Thursday, 30 December 2010

The unlikely villain turned hero

Painting with a broad brush is not always the right thing to do. In the United States, virtually anybody who's in the finance sector has been branded a villain. They of the billion dollar bailouts and the million dollar bonuses. Near the top of the pecking order of rogues, in the public mind, is AIG - the insurance company that had to be bailed out at the peak of the crisis. But consider what's happened to AIG in the last one year and you may change your mind.

AIG's stock has risen 97% in 2010 - the fourth best performer in the S&P index. AIG was a solid company brought down by the antics of one department. But that didn't detract from the soundness of the rest of its business. When confronted with the crisis, it had a number of valuable assets it could sell. Top of the pile was AIA, its Asian subsidiary, which was a jewel. It has disposed of other businesses as well. It brought in a new CEO - Bob Benmosche, a rather colourful personality, out of retirement. Lots of things have been done well.

The US government holds 92% of the company now thanks to its 182 billion bailout. But it can now start to look forward to exiting. If it could realise $30 per share it could break even as the Wall Street Journal says here. If it could sell at $45 it would make a profit of $20 bn. The share price now is $ 58. Of course the government couldn't unload the stock at this price - it would simply crash; but it increasingly looks likely that in a carefully managed divestment spread over time, the US taxpayer might actually make a profit. Bailout should not be a bad word anymore, if you make a profit, but alas in the intellectually challenged shrillness of US politics, such niceties are unlikely to be observed.

A rather interesting subplot is that of the CEO Bob Benmoshe. When appointed he called Congress, a bunch of crazies. Fortune voted him the most tone deaf CEO of 2009. He demanded a private jet and took a holiday weeks after being appointed. But then, just look at AIG's performance. As a shareholder, you have to be delighted. Sadly, he has been diagnosed with cancer recently and in undergoing chemotherapy, but hopes to oversee the government exit from AIG and turn a profit for the shareholder. Recently, he wistfully wondered if somebody would call him and congratulate him , but then he realised the Ayn Rand's famous quote of " Find your Thank Yous from within" was perhaps more appropriate.

Appearances and name tags are deceptive. Convenient buckets of heroes and villains are not always true in the real world. Reality is often far more messy and not reduceable into a pithy soundbite on Fox News or the New York Times. At the moment, AIG, and its Chief, deserve a tipping of the hat. Why is it that you aren't likely to find many Americans who would agree with that ?

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Yuletide Cheer

Its that time of the year, when there is a nip in the air (or a vigorous bite if you happen to live in cold lands). The world is seeming an altogether nice place. Half the world's humanity is on holiday. Warm greetings and best wishes are flying around. Most of us are prepared to put the ills of the world behind us and, for a few days at least, look forward with hope and happiness to celebrate all that's good in this world. As indeed, it should be.

For those in the northern hemisphere, its deep winter. Both in Europe and in the United States, they are facing an especially cold start to winter. Many will have a white Christmas, even in places where snow is unusual. Its cold and blustery outside. Perhaps frigid. But inside, the family has got together. The fireplace is exuding warmth. There's food on the table. There's a drink to warm the insides. There's a feeling of joy and togetherness. The spirit of Christmas.

And there's the coming New Year. Millions more, who are not Christians, will join in ushering out the old and welcoming in the new year. A time to look forward with hope for better times to come. For most of us, the year past might have been a mixed one. Some joys, some sorrows, some victories, some disappointments. Although it might appear that the bad was more than the good, nature actually deals us a reasonably even hand. Its time to forget the not so good times, and cheer for that which is to come.

Its also the season for resolutions. Make them, many do, for the New Year. Most break them soon enough. But in the season of hope, its entirely appropriate that we try to aspire for something that we would like to be. For its only hope and cheer that can see us through the winter.

For some, hope would be a difficult emotion to drum up. Perhaps homeless, shivering in the cold. Perhaps nature dealt them a bad hand. But even then, I hope, and pray, that the cheer in the air will ease some of the pain and make it a little more sunny for them.

As you would have gathered, this isn't a post with a theme or a message or an opinion. Its just a revel in the mood that I can feel. And therefore an incoherent ramble. By Indian standards, which might laughable elsewhere, there is a nip in the air. Not all is well with the world, but there is the feeling of cheer and hope. Its a wonderful feeling. A moment to savour. A time to thank the Lord (or the stars if you prefer it that way), for safely negotiating the year gone by. And a prayer (or an exhortation) to stand by and see us through the year to come.

Pause for a moment. Sniff the air. Imbibe the cheer. Take a deep breath and feel the hope in the lungs. And then, resolutely, march on.

Xin nian kuai le !

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Au revoir Phil

How do you say farewell to a man like Phil, on his retirement ? You just can't. Period.

How do you even begin to say farewell to somebody who has spent 42 years in the company. No that's not a typo. The number is right. FORTY TWO years of sterling service to the company. He has seen it all - he's seen the company's many victories and some setbacks. He has seen people come and go. He's seen history being made ; well, he made much of the history.

Phil's an Australian and typifies everything that's great about that country. Sporty, fun loving, thoroughly professional, amazingly warm in a non sentimental way and above all, a wonderful human being. I bumped into him on a lovely barmy day in Sydney in 1994 ; an instant friendship grew that carries on to this day and will undoubtedly carry on for a long time more.

I could go on and on about his professionalism. He's the only person I have ever known who drove an initiative that was right for the company, even if it meant his job was going. He's amongst the rare breed of men who's untainted by even the faintest whiff of corporate politics. Scrupulously fair, unfailingly honest, brilliant at execution, but rarely bothered about acclaim - seeing Phil renews your faith that such people still exist.

But even more than his professionalism is his ability to build fabulous relationships with people across the world. Across nations, across cultures, across geographies. I've seen him in tough negotiations out of which would emerge friendship , not bitterness. He virtually redefined the concept of win win in a business relationship - in every deal I have known him to do, both sides won. Now how many people in the world can lay claim to that.

As he became a senior statesman in the company; his energy actually grew, not diminished. I've seen many brilliant people become cynical and static as they age in a company. Not Phil. He actually became younger. He became even more energetic, if that was possible . Every youngster was treated as a friend and equal ; not an ounce of condescension. He was still at the forefront of company dos even as his retirement was looming.

He has a love affair with India. He's been here many times and has hosted countless Indians in Sydney. He's taken us to innumerable restaurants for many a warm evening. He's taken us to the Sydney Cricket Ground to see Indians play. When all didn't go well for us in business, he stood by us like a rock. He's guided and coached many many of us during times of trouble. He showed us how to imbibe the wonderful Australian spirit of winning fairly. Phil's an Indophile in the true sense of the word. In fact, one of his granddaughters is actually named India.

Thank you Phil for everything that you have done, for what you are and for the incredible relationships that you built with so many of us. You leave a wide gaping hole in the company as you retire. I know that in your typical way, you would say somebody else will pick it up and do an even better job and that the business would go on. But the place won't be the same without you Phil - not by a long chance. And many will miss your presence deeply. It so typifies you that you would be missed not only inside the company, but by every outside organisation you have dealt with.

Many readers of this blog know Phil personally and I invite you to record your thoughts in the comments section.

Au Revoir Phil. Thank you for the friendship and wish you much happiness in the years to come.

Phillip L Cox retires this week after 42 years of sterling service to Unilever round the world.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Climb every mountain

If you are from the generation that grew up with The Sound of Music, you may recall this song - Climb every mountain. In that classic musical, it wasn't the most melodious of pieces, but it made up with some depth of meaning. Each one of us climb our personal mountains and this post is a rambling muse into how all achievements, big or small, are remarkable, amazing and, in many ways, the purpose of life.

Any one of us who has watched a baby take her first step can easily marvel at that achievement. For the baby, that step is like climbing Mt Everest. The act, by itself, is simple and one that the baby won't give a second thought to in the years to come. But at that moment, its a priceless achievement.

Big achievers reach stardom. They get much fame, but alas not always, some happiness. But, each and every one of us, achieve many victories during the course of the years. Small it may seem to the outside world, but giant it is in our own hearts. Every personal milestone, we cross is a moment to savour, to dwell on the wonder of life and take heart. Far too often, we fail to celebrate ourselves and recognise the immensity of what we had done.

Corporate organisations are notorious in putting down achievement on the mistaken premise that you must always set the bar higher and be in a perpetual state of disappointment. Every deadline met, every target achieved, every move made, is a moment for quiet satisfaction. Its amazing how the overwhelming feeling of every corporate citizen is one of anger, disappointment, grouse, and all things negative and rarely one of accomplishment, which should often rightfully be the case. Witness any water cooler gossip and you'll know what I mean.

Its not only the biggest winner that counts, Every winner, no matter however small the win , ought to justifiably take pride. We need to inject more of the sense of achievement, fulfillment, and victories into our lives. To counterbalance the despair, the heartache and the defeats that often tend to crowd out everything else.

Take sport. Ask anybody who the heroes of the Beijing Olympics were and 9 times out of 10 the answer would be Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt. Rightfully so. But to me Natalie du Toit and Natalia Partyka were equal heroines. They won nothing. But Natalie made it to the Olympics swimming competition despite having lost a leg in an accident and Natalia played table tennis for her country despite being born without a right hand. They made it to the Olympics on sheer merit; no allowance was given for their disabilities. What an amazing personal accomplishment.

I'll leave you with a sporting scene to savour at the end of this chaotic, jumbled up, post. It wasn't the Olympics or World Championships or anything like that. Its was a middling event of questionable global relevance. The best of the business stayed away from it. But four girls from humble origins performed way out of their skin and achieved an amazing result. Way beyond expectations. That's achievement to me. Turn up the volume, sit back and watch this; and I guarantee you goosebumps.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

All that glitters is gold

They say all that glitters is not gold. But today, that might be a slightly misplaced sentiment. Gold is glittering so much that everything seems to pale into significance. I mean the price of gold. If you haven't noticed, it has skyrocketed. And the cause of it is coming from an unlikely direction.

Gold hit an all time high price of $1424 a troy ounce in Nov. It seems to be zooming northward. I haven't done the math, (after all this is a Sunday post !), but gold might have performed as well as equities as an investment vehicle in the recent past. That's a little funny given the significant difference in risk profiles.

Cut, to a completely different angle. One of the fundamental cultural differences between Indians and Chinese comes in the area of addiction to the yellow metal. Indians simply love gold and can't resist hoarding it. Gold jewelery, that is. It is passed from generation to generation; safely stored in bank lockers. They are taken out only for weddings, when Rajalakshmis try to outdo each other in the amount of yellow they display. Regular readers will remember that the aforesaid lady is in a regular battle with the weigh scale. But for once, she doesn't mind adding substantially to it, by decking herself from head to toe (literally) in gold.

Madame Wang has different tastes. She simply doesn't like gold at all. She won't be caught dead wearing yellow; convincing proof that the nomenclature of the yellow race is a misnomer.She has a fancy for diamonds; especially those paid for by the male species, but that's another story.

End result. China used to consume some 200 tonnes. Indians gobble up some 600 tonnes. No contest.

No longer so. Chinese imports surged five fold in 2010. Consumption stands now at some 450 tonnes. The unthinkable may happen - China may overtake India as the largest consumer of gold.

What on earth is happening ?? Has a cataclysmic change happen in the gemological tastes of Madame Wang. Yes; but not what you might think. She still doesn't like to wear yellow. But she has money flowing through her ears. She doesn't know what to do with it. What can she do ? She gave it to the Americans until they can take no more. She started giving it to even the Greeks, but there are far less Marias than there are Wangs. Who else to give it to ?? So she's now started to buy gold instead. Not jewelery, but just plain bullion. stocking the stuff.

So here's a tip to Rajalakshmi. Start selling all that's in the bank locker bit by bit to Madam Wang. In a trickle. Empty it over the next two years. You'll make a fortune. And walk lightly into the next wedding !!!

PS. Yes , I know its a Sunday, but .............

Sunday, 28 November 2010

The quintessential bureaucrat

All bureaucrats are the same, but some are better than the others ! Each nation is blessed with a liberal sprinkling of "homo sapiens pointless bureaucracy-ensis". But the ancient land of India is surely the world leader in this matter. Meet Ramamritham - the quintessential member of this species.

Readers of this blog will know of my partiality to caricaturing a typical member of a group by a name. The Indian female has featured here so often that her name is now acquiring legendary proportions (pun intended). Having been accused of gender bias, I shall now strive to correct it with describing the masculine equivalent.

India abounds in Ramamrithams. Typically he comes from the state of Tamil Nadu or West Bengal - these two cultures seem to have a huge affinity for inhabiting the corridors of babudom. He takes great pleasure in designing the most elaborate and pointless of procedures. He squeals with orgasmic delight when he has the opportunity to add one more procedural step in an already lengthy treatise on pointlessness. The more the paperwork, the greater is his joy. The airport procedures that I alluded to here and here were designed by a particularly bright specimen of this tribe. He has also been behind the need to wave your photo identity card every 5 minutes at all and sundry - I think he is protecting you and me from an acute case of amnesia of our names and how we look. We shall pass lightly over the fact that being forced to look at my photo every now and then and being reminded of the passage of years is not improving my mood.

You can't escape meeting him. If you want a mobile phone, he's there. If you ask for a gas connection he's there. If you want a passport, a credit card ......, actually anything at all, you will have the full pleasure of meeting this wonderful man. If you are returning from abroad, and have to pick up the pieces of living in India, you will have the privilege of cohabiting with him intimately for a long time. Its now 4 months since I returned back, and he still hasn't left my house.

His latest fancy has been to give me his full attention in the small matter of obtaining a new credit card. He has decreed that not only should my address be verified, but my phone lines have also to be verified. Fair enough. Call me on my mobile, and you can verify it easily enough. He then wants to check on my land line as well. But then, our Ramamritham works only from 11.00 to 4.00 Mondays to Fridays. At that time, I am, alas, away toiling for my daily bread. Tring Tring he rings. No answer. He then calls me on my mobile and complains that I am not answering the landline ! Explanations of lack of geographical proximity don't cut much ice. Right; he can sit on my application grandly. As with wine, the older it gets, the sweeter it is.

I have movingly expressed my willingness to coo sweet nothings to him anytime on Saturday or Sunday , but weekend romance does not seem to catch his fancy. I have offered to bring the sainted instrument for him to caress in person, but his idea of intimacy does not seem to extend in that direction. I have even offered to overdose him with his first love - enough paper - to prove that the landline number is indeed mine , but he refuses to be titillated even by that ruse. He is steadfast, upright and represents the best of his tribe.

I hereby award the gold medal in bureaucracy to Ramamritham. May he flourish and conquer many new heights. May he continue to bring laurels to the country. And , no doubt, he will appear time and again, in this humble blog.

PS . All characters in this post are entirely fictional and the subject of this blogger's imagination and have no resemblance to any person living or dead.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Chicken Tikka Masala in Old Blighty

Chicken Tikka Masala is reputed to have taken over as the national dish of Britain. Perhaps the best example of reverse colonisation, although it must be said that overthrowing "British food" is not as great an achievement; such being the epicurean significance of the cuisine in Her Majesty's land. Actually its a Bangladeshi takeover, given that 99% of the curry houses in Britain are run by Bangladeshis. But we shall lightly pass over Bangladesh propagating "Balti"cusine" and such other monstrosities.

Stay with the chicken. British affinity to consuming this hapless avian is the only logic I can find (after much scratching of the head in vain) to explain the take over of Blackburn Rovers , a Premier League football team, by Venky's - an obscure chicken farming company from India.

Firstly the facts. Blackburn Rovers is a struggling middling football side in England. Its been bought out by Sri Venkateswara Hatcheries for £ 53 m , an Indian family firm, run by Anuradha Desai and her brothers. The takeover was completed yesterday and the team's home grounds are henceforth to be known as Venky's Ewood Park !

Foreigners taking over English clubs is not something new. It is mostly rich tycoons doing it for vanity - witness Roman Abramovic and Chelsea. They lose pots of money, but they don't care, for it barely makes a dent in their fortune. Owning a football club is like digging a hole and pouring money into it endlessly. Its the biggest dud when it comes to a business investment. Even Manchester United the most famous and richest of them all is financially in ruins. Nobody makes money except the players - its the only field where you can make outrageous salaries (think of a salary of £35000, ie Rs 25 lakhs per day) whether you perform or not.

Anuradha Desai does not fall in that boat. She is no playboy. She isn't a household name, even in India. She is known for prudently growing the company that her more illustrious father built. If she had a passion for football, it has thus far been well hidden. Beyond the usual blah blah that is made after any acquisition - we will grow together, we see a bright future, and such other rubbish, she displayed her ignorance of football by saying she is not going to pour money in to buy players. The economically challenged rabid English fan wants his favourite club to be owned by a zillionarie who'll write a blank cheque to buy every player on earth. He doesn't want to see prudent business principles.

There is zero brand value for this investment - can't imagine Venky's Chicken Tikka Masala in the menu. Sitting in the owner's box and watching Blackburn lose on a miserable cold and windy winter's day cannot be her idea of happiness. Back home in India, seeing handsome hulks sporting the Venky's logo on their football shirts is not going to make Rajalakshmi eat chicken.

Of all the bewildering acquisitions that happen in the business world, this must surely take the cake.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The sheer bliss inside the airport

It took us 74 minutes two weeks ago to enter the airport. It is now time to experience the blissful experience of actually being in.

Lets concretise the experience. Imagining you are taking an international flight out of Chennai airport, arguably the worst airport in the land. You may recall that the last step before being allowed entry into the hallowed portal is a painful check of your ticket and papers by an uniformed worthy. Immediately after you enter, within 10 yards, the same process repeats itself as you enter a fenced off area - another queue, another check.

You then proceed to yet another queue - this time to screen your baggage through an Xray machine . Not even in Timbuktu airport in Mali, which is essentially a cowshed, does this process take place. Huge queue. People on overloaded trolleys banging you from the back. Since Indians have a general disdain for queues, seven sub queues form which ultimately merge into one chaotic rugby scrum . And unique Chennai practice dictates that your bags be fed into the conveyor upside down - ostensibly the logic is that giving a through shaking of your bag is good for general health.

Having navigated this successfully, you then proceed to check in where it is an axiom that larger the flight, the smaller will be the number of open counters. No less than 5 persons will be at each counter - one operating and the others interfering. Inevitably each person checking in will have a slanging match on overweight baggage - after all every worthy has checked in with 100kgs which she is expecting to be taking for free. When told a firm No - she proceeds to open all her bags right here to retransfer stuff from one bag to another so that at least one bag could be left behind with the adoring multitudes who have come to see her off. So enough entertainment to occupy you for a full hour.

If you successfully navigate check in then you proceed to immigration. After the fall of the Soviet Union, India and North Korea stand unique among the league of nations where the immigration check for home nationals is more intense on the way out, than on the way in. He patiently flips through each page on your passport and wants to know why you are adding to his work by going somewhere - why can you not simply stay at home.

Then comes the famous security line. India stands unique in demanding that you put a silly baggage tag on your hand baggage which has got to be stamped - the most useless security measure I have seen anywhere in the world. Only one xray machine is working. There are no less than 7 people manning it - one feeding the bags, one seeing the stuff on the machine, one stamping that silly tag, and four resting. Just as your turn comes after 54 minutes of waiting, there come the cabin crew trooping in for your flight. They have priority, of course and you sigh as that lot jumps the queue. And just as you get ready to finally "make it" you are rudely shoved aside, by the Minister coming with a retinue of 12 all of whom have priority.

Phew. Past the security check, at last. Immediately your ears are bombarded with shrill announcements delivered at 1000 decibels and completely unintelligible. I am firmly convinced that the only criteria airlines use to select ground crew is that they must be completely in love with the sound of their own voices. Totally pointless announcements non stop, yelled in English, Hindi and the local language. Yelling for some passenger or the other to contact somebody or the other - and since they cannot get their names right, it makes for some comedy; the only saving grace. Announcing "boarding procedure" for a 20 seater aircraft which everybody ignores anyway. Asking you to check your baggage tack. Asking you to go to the loo.

The getting on to the plane. A long line has formed 2 hours before the plane is due to board. And since its late coming in from wherever its supposed to come from, its a three hour wait. Yet people love to queue up - there must be some intense satisfaction in getting on to the plane first ; a joy that has thus far eluded me. Maybe the fear that your seat may not be there if you are not the first to get in.

Aerobridges are only for ornamental purposes; they are not meant to be used. So you are told to stand on a rickety bus hanging on for dear life by the boot straps as the Lewis Hamilton wannabe shows off his braking and acceleration skills.

At last you get in. Only to find that the blighters before you have stuffed every available space overhead. The seat has basically been built for the pygmies of Andamans. You are wedged in the middle between two fat ladies who should have bought two tickets each to accommodate their bulk. Its 3 AM in the morning. Ah ! What bliss it has been.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

The bridesmaid's hour cometh

Beijing, everybody knows. Shanghai, is equally well known. But most people's knowledge of China stops right there. The more enterprising will know of Shenzhen. But then , that's about it. The rest of China remains a mystery to many who have not ventured in that direction.

Well, its now Guangzhou's turn to be in the spotlight (pronounce the zh, like a j). The Asian Games start in Guangzhou on Friday, the 12th. It was my home city, until recently, and so, if I may, I will dress up the long suffering bridesmaid, as the bride that she will be for the next two weeks.

You may know Guangzhou better as Canton. The province in which Guangzhou is situated is called Guangdong which the British , long ago, transliterated to Canton. Confusingly, they ascribed the name to the city, not the province. But, even in Guangdong, the bride is often, the brash noveau riche, Shenzhen. Even in her backyard, Guangzhou remains a bridesmaid.

But for most of China's history, when the culture turned inward, the outside face was Guangzhou. It was always the most open and outward looking city. The Cantonese traveled far and wide in the world. Most of the "Chinatowns" that you see in every city in the world, is far more likely to be Cantonese. The Chinese food that you see internationally is mostly Cantonese. Even the infamous "Hakka Noodles" abomination that you see in India is of Cantonese origin.

What of the Asian Games ?? It will no doubt be a huge success ; Guangzhou has been preparing for it for years. It will have the usual Chinese efficiency, but it is likely to have more of a "heart" - something the Beijing Olympics lacked a bit. Cantonese are like that - they are less regimented and more spontaneous. The writ of Beijing lies like a heavy hand, up north, but down South where Guangzhou is, it is usually ignored.

The sport will be tremendous. In many disciplines, it will be a virtual World Championship - the only events where it will be short of world class will be Athletics and Swimming. China will sweep the medals, like always, but others will have their time in the sun too. For India, it will be a thud after the Commonwealth Games - those were far short of world class and India garnered a rich haul of medals. It won't be like that in Guangzhou where the standards will be much higher. But there will be quite a few high points.

From an Indian point of view, the star event will be the unglamorous 10m Air Rifle Event. In the Beijing Olympics, Gagan Narang, India's best bet faded away, but Abhinav Bhindra rose to win gold beating Zhu Qinan of China who had won the gold in Athens and was the favourite. Zhu was inconsolable and is desperate for revenge. But Narang is in terrific form as is Bhindra; it will be a great fight.

Vijender will win in boxing, but Sushil Kumar will have a tough fight against the Iranians in wrestling. Saina Nehwal, India's golden girl may struggle. Three Wangs stand in her way. On her day she can beat anybody, but to beat all three of them is a tall order. The women's 4*400 metres relay team will win gold. But the real high point for India may be the emergence of Tintu Luka. She's the favourite for the women's 800m, for long the domain of Shiny Wilson. She's a truly world class athlete emerging under the tutelage of PT Usha. In the Commonwealth Games she stood no chance against the Africans. But in Asia, she can, and should, win. She's young and rapidly growing, and will be the star of the future for Indian athletics.

So tune on the Telly. Watch the sport, but also enjoy the sights and sounds of "my city". She'll be at her best and wonderfully beautiful. Viva Guangzhou.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Ah, the joys of an Indian airport

If you have had the good fortune to be in an Indian airport even once, you would appreciate the unmatchable joy of such an experience. This blogger is uniquely qualified to ruminate on this topic, since he has spent a substantial proportion of his life in the confines of the aforementioned entity. Unfortunately he continues to indulge in this hobby , despite numerous new year resolves to escape from this magical experience. Readers who have specialized in weaning diehards away from their addictions may please email this writer.

The enjoyable experience begins with approaching the airport. As you near your drop off point, you see a traffic jam a mile long. This is because everybody coming before you has parked his car right in the middle and has begun the process of unloading humans and baggage of gargantuan proportions. The famous Rajalakshmi (she of the gargantuan proportions herself) finds the act of getting off from the car a feat that might challenge Nadia Comaneci, and therefore takes a full 9 minutes to complete this test of human flexibility. Then comes the 13 pieces of baggage without which an Indian wouldn’t be caught dead traveling. Having done all this, its perfectly OK to leave the car in the middle and walk off – only 5 minutes saar, solpa adjust maadi. End result, mile long traffic jam.

Indian travelers love to have at least a dozen people to come and bid them farewell . Farewells have to be long and done many times to prove your undying affection to the departing. Hence the traffic jam of people , about 2000 of them, thronging and blocking the entrance. A few are waving wildly and gesticulating comically through the glass at those who have already gone in. The others are all in the various phases of the “send off”. One bawling baby is being passed hand to hand for an affectionate and rather wet cuddle. Other 90+ year olds are having their feet touched, or receiving an endless stream who are falling flat at their feet . Tears are flowing copiously. The departing are repeating this process for every inch they move, somewhat like an infinite loop that the coder spends his life creating (the probability being very high that the departing specimen is a coder; excuse me, IT professional) . Much jostling and pushing. Somebody has just stepped on my toe. Another massive lady has lost her balance and has caught me in a rugby tackle. Much waving is going on – on an average the much loved departing hominid has to wave 1467 times – I am not exaggerating; this has been the subject of 13 separate Phd theses at Harvard ; academicians’ research is usually on such weighty topics.

As the enjoyment of this experience is only extended to a chosen few, Indian airports try their best to exclude the masses. This is done by a laborious checking of a ticket with an identity card at the entrance. Since the guy who checks it is obviously illiterate and since airline tickets come in myriad shapes and sizes, he takes about 27 minutes on an average to accomplish the said task. And since the addiction of enjoying the airport experience is desired by many of the millions who throng India, this activity leads to a serpentine queue where you can explore your fitness by standing for 42 minutes on one leg.

After 74 minutes of an absolutely riveting experience, and one full blog post later, I have finally been able to come to the entrance of the airport. The even greater joys of being in, now await me. To be continued ……. !!

Sunday, 24 October 2010

The Ascent of Man

The Ascent of Man is an all time classic BBC documentary on the evolution of human society. Written and presented by J Bronowski, it was made in the 1970s and traced the evolution of humans into what they are today.

That was before the age of computers. And email. And the Blackberry. With the onset of such a revolutionary step in human evolution, the series needs to be continued. Alas, J Bronowski is no more. So with much tribute to him, this blogger now presents the fourteenth chapter in the series.

Humans will now evolve with amazing rapidity in the next 20 years or so , both physically and mentally. The right hand will now comprise of 5 thumbs so that they can all simultaneously punch away at the Blackberry. The left hand will evolve into no fingers and a velcro palm so that the sainted instrument can rest more snugly. The human neck shall elongate and tilt at 45 degrees so as to see the screen better. All teeth shall turn Blue, so that there is no need for wires at all. The most sensitive part of the body will become the thigh, so that it can sense the ping of the incoming email better. The thigh will be specially linked to the mouth so that it can drool as soon as as the next E Mail comes. The eye will come down in the human body, somewhere in the region of the navel so that they can be as close to the Blackberry as possible.

Sleep patterns will change into a series of 10 minute naps with a five minute break in order to check emails. Air travel will completely stop because it would be unthinkable for the human race to shut off the Blackberry for anything more than 5 minutes. Cars will be Blackberry enabled so that on the front windshield, your emails will be continuously scrolling through - you can reply through a convenient keypad on the steering wheel. Television programs will stop having ad breaks and instead have email checking breaks. Lovers will not hold hands - they'll hold Blackberries instead. And they'll pop the question via an email. The slap will now be replaced by a fully spirited heave of the Blackberry in the general direction of the offender.

The Church and for that matter all religions, shall fully adapt to this new world. You will be able to text God and he shall reply within 1 nanosecond - the ping shall be replaced by a Hallelujah ! The Bill of Rights will be amended to include the possession of a Blackberry and the right to get at least one email a second as a fundamental right. International human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, shall keep tabs on this fundamental right and pass strictures against China for not changing its script into a more Blackberry friendly one.

Afflictions of the human body shall also change. Previously deadly killers such as malaria and cholera shall become extinct. Instead arthritis of the right thumb shall become the bane of human life - the product of a million emails sent.Psychiatrists shall make a killing on treatment of blackberrymailopyschosis - the fear of not getting a ping on the Blackberry in the next one second.

The field of arts and sports will not be left behind. Whole orchestras will make music with thumbs dancing on Blackberries. Gymnastics will be decided by who can text the maximum messages while doing a somersault. The swimming world will be rocked by the news that the new Blackberry compatible body suit is banned for giving undue advantage. And alas, drug abuse in sport will not go away - steroids to dull the pain in the thumb being in all pervasive use.

Children shall be born, Blackberry ready. Kindergartens will be replaced by Berrygartens. The infant's first word shall still be mama, but it will be typed on the Pinkberry (for girls) and Blueberry (for boys).

This is Thiru Kung Tzu signing off with a modern day adaptation of a famous quotation from a long forgotten poet "Into that heaven of Blackberrydom, my Father, let my world awake".

Saturday, 23 October 2010

When reality pales into insignificance

Imagine a company which was for decades a byword in inefficiency. It pollutes like hell. It has 400,000 workers, none of whom can be sacked, although it needs far fewer. Most of the places it operates in are rife with insurgency, where the government's writ doesn't run very deep. Corruption is endemic. Technology is antiquated. There's a mafia which operates almost exclusively thanks to its presence. It struggles to transport its production to its customers. Governments set prices, allocate stocks and fix wages - not the market.

You get the drift ? Now this company wants to sell its stock to you. You would run a million miles. Right??

Wrong ! You actually fall over yourself in trying to invest in its stock. Welcome to the crazy world of stock markets.

The company, is Coal India. It is a government owned monopoly that has been around for decades and for most of that period was of dubious financial capability. And yet, for the last few days, everybody around me seems to be subscribing to Coal India's IPO - the government is offloading 10% of its stock. Even the famed Rajalakshmi, who's probably never seen a lump of coal in her life, is applying. The IPO has been oversubscribed some 15 times.

Does any of this make sense ?? Of course it does. The IPO was priced at a discount. There is an opportunity to make a quick buck. The equity culture in India is unbelievable. The aforesaid Rajalakshmi, for whom a Balance Sheet is a concept that could very well be from Mars, sits in front of the telly watching the stock ticker creep by on CNBC every day. Investing logic is derived from "buzz" - if everybody is doing it, I must do it too.

Coal India is a monopoly. India's demand for coal, and power is not going to come down for many a decade. Its IPO got the highest credit rating from CRISIL - the domestic credit rating agency. Voila - the ugly duckling has suddenly become a beautiful swan.

Everybody seems to be happy. The punter who's subscribing is waiting to make a quick buck. The government is grinning from ear to ear as the musical sound of the cash pouring in is heavenly. The bankers who "advised"" on the IPO have made fat fees. The employees are burping loudly, having been given the opportunity to make the quick buck themselves. The company itself is finding it wonderful to be in the headlines for the right reasons.

I am scratching my head in bewilderment. Did somebody say the stock market was supposed to be an efficient mechanism to allocate capital ?? As the Americans say, Wall Street and Main Street seem to be operating on two entirely different planets.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

We are a funny lot

Consumer behaviour is so complex that nobody really understands it. That's why there's a massive and flourishing market research industry to try and fathom this mysterious creature called you and me. Perhaps this is not so mysterious - after all the consumer is usually referred to as "she" instead of "he". And who can claim to fathom the mystery of the female of the species .......

Take the case of consumer behaviour in relation to plastic bags. When I first went to Guangzhou, I did the usual thing - go to a supermarket, buy tons of stuff you don't really need and cart it away in about 27 plastic bags . Since there are a lot of people in China and a lot of supermarkets, this translated into zillions of plastic bags let loose on the environment. Bad. Campaigns to "save the planet" yielded zero results. Mrs Li continued to merrily buy every kind of meat imaginable and carry them away in plastic bags.

The Guangzhou municipality hit upon a brainwave. Instead of banning plastic bags outright, as governments are wont to do, they simply decreed that shops must charge 20 jiao (or cents/paise) for every bag that the consumer wants. You would have thought that Mrs Li wouldn't care less - she's after all buying some 500 yuan worth of stuff. But no; much to everybody's surprise Mrs Li decided that she must contribute to saving the planet after all. She decided to bring her own bag to carry the groceries home . Lo and behold - plastic bag consumption fell by about 80%. You could still get one for convenience if you wanted, by paying 20 jiao, but you could also feel good about being responsible with the environment and bring your own bags. Great. Perfect mix of convenience and responsibility.

But then the same Mrs Li carries an umbrella - you see, it drizzles in Guangzhou virtually every day. And in front of the same supermarket which is shouting hoarse about saving the environment, there stands a pretty security lady who's wrapping your wet umbrella in a polyurethane cover so that the water does not drip in the shop. These are the extremely thin types - virtually no reuse potential at all and they are simply chucked. So zillions of plastic bags find their way into the waste dumps after all.

Why I write about this, is my experience being back home. There's no such rule in Bangalore; so our own Rajalakshmi merrily goes about filling plastic bags in the shop. This being India, and she being, shall we say, rather generously proportioned, there's more food to be bought !! So instead of the 27 plastic bags of Mrs Li, Rajalakshmi fills up 34 bags. And weightlifting not being her forte (in fact nothing remotely athletic being her cup of tea), she gets the shop to deliver this mountain to her home. Bangalore, with a questionable garbage disposal system, is literally choking under the weight of the plastic bags that its coders generate.

This blogger is of the view that he must make a small contribution - so he carries along his jholna bag (rather goes with the non corporate image being furiously cultivated). Try entering an Indian shop with a bag - you are branded a thief unless you can prove innocence; so stealing aids such as bags have to be strictly deposited outside. Attempts to explain green logic to Mr Bahadur Thapa standing at the entrance evokes total non comprehension. And even if you get past Mr Thapa, the checkout insists on putting the stuff into a plastic bag and then very helpfully placing it into my jholna. Environment be damned.

So what will work in Bangalore ? To make Rajalakshmi bring her own bags ?? Even if you are a genius in fathoming the minds of a consumer in other parts of the world, I bet you stand no chance with Rajalakshmi. So nothing short of a completely whacky idea will work. Readers are invited to contribute. Mine is to get some sundry frauds masquerading as god men to issue an edict that plastic bags from supermarkets are likely to result in arthritis of your small toe. The more illogical, the better - if its issued by a so called god man, it will be implicitly believed as gospel truth. Then maybe we can save Bangalore from being choked to death.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

There's a tune in the air

Even in the stupefyingly boring world of business, there can be music that can make you catch your breath at times. So it shall be in this blog, which has, thus far, been scrupulously clean of anything tonal , thanks to the acute tone deafness that afflicts this blogger. No, I don't mean the ritualistic annual day in Indian IT companies where 10,000 coders all try and do weird contortions in the name of dancing to music that is broadcast at 10,000 decibels . This post opts for a little more classical touch, for after all one has to act one's age sometimes. Nothing to do with business at all.

If you are not a connoisseur of classical music (the Western variety, that is), Andre Rieu is probably a very good place to start. He's a bit like T20 to the world of Test Match cricket. Still, I shall confess (no doubt to the disgust of one reader of this blog who will, I am sure, elaborate at length in the comments on my folly) that I like to watch and listen to him. He is a classical violonist who performs grandly in large settings with female members of his orchestra in colourful attire and with, shall we say, a certain joie de vivre.

What he does often is to go to a country and perform one of its all time great songs, usually the unofficial national anthem of that country. The setting, the crowd, the mood, the effects never fail to bring a tear and thanks to the wonders of You Tube everybody can enjoy this in the privacy of your home. Even if the music is a bit strange, even if you aren't really interested in anything of this genre, watch these videos - on an autumn's evening, when the sun is low and there's perhaps a touch of rain, I guarantee that you'll be touched.

So, here is a taste of Israel, a whiff of Australia, a sound of Scotland, a hint of Greece , even one from the US and a touch of Brazil . And one which isn't from any country, but is still breathtaking. All courtesy Andre Rieu, and YouTube. So sit back, turn the volume up , and .........

Now, my dear Chinese friends, you know not what you are missing. Alas.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Do they know what's going on ?

Remember Jerome Kerviel - the trader who almost brought down Societe Generale ? The French banking giant ? He was convicted by a French court this week, sentenced to jail and ordered to pay back the € 4.9 bn loss the bank suffered as a fine - largely symbolic as he would just become bankrupt.

No doubt at all that he was guilty. He had built an open position of some € 50 bn. He violated trading policies of the bank. His actions almost brought the bank to its knees. He was guilty; and he's been found so in court.

But what is amazing about the judgment is that it completely exonerated Societe Generale. They have been found to be not guilty at all. That completely gobsmacks me.

The bank admits lax controls, but said it did not know. You want to believe that the bank did not know that the guy was taking an open position of € 50bn ? Really ?? Of course they must have known. They just turned a blind eye as long as he was raking in the money. When the retreating tide revealed who was naked, they suddenly have lost the power of eyesight.

Correction. Maybe they did not know. And that's the frightening bit about it all. Financial products are created of mind boggling complexity. Competitive advantage of traders are counted in the nano seconds by which one computer is faster than another. The field is dominated by twenty something whiz kids with the brains of a rocket scientist. Even they may not fully understand what they are creating. And who sits on top of such geeks. Forty something, or even older, dinosaurs (like me ! although I am not sitting on top of anybody) who are too proud to admit that they don't have a clue of what's going on.

So maybe Societe Generale was being very truthful in saying that it did not know. This is probably true of every bank or financial house that's doing such stuff. And that's the really scary bit about this whole case.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

OMG , its a holiday

Hooray, Hooray, It’s a holi holiday – if you were a gawking teenager in the 70s, you would have probably tapped your feet in rhythm to Boney M. If you are a toddler, teenager, 20,30,40,50 something or a laorenjia (old old man), in China, you would instead be singing Oh My God; it’s a holiday and run for cover !

This week is “National Holiday” in China. Oct 1 is the National Day in China – some 61 years ago Mao Zedong declared the People’s Republic as formed. Never mind that China was “founded” long long ago in the mists of time – Chinese history begins with whenever the current ruling dynasty started – that’s the way it has been for all those centuries.

This is not a post on Chinese history. Instead it is a rant against the crazy Chinese concept of National Holidays. This whole week , a full seven days, is a holiday. All offices are shut. Banks are shut. You cannot transfer money from one bank to another. You can do nothing, especially if it involves the government. And since everything in China involves the government – virtually every company of note is government owned – it basically means you can do nothing.

Correction. You can actually do a lot. Go out that is. Some 1.2 billion Chinese do exactly that. Roads are clogged. You can’t get a ticket on a train or a bus or a plane. In every shopping mall, you can only stand on one foot ; there’s no space for the other foot – the only place you can put that is in your mouth ! This is also the time of the year when China is blessed with fairly decent weather. All the more reason why everybody is out. If Indians think they know all about crowds, they haven’t seen China – only Churchgate station at 8.52 AM can even come close to the National Holiday chaos here.

Heroic stories are reported of how police, volunteers, whoever have made huge sacrifices to be at duty and control the crowds. There will be the inevitable snippet of some idiot, who defied laws of physics to be wherever he had to be at during the holiday. And the tragic epic of another who couldn’t be where he had to be.

To compound matters, the Chinese now have at least three National Holidays. Spring festival, which comes in Feb, May Day week and now this first week of October. The madness is repeated for a week each time. Just a few years ago, the holiday would just be a day or two. But the trend recently has been to make people work on preceding and succeeding weekends and then give a full 7 days off.

This all looks a bit too much like the French in August. There are a million things that are great and glorious about France but holidays is not one of them. Why did the Chinese have to ape the French in this holiday madness.

So here’s a message to my Chinese friends. You guys actually work very hard. For all that hard work, you certainly deserve a holiday. Or two, Or even three. But please, oh please, not all of you at the same time !

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Hopelessly Stumped Banking Corporation

HSBC is a solid, and perhaps staid, bank. It rode the financial crisis reasonably well and generally stays out of the headlines. Surprising then to see it on top of the financial news for the last five days thanks to a messy succession saga.

Here's what happened. Successions in HSBC are very orderly. The Chairman retires to tend to his garden somewhere in the English countryside. The CEO becomes the Chairman. The senior most executive being groomed for years, takes over as CEO. All very dignified and solemn. The Board congratulates itself over many glasses of the finest bubbly. The money continues to pour in and all is well in the world.

This time the script went wrong. Stephen Green , the current Chairman, had indicated in May that he wanted to retire in a year's time. A search firm was duly appointed to recommend that there were no suitable outside candidates so that the pesky shareholders can be told to keep quiet. But suddenly Stephen Green was asked to join the UK cabinet as Trade Minister. The garden could wait. Off he decided to go, some months in advance.

So they had to appoint a Chairman "quickly". To complicate matters, there was an outside candidate who would be eminently qualified. John Thornton, ex Goldman Sachs, who famously gave up a shot at the top Goldman post some years ago to move to Beijing and teach at the Tsinghua University. He was already a non executive director of HSBC and apparently was interested.

In stepped Michael Geoghan, the current CEO of HSBC. He couldn't believe that they were really thinking of not giving him, what was his "right". He said  - No way John Thornton. Perhaps even, "over my dead body". Stalemate. The Board didn't want to give it to Geoghan either- he was a bit too brash and they didn't like him all that much. So if not Geoghan, who else ? The insiders were up in arms against any outsider coming in.

So they plumped for Douglas Flint, the current CFO as Chairman. But this left Geoghan in a quandary. His subordinate was going to become his boss. He wouldn't accept that and decided to quit as well. Up stepped Stuart Gulliver who was being groomed for the CEO's job anyway, but which landed on his lap some years ahead of time.

All round dissatisfaction and tut-tutting. New Chairman and new CEO, all in the space of one week. Of such politicking are boardrooms made of. Now nobody is sure if the money will continue to pour in. Or the flow of the bubbly, for that matter.

So here's material for a Kollywood typical, starring Rajnikanth as Stephen Green, Vijay as Geoghan, Surya as Gulliver, Vikram as Flint , Prakash Raj as Thornton and the delectable Asin as the tea lady !

PS : This blogger is constrained to disclose that he banks with the said bank !

Friday, 24 September 2010

Jobs for Life

Jobs for life ?  A quaint and obsolete concept ? Not even dinosaurs would think of such an idea ; Right? Don't snigger. No less a company than Siemens has done just that in Germany.

My first reaction was, of course, what on earth has Siemens done. Has it simply bowed to the pressure of the mighty German trade unions ? The power of trade unions in Germany is well known. The country has adopted a model for a cosy relationship between workers and managements. Confrontations, when they come, are often less intense than might be seen in other parts of the world. Wages are high. Its not easy to lay off workers.And yet Germany remains a massive industrial success; it remains the largest exporter in the world neck to neck with China. 

The arguments for flexibility with work force are well known. But why has Siemens opted for giving jobs for life - and that too in high cost Germany ? There must some arguments on the other side of the debate as well. There surely are.
If we turn around the people question to say that employees are "customers" and the employer must give the customer what she wants, then we start  from a different point of view. In the India and China  of today, the employee does not want lifetime employment because of the opportunities that abound. Its a moot point that 30 years ago, in both these societies, lifetime employment would have been a very attractive proposition.  But there are many societies today where lifetime employment would be a very desirable proposition. Worth taking a smaller salaray for the promise of a lifetime employment.
The workforce is not a homogeneous mass. Just like we segment customers in marketing, we must segment the workforce population too. There is a segment that will trade off higher wages for stability. If attracting that segment is interesting for the employer, then why not ?? Take a combination of lifetime employment, lower wages, long notice period for employees quitting, employer ability to lay off on grounds of non performance or indiscipline, and you have package not to be sneered at. It will also force employers to take long term views on manufacturing - all too often these days companies set up factories knowing fully well that they will shut them down in 5 years. World supply chains are not all that dynamic - witness the continued manufacturing might of Germany for the last 60 years.

Human motivation is not driven solely by fear. Its not just the threat of losing one's job that makes you work harder. Life gives you a perfect example of this. Its called parenthood. Every parent (alas, bar a few exceptions) would make seemingly irrational sacrifices for his child. Commitment and permanency are not dirty words in life. Neither should they be in business.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

In praise of Vaithy mama

Vaithy mama is a legendary figure if you were a schoolboy playing cricket in a certain district in the south of India in the 70s. No prizes for guessing that this blogger was one of them. Vaithy mama was the lone selector of the district cricket team and had the power of life and death over earnest schoolboys for whom being dropped from the team was the end of the world.

Vaithy mama's selection criteria were very clear. If you were a batsman, did your bat stay close to the pad; was the bat straight, did the front foot point in the direction of the stroke, did the ball travel all along the ground, did the front shoulder point to mid off, etc etc. Readers unfamiliar with this funny game can translate this as the good old way of playing cricket. Not the current day slam bang variety. To Vaithy mama, it didn't matter if the runs did not come. Did you play correctly ? Many a boy had got slapped for attempting a cross batted shot.

Such is cricket. It's more than a game. It represents a way of life - hence the English expression "ïts not cricket" . A world where fair play reigns paramount; where style matters as much as result; where the word gentleman is truly defined.

And then there's T20 cricket. I have had the unfortunate experience of watching the damn thing on telly  over the last one week. Call it the enthusiasm of the cricket connoisseur (?) who's been starved of the sport in the great wilderness of the Net Nanny's domain. And what do I see ?? Agriculturists marauding as cricketers. Attempted shots over the wicketkeeper's head. Ungainly heaves over wherever with both feet in the air, the bat facing point and the front shoulder facing square leg - picture the sight; akin to watching Govinda shake his ample frame purportedly in dance. And what do the bowlers do ? Bowl donkey drops in the name of "slow bouncers". Pray; a bouncer is supposed to scream at the quivering batsman's nose at 100mph . Not donkey drop. The sight of a so called fast bowler running in and delivering "slower ones" at 25mph all six times in an over is enough to make me gag -exactly what happened yesterday again and again. Ugh. Eeeks.

The sight that nauseated me most was that of Sachin Tendulkar trying to do all this. For those who don't know this lofty gentleman, he is the very embodiment of the classic cricketer. And yet here he is, standing in the midst of agriculturists attempting to heave and slog and looking like a ballerina trying to imitate the pelvic thrusts that goes for Bollywood dance. 

From what I saw two days ago, Vaithy mama would have definitely dropped Tendulkar from the team and cuffed him on the ear !

Sunday, 12 September 2010

The Right to no Information

The Right to Information is a fundamental right in most countries. Freedom of the press is a cherished goal. All very good.  But I think its now time to have a Right to NOT have information. I write this even though I have witnessed at close quarters for three years, the perils of such an idea.

Take the case of the story of the idiot in Florida who wanted to burn the Koran, which is the trigger for my post today. He is an irrelevant nobody  who perhaps has a dozen imbeciles who go to his "church".  Suddenly he has become a celebrity and has been interviewed and reported all over the world. And equal imbeciles in some corner of the world, who can't even point to Florida on the map demonstrate and threaten violence against America. That's reported on too. News has been "created" where none should have existed. With potentially dangerous consequences. The world would have been a better place if the worthy in Florida had been royally ignored.

A week ago, there was the tragic case of a mental case taking hostages in a bus in the Philippines. The media descended like a swarm of locusts on the scene and started reporting live. Each channel shrilly trying to outdo the other. The police planned an assault to free the hostages. Every preparation for this was broadcast live in graphic detail including the position of the snipers. The only problem was that the hijacker was watching all this on the TV inside the bus. Negotiators couldn't reach the hijacker once because he was busy giving an interview to a TV station on his mobile phone. End result - the attempt to storm failed and a disastrous ending with many deaths.

Dog bites man is not news; man bites dog is reportedly so. Therefore it makes sense for man to bite dog to gain his moment in the sun. All too many people are trying to bite the dog in order to get themselves into the papers. And the media is willing to provide the dog, sharpen the man's teeth, provide a cushion to kneel on for the act and are even prepared to pay him for the privilege of filming him sink his sorry teeth.

In a different way, the Right to Information Act in India is a similar problem. It was enacted in India a little while ago, to provide transparency about the government - governments should not be allowed to bury their activities under the cloak of secrecy. Many democracies have similar rights enshrined. Noble intentions. But the consequences are predictable. There is a huge number of people who have nothing else to do. Their pastime is to request all sorts of information under the Act. What is the weight of the the Minister's mother in law ? How many times did his dog poop on the carpet ? What was the water consumption in his house ? A bureaucracy has been created to cater to such requests for information. My tax payer rupees to amuse the retired, senile who has nothing else to do ? Thank you very much.

I strongly feel the need for a Right to NO Information Act !

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Small enough to fail - alas

I had never heard of ShoreBank until I read this article in The Economist. The Economist titled its article – Small enough to fail. I add an “alas” to my post header.

ShoreBank , according to The Economist article, thrived for 35 years on a business model of a small community bank that targeted lending to poor people in poor neighbourhoods. It actually had higher repayment rates and lower delinquency,  as any careful micro lender will tell you.  But then the recession struck like a tsunami. In the neighbourhood in  which it operated, the recession has been brutal and most people lost their jobs. Despite very good payment records in the past, they couldn’t keep it up.  Unfortunately its location in Chicago and therefore the association with Obama made it a political lightning rod. No way it could be bailed out. Alas, it had to go.

This article set me thinking on the risk quotient for small businesses. By definition, small businesses cannot be diversified in terms of risk. They will be dependent on either a small market, or a small set of suppliers, or a particular technology or a single currency, or whatever. Even if they are an extremely well run business, they can be vulnerable to a violent swing in risk parameters over which they have no control. Exactly what happened to ShoreBank.

It must be remembered that some 90% of all businesses in the world are small businesses. They are, by far, the largest employers in the world.  Are they fundamentally vulnerable ?  And therefore at a fundamental competitive disadvantage over big businesses ?

Traditional risk mitigation strategies involve either hedging or taking insurance.  Both don’t seem to be attractive options here. Can small businesses pool together and hedge together ? Can some intermediary create a product that can help make this happen ?

These days, I am working with a small entrepreneur whose business has gone bad. What he and his family are going through has to be seen at close quarters to be appreciated. Risk is an esoteric term in economics text books. When it hits lives brutally, it stops being a concept and starts to become something frighteningly real. Small businesses face it every day , in ways  that big businesses would not even comprehend.  And yet, risk mitigation seems that much more difficult for small businesses.

This is a muse, without a point of view. I just wonder if risk management products must be evolved for systemic risks faced by small businesses. And just one other thing. The next time you delay a payment to a small guy, or squeeze him in a negotiation, just pause and spare a thought.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

I have the right to blog in office time !

The blurring of lines between work life and personal life has been a profound change in the last 10 years. We may not have fully realized it as it’s a classic case of slow boiling of the frog. If anybody had presented to you what the demands of working life would be when you started your career, you would have recoiled with horror. But like the proverbial frog, we have all been slowly cooked to death.

E mail, and later Blackberry, have been the two largest causes of virtually eliminating the line between business time and personal time. I know of a senior guy who sets an alarm three times in the night to check his email. He may be an extreme case, but most of us are not very far away from there. Just look around when a plane lands and you’ll know what I mean. The office comes to us all the time. We can’t go to bed without it – the damn thing is under the pillow. We can’t even go to the loo without it. The day is not far off when we’ll be buried with it.

Imagine a business situation where you are at an important meeting. Perhaps with your Chairman. How would it look if you jumped out every five minutes because the Blackberry was pinging. Yet that’s precisely what we do when we are talking to our child every day. (Or girl friend, if you are Gils !) Business has completely taken over personal time.

The second major development that has contributed to it is the world going flat. Time zone differentials mean that conference calls are invariably at night if you are Asian, unearthly morning if you are American, graveyard shift if you are Australian and interrupting the fine wine at lunch if you are French ! That is after the normal slog of the 12 hour day or thereabouts (French excepted !).

A third development is the concept of working from home. Increasing numbers of people do it these days. That’s like opening the door to the wolf and willingly inviting him home. Or perhaps its just a realization that he is going to come in anyway; so why not invite him openly. Fair enough.

I am not haranguing against work life virtually taking over personal life. It has profound social consequences which will be apparent only after a generation. But it’s a free world – its your choice whether you want to do it or not. Make this choice consciously ; it does not make any sense to allow it to happen without a thought. After all, you can always chose to be a Prof !! (that's just to needle JS who seems to have vanished)

But this post, as the title suggests, is not about work life taking over personal life. Its about companies preventing personal stuff from coming in to the office. Like blocking Blogger and the like (for the sake of official record, let me state that the enlightened companies that I work with do not do that !!). Pray what is the difference between the infamous Net Nanny and this lot ?? I’ve heard the stale arguments – workers will only be browsing porn if there’s a free for all. I pay you to work; not to while away the time. The company faces legal liabilities if people use office computers to do irresponsible things. Blah Blah Blah. When you don’t blink an eyelid in encroaching on every available minute of personal time, why is it that personal stuff cannot encroach into the office ??

Sorry mate. Not acceptable. I demand the right to blog at office.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Zen Buddhism and the art of patience

You may have heard of the 100 km traffic jam in Beijing where traffic moved at 1 km a day - that's right a day; not an hour. This post is a learned treatise on handling exactly such a situation.

There's no point cursing or wailing. It won't get you any further than 1 km a day. No point abandoning your automobile to come and get it another time - whenever you get it you still can only do 1km a day. You have to turn to India for advice; for Indians love to spend half their waking lives absolutely stationary on the road.

The first thing you need to do is to climb your car over the divider (yes, that's possible) and drive at 100 kmph on the opposite side of the road. Since you can absolutely rely on 5000 other people doing the same, you will progress 1 km and then come to a screeching halt. You can also  confidently rely on the fact that people stuck in the opposite direction would have also done the same and therefore the street now has the proper order of two armies facing each other on both sides of the road. The natural order of things has been restored.

Having done this, you can now start a musical extravaganza by honking to your heart's content. Since everybody has fitted his vehicle with musical horns, the resultant cacophony has some solid claim to be labeled a philharmonic orchestra. The logic of such a comparison is that there is no discernible difference in terms of output, but we shall let that pass.

Having satisfied your musical sensibilities, you can now amuse yourself by trying to outdo the laws of physics. Some long forgotten physicist defined mass and such other concepts long ago. It is said that  only one object can occupy a given unit of space at one point in time. That physical law, that is valid throughout the entire universe, has been unable to exercise its influence on India. On the road; more than one vehicle can occupy a given spot at the same time. Indians have achieved this feat in their unyielding quest to perfect the tightest traffic jam in the world.

After satisfying your aural sensibilities and having altered the laws of physics, you can now turn to matters gastronomical. It is widely known that Indians in general, and the feminine species of that nation in particular, are , to put it kindly, dimensioned rather generously. This has been achieved by rigorous adherence to the philosophy that not even a nanometer of space should be left empty, either on the road or in the gastro-intestinal system. In order to ensure this, there is a veritable treasure trove of edible material in every vehicle that does little to nutrition but everything to the generous dimensions alluded to earlier.  They say love thy neighbour : so the same neighbouring car , whose occupants' maternal antecedents were commented upon adversely, just a while ago, are invited to partake in this national contribution to appropriate girth.  Such  activity can positively occupy the sensibilities for a fair length of time.

Having exhausted aural, neural and oral capabilities, we can turn to giving some rest to all the faculties. This is easier to achieve as the ample posterior that goes with generous dimensions has a pillowing effect that induces somnolence. Accompanying snores that rend the air has a rather calming effect. General peace prevails.

Having adequately recharged one's capabilities, we can now turn to , ahem, certain biological functions. It has  been adequately proved that the presence of fresh air and an automobile tyre,  in close proximity, rather enhances the experience. This matter, having satisfactorily attended to, we can now turn to the task of navigating the 1km ration in the day. Having achieved that miracle, we can start all over again. 

Blessed are the Indian roads and their illustrious occupants. Amen.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Two gems from the archives of Indian television

Once upon a time, long long ago, before gils was born, there was a time when there was only a single TV channel in India. Of course , it was government controlled - Doordarshan was the only channel and those who want to experience that torture can tune in to CCTV today. The powers that be in Doordarshan decreed that prime time viewing must be Krishidarshan (a program on agriculture, for those unfamiliar with the concept). But even in that era there were some gems which evoke nostalgic memories. This post is about one of them.

Apologies to the non Indian readers of this blog - second successive weekend post on a very Indian matter. But then when you search for something for long  and finally find it, you can't help but go a little over the top. I've been looking for this TV clip on the internet for a few years with no success. Finally found it. Yesterday  So the post naturally follows. Promise to desist from purely Indian matters for a while after this.

There was an organisation, now defunct, called the Lok Sanchar Seva Parishad. God knows what it did. But it did produce two masterpieces which were aired regularly on TV in the mid eighties and which people of that vintage will immediately recall. They were supposed to promote national integration, but instead of a boring , yawn inducing homily, they came up with two masterpieces.

The first was called Spread the Light of Freedom. This is what I had been searching long for. Indian sporting legends carrying a torch to lilting music composed by Louis Banks (ignore with a smile the passing resemblance to Vangelis in Chariots of Fire). It was a massive hit and every TV viewer could recite the names of all the sports heroes who featured in that film. Some familiar and some not so. Try and guess who they are - I'll post their names in the comments section after a couple of days.

The second was Mile Sur Mera Tumhara. Same theme of national integration, but a different style. This too was a big hit and you could hear people humming the tune under their breath.

After these two productions, Lok Sanchar Seva Parishad sank without a trace. But they achieved the unique distinction of a government department having made a few hearts beat a little faster. Happy viewing.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

A touch of madness in California

Californians are the best example of the concept that it is a thin line separating genius from madness.  The genius of Californians is well known. If there is one single place that is deemed to be the most creative in the world, it has to be somewhere in California. Many of the world's greatest inventions originate from there. Maybe its in the water; maybe its in the air, but something makes creativity flourish in California.

It is then a mystery as to why such creative people are adept at scoring own goals. California adopts a particularly virulent form of voter activism. All sorts of ideas are presented to voters in referendums and if passed, have to be observed. A series of such voter passed Propositions have made California virtually ungovernable, at least financially. Witness the annul ritual of theatre in passing of their budget.

In keeping with that tradition, California voters  passed two years ago Proposition 2, designed to create humane standards for farm animals. Laudable objective. Considering that California is well known for tree huggers, this is entirely understandable. We shall pass lightly over the fact that such a law would make Texans double over helplessly in laughter. In keeping with lawmakers' known enthusiasm for pedantry, they have passed laws to state that  egg-laying hens must be able to fully extend their limbs, lie down and turn in a circle within their enclosures.

California's egg producers are scratching their heads in dismay. In keeping with industry's long standing tradition of screaming foul (pun fully intended), they yelled that this was discriminatory and that egg producers from other US states would ruin them. The Governor dutifully signed a law stating that all eggs sold in California, wherever the hens might have laid them,  must be subject to the same rules - hens should be able to flap their wings, etc etc without touching other hens. I know Arnold Schwarznegger is more renowned for his brawn than his brain, but surely did it escape him as to how on earth could he implement this ?

Meanwhile the argument is descending into outright farce. Apparently if you build too big a cage, the hens get frightened and start to huddle together. Then of course they cannot flap their wings without touching each other. So what is an ideal cage. Fertile ground for research and a Phd thesis. More rule making and more law suits. To avoid this, some egg farms thought of making the birds roam free,  with no cages at all . But this causes even more problems. Dominant hens apparently kill weaker hens. And because they are running around in their own $@*&, they catch infection - so antibiotics are needed. That risks violating some other law.

The bird industry is no doubt lobbying furiously, with lobbyists doing good business. Equally so the pressure groups that want humane treatment of animals. They probably employ counter lobbyists. Nice good economic activity all around.

There will be less fun in the world without California. They create iPhones. They also research on hens flapping their wings, turning a full circle and lying down without touching other hens.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Excuse me, Are you Indian ?

India is 63 years old today. Well, India is several millennia old, but also only 63 years young. It is Independence Day for India the country, as it exists today. Bits and pieces have gone away – Pakistan, Bangladesh and so on. But a large part came together, as it never had had all through its history. People with different cultures, different languages, different religions, and even with wildly different looks, came together as one nation this day 63 years ago. At midnight on that momentous day, as the Union Flag came down and the Indian tricolor came up, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister made the famous Tryst with Destiny speech. You can even view a small portion of the speech here.
India’s independence heroes came from all parts of the country – as diverse as the land itself. There wasn’t even a common language they could speak in. And yet, they came as Indians, first and foremost. Not as Punjabis or Bengalis or Maharashtrians or Tamilians. But as Indians.
To my mind, that spirit of Indianness is going away. We are reverting back to first being a Punjabi or Bengali or Maharashtrian or Tamilian, before we are Indian. States fight with states on boundary disputes or sharing of river waters. Misguided regional parties taunt “outsiders”. In Kashmir and in the North Eastern States, separatists want to secede altogether. People die demanding creation of a separate sub state. A Central Minister hobnobs with terrorists because that might fetch her the Chief Ministership of a state – to hell with the country as a whole. 
You only have to look at the erstwhile Yugoslavia to see where this madness can lead to.

With some sadness, I searched for people who were Indian, who were seen by the countrymen as Indian and who would be respected across the country as Indian – not narrowly only in their community or state. Here’s my list of seven living Indians who truly unite us as Indians, one symbolically for each decade of independence.Counting down from 7 to 1

7. APJ Abdul Kalam - Former President of India and a brilliant scientist. He stands for the scientific community of whom India has produced many illustrious sons. They are Indian - Abdul Kalam was not a Tamilian scientist.
6. Captain Bana Singh PVC - One of the only 21 Indians to receive the Param Vir Chakra, the highest military decoration, equivalent to the Victoria Cross or the Medal of Honour. Bana Singh, the hero of Siachen, so much so that the peak he captured is named after him - Bana Top. He symbolises the Armed Forces a truly Indian institution. Despite the regiments in the Army being local (Sikh Regiment, Gorkha Regiment, etc), they are a national force, perhaps an example for us civilians to follow.

5. Ratan Tata - From the illustrious house of Tatas, standing for the business houses, a truly great Indian. Businesses run pan India and employ Indians. Do we call Ratan Tata a Maharashtrian ??

4. Atal Bihari Vajpayee - The only truly national leader living today. Respected even by his opponents. Power and responsibility came to him late in life - who knows what might have happened if it had come to him when he was at his prime. Indira Gandhi and he were the only ones who could have sold a Kashmir solution to the people of India.

3. Lata Mangeshkar - When she sang, every Indian's heart beat faster. Actually every heart who appreciates Hindi music, Indian or otherwise. Even the terrorists will bow to Lata.

2. Amitabh Bachchan - There can only be one Amitabh. If you walk even today in Egypt and look Indian , shopkeepers will call out to you "Amitabh Bachchan". Such is the appeal of this man. Hindi films has done more to unite India and make non Hindi speaking people take to Hindi than any other aspect of life. And nobody has as universal an appeal everywhere than Amitabh. When Kaun Banega Crorepati  (a wildly popular Indian TV program) ruled the waves, India came to a halt , even in households that spoke not a word of Hindi. Such is the magnetism, and Indianness, of this man.

1. Sachin Tendulkar - He has to be numero uno. Every Indian identifies with him. Its easy for sport to unite a country, but cricket does this to India in a very special way. Everybody rejoices when Tendulkar shines, everybody groans when he gets out. The nation holds its breath when he bats. Everybody rises as one  to applaud when he scores a century. To everybody in the land, he is the quintessential hero. He is truly Indian.

We, the post independence generation, must recapture the spirit in which freedom was won.  As Indians and for India. Indians first and everything else next.

Yes, I know, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson famously said. But I prefer patriotism any day to parochialism.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

To err is human; forgiveness is not an option

You may have followed the drama of Mark Hurd's exit as the CEO of HP; if you haven't, here's a good summary of what happened.

Hurd was very successful  at least in Wall Street's eyes, as HP's boss. All numbers, by which Wall Street judges companies were up and markets loved Hurd after the seemingly chaotic Carly Fiorina. But its rumoured that Hurd was despised by many of HP's employees, not least because while he was cutting costs brutally, he was awarded an annual compensation in the range of $50m. HP seems to be lurching from one disaster to another. After all the drama of the Compaq acquisition and the public ouster of Fiorina, sometime ago a scandal broke out over the investigation of press leaks from insiders that  led to the ouster of the then Chairman Patricia Dunn. Now Hurd is gone in another messy saga.

But this post is not about HP. Its about how even very smart people do very silly mistakes.Harvard Business Publishing carried this very good article of what makes people do such things. The amounts involved in Hurd's expenses fudging are sums like $ 20,000. He earned more than $ 50m. Why did he have to claim such petty amounts ?

We all make mistakes. We are, after all, human. Its so so hard to keep up to high standards of integrity. If you caught every person whose expense statements fell short of the highest standards of integrity, you probably won't have a single employee standing. But its incumbent on us, as professionals, to strain every sinew, to try the utmost. The biggest danger often comes if the amount is small. Its tempting to think that its only a small amount, so it must be OK. Think of the personal call made from the company's telephone. Think of the use of the company car to drop in to see a friend. Think of the lunches or dinners which are expensed, but in which no business is done. Think of the times a secretary is asked to do something personal. I could go on and on.

I've often felt that its the small things that matter. Most of us would not commit a big sin. Either we are scared, or our sense of right and wrong preclude us from doing so. But we let our guard down when it comes to small things. I submit that the guard should be much stronger precisely for small things. Its those that show the flaws in character and integrity.

In the business world, to err is human. To understand may be possible. Forgiveness is not an option.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Get well soon Brenda Barnes

The news came out yesterday that Brenda Barnes was stepping down as Chairman and CEO of Sara Lee. She's stepping down on medical grounds; she had suffered a stroke in May. May we wish her a speedy recovery.

I had posted sometime ago on The "Different" Brenda Barnes. She's a great role model for women who take a career break to raise children and come back successfully to top management. She's one of the best examples of women juggling career and home in a balanced way. Many successful career women choose to focus almost exclusively on their career. Brenda Barnes is different. She stepped off and stepped back again. Successfully.

Her stint at Sara Lee was a mixed bag. She restructured the company and focused it as a foods company, selling of bits and pieces. She certainly  developed a strong management team - the interim CEO is a person some readers of this blog will recognise from past association. But shareholders did not see success in the share price. Nevertheless her tenure was a successful one.

We don't know the details of her medical condition and we should, of course, respect her privacy. I just hope this was not caused by the difficult demands of juggling work and home. She may herself not want to be described as a role model for women, but at least in my mind, she is. From what little I know, I have admired her ability to be so successful after taking a career break to raise her family. But were the demands too much on her ??

Click here to read her letter to Sara Lee employees.

Whatever be the circumstances, we can only wish her well and a very speedy recovery. May she quickly bounce back to the Brenda Barnes of  old.

Meanwhile, to all ye women, who are doing the incredibly difficult juggling act. A salute, but just take care yourself . OK ?  Not meaning to scare anybody, but please take care.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Entrepreneurship Traits

Comparisons between China and India are sure to provoke a yawn . Its an overwritten about topic . However, when I saw a report in the Wall Street Journal comparing the Indian and Chinese entrepreneur, I could not, but help, write a post. The report says both sets of entrepreneurs are extremely bullish about the future. Both don't think the recession has not really affected their future prospects. Both believe their lives will be dramatically improved in the years to come. All very good. Everybody knows that optimism is in short supply in the West and in excess in the East.

The differences are also predictable. Indian entrepreneurs start out to "be their own boss". Chinese entrepreneurs start out to make money. Indians seem to be motivated to go down this route by the family and by role models. Chinese seem to be motivated by the government. Indians rely more on family financing or known investors. Chinese rely more on banks. Indians seem to rely on creativity to launch a business idea. Chinese seem to rely more on a market opportunity. A key word for success for Indians is "jugaad" - finding a way through the maze of restrictions and controls. The key word for Chinese is "guanxi" - connections with the powerful, mainly in the government.

That's what the study says. Let me add a little more, entirely unscientific and based only on personal observations. 

Some commonalities. Both will work extremely hard. Incredibly hard, beyond your imagination. Both will cut corners to succeed. Both will "exploit" labour, if they can. Both will take higher risks  than others would. Both believe in themselves; there's no such thing as "can't do". Both of them have an innate sense of superiority over all others, although they may not express it openly (the gora and the laowai are both meant to be taken for a ride, if possible).

And some differences. Indians have a bias towards trading and services. Chinese have a bias towards manufacturing. Indians are more likely to try something overseas; Chinese are more likely to try domestic. Except at the top end, Indians are wary of scale. Chinese are more likely to think bigger.  Indians tend to stick on and persevere even when faced with a dud. The Chinese is more likely to drop something that doesn't work and try something else. Indians are more likely than the Chinese to go to the capital market for listing. 

Both are fascinating people. May their tribes increase and may they wildly succeed. For both are responsible, more than they are given credit for, for the advancement their nations have made. For improving the standard of living of so many people. They deserve a wild round of applause.

PS : In this post I had unwittingly plagiarised somebody else's work. I have taken down those references and I deeply apologise.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Boy that timeberwolf was one ectoplasm deal

Political correctness has seeped into every facet of life. Witness Goldman Sachs's recent policy banning profanity from emails. Fair enough - it seems reasonable that employees should not using four letter expletives in formal communication. But then where does normal venting of spleen end and profanity start ? Apparently asterisks aren't allowed too. You can't say s@#*. You can't use popular abbreviations such as WTF. Where will this end ? I know where it will end. There will be a Chief Language Officer appointed !

Goldman's reaction is perfectly understandable. In Senate hearings (now commonplace risks for any company), the famous email from Thomas Muntag has been oft quoted  "Boy, that timberwolf was one s___ deal" - now you can understand the title of this post, can't you. This innocuous email has come to haunt the company as pompous and self righteous senators (whose vocabulary of four letter words is no less fearsome) have used it to portray the company as a big bad wolf.

Sure, anybody must be careful if what he puts on an email. Surprisingly, we often write something in an email that we would never dare to say in someone's face. Email provides a false sense of anonymity that leads people to drop their normal caution. Hence the golden rules - never send an email in anger. If you are provoked to send a stinging response, save it in drafts and think about sending it tomorrow. Remember that every email is stored on the company's servers even if you have deleted it from your mailbox. Consider what would happen if your email were published in the front page of the newspaper - would you be mortified at your language or not ?

But policing language seems a bad idea. Social relationships ensure that people would find their own acceptable language. What is profanity in one culture is perfectly acceptable in another. People who use offensive or vulgar language will be  automatically restrained or shunned by their colleagues. It would be better to leave the policy as bad language would be unacceptable and leave the group to determine what is good and bad.

Our respected brethren at Goldman Sachs may be interested to know that their dilemma is not new. It came to one Georges Remi, a Belgian. He was wanting to create a series for children in which one character was a colourful sea captain who was prone to swearing at the drop of a hat. But then, how could you get swearing into a children's series. Remi solved it in a very original way. Thus came the series of mighty oaths that have entertained  millions of us. Billions of blue blistering barnacles, ten thousand thundering typhoons, troglodyte, sea gherkin, blundering bazookas and the like.

Goldman Sachs employees can now send the email - Boy, that timberwolf was one ectoplasm deal. Its officially allowed.

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