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Case Study: From The Debris Of Devastation

“[Disaster] refocuses us in a very intense way… [...] people behave better than in ordinary life and [...] people find the meaningful role of deep social connections and see their absence in everyday life.” — Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell in an interview to TIME

Photo Credit : Shutterstock

Jimmy woke up to the loud banging on his door. The caller had been banging for quite some time, it seemed; but Jimmy was just about beginning to hear the distant, slow bang-bang-bang that grew louder as he came out of his sleep. Propping up on his elbow he looked at his mobile phone. There was no signal. How come? He turned his wrist around to see his watch. It was 2.30 a.m. The rain poured outside his window which muffled all sounds anyway.

His wife had left Chennai with the kids just last week as the city had virtually gone under water. Dreading the only dread most dry homes had, Jimmy prayed ýathâ ahû vairyô and wore his glasses and very, very gingerly, touched the floor with his toe. It was dry….! He whistled in relief.

The thudding on the door was now loud and clear. Jimmy turned on the light and walked fast to the door. He half expected a crazy distributor all drunken and all. The last few days stocks had been erratic and the market was down due to the rains.

Out there under a broken umbrella, shivering and yelling through the rains was Kartik from accounts. Kartik burst into tears and yelled, “Why did it take you so long? Water has flooded the ground and second floors. All gone. One side of the building collapsed …. And a short circuit triggered a fire in the godown…. All gone boss, all gone… come soon….”

The hair on his body stood on ends. Jimmy choked. His instant reaction was to hug Kartik and comfort him. “Was anyone in the office? Nobody was working late, na? Did you speak to Pandurangan, the watchman? Is he ok? Speak Kartik!”

He was even more horrified that Kartik had waded through waist deep water and come to call him. Most phone lines were dead.

Standing outside Rainbow Towers (as the three-storeyed building was called), his tears mixed with the rain on his face. How did this happen? They were in an area that did not come under high risk. But through Saturday, the situation had escalated.

Everything that Jimmy protected was destroyed. All records, cheque books and data base, including the payroll. The fire on the second floor did not make sense, but the water logging had likely prevented the fire from travelling down. Or what? There was no logic.

Devendran (admin) had gone to get Kashyap and Varun also arrived. Shell shocked, they stood in chest-high water , wondering where to begin the damage control, the return to normalcy….

Jimmy sat there on a rock, his face covered with his hands. How do I put all this back? But the biggest relief was that no one was in the office. Pandurangan had abandoned the post because the water level was going up. But he was the one to run to Kartik’s home in the next street.
It didn’t take too long for the dust to settle. Within three days they made a makeshift office in the spare apartment of Raman Sivaram at Abhirampuram. Kanchana had the humour to name it ‘Southern Region @ The Flat’ and then she also produced a rubber stamp to that effect which then went onto all communication including challans and invoices.

Varun Singh, Sales head of SR, went up to Jimmy a little awkward but mostly anxious. Shaking his shoulder lightly, Varun said, “Hey…” and then, “Whatever has happened has happened, but we will do it, yaar….”

Jimmy looked at him and said, “Yes.”

There was silence. Then Jimmy said, “We will do it…”

Varun: It is any other day for us, okay? First things first, salaries have to be paid. People should not suffer.

Jimmy: Yes, …. Oh! But I don’t have the payroll! How do we tell who has to be paid what? Which bank into which to remit… loan deductions are there, EPF, VPF these are variable… You get me the details, I will make the cheques, blind.

Varun had merely echoed Kashyap’s war cry: ‘No matter what, the show must go on’. For Varun who had just taken over, not more than seven months ago, meeting targets was very crucial. It was the very equity of Southern Region. So too for Kashyap who had taken over the region 10 months ago. As for Jimmy, he was new to his function, having taken over after a month of Kashyap joining. But he had always been at Southern Region and needed the fire of these people to light his own.

For the first time in his life, Varun produced a list of names, designations, job categories, bank account numbers. And against each name there were numbers written, Rs 6,000, Rs 8,000, Rs 5,000….

These were travel advances that the Sales team had requested. Not their salaries. The month was just over, they were due their salaries but Varun had told them, “We all need to wait and give Jimmy time to gather his wits. Finally, every document that is needed to run this place falls under the purview of Commercial.” They all agreed cheerfully.

It was an exhausting period for the company. In a short span of four days they had been through so much that it could not be fathomed. The flood and resultant fire startled everybody. It was one thing that furniture and walls got destroyed, that was expected from a flood and fire. But for the data base to get destroyed, was stunning. There remains nothing to show for who you are! The whole CV of the organisation is gone, as it were!

On the evening of the fire, Kashyap struggling with the water levels as he talked to the municipal and fire teams, stopped as he saw his 50-odd team members bunched together near a cycle stand. Excusing himself for a moment from the inspectors, Kashyap stood atop a boulder near the cycle stand and mouthed the famous sutra that he had learnt from the SR boys. “Guys…. Parava illai…(It’s ok)! ” And he smiled at them all in a bid to boost their morale, “But whatever it is, the show must go on… no compromising!”

It was the war cry they needed. The 50-odd faces that had darkened with hopelessness now brightened. That was the path breaking moment for Jimmy. He would make sure the show went on. He would pay the advances as asked in faith, in courage. The show needed his courage. Fearless also meant faith. He would trust Varun.

The accountant, Shivraj who had after copious documentation and driving down to Hyderabad, to procure new cheque books from the bank, looked concerned and said, “Give them the money?” And Jimmy said, “On my guarantee. If anything goes wrong, I will pay out of my pocket.”

Shivraj was overcome with emotion. To come together during a crisis and work together despite all odds, … was huge. Was his boss Jimmy crumbling? Was Jimmy, the stickler for systems and accuracy, letting caution go to the winds?

At The Flat, a lot of work was needed to ensure the Sales team was up and ready to deal with the market, so that targets were met and no stockist was starved.

Varun periodically popped by to where Jimmy sat and shared with him what was happening in the various areas, how the stockists were assuming positions … Jimmy for his part, shared with Varun the despatches. Commercial was despatching goods to the stockists without documents because the ERP was not available as support, hence the team had no way to know what was sold, how much was sold, … nothing. The Sales team had agreed with commercial that they would raise manual challans on the stockists and later convert them into invoices.

But they had begun to converse — business like, of course, but enabling each other. The private walls they had built around themselves remained. Even if they were conversing a dozen times every half day, there was no reference to history or behaviours.

The flood was a defining thing. It redefined all perceptions, relationships, behaviours. Varun reported to Jimmy that stocks were going smoothly, stockists were well fed, that documentation should not bother them, how successful the ‘joint endeavours’ have been…. Both were key to the success of restoring vibrancy back to the business, but neither congratulated the other, neither expressed personal joy or grief, neither smiled. Both thanked God that there was no road block, but neither gave credit to the other; it’s likely that they did not even have the energy or time to analyse why things worked.

No doubt Varun was ready with any information that Commercial needed. He obtained data for them overnight — something he would never have done ‘before’. So, he was getting information of people’s bank accounts their monies, their pay slips their deductions and all this was not easy to get.

The devastation had huge implications to the SR business operations and hence to Jimmy, Varun and Kashyap.

When rain and flood devastated Southern Region, all vendor details were lost, all cheques were lost, cheques which had to be banked the next day were lost, the temporary register which recorded the ‘list of cheques received pending banking’ was soaked and smudged, invoicing ability and data was lost; connections with the stockists were lost. What that meant in business terms was simply this: business could not be transacted with an audit trail. Transacting otherwise would incur the wrath of internal audit at head office. The SR had a centralised ERP system for different products with different MRPs and this was a standalone system. The price and product control at the stockist level was all centralised at the branch. All stockists were connected by remote with the central system. When you changed one variable, it automatically impacted other related variables seamlessly, so that nobody could tamper with the price. With the server drowned under water, the system was gone, all controls were gone and all data base that was linked to all this, including debtors and receivables, order status… all were gone. During this time they had to keep faith on the stockists and the Sales team that there was no disruption or discrepancy. So Jimmy had simply surrendered his audit mind and held on to the faith that the Sales team would not deviate from the advocated ethics of the organisation and region.

Jimmy was connected to the regional Sales team via his IT system. There was a whole network that lay under it all, which confirmed the ethical base of the business conduct, one may say. The business was strong enough to rise out of the debris of the devastation. More than the disruption, it was the shock that had seized the people who now asked in a dying whisper, ‘Now, what will happen?’

Not that Jimmy had surrendered mindlessly. But like a pole vaulter who lets go the pole after attaining the height, trusting that his training and practice that brought him there will hold him in good stead, and launch him precisely. Jimmy had to trust that the people for whom the system was created would continue to respect it even if the system itself was not there!

Varun too. Varun who had a small reputation for daring the system and cocking a snook now and then, trusted his own judgement to stay on the right side of the organisation even if the system had collapsed and trusted that a system-less environment would still not rein in his sales or prove a speed breaker; that it would silently work at the level of every conscience to protect the organisational framework and yet let sales take place. That same Varun who used to be casual and bypass the system in the presence of his people, now simply knew that they would not use the dead system as a means to get their sales. Somewhere Varun knew, the organisation would reign supreme.

Funny thing was when the system was there, both fought it. Now, when the system had collapsed, neither fought it but felt its presence in every of their move, like a shadow at night. Neither of them feared the system now, for the fearsome ogre was decapitated … yet present like a picture of a revered, departed parent on the wall.

Jimmy had not realised until crisis blew in their faces that Commercial’s job was not just controls and compliance but primarily be a facilitator of business. As he would tell his wife Anahita, a few days later, “It is like being reborn. I am suddenly aware of a larger canvas and I feel blessed.”

At the month end when the monthly sales meetings were announced by the various area heads in SR, Kashyap decided he would travel to every location with Varun and Jimmy, and say Thank You to the teams. At these meetings, the Sales people would take great joy in recounting how they pushed the sales, how they negotiated, how they nearly lost it, but how they won it after all. Their faces beaming with joy as they recounted, their hearts were greatly gratified that their boss’s boss’s boss’s boss had travelled all the way to come shake their hand.

Jimmy who was equally celebrated and his hand shaken by all the Sales people was overwhelmed by the fact that in and through this handshaking and back thumping and thank-you-ing, he had become a part of the Sales team! There they were all full of pride, joy, and a great sense of accomplishment, telling him, “Yes, sir. We did it sir, it got done, sir, it happened, sir, all good, sir, unbelievable sir….” And for no reason they were thanking Jimmy!

Jimmy was taken aback. “Why me?” he asked but in the soprano of their excitement his gasp went unheard. And then the territory sales head for Madurai was saying, “Commercial stood by us 100 per cent and allowed us all the leeway that was necessary. They had so much faith in us, the situation was combustible, anyone could have duped the company but Jimmy sir trusted us, trusted our judgement, our moves….!”

The exhaustion of the 36 days had already worn him out. Jimmy had practically lived in The Flat, which Kashyap had got fitted with a tiny pantry and some basic essentials like printer, and phones. But only Jimmy almost never went home, nor had he in these last three-odd weeks slept much. Now hearing the territory head give him credit, brought things to a rolling boil inside. The adulation broke him and hot tears stung his eyes. He did not realise that his actions done in a bid to save the organisation had had such effect on people so far away as even Dharwad and Hubli. What was more, Sales was giving him credit for the victory of man over an act of God.

That night as they returned to the city after visiting nine areas, Kashyap sat in the front seat busy making innumerable calls, for in those 36 days, office was wherever he was. On the back seat sat Jimmy on one side looking out into a distance that made no sense and Varun on the other side looking outside his window. Both were thinking about cause, effect and the causeless effect, that is, the unconditional support, cooperation, and large-heartedness of the office team. It was funny how the tiny cramped office @ The Flat had also broken designations, departments and other demarcations so that no one was seen as Commercial or Sales or Accounts or Admin. They all (including Kashyap) wore multiple hats and looked the better for it.

Jimmy was a policeman of rules, of systems and fanatical. Varun was fanatical about his goals and sales. If Varun was committed to top line, then Jimmy to the bottom line. Varun began to realise that when the system lived but paperwork died, there was a crazy risk of doing business without backend support.

That night, when he got off the car at the foot of his road and waved ‘Bye’ to the others, Jimmy was a changed man. He looked at his wife for the first time in three weeks. “How are you?” she asked deeply concerned and Jimmy said, “I am feeling very good…” a response that rattled Anahita. “I had only learnt one style of financial management from Singham — ‘not allowed, won’t allow, not permissible’ …. I had thought finance and accounts means policeman, CBI, detective…today I realised that unwittingly I had been forced to help the business and I had done it. It feels good….”

The next day, Kashyap looked at the makeshift sales chart on the wall of the kitchen in The Flat. The first month after the devastation, targets were met and Kashyap looked at his haggard team and smiled. Instantly they knew what that meant. Hands in pockets, he gave a sideways jerk to his head and said, “Come on, guys, let us celebrate!”

They went to Lara’s Theme by the sea. Everybody drank themselves silly and they were still dancing and shouting at 2 a.m., when Kashyap left, warning the security guard that no one who smelt of liquor was to be allowed to drive. Jimmy was a teetotaller, so he told Jimmy specifically: “Making sure everyone abides by the law is upon you!”

Jimmy was sitting with Raman and Kamba Shiva when Varun came and plonked on the bench along with them. Much laughter, pulling leg, cracking jokes went on, identities a bit blurred by the alcohol too. By 3.30 a.m., everyone had sobered and left and it was upto Jimmy to settle the bills, take a look around, check all systems before he left.

Varun looked at him and said, “Yaar…. ab bas karte hain…
Jimmy looked at him and said, “Hanh, yaar, bas karte hain.”

That was it. No reference to any thing past, to nothing. The topic never came up again. Varun had a bit of alcohol on his breath, and Jimmy told him they will come and fetch the car the next day and he drove Varun home.

Everything changed thereafter. From the very next day there was visible great rapport, great team work, great understanding, great brotherhood. No prompting, no arbitration. Both realised their share of mistakes, both realised that one event had brought them to their senses. Both realised what it takes to keep the business up. Both realised that one statement will close history once and for all. Bas karte hain.

Read analysis: Kaushik Gopal | Atul Mathur

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