Brand Raghu Pillai

| Updated on: Apr 13, 2011
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Raghu came and went like a hurricane. On the morning of his death on Sunday, April 10, Besant Nagar's Fifth Avenue, the road feeding into Olcot Kuppam Road near Chennai's famed Elliots Beach, where Raghu lived, was lined with cars parked on both sides of the road that stretched a mile long. Virtually every national daily carried Raghu's obituary; some on the front page.

Within hours of his passing away, his house was thronged by mourners, from the most distinguished industrialists to professional colleagues on whose lives Raghu had left a mark. Some 500 well-wishers shared their grief with his wife Janaki and children Gayathri and Siddharth. It is rare to see such an outpouring of emotion, particularly for a professional executive. But Raghu was not just another executive — he was an executive who had morphed into a big brand. So, what were the hallmarks of this brand and how was Brand Raghu created? Here are some observations.


Wilson D'Souza was already in Dunlop when Raghu joined as a management trainee. In their first national sales conference, sales manager Hegde, in his speech, attributed a statement to Raghu. General Sales Manager, Bir Angad Chaddha, was on the dais. Raghu stood up the very next minute and told Hegde that he had been misquoted. A hall full of stunned colleagues not only noticed Raghu but believed that that could well be his last day at work. It wasn't. Angad Chaddha noted that here was a young man who could some day aspire for his job!

The courage to speak the truth, the ability to take risks and never be afraid of failure were hallmarks of Raghu's personality.

He always owned up to his mistakes and often stood up and owned up to the mistakes of his people. Soon, Raghu built a reputation. If you wanted a manager who could take on tough assignments, never fear failure and always stand for the truth, Raghu was your man. Raghu was the best man at Wilson's wedding. On his meteoric rise to the top, he never forgot the deep bond with Wilson. Wilson added that if you saw Raghu's daring, you could never fail to notice his humility!


If speed is God, Raghu was His chief devotee. If a decision had been made, it needed to be implemented immediately. He had no respect for people who would cogitate over decisions and not act. Raghu always told his people, “Come to me if you have made a mistake, but never come to me to tell me why you did not act!”

His bias for action was exemplary and he created enormous kinetic energy wherever he went. Raghu taught his people to trust their instincts as he often did himself. He would take cold logic up to a point but ‘analysis–paralysis' was his chief enemy.


Arindam Guha, who worked with Raghu long and hard, says, “You didn't have to ever double guess Raghu.” What was in his heart was on his lips. He was never afraid of telling you upfront what was wrong. He never held back a compliment if one had done a job well. The same thing applied to Raghu's bosses. When you asked Raghu for a view, you would get an honest one. When it came to speaking the unpalatable truth, his bosses trusted him; because he was the only one who could transact it without fear of failure. Personal, professional and emotional integrity were hallmarks of Raghu.


In the early part of his career, mentors got drawn to Raghu like moths to a fire. He was a mentor's dream. He spoke truthfully, he took suggestions seriously and never forgot to acknowledge a good deed. He had many mentors and the reason for it is that they all loved this mentee. When Raghu grew in the corporate hierarchy, he became a great mentor himself, probably leveraging some of the learnings he had gleaned from his own mentors. Ashok Bhaskaran, one of his mentees, once said, “If Raghu asks me to jump off the seventh floor, I will. I know it will be good for me and, in any case, I know he must have put a safety net for me on the fourth floor!”

Raghu's ability to give time to his direct reports and those three levels below him as a mentor was legendary. Of course, his mentees couldn't make mistakes! If they did, it was Raghu who owned up.


I know of an old colleague of Raghu's who had fallen on hard times and needed help. Time and again he would turn to Raghu, often asking for monetary support. Raghu would assist him any which way he could, even trying to set him up in a small business. Over a period of time, I realised that he was not the only one. Raghu had a big heart for those who were genuinely in difficulty. He could help without seeking anything in return. And he would never mention this to anyone. Raghu's wife Janu, who has devoted most part of her career to those who are differently-abled, has taken compassion to a whole new plane.

Those of us who believe in the Karmic theory, know that Raghu's journey to help his co-travellers in this life has come to an end. That'll be the beginning of a new birth somewhere where Raghu will settle for the larger good of humanity. I must say there are many, many of us who join Janu and their children in this hour of grief. And for those aspiring corporate executives who believe they can emulate Raghu and go on to become big brands, here is a piece of advice — first try and become good human beings!

(The writer, a Chennai-based executive coach, has had a long career in the RPG group, where he worked with Raghu Pillai for 15 years.)

Published on April 13, 2011

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