this book because I had a lot of time due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But it couldn’t have been possible without the support of two individuals. One, my wife, who was able to add substantial value to the script in terms of making it far more anecdotal and emotional; she also added more gravitas to it. Two, my co-author Ram Charan, who is a renowned management guru and has written around 30 books.

It’s a memoir of my business journey that talks about my successes, failures and has nuggets of wisdom by the co-author. At the end of each chapter, he gives his insight into the learnings. It talks about building a consumer brand, culture building, family issues, innovation and a story of grit and redemption that were the pillars of founding and forging Marico. It leverages values like openness and transparency.

Q. One of the highlights of this book is that in your life failures have been as important as successes. Tell us about your journey and how you learnt more from your failures?

A. I started off by joining the business as a commerce graduate. I had not studied business so in a way nobody has taught me and when I joined the family-managed organisation so in that journey I failed in a lot of stuff, including basic issues. That was my initial set of failures. Out of every failure, I have had learning. After issues with quality assurance and product development, we set up a whole department around these. We took these failures very seriously. That has helped us become a far more robust organisation in terms of our own capabilities. As we progressed further and started growing the business, some things didn’t work out well and in some cases, we launched a product where the market size was too small.

So there has been a fair share of failures. We had a product failure in recent times; 10 years back when we launched a snack but gave preference to health over taste, the consumer wanted it to be tasty. The learning from that was incorporated in the product development of Saffola Masala Oats which has done extremely well and we are market leaders in that.

Q. Family plays an integral part in Indian businesses. You too had to deal with the same while running the business. Share your experiences of managing the business as well as the family?

A. It adds to the complexity because at one level, you are staying in the same house, and at another level you are related to each other, competing in the workspace and are co-owners, so these multiple role relationships make it a little difficult. On top of that, there is first generation, second generation, respect for elders, lack of openness, at times you can’t tell them how you feel. It becomes far more complicated if you are in a large family setting with a lot of family members in the same company. The key thing is to manage it proactively. The family is an asset on one level, it brings in a lot of benefits, but if not managed properly, it can be a liability.

I took the initiative of sitting down with my cousins, suggesting a roadmap for how to run the company from a family perspective. It took two to three years and resulted in the formation of Marico, which required a lot of patience, perseverance and consensus-building. It worked well for me. The key learning for me is that other stakeholders, including family members, play an important role in your journey. You have to have a win-win arrangement where you can co-exist and at the same time work independently.

Q. You once said that if the business has to thrive, it has to be run by the best person, not necessarily from the family. Do you think that things are now changing in Indian business families?

A. Normally in Indian business families, still there is a lot of hierarchical thinking, and it is expected that your children will take up your roles and be your successor. Internationally, things have changed. But it’s a matter of time it will change in India too because it’s getting competitive. If you put a family member ahead of anyone else in terms of capabilities, the business can suffer. The key thing is that the business should come first and then the interest of the family.

Q. You took a substantial risk in taking your company from your family company to a new one, Marico. It must have been a tough decision. Tell us about those momentous days, and how do you see them today?

A. It was not difficult as that was what I was aspiring to do. It took me two to three years to convince the family. If I look back, it was the most important decision in my career. That gave me a lot of freedom in terms of selecting my team, set of portfolios/products, allocating resources and growing and having an identity of my own. It became much easier for me to operate in Marico than when I was in the Bombay Old Company. Being self-motivated helped me and I learnt from the setbacks and hindrances. If you have a burning desire to succeed, then you will overcome all the roadblocks.

Q. Tell us about the flagship coconut oil brand Parachute and the sleepless nights initially had to run it. How do you look back at the legendary battle you fought with the rivals and how it paid off in the long term?

A. The initial forays of the brand parachute were through distribution and innovation delivering for growth. And gradually we became the market leaders, the product became strong and it became a big franchise. In 1993, Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) acquired Tata Oil Mills Company (TOMCO), predominantly a soap manufacturing company, which also had in its portfolio a coconut oil brand, Tata Nihar Coconut Oil. Because of that acquisition, HUL wanted to acquire us too. The battle was not easy, when you are under attack from a much larger player there is a lot of fear in the organisation. The challenge was how to overcome that, motivate people, how to take them on rather than selling off. It was quite tense, but I was quite resolute in taking them on. It worked out well for us, we didn’t lose any market share. We acquired that brand (Tata Nihar). It was a big source of victory for us.

Q. Parachute also shows your faith in the product and once convinced you always stand with your decision. How did you come up with the unique name and what really made you go with the instinct to not part ways with Parachute when you had so many tempting, often intimidating, offers?

A. When I joined the organisation, I was the first person from the next generation to join the company; my father was managing the company. One of the businesses we had was the edible oil business that was mainly sold to industries. It was then sold loose to consumers by the retailers under the brand name Parachute. I converted it from unbranded to branded, over a period of time. In that journey, a lot of friends advised me to change the brand name from Parachute to something else, but I never thought of changing it as I found it unique, symbolic, and talked about.

Q. The business worldwide is facing one of the ‘hardest realities’ in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. A lot of businesses have collapsed or are on the verge of collapsing. How do you see the pandemic?

A. A lot depends on the kind of business you are in. There are certain sectors that were very stressed including airlines, hospitality, and retail. Such companies suffered the most as there was little to no income. Those who had liquidity were able to survive, but those who didn’t either had to pack up or will pack up. You can’t afford to remain closed for so long. The key learning was that companies need to have some cash balances in their system. You have to play a little safe as you can’t overborrow thinking everything will work out. The pandemic provided opportunities: newer initiatives, B2C brands, and e-commerce. We were able to magnify the opportunities in the area of healthcare in terms of Saffola Honey, Saffola Protein, Saffola Chyawanprash. A whole host of new products came into the system. In terms of leadership, it gave us news insights. The corporations have also learnt to deal with the scenario in a proactive manner when it came to health, safety, vaccination, hospitalisation, and whatever help was required. The organisations which were sensitive to such needs have done well. I hope that the third wave doesn’t impact businesses that much. The corporate sector will do well in the coming times.

Q. The pandemic came at a time when the Indian economy was already facing some bumpy rides, and Covid-19 has made it even worse. What’s your take on the issue, and what do you think the government should do to help the country come out of it?

A. I don’t think only the government is responsible for the state of the Indian economy. We expect everything to be done by it which is not fair. A lot is in the hands of the entrepreneurs in terms of grabbing the opportunities for the growth of their companies.

The pandemic has had its own impact on the government’s finances as the tax collections have gone down. You need to evaluate what the government could do looking at the ways and means of the situation. I am cautiously optimistic in terms of increasing our overall economic growth rate, a lot will depend on the third wave and mutations of the virus. To give a kickstart to the Indian economy, the government has taken various initiatives. It could do demand-side reforms, for example, reduce the GST rates for six months. This could provide a fillip to the Indian economy. It could also resume the work on the pending reforms that are stuck due to certain reasons be it farm reforms, judicial reforms and other such reforms.

Q. What is your take on the farm reforms?

A. There are different aspects to farm reforms. The biggest hesitation is the MSP. It is also giving freedom to farmers to sell beyond mandis which is a good thing. I did not expect this kind of hesitation for farm reforms. The government is on the right track in terms of the announcement. It has become a political issue. The government should have discussed it a bit more openly instead of just announcing reforms, the process of implementing could have been better. By and large, there may be some areas that could get improved.

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‘WE ACHIEVED BETTER RESULTS IN OUR CAREERS BY APPLYING CFO NITI LESSONS’

In a freewheeling conversation, Pramod Bagri and Sandeep Kumar open up about their inspirations, ideas, and motivation behind penning the book ‘CFO Niti: Candid Conversation with India’s Finest Finance Leaders’.

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Are you intrigued to know what it takes to run India’s biggest finance units? If so, then you can have a peek inside the Chief Financial Officer’s (CFO’s) office and how their offices function through ‘CFO Niti: Candid Conversations with India’s Finest Finance Leaders’ (published by Konark Publishers). The book offers detailed insight into their personal growth stories and the progression of the finance industry in the past decade. In an e-mail interview, Pramod Bagri and Sandeep Kumar share why they chose to interview CFOs and the fascinating details they uncovered during the process. Excerpts:

Sandeep Kumar

Pramod Bagri

Q. When and how did you first became interested in writing?

A. As part of large consulting organisations, we have been writing domain-related articles for the past few years, generally posted on internal portals like Linkedin, and others. We have been also fortunate to work with CXOs of Fortune 100 companies and learn from them directly. With this book, we intended to reach out to a wider audience and help them get mentorship directly from industry leaders.

Q. Tell us about your book ‘CFO Niti: Candid Conversation with India’s Finest Finance Leaders’. When and how did you two plan to write this book?

A. ‘CFO Niti’ brings you a never-before-seen view of the CFO office and the leaders running India’s biggest finance units. It brings to the readers the detailed stories of these CFOs—their personal journey, insights into how the CFO’s office functions, and their perspectives on the rapid evolution of the CFO’s office in the past decade. You also have access to their daily routines, their reading list, their inspiration areas, what they look for in their talent, and many more interesting tit-bits. We have captured discussions with CFOs of Maruti Suzuki, Tata Steel, Amazon India, Larsen & Toubro, Hindustan Unilever, and Aditya Birla Group.

We started working on this book in 2018. Like most great things in life, this book was more of a confluence of multiple happenstances than a planned exercise. At a chance discussion, both of us (Sandeep and Pramod) debated on the importance and prominence of the CFO office. While we both agreed on its importance, we were not too certain of the prominence it has today within large organisations. Out of curiosity, we ran a search for the most important CFOs, and what we found was a bit surprising. About 90% of the content was focused on the Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) and their leadership styles. Another 9% was on the Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs), Chief Information Officers (CIOs), Chief Technology Officers (CTOs), and others. The CFOs were mentioned very few times, a lot less than the other CXO group. Next, we searched on Amazon for books on CFOs; the results were even more despairing. It was a bit strange that there was not enough content on this topic.

We thought this wouldn’t do at all. Most large organizations, with strong finance functions, have a whole bunch of staff aspiring to be the CFO. All the newly minted Chartered Accountants and Masters in Business Administration (MBAs) in finance have the dream of making it to the vaunted CFO position one day. They could all do with some knowledge about the role and the people who occupy it. Why hasn’t anyone bothered to put together some insights around how the CFO office functions, what makes a successful CFO, some inspirational stories about their lives, and many such instances of CFOs lives that are worth being discussed. This small discussion led to an effort to find India’s most important CFOs heading the largest, most profitable, and impactful organizations, and chart out their life stories across multiple parameters. The aim was to not only figure out the secret sauce that went into the making of a successful CFO, but also understand their personal lives in detail; what values drive the CFOs, and what are the common factors that bring success in this role. This book would act as a guide to a student or a mid-career professional to understand what key elements they should inculcate in their careers and eventually target this coveted position.

Q. You have mentioned in the introduction of your book why you chose to write on CFOs over CEOs. Would you like to elaborate on why you chose to write a book specifically on CFOs and not on other C suite roles like CTO, CIO, or others?

A. There are three reasons why we chose to write about Chief Financial Officers. First, there was and remains a demand-supply gap. There is far lesser content available on this topic than the requirement and the number of people who are interested in understanding and creating a better finance function. Apart from the usual suspects like finance professionals aspiring to someday become the CFO, finance students looking to chart out their careers, and business leaders wanting to create a best-in-class CFO Office, we wanted general readers to get inspiration from the growth stories of these industry leaders. We recently did an event for Ortho TV attended by a large number of doctors and were surprised to find the level of curiosity and enthusiasm to derive learnings from the book and improve the functioning of their organisations.

Second, the CFO office has undergone a sea change in the past few years compared to other functions. From being considered bean counters responsible for accounting and reporting, the CFO office has transformed to become the nerve centre of decision-making in large corporates. CFOs now are equal partners to business teams and contribute wholeheartedly to business growth and not act as watchdogs only. As you will find in the book, there are several anecdotes and paradigms (e.g., “Fly-on-the-wall test) where CFOs have themselves spoken about how their roles have transformed over years. This needs to be highlighted so that smaller organizations and entrepreneurs can look at the best practices and imbibe and implement the same. Third, both of us are students of finance and have worked with CFOs all our professional careers. Unlike our daredevil CFOs who are supremely comfortable with stepping out of their comfort zones, we opted to stay in our circle of competence!

Q. While you were planning your list of CFOs to contact, were there any female CFOs on the list? Didn’t you think of including any female CFO in your book?

A. There is no denying that women are underrepresented in this important role, not only in India but globally. We did reach out to the ones spearheading large organisations, but due to varied reasons, it did not materialise. We will ensure their presence in the next series.

Q. Were there any surprising details you guys uncovered during the interview process? 

A. You will find the most surprising details in the early lives of these leaders:

o A CFO who started his career as a cash counting resource in the Reserve Bank of India (RBI).

o Someone who almost made Molotov cocktails at the age of 18. We are not telling who!

o A CFO who aspired to be a doctor and another who wanted to be a fashion designer

We have tried our best to give a feeling of “Mentor by your side” by preserving individual voices and not homogenising or editing everything. We also included sections like “Extra shots” that capture the way users can apply these learnings, key takeaways (perforated pages and can be torn and pasted to your desk), photographs capturing the journey, and final thoughts that summarise the secret sauce to becoming a successful finance leader as well as how each of these conversations has enriched our lives.

Q. In your book, you have discussed how much this book is going to be helpful for the young aspirants who aspire to enter and work in the financial sector. Nowadays, we are witnessing financial consciousness among people, do you think your book is going to be helpful for such people in any way?

A. Given the higher levels of financial consciousness among the millennials, it is even more imperative for them to understand what it takes to build a sustainable large business and what role an effective finance team plays in it. This book allows our readers to reflect on and learn from these leaders, not only regarding finance but overall personal and professional growth. Learnings like “Safety-Liquidity-Return” while investing, “Never waste a crisis” and many more lessons can be applied to one’s financial wellbeing. The book is written in an easy and lucid style without any jargon and we have several reviews from non-finance readers who have come back and shared their key takeaways from the book and how it helped them.

Q. Was there a specific person’s story with whom you could relate very much? What were the key learnings?

A. Each CFO’s story is different and the key learnings are varied. We were lucky to have early access to these conversations and both of us have very different life views than what we had when we started. We started this book with an objective—to contribute to the larger community and act as a bridge between this untapped sea of knowledge and the beneficiaries. However, we ended up receiving a personal transformation as we heard these leaders detail out their life journeys, lessons, and roles. While we have been closely interacting with global CFOs as part of our roles, these interactions opened our eyes to a completely different world of theirs. After many of these interviews, we spent hours reflecting on deep life lessons we just witnessed. We were able to instantly achieve improved results in our own professional lives by applying some of these lessons. We firmly believe ‘CFO Niti’ will have the same impact on the lives of its readers.

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Book Beat

TIME WE LISTENED TO YOUNG, REBELLIOUS MINDS

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Opinions of a Teenager… is it just another book? Or is it a voice of a teenager who has never been heard before? Or is it a light at the end of the tunnel?

You are not a child! Don’t behave like a kid! Don’t watch this on Netflix, it is only for adults! You have grown so big, but your brains are pea sized! You should not go out so late, you are not so big! Haven’t we heard this so many times, haven’t we said this to our children, haven’t we all been party to this?

Teenagers are neither kids nor adults. Nothing is designed for them—clothes, too small or too big; TV shows—cartoons for kids, rest for adults; books—oh, don’t even ask!

I am not surprised why teenagers have no voice… nobody hears them. They are just hanging around in the school (now home!) or in their homes as just an appendage, with awful pimples, pointy moustache, uncertain beard and much more like that. For the last year and a few months this has been worse than ever before—all of it concentrated in the confines of household, probably in the same shapeless tee-shirt and loose shorts.

Whose fault is it anyways? Nobody chose to be a teenager. Everyone wants to be a big adult and all that. However, these seven years must be lived as a teenager, just teens. So, why shouldn’t they be heard? Why can’t they express themselves, un-edited?

May be this brings the ‘already adults’ some insights and can help these young minds pave a better future for themselves. If nothing else, it will give them immense confidence in themselves… something that they really need.

The book, Opinions of a Teenager, is their voice. Listen to it.

The pandemic has holed up people in their homes, some crowded, some noisy, and some depressing. No schools, no friends, no respite. Despite that the children have been amazing in devising new ways to keep themselves ticking. At the age of thirteen, this boy Shreyas, whose parents have not been home (they are both doctors and attended to patients all through the pandemic) has become the ‘light of his own tunnel’.

He has endeavoured to type out his thoughts (I would have said penned down but these days kids prefer typing to writing!) during the worse time of the lockdown this year, and self-published a book. This probably helped him vent out all his sentiments for or against issues such as education system, music preferences, dos and don’ts of keeping pets, planning your career, etc.

It may be a rebellious act against a lot of accepted norms but at least it is an honest beginning. As adults, we should not get offended if some child tells us where we are wrong or when we should change the way we think. We should include these young minds because they are the future adults and will be responsible for our tomorrow as well.

So, read the book, hear them out, and make tomorrow better. Icing on the cake is the way it is written, far from preachy, hilarious, and rib tickling for all ages.

‘Opinions of a Teenager’ is available as an e-book on Amazon. Enjoy!

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‘Gita helped me to understand myself, made me more optimistic’

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Author Richa Tilokani talks about her debut book ‘The teachings of Bhagavad Gita’.

Richa Tilokani is a marketing, communication and advertising professional who is passionate about writing. Richa has written about wellness, travel, fashion, lifestyle, and culture in myriad magazines, newspapers, and blogs. She opens up about the inspiration behind The Teachings of Bhagavad Gita: Timeless Wisdom for the Modern Age (published by Hay House India), hurdles along the way,self-empowerment and more. Excerpts:

Q. What influenced you to write ‘The Teachings of Bhagavad Gita: Timeless Wisdom for the Modern Age’?

A. It was not really a well thought out plan as such. It just happened that I started working on it to help my family, and then it grew from there. So I expanded the scope and thought maybe some first-time readers could also benefit from it.

Q. What kind of research went into this piece of work?

A. It has been a very long journey of research and learning. I was fortunate to learn it from my grandfather who was a devotee, and my mother who helped me to clarify the doubts I had. Some concepts I learned in childhood, some I understood through experience. Every time, I have approached the sacred book as a humble student and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to do so. It’s been many years of learning and I still have a long way to go. 

Q. Tell us about some of the challenges you faced while penning it?

A. Well, it was a challenge because the book is very sacred and the teachings very profound but I’m grateful to have had this opportunity. Yes, I had to face the dreaded writer’s block and that took a long time to go. I used to think I won’t be able to write and was constantly rejecting my work. Writing amidst the pandemic, when there was so much uncertainty and fear all around, was another challenge for sure.

Q. Did you decide to simplify ‘Bhagavad Gita’ so that people of all age groups can better understand and benefit from its teachings as many people believe it is complex, for old people or simply confused about its applicability to modern times?

A. Yes, the key goal was to show that the teachings are highly implementable and can help people navigate the post-pandemic world. There is no need to fear or worry about how complex they are. Everyone is at different points in their journey—so they can approach them at the level at which they are. They can be as simple (or as complex)as they want them to be. They can help both the beginner and the advanced seeker; it depends on what they want and how dedicated they are towards their goal.

Q. How can the readers discover the art of self-empowerment with the help of this book?

A. Well, self-empowerment according to me is when you feelyou are being the best version of yourself. When you are able to live life to the fullest, achieve your goals and also help others in their journey. Some may find it in service, some in their work and some with knowledge—all routes are right as long as you are progressing.

Q. How has writing ‘The Teachings of Bhagavad Gita’impacted your viewpoint about life?

A. It helped me to understand myself, made me more optimistic and nurtured my faith. It taught me to have faith in the self, in work, in family and in a higher power—having it makes life simpler and easier. I understand that life will continue to throw challenges but we have to learn to manage them and ourselves in the best possible way.

Q. Do you agree that this is the right time for this work to come out as readers can seek refuge in the solace this book will provide them amid the ongoing pandemic?

A. Five thousand years ago, the teachings were first shared and they were relevant then, as they are now. These are unprecedented times and everyone is struggling with multiple challenges. I have tried to relate the teachings to these times and hope that they can offer solace and hope to the readers.

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