In 1990, as a young reporter with a business magazine, I had met a grim looking Venu Srinivasan, Managing Director of TVS Motor Co (then called TVS Suzuki) in his office. The company was in the middle of deep and violent labour unrest and matters had come to a head when a lead bus of the company heading to the factory in Hosur was set alight and burned down by an armed mob of factory workers. In the bus behind was Capt NS Mohan Ram, President of the company, who had joined just a few months ago, and who the armed mob was gunning for.
The Capt just managed to escape as the alert bus driver backed away quickly. The MD had given me a photo of the burnt bus and the magazine had published the photo with my article on the labour unrest. From that quagmire, the Capt led TVS on a turnaround, settled the labour unrest, presided over a VRS, reduced costs, oversaw the launch of new products, especially its bestselling mopeds and new motorbikes, and put the company on the road to profitability.
That was my first ‘encounter’ with the Capt. My second was reading his recent book, where I saw the picture of the burnt bus again, reproduced in the chapter, A Day of Reckoning. A Captain in Corporate Wonderland is his autobiography of the stints he had in two large corporates post his stint with the Indian Navy and later with a defence PSU, Mazagon Docks. Capt Mohan Ram, a naval architect, who specialized in the esoteric field of warship design, quit to take the plunge in the corporate sector when he was 48 years old. His children were in school and college and family savings were meagre, but, there was a safety net provided by his wife, a senior officer of the IRS.
The Capt is a good raconteur as the book bristles with anecdotes and compelling stories of his times at Mukand Steel and TVS, bringing to bear his experience in the Navy on many knotty situations he found himself in, either in automobile design, handling fiery labour unions or in decision-making.
While many autobiographies tend to portray the protagonists as men and women of unerring judgement and superior capabilities, as he says, his experience was different as there were many occasions when he felt totally out of depth and wondered if he had bitten off more than he could chew!
There’s a refreshing candour in his story-telling which makes the book a compelling read. “A lack of awareness of the magnitude of the challenges and pitfalls might have worked to my advantage, enabling me to take quick and bold decisions,” he says!
A big chunk of the book is devoted to his days in TVS, considering that Capt spent many years with the group. He has delved into great detail on the travails of the two-wheeler company, first riven by labour issues and then by market conditions and the turnaround and revival of the company, setting up of a new plant in Mysore. The company adopted the Japanese TQC early on and went on to win the Deming prize, the first motorcycle company to do so.
Either the Capt has an elephantine memory or meticulously kept diaries, as he has recalled many little incidents and comments and asides which embellish the book and add to its readability. Like during the height of the labour trouble a hot-headed dissident tells him that “this is TVS and not the Navy and Captain-Shaptain doesn’t work here!” To which Capt replies in Tamil, “I’m a Captain, will continue to be a Capt till my funeral pyre is lit. You will soon learn what Captain means!” Or, when a wag calls it President’s Rule post the tough measures Capt put in place once the plant re-opened after a long closure. The book is peppered with many such anecdotes, some funny, and the Capt has even devoted a chapter to humour in the workplace.
The book has a chapter on turnaround management, a good takeaway for any manager facing a crisis. He has dwelt at length on the factors that can make a company sick and also on turnaround dynamics and the ingredients for a successful turnaround, given the fact that Capt was part of some successful comeback stories.
Check out the book on Amazon