From a destitute to heading a successful security services company employing 4,000… Sree Vidhya’s inspiring life and incredible journey.
She fell in love when she was barely 14, got married at 17 even before she completed her graduation, was badly burnt and thrown out when her second daughter was only 20 days old. Refused shelter by her parents, she rented a hole in the wall in a slum area in Chennai and began a new life.
Today, thirty years later, G. Sree Vidhya heads Ravindra Services as Chairperson and Managing Director, providing security services to L&T, Cognizant, TVS Sundaram and other corporates. But building a company with a turnover of Rs 22 crore, four verticals and 4,000 people has been a journey filled with obstacles and challenges.
As a Coast Guard officer’s wife she was “pampered for some time and knew little beyond changing curtains and throwing parties”. But soon she faced dowry harassment, and was one night doused in kerosene and set alight by her husband. She suffered 40 per cent burn injuries neck downwards, fought her “first impulse to walk into the ocean”, and managed to land a PR job in Trinity Hospital on a salary of Rs 800, of which Rs 250 went for rent.
The woman at the crèche where she left her daughter sensed her plight, and would give the child dinner as well as “a dabba of curd rice for me, knowing I had no time or money to make dinner”. Shortly after, she had to face the trauma of a court case. “I didn’t even get a decent divorce. He was Catholic; our marriage wasn’t registered under the Special Marriages Act, and he filed a suit to declare the marriage null and void, making my kids illegitimate,” she says.
Sree Vidhya held on to her job for dear life, and registered for an MBA with the Indira Gandhi Open University. When Malar Hospital opened, she went there with a letter of reference from her boss and got a job for a salary of Rs 1,200. After four months, she moved to Sterling Tree Magnum as Sales Manager at a salary of Rs 3,200. The job involved intensive travel and left her infected with chicken pox; but as she was refused medical leave, she lost the job! Her pleas of being a struggling single mother fell on deaf ears. Meanwhile the court case for maintenance came up before a Bench, and to collect Rs 400, “I’d queue up with rickshaw-wallahs and was too proud to accept the food coupon they gave for the long wait,” she says.
She returned to Malar — “I never left any place without the consent of the boss, who knew I needed money to educate my daughter”. Another challenge came in the form of an appendicitis surgery a day before her MBA exam, but she sailed through with an A! Around 1991, Dr Ravindra Padmanabhan, a surgeon at Malar, offered her a job at Oncole Cleaning for the domestic segment, a company he had “started for his midwife’s uneducated son. By then I was GM Marketing, and said, ‘Excuse me. I didn’t do my MBA to work for a toilet cleaning setup. I want to join a corporate’.” But she gave it a shot, found it going nowhere and suggested they upgrade the service to housekeeping for corporates.
It was a struggle to find and train manpower — “being a woman, supervising the cleaning of male urinals was horrible. But her mantra of top-class after-sales service paid off. From housekeeping to providing security services was a big leap, but “I convinced Dr Padmanabhan that it was not rocket science”. With the help of a retired colonel they started and consolidated the business during 1991-93; “but we had to maintain registers, take care of PF and other statutory things”.
Sree Vidhya’s candid and startling disclosures on compromising with ethics to run a business in India can’t be revealed without compromising her trust. She had to grease palms to get cheques from petty, leering administrative assistants, to renew licences and get documentation from Police, PF and the like. “Anna Hazare can talk about Bharat Mahan, but if you want to be in business, you have to make compromises.”
She faced additional humiliation being a woman. “During marketing calls they’d ask about my background; I wouldn’t lie, and had such questions tossed at me in Tamil: Saindram yenna panringa? (What are you doing this evening?). I’d tell them I go for karate classes with my brother! But they can torture you; they won’t give you the order… withdraw or terminate it... they expect you to oblige them!”
Now, of course, things have changed. “From 1991... in 20 years, I have learnt how to put people in their place.”
L&T opens the door
Her first major break came with the L&T group, but not before she was asked how they could trust a woman to deliver in a male bastion such as security. “Gift of the gab sometimes helps; I said at TVS Motors, it is not the Srinivasans who make bikes in the factory; entrepreneurs employ people and so will I.” She bagged an order for placing 90 people. Today she has 700 people in L&T, and 300 in Cognizant.
In 2001 came the biggest blow — when Dr Padmanabhan was killed in a road accident. “He was my God, my mentor; I was shattered”. His family was not interested in the business and wanted to sell it. It fell through “as they were offered Rs 40 lakh for a business worth Rs 3 crore.” His will said she should either be given her uncashed incentive of Rs 30 lakh or one-third partnership.
Living in denial, she would send emails every day to him till her psychiatrist told her to “wake up from my dream world”. She found her feet, bought the business after two years, renamed the company, and took the turnover from Rs 3 crore to Rs 22 crore.
No faith in men!
Sree Vidhya says she never considered remarriage because her faith in men has been shattered. “I was 26 when I was burnt and didn’t think any man would want to have a physical relationship with a woman with severe burn marks. Even if he did and found me unattractive afterwards, that would shatter my confidence, and I didn’t want mere sex. Sorry, but I don’t think emotional bonding and sex exist together. People like to associate with you for very different reasons. I have lost my faith in love... in men.”
Also, she doesn’t believe that the man “I would marry would become a natural father to my daughters. Someday or the other, he would lay a hand on my girls. I am very wary, having read a lot on this subject.”
Her company has now expanded into four verticals — facility management (housekeeping, plumbing, electrical); security division, which includes armed guards; a starting service or outsourcing for companies such as Ford and Bosch that want temporary staff; and a trading division for supplying cleaning chemicals and machines.
Today, about 15 per cent of her 4,000-strong workforce is made up of women. And her goal is to put together an all-women security team.
“One problem is accusing security or housekeeping people if anything goes missing. You won’t believe the number of white-collar thefts of high-end mobiles in IT companies. And if my supervisor has a relationship with a woman, it becomes a big issue, with the admin assistant calling for an inquiry. And this, in companies where my staff found drains choked with condoms — these people give moral lectures to my staff!”
“Gift of the gab sometimes helps; I said at TVS Motors it is not the Srinivasans who make bikes in the factory; promoters employ people and so will I.”