Rasheeda Bhagat

Securing herself & others

RASHEEDA BHAGAT | Updated on January 28, 2014

G. Sree Vidhya, CMD, Ravindra Services. - BIJOY GHOSH

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. She left home 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”.

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.

Corruption galore

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”.

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.

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.

Challenges for a woman entrepreneur

“Oh, there are many, however tough or experienced you might be,” G. Sree Vidhya says about the challenges she has faced as an entrepreneur. The first was to get men to accept that a woman “can run an efficient security service using her brains and not brawns; I had to fire on all six cylinders.”

Then there were blank/ threatening calls from security guards she had dismissed for drunken behaviour. She would do surprise night rounds to check if “my guards were drunk, sleeping or playing cards. As I couldn’t get a licence for arms, I carried pepper spray. However tough, tall or strong… a woman is a woman.”

She received threats concerning her daughter, and sent her to college with a guard till she said: “Amma, I am your daughter; I will take care of myself!”

Whether it was work or the courts, “there are men who can make you feel terrible and shrink within yourself. Lawyers would come for my case hearings as though a serial was on.

"And when a happy and prosperous-looking woman deals with men in low-paying jobs, they’re out to get you. They would threaten me with termination of services. My feedback from the executive directors, chairmen of companies would be good, but the admin assistants would torture me for passing bills and giving cheques.”

Another challenge was to concentrate on her daughter as she went through a college education, while yearning for the elder one her husband had kept with him. “But now that she is married, there is much more bonding between us.”

Her suggestions to women entrepreneurs:

Don’t let self-pity take over when you see failure initially.

Don’t think you are less than a man. God has given the same set of brains, guts, willpower to both.

Have self-confidence. Women are natural multi-taskers, or else they wouldn’t survive in joint families after marriage, where PR, financial juggling, housekeeping, kitchen and other skills are required. Can a man do all this? He would fall on his face like a duck!

Follow your heart; it won’t let you down.


Published on July 04, 2012

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