Can we begin with the days before Team Computers?
At IIT Kanpur, I was disillusioned by the system. We used to sit together and eat together, but when it came to helping each other, it was an absolute no-no. By the time I hit third year, I had mentally dropped out.
Post IIT, I got the opportunity to work with Philips, which proved to be a good learning ground with its techno-commercial background. Two years of training people how to service equipment and I realized that it was not challenging enough. It is then that I joined Raba Contel, an Apple distributor, as service manager. The issue was that they did not trust people enough. The system was not oriented towards helping customers and became too bureaucratic; I quit.
I then went to Europe on a hitchhiking trip and spent a few months soul searching – driving trucks, picking oranges in Greece, etc. When I came back, I met a few old customers who starting enquiring about why I stopped fixing their Mac, Laser Printer, etc. It stuck me that there was a need of Infra support and I saw this as an opportunity. That was the beginning of Team.
What was your objective when setting up the company?
Philips was a large company where one gets lost. On the other hand, in the small company the work was challenging but was too bureaucratic. I believed that I could set up a platform where people can express themselves and do meaningful work. It should be like a musician playing – it should be in the flow. I thought that it was possible to work like that.
Where does Team stand today?
This year has seen a slowdown; we have come down from an 1400 to about 1100 employees. We were at the 300 Cr. run rate, and despite the slowdown will do 200 Cr. plus. We operate pan-India and even remote areas in North-East like Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, etc. The only place we have not covered is Srinagar because we feel that the safety of our team members is very important.
As for product lines, we have pretty much all end-to-end solutions. Our centre of the universe is the IT people – the CIOs and the CTOs. A customer wants a good, stable IT infrastructure and a layer of applications on top of that capturing information and yet another layer on top of that which allows them to make sense of the information. Done well, IT helps improve business performance. For a CEO it should help in increasing sales, cut costs, improve profits and so on. For a CFO it should enable compliance etc. and for a marketing head it should facilitate increasing market share and more. No matter what the KPI, we are able to cover all the needs of an organization.
What are the personal milestones you have had in business?
The big change has been whenever we have transited from one state to another. We started off as a break-fix infra-support player and then we moved to a full-fledged hardware/network integrator. The big shift was when we took on software, because only a few have managed to successfully move from hardware into software. Finally, being able to help customers use information i.e. building dashboards, analytics, reporting systems, etc has been a big transition.
The other big milestone was setting up of business in the United States. It was pretty late in the day for us because the big names in the game had all set up much earlier. However, there were and there are niches available.
How do you plan and execute a successful business transition?
First, it is important to get the achievable goals right. Once that is done, the second step is to create the structure to support the goals. Then comes the processes that support the structure. Finally, it is crucial to have the right people to operate the processes and structure. One thing I learnt from Lou Gerstner is that setting goals and simply expecting things to happen is not the right approach. We need to inspect all the time. Trust but verify.
With all the competition around, how do you retain your people?
It is true that people come and go, immediately at times. In order to retain good people, we need to invest a lot in terms of making work meaningful. We run training programs almost 300 days in a year. Employees respect that and when they see that we are investing in them, a bond is created.
Treating people right is very important. The two key values that we have been able to uphold in our work environment is love and respect. Also, it is important to provide opportunities to employees to grow and take up larger responsibilities within the organization. Sometimes they fail, and the organizations tolerance for failure has to be fairly high.
How do you keep on top of things?
I use an information cockpit in my office. This is what we do for our customers, right? The dashboard tells me what are the red, orange, and green areas in the business in real-time. It is basically data converted to information converted to intelligence converted to insights. It helps the entire organization to stay on top of things.
My job as the leader is to ensure that I am able to support the people who report to me. Basically this boils down to listening to the needs of my people, checking on goals being met, processes being followed, identifying structure changes if needed, etc. A large part of my focus is on ensuring that our systems are up-to-date and are supporting people in doing their jobs.
What are the key things you monitor on your dashboard?
The finance dashboard is something I check on regularly. Every CEO needs to have a pulse on cash flow. We have our business intelligence systems publishing our daily score cards which is sent to a number of people. For instance, our quarterly sales targets which gets divided into monthly targets,and weekly targets. When people come to work every morning, they know exactly what they are starting off with.
What are the things you did to manage the slowdown?
We took a lot of fat out of the system. In any system, the fat lies in processes. We innovated processes to reduce time taken. Next was productivity. We went deep into every role, every function and look at performance. We also cut down on indirect costs.
One thing we did not do was cut salaries of the employees. We stopped increments for a while though. The only two salaries cut in Team was mine by 50% and our CFOs, who was kind enough to himself take a cut of 15%. We did not want to send a wrong message of pessimism.
Your original aim of creating a platform where people are happy to work; where do you stand now?
One thing I feel satisfied about is the fact that we have people who have been working here since the beginning; many who have been here for 15 years or 10 years plus with the company. Also recently, I found my wife telling me that she met a group of people in Team who were extremely happy working here. Long story short, there is never an end to achieving perfection and excellence but yes, we have moved forward in the direction of my original idea.
Failures that you learnt from?
We missed out on the opportunity of software export. In the early 90s, I remember going around in the US market trying to get programming work from Silicon Graphics. We also set up a subsidiary in Australia trying to market educational software. I gave up on that in two years, which I now know was too soon.
The other failure has been that I have let my heart rule over my head. If someone is not performing; it is probably a wrong person (not a bad person) on the bus. I should have helped the person get off quickly. Taking too much time in deciding had caused a lot of problems.
Also, we should have been ten times our size. We should have leveraged the equity and debt markets better. When we started out we were very aggressive, however we have been a little too conservative in the last ten years.
Your next big challenge?
I am very excited by what Tata has done with the Nano; which goes customer wallet backwards. I want to create high-quality low-cost solutions for the large market that is India.
Also, we have the potential of creating many more entrepreneurs. We have done that to a limited extent.We could definitely help set up more such companies. Also, I look forward to Team Computers becoming more active in corporate social responsibilities.
How is the balance between work and personal life working out?
It would be untrue to say that I am doing justice to my family. But I am improving. Besides family, I have a passion for playing music. I play the saxophone. I would like to attend music school and play with Jazz musicians.
Your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs on the one thing to avoid?
Avoid the short-cuts and instead take the long road. It is important to focus on the value system, the structure, the processes, and the people. The first team which you build is very important – so select people with the utmost care.
written by Nital Chanchani, June 22, 2011
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