Each time Vinayak Chatterjee found himself at a fork in the road during his professional journey, he says it is serendipity that helped him to take the correct one.
Talking to the 53-year-old Vinayak, Chairman of Feedback Infrastructure Services (P) Ltd, you quite frequently hear him use serendipity and “fork in the road” to describe his career.
For him, it has been the case of smelling an opportunity and going for it.
Co-founded by Vinayak in 1990, Feedback Infra — the company was originally called Feedback Ventures — is a leading professional and technical services provider in the infrastructure sector.
An economics graduate from St. Stephen’s in Delhi, Vinayak’s preference was to go to the Delhi School of Economics, but then thanks to peer pressure, he applied for an MBA programme and got into the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.
After six months with Pond’s — he was recruited on campus by the multinational company — Vinayak threw away what many would consider a prestigious job, to the shock of friends and family, not to mention his employer. Neither did he have a job on hand nor did he know exactly what he wanted to do. But, one thing he was sure about. “I didn’t fancy myself selling talcum powder for the rest of my life,” he says during a recent conversation in Delhi.
Vinayak attributes most of his decisions to an incident very early in life. When he was seven years old, he was removed from the comforts of his home — his father was the production manager in a jute factory about 40 km from Kolkata — and put in boarding school. That wrenching away, he says, from the comfort of a well-settled, loving family into the boisterousness of a multi-cultural hostel played a huge role in shaping his career. More importantly, it gave him the confidence to be the master of his own destiny.
Vinayak’s career has had numerous twists and turns, but he says his interest in public policy was stirred during his days in Delhi, first as a student at St. Stephen’s and later as Executive Assistant to Raunaq Singh, then chairman of Apollo Tyres. This is what helps now as he deals with a sector where the government’s influence is overbearing.
Dealing with failure
It was a conversation with his wife Rumjhum, who was then with the leading market research agency IMRB, that got Vinayak thinking. Two people from IMRB in Mumbai had quit and started a market research agency that would compete with IMRB.
Could this be done in Delhi? Vinayak brainstormed this idea with his wife and friends and thus was born Feedback Market Research, with Rs 75,000 as capital from the five partners.
Right at the beginning, the partners decided to address one issue that would impact them. What if they failed? “We had the courage to address failure first,” says Vinayak. “It was the social opprobrium and negative views that were our biggest fear. Not loss of capital. Not loss of livelihood.” The partners were prepared for this and thus their venture got underway.
“I never say no. I always say yes, I can do it,” says Vinayak. It is this attitude that helped transform a market research company into Feedback Ventures and continues to help Feedback Infra grab at new opportunities.
A chance introduction to the head of the large British conglomerate Booker saw Vinayak and his team getting into building a factory for it in Rajasthan.
It was around this time that India was opening up to foreign investment. Vinayak smelt an opportunity in offering Feedback’s services. With this, Feedback’s transformation into project a management company was complete.
Shift to infra
It was a chance meeting that resulted in Feedback working with the then Tamil Nadu Government on drawing up a blueprint for an ambitious industrial corridor project. That project didn’t take off in the form it was envisaged, but Feedback got a couple of more contracts for similar projects from other States. It was yet another chance meeting that helped Feedback transform itself into an infrastructure services provider.
What was supposed to be a 10-minute meeting with the HDFC head Deepak Parekh stretched to two hours. In the end, Parekh convinced Vinayak to focus on the infrastructure sector, where the opportunities would be immense. Not only that, HDFC also picked up a stake in Feedback. Now, Feedback Infra boasts of HDFC, IDFC and L&T as its shareholders.
Giving up ownership was not something that bothered Vinayak or his co-founders. “Look at the quality of shareholders. They give me business. They give me stature. They help me build the business,” he says.
Feedback Infra hopes to end this year with a turnover of Rs 250 crore. It advises clients on their infrastructure projects; carries out operation and maintenance of projects, including power plants; collects tolls on highways; is a leading civil-engineering design company for roads and highways; and, will shortly get into power distribution.
Vinayak and his team are clear that they do not want to own assets. They would rather focus on operating and maintaining them. It has tied up with a Portuguese company that has proprietary technology for toll systems on highways.
Feedback has five road projects under operation, which will soon jump to 20. The operation and maintenance division runs power plants in Syria and Indonesia, apart from a few in India. If everything goes right, says Vinayak, Feedback can become the Infosys of the infrastructural professional and technical services, including operation and maintenance.
What is Vinayak’s lesson from all this? “It is best to be confused early in life,” he replies. “I admire young people who between the ages of 17 and 25 are confused. It has the makings of a far more stable later life. I am extremely suspicious of people who are far more confident of themselves when they are young,” he adds.