“We will provide you with the right equipment at the right time,” is the mantra that has brought Shailendra Kalra, director, Livingston India Pvt Ltd, a long way and helped him become a successful entrepreneur in the T&M industry. In a lively conversation with Sudeshna Das, senior executive editor, EFY Group and Baishakhi Dutta, business journalist for Electronics Bazaar, he shares his exhilarating 22-year journey in the business.
Year of birth: 1973
Favourite music: Rock
Favourite musicians: Richard Marx, Bryan Adams, Def Leppard, The Strings, Gulzar
Favourite movie: Rock On
Favourite actor: Aamir Khan
Favourite actresses: Madhuri Dixit, Deepika Padukone
Favourite political leader: Russian president, Vladimir Putin
Favourite food: Chicken tandoori (has opted for vegetarian food for the last few months)
Favourite book: ‘Conquering the Chaos’ by Ravi Venkatesan
I was born and brought up in Delhi and had a very normal childhood. I was a happy-go-lucky kind of child but an introvert till the age of 13. That’s when I was pushed into sports by my father, who felt I would make friends in the process. Between the age of 13 and 17, I was more of a sportsperson than anything else. Unlike today’s kids, who are very clear about their future plans and what to do with their lives, I had no plans for what I wanted to become when I grew up. All I could think of at that time was football and badminton.
I passed my board examinations from Delhi Public School, R.K. Puram, in New Delhi. After passing out from school, I had wanted to be a chemical engineer. For some reason, I had an inclination towards mixing medicines and chemicals, trying out something or the other and finding out what the output was. When I went on to do chemical engineering at the University of Pune, the principal of the college told me that the university was launching its electronics and communications branch, and enquired if I was interested, since much growth and opportunities were expected from this new branch of science. I declined the offer since I wanted to be a chemical engineer. So I got into engineering, the first year of which is common for all branches. It’s only at the end of the first year that you take a call on which domain you want to pursue further. Though, initially, I’d been clear about wanting to be a chemical engineer, by the end of the first year, I started developing an interest in subjects related to electronics.
Back in 1991, my uncle was a telecommunications engineer and was working for the Department of Telecommunications. He used to take me to his office and show me how things worked there, since I was very interested in what he was doing, and particularly, how a telephone call was made. It was he who managed to get me interested in electronics and convinced me that the field had a lot of opportunities to offer. So I took up electronics engineering and ended up as a communications engineer in 1995.
I did my masters in International Business at the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade (IIFT) in Delhi.
Both my parents were government employees. My father is an ex-banker and my mother is from the Department of Telecommunications, and used to work for MTNL. She was mostly associated with the administrative rather than the engineering side. I have a younger sister who is an entrepreneur and runs her own business in a very different domain—beauty and health. My wife is a doctor at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). I have two daughters, eight and 12 years old.
There are many people who’ve had an influence on me, each in their own way. My biggest idol is my father, who still continues to inspire me, for he is a man who has this never-give-up kind of attitude. That is something I have inherited from him. Then comes the former CEO of Livingston. It’s from him that I learnt how to deal with people. He had a knack for spotting the right talent. He taught me how to stay calm during critical situations, build up a team with the right people and how to work with them, closely. The current CEO of Microlease, which is what our company is known as globally, has had a profound impact on me in just a few meetings that I have had with him. The most important thing that I have learnt from him is how to work fearlessly and deal with failures. This, I think, has helped me take better decisions and keep moving the business in the right direction. These two people have undoubtedly played a vital role in shaping me. Apart from them, in my 22-year career, there have been many people who continue to inspire me in every possible way. I draw a lot of inspiration from some of the global leaders like Rajeev Suri, CEO of Nokia and Steve Jobs , the former founder and CEO of Apple.
Ideals I live by
I believe that one must do good to people without having any expectations in return. These past 22 years have taught me that the most complex problems usually have the simplest solutions, and this belief is something that I have started to live by. I also believe that one must keep learning in every possible way.
Turning into a business leader
I started my career in the telecommunications domain by joining HFCL (Himachal Futuristic Communications Ltd – International Division). The company was executing turnkey projects for Essar Telecom in Delhi and Punjab. I became a microwave planning engineer and that was my introduction to the telecommunications field. The wireless networks were rolled out during that time, and then GSM came to India. I was lucky that I had graduated at the right time and got an opportunity to work on building some of the first GSM networks in the country. I first worked on setting up the network for Essar in Delhi and then in Punjab.
I then moved to Airtel, where I worked on the technical side, and was involved with network planning, designing and optimisation. In 1999, I left India and joined Nokia in the Netherlands. For the next three years, I was globetrotting. That gave me a lot of exposure and experience. I got a chance to go to various countries and work there, learning about their different cultures. I worked across the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and the US. It was during this time that I got married. Since my wife is a doctor and wanted to pursue her career, we decided to move back to India. Here, I joined Nokia again and continued to work in the technical domain.
While at Nokia, I held various positions starting from network planning to system marketing to account management and then sales directorship. The years that I spent in these different roles gave me a solid exposure and understanding of various aspects of the business and the industry and have played a crucial role in shaping up my career.
After working for 11 years with Nokia, I finally moved to Alcatel-Lucent in 2010. What drove this change was a need to look at the world through a different set of eyes and broaden my horizon. I worked as a sales director for Alcatel Lucent for two years and gained a good understanding of what it means to be a challenger in the market. During this time, the thought of creating and building something out of nothing started occupying a lot of space in my head. I started to feel that there were opportunities out there in the market and areas of business where I could contribute and build with all the experience that I had gained at Nokia and Alcatel Lucent.
This is when, Livingston happened to me. The major reason behind my joining this firm was that, at that time, it was a mere startup in India (though it had a significant presence in Europe) and it gave me an opportunity to work as an entrepreneur in a business segment that was niche and relatively not so well understood by the industry. It allowed me to take decisions and build solutions that were actually very flexible and agile to cater to the markets’needs.
My 22 year’s experience has taught me that the most complex problems usually have the simplest solutions, and this belief is something that I have started to live by.
My journey so far at Livingston
In 2012, I joined Livingston as a director. We were a very small team of just six people with a very low turnover of around US$ 150,000. Joining this company was my real introduction to the T&M world. In the last four years, we have managed to grow quite significantly and touched a turnover of nearly US$ 6 million by working with almost all the major OEMs. Our unique selling proposition has been that we don’t sell equipment, but, according to our tagline, “We will provide you with the right equipment at the right time.”
During 2012-13, the telecommunications sector was still sluggish, poised on the threshold of growth. And it was during this period that Livingston grew and stood out in the market. The most important thing we introduced was the opex based model for sourcing T&M equipment. When people were sceptical and not ready to invest much, Livingston came up with this innovative concept of offering equipment on rent, which could be used for the duration of the testing period, instead of making heavy investments to buy it. The timing was correct. We also had the backing from the parent company in the UK. With a lot of management focus, the huge inventory base that we were sitting on was leveraged for India, to help the T&M industry evolve.
Now, I find it very interesting to work in this domain since I’ve realised what an impact the T&M industry can actually make and what the challenges are that we need to overcome.
Contributions to the industry
Livingston does all the sourcing of the test equipment. Starting from small handheld tools, to very high end equipment, we make it a lot easier for companies. Apart from just buying that equipment outright, there are many flexible options that they can get from Livingston. This enables them to move on with their project rather than spending days and months over the decision on whether or not to buy the equipment. This flexibility has helped in the decision making procedure and has become the prime driver of the T&M industry.
In the last two years, we have been fairly active in the R&F semiconductor segment because many such companies are coming up in Bengaluru, and I see Livingston playing a big role in this whole ‘Make in India’ movement. If we travel southwards, plenty of startups have emerged, designing some wonderful products and therefore need test equipment to validate these. Most of the time, budgetary constraints prevent them from acquiring test equipment and that’s where we come into the picture. So, if I am to look at the whole ecosystem that is developing in the country around Digital India and the Make in India initiative from a macro level, I would say a company like ours is an enabler to the whole ongoing movement.
Twenty-two years in this industry has been a fun ride. It was undoubtedly a learning experience and a very satisfying one at that.
As we gain more experience and grow a little older, we realise what an impact our work has had on the lives of people and, at times, I feel proud about being a part of this whole revolution that took place in the telecom world from 1995 onwards. Now, when I look back, I do feel satisfied about the contributions that I have made for the benefit of society.
My management style is very open and inclusive. Sometimes, when I can foresee problems coming our way, I move to prevent them. The business environment is changing too fast and therefore certain things need to be driven, which is when I become directive. The key characteristic of my management style is ‘being inclusive’. So my entire team is a part of what we aspire to do, how we do it and what decisions we try to take.
Preferable work environment
I prefer an open, transparent and performance-driven work environment accompanied by accountability. I think one of the key ingredients and characteristics that I look for, and try to create in the work environment that I provide to my people, is fearlessness. I prefer my team working devoid of fear. I want them to be free from the fear of failure, and that is exactly what keeps us going and keeps the entrepreneurial spirit alive. This, in turn, also helps us in keeping the innovation spirit alive.
Selection of the right team members
The most difficult part of my job is building up my team, and this is something that I have been learning about, continuously. We grew from a company of six people in India to a 24-member team. People of different ages are a part of my team— the youngest being 26 and the oldest 47 years. People of every age group have built up this team. In selecting the senior people, whom we call the management team, I look for those who have the zeal to succeed and the desire to keep learning. If I see that a person wants to get somewhere, is willing to take risks and to devote and commit himself, it encourages me to hire that person as a part of my team.
Motivating my team
I try to live by example. I generally lead from the front and be with the team. I believe in appreciating and rewarding their efforts. Respect for each other and maintaining one’s dignity is very crucial. I think the biggest motivation for my team is its fearless attitude and the notion that it’s okay to fail after making an effort, for one can definitely start off again in a new manner, do better and succeed eventually. This is the actual spirit that keeps my team going.
I feel I could have been a motivational speaker. I think I have the ability to motivate people and get them going.
One thing that I would like to change in myself
I would want to be a musician if given another life, since music is my hobby. I have been trying to play the guitar for the last two to three years. But it’s difficult to do this with my busy schedule, since I do not want to steal time away from my family for this purpose. I am still in the learning phase, but I am able to play a little.
Five years down the line
On the personal front, I definitely see myself playing the guitar at a musical gig, in my city. That’s the plan for the upcoming two to three years. Professionally, I think I probably would be a motivational speaker, somewhere.
Message to budding entrepreneurs
My advice to the new players in the field is not to be afraid of failure, for that is a part of the game. Aiming high is very crucial for ultimately reaching your destiny. It is important to aim high but also to keep your feet on the ground.