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Leadership Is Never Dependent On Age

We have made Kolkata a load-shedding-free city, and turned CESC into one of the best-managed utilities in India

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The first major decision regarding my working life was taken by my father in 1981 when after graduation I was preparing for further studies. I was asked to go out of Calcutta to nurse back to life a sick joint sector fibre glass company in a distant city. I knew nothing about fibre glass technology, but took the challenge and soon experienced what it means to take unpleasant decisions — a leader in difficult days is a lonely person. But it soon became clear that people do cooperate if they know what has been decided is good for the company, its people, customers and investors. I also realised that although team spirit is essential, the leader remains a lonely man to take lonely decisions.

Soon came the order to move to Calcutta to manage a tyre company operating in India since 1898 — again not in the best of health. But people frowned — a 24-year chokra in charge of a century-old organisation comprising senior people from home and abroad. There was scepticism all over and a mighty English magazine said it is a Christmas gift of the takeover artist R.P. Goenka to his youngest son! Soon there was the realisation that leadership is never dependent on the age of the leader. We were pleasantly surprised by the loyalty, commitment and motivation of people.  

That was a memorable time for RP Goenka enterprises. But things do not always go on smoothly. The testing time came when we parted company with our NRI partner and decided to leave Free School Street in 1988. A difficult time with no worthwhile business opportunities in the city of my birth — Calcutta.  

I became determined to foresee the future shape of business and was confident that my seven-generation Bengal business connection must be enriched with a bit of history, mixed with philosophy, rebellion, as also destiny. As I began my search for new opportunities, I focused on a 90-year-old power supply company operating in Kolkata. I could also see how, with dynamism, this utility can regain its glory. Once an Australian corporate historian asked me about my father’s role in my CESC association. With hesitation I told him that the CESC decision was taken by me independently, not by my father. It was also against his view. There were reasons for his anxiety. CESC had given Calcutta a new name, ‘The City of Load shedding’. The company’s power generating stations were old and no one dared massive investments to create new generating capacity. There was no hope and the stock market also lost its interest in this utility. My decision was based on a Bengali saying — “Night is darkest before dawn”.

My father was most reluctant and when I told him I had closed the deal, he did not eat dinner with me for two days out of anger and disgust. I was fortunate in having the support and blessings of my mother, but father was reluctant. Some of the points I raised to persuade my father was that this was a wonderful opportunity to show what could  be achieved by a committed management.

Around this time a call came from the state’s CM who was not very enthusiastic about our participation. Before meeting the CM, my father asked, “What should I tell him?”

I was greatly relieved when the CM’s approval was finally granted. But there were many more hurdles to cross. Opposition from the employees was one of them; the day I entered the then Victoria House (now CESC House) my effigy was burnt.

But there was a spectacular change in attitude. Looking back, we have not only made Kolkata a load-shedding-free city, but turned CESC into one of the best-managed utilities in the country in all respects — generation, distribution, service to consumers, billing and you name it.

Today, I am proud that CESC is a name to reckon with and we have achieved backward integration with coal mining. Our huge investment in power generation has proved extremely useful and our distribution expertise is getting extended to faraway places.

I really do not know how I shall explain my source of inspiration. Inspiration comes from different sources at different times. For me, my father has been the source of inspiration and guidance.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Sanjiv Goenka

The author is Chairman, RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group

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