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They traded berets for the boardroom and combat fatigues for pinstripes

By Syed Nazakat and Charul Bajaj

They were trained in warfare, and they believed in their mission, its execution and in the men under their command. Now these Army veterans are taking charge ofIndia’s corporate world. The Maratha Light Infantry gave us Captain C.P. Krishnan Nair of The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts. The Deccan Horse produced real estate mogul K.P. Singh of DLF. Captain G.R. Gopinath of the erstwhile Air Deccan came from the 52 Mountain Unit. Here’s looking at newer sectors and fresh faces:

Major Manjit Rajain, CEO, Tenon, New Delhi

From the window of his office, Rajain looked at Gurgaon’s skyline and wondered, “Some 22 years ago it was farmland. Today, it symbolises a risingIndia. It is a city of human resilience and inspiration.” Rajain runs Tenon Group,India’s largest manpower security company with 22,000 employees and offices in 57 cities inIndia,Sri LankaandZambia. Inspiration came quite early for Rajain. “It was the 1990s,” he said. “I saw world-class companies and BPOs establishing their footprints [in Gurgaon]. I wondered who would provide manpower security.” The fourth generation Army officer’s grandfather Das Ram, a soldier in the British Army, died inIraqinWorldWarI.”The Army was more than a career for me,” he said. “It was first love. It had given me so much. But then I wanted to be an entrepreneur.” Earlier, he had even tried running a roadside restaurant. His experience in high security environments, including counter-insurgency and VIP protection, led him to start his first firm, Peregrine Guarding Pvt. Ltd, in 1995 with 17 employees. Convergence was the first BPO company which came to Gurgaon. I approached them for business,” said Rajain. For the next couple of months he was on guard duty. He says the first two years were tough. “But the Army had taught me to hang on. I kept going till we became profitable.”  In 2008, he brought the Singapore-based Tenon and listed it on the London Stock Exchange. “I was neither from a business family nor did I go to business school,” he said. “But the Army taught me to take calculated risks.” His next business destination is thePhilippines. “The success of my life is not that I make a lot of money,” he said. “But that I make a lot of lives better.”

Lt Col H.S. Bedi, CEO, Tulip Telecom, New Delhi

Tanks were his first love, and then came computers. In 1986, he was posted as an instructor in the computer wing at the Military College of Telecommunication Engineering, Mhow. Computers had just arrived and people were keen to know about it. “I was keen to know how to make money from computers,” recalled Bedi. After 22 years of service, he took premature retirement from the Army in 1992 to start his own business. He began from a single room inDelhi’s South Extension area with four employees and an investment of Rs 4 lakh. Tulip Telecom soon broadened its business from software to hardware to networking. Today, it runs the largest data network in the country, with some 3,800 employees and a turnover of Rs 2,800 crore. “In business you have to be a hard worker, innovative and imaginative. I was one of those lucky guys who had picked up these traits in the military life,” said Bedi. “When I was in the Army, I was paid on the last day of the month. But when I started business, on the last day of the month I had to arrange money to pay my staff. This was my first challenge. I could not pay salaries without earning it.” After building the largest data network in the country, his dream now is to buildIndia’s largest data centre inBangalore. The data centre will be built with an investment of Rs 900 crore. He has four other data centres—one each inDelhiandBangaloreand two in Mumbai. Tulip now commands a combined floor space of approximately 10 lakh square feet across all data centres. His son Deepinder and daughter Sukhmani have joined him in the business, but Bedi still is a workaholic. These days he spends most of his time on theBangaloreproject. “It [Bangalore] is going to be a game changer for us,” he says.

Col David Devasahayam, CEO, Radiant Group, Chennai

He was from the 8 Gorkha Rifles, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw’s regiment. He was in the Army for 25 years, but Devasahayam’s most vivid memory is of his first jump as a paratrooper. A second-generation Army officer, he was inspired by the success of Captain G.R. Gopinath, founder of the now nonexistent Air Deccan. So, post retirement, he decided to be an entrepreneur. A friend, Major General (retd) Jose Manavalan, suggested that he try his luck in medical tourism. Devasahayam’s wife, Renuka, a doctor, supported the idea. Devasahayam invested Rs 22 lakh and raised Rs 16 lakh from friends, relatives and others to start Radiant Group, which today has a turnover of $60 million. “I can proudly say that Renu’s blind faith in my ability to make this transition from military life to corporate success was a major factor [behind my success],” he said. Today, Radiant Group serves patients from India, Europe and Africa, and has diversified into sectors like cash logistics services, land bank management, financial services, BPO and protection force. “Being an ex-service officer, I have tried to employ ex-servicemen wherever possible and can proudly say that nearly 50 to 60 per cent of the workforce is from the three services.” Radiant currently has 5,000 employees and Devasahayam said he offers at least two jobs every day. The goal is to create one lakh well-paying employment opportunities. Growing up in the military, Devasahayam always assumed he was never made for business. But after he began his corporate life, he learnt that core Army values like integrity, dependability and mission orientation in a zero-error environment were the basic requirements for entrepreneurship, too.

Major Arun Verma, CEO, DATA Inc, USA

A specialist in combat engineering, Verma’s job was to shape the battlefield by laying mines, building field fortifications and facilitating movement of soldiers. In the India-Pakistan war of 1971 his unit was sent to the Western Pakistan. After serving 12 years in the Army, he took premature retirement in 1977 and went to the US to pursue a new career in IT. “I trained myself further in higher technology atNew YorkUniversityand soon started delivering IT solutions to large global corporations inNew York,” he said. As he started his new career in a foreign land he found his military grooming most valuable. He said: “I was in a new country. I had no financial resources, no personal support systems and no friends in the industry. Business is about taking risks… [and] like all military personnel I was trained for high stakes at a young age.” He started as an independent consultant and slowly built a client base on Wall Street. In 1983, he started DATA Inc. in the basement of hisWashingtonhome. Today DATA Inc., based in Montvale, has 800 employees, offices throughout North America, Europe and Asia, and an annual revenue of around $75 million.

Col Sunil Saberwal, CEO, Bombay First, Mumbai

After 35 years in service, all Saberwal wanted on retirement was play golf. But things did not go entirely according to plan. He does manage to play golf on weekends; on weekdays he is the CEO of Bombay First, a think-tank working with corporates, government and NGOs. It is assisted by the World Bank and works towards making Mumbai a better city to live and work in. The transition was drastic. From drawing up combat strategies in the desert, he was drafting plans for the urban regeneration of Mumbai. Saberwal recalled the frustration during the first six months. Did he think of quitting? “I thought if I give up, people will say he left things halfway and faujis do not give up so quickly.” So he stuck around. Under him Bombay First got the Metropolitan Police London to train 32 Mumbai Police inspectors in hostage negotiation and crisis management. It also took a delegation of the home secretary, home minister and the Mumbai police commissioner to see the CCTV systems inLondonand develop similar infrastructure in Mumbai. Saberwal said his abilities to set goals and pursue them and to create and carry a team were key skills gained during the Army days. “There was a lot of resentment [about me] pushing co-workers to finish undone tasks,” he said. “That was the process followed in the Army, but when you push people here you tend to offend them a little. There is a lot of interaction [in Bombay First] now. Birthdays and anniversaries are celebrated, personal issues are taken care of. I believe a personal touch increases efficiency levels.” He said that it was difficult to let the Army go from one’s life. “Every fauji has to retire,” he said. “It is difficult breaking the umbilical cord, but the faster you get tuned to the other way of life, the better it is.”

Col Harpreet Singh Walia, CEO, T’Fiori, Pune

Walia, who saw action inSri Lanka,Jammu and Kashmirand Siachen, hung up his military boots in May 2007. Today, he runs T’Fiori, a floriculture firm, which exports roses toEngland, The Netherlands andJapan. A corporate trainer and consultant, he recently opened Agility Management Services Pvt. Ltd, a security firm. He said the discipline and aggression inculcated in him by the Army were his biggest assets in the business. He decided on floriculture as his post-retirement option before he left the Army. For a year he did his homework, meeting existing players and government officials, attended exhibitions, seminars and a six-day course in floriculture at Talegaon village near Pune, where he now farms. He ran into his first roadblock when banks refused to lend him money to buy land before he retired. But he wanted his first batch of flowers to hit the market by Christmas 2007. Eventually, he leased 2.5 acres for 15 years. He started off with that and a handsome loan from a friend. Today, T’Fiori is a Rs 1.3 crore venture with six acres under the plough. He said his excellent skills as a communicator were honed in the Army. So he ventured into corporate training and is a much sought-after soft skills trainer in Pune’s corporate circles. His day begins at 5 a.m. and he is at home in the evenings to spend time with his wife and daughter. T’Fiori’s fame has brought him investors, too. “A few people approached me to construct and run their projects,” he said. “Two such lease projects have come under T’Fiori, increasing our production from 5,000 stems a day to nearly 10,000 stems.” Walia is also planning a 100-acre project inAfrica. And, he has expansion plans for his security business, which currently deals only in security personnel. “I plan to venture into security equipment also,” he said.

(THE WEEK, March 31, 2012)

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