AG Rohira, a successful bankerturned businessman and now, president of ELCINA, has many feathers in his cap. The dynamic 69-year-old shares with us his triumphant journey
In the event of the partition of India, we Sindhis were uprooted from our motherland—now Pakistan—and arrived in India empty handed, with no place to call home. After living in refugee camps, my family migrated to Bengaluru, as my sister got married to a Sindhi boy in Mysore. Due to the given circumstances, my education started late, at the age of nine, and in order to catch up with students of my age I had to jump many classes. With just eight years of schooling, I managed to clear my matriculation at the age of 17. Thereafter, I graduated in commerce from Bengaluru University. I topped the university with a first class rank and attribute this success to God’s grace and my innovative approach towards examinations.
Along with studies, I was also good at co-curricular activities and held several official positions in school and college. I participated in several debates, competitions and general knowledge quizzes and won accolades for my performance. I remember having gotten my first suit stitched with the prize money I received for an essay I wrote on “What I think of Russia”, which was later published in a book called, What we Indians think of Russia. I was a voracious reader, particularly of Irwing Wallace and Sheldon. I believe that we are all students of life and have to keep our minds open for new learning experiences.
A grassroots banker
Though I started my education late in life, my professional journey began very early in life. Ours was a large family, with limited resources. So, it was essential for me to join hands with my father in his small textile business. From the age of 12-21, I was heavily involved in two activities—business and studies. Upon completion of my graduation, I joined law college for a short period but as I was aspiring for something grander, I appeared for the IAS exam as well as the probationary officers’ exam for employment in the State Bank of India (SBI). I cleared the written exams for the IAS but destiny led me to State Bank of India.
I embarked upon my career at 22, the minimum age required for joining the SBI as probationary officer. My journey in SBI lasted from 1962-83. Throughout my career there, I got all the promotions and recognitions duly. I was regarded as the blue-eyed boy of the bank. Important assignments came my way right from the beginning. Even during my probationary days, I was groomed to be a development banker. I was lucky to learn lessons of development banking under the guardianship of R K Talwar, a renowned chairman of SBI.
As I mentioned, I was a favourite of the authorities, so I had the opportunity to sit in the head office but I always preferred line assignments, which brought me closer to the customers. I strongly believed that the bank’s prosperity lay in the customers’ prosperity and for the bank to do well, it would have to lend in the real sense of the word. Purposeful lending should be the prime objective and not security oriented lending because profitability is directly linked to lending.
The turning point of my career arrived when I took over Guindy, Madras branch, as manager. The branch had earned a notorious reputation for having too many ‘sticky advances’ (a banking term referring to irregular advances due to inadequacy of limit or defaults in repayments). I was given six weeks to take over the branch as my seniors had refused to accept the responsibility. I spent these six weeks with my predecessor, trying to understand the problems of the branch. After reviewing the situation, I was fully satisfied that no malafides could be attributed to my predecessor. I therefore relieved him with a clean slate and started rectifying things. My predecessor had fulfilled his duties as a development banker but had not paid much attention to housekeeping, which is one of the important roles of a banker. Hence, my first year went in consolidation. The second and third years of my stay there involved looking for new business avenues to convert the branch into a profitable venture. My efforts paid off and from a loss making unit, the Guindy branch blossomed into a very profitable unit.
The biggest achievement at the Guindy branch was the entrepreneurial financing of customers as well as vegetable vendors of the Alandur market and farmers of Guduvancherry village. Our focus was on creating awareness among these people that loans were not charity but were meant to improve profitability. We were able to achieve our goal and it was a great pleasure to see the gradual rise in the living standards of people. One may find ‘well groomed’ bankers aplenty but what is requisite for the upliftment of the poor and downtrodden is the ‘grassroots banker’—one who can play the role of a catalyst in society.
After shifting from the Guindy branch, I occupied several important administrative posts and always received laurels at each pit stop. I wanted to be a helpful banker and that has been my mantra for success. Nevertheless, one man alone cannot make a branch work efficiently, so it’s imperative to have staff and subordinates with you. It is equally essential to devise means and methods to practice full control over the affairs of the branch and ensure that all records are intact. Also, one should never be afraid of taking risks.
Kuwait and the floating strategies
Foreign postings, in those days, were considered reserved for the lucky elite but I never attached any importance to them as I enjoyed every assignment offered to me. To work and to enjoy your work gives you the ultimate pleasure as you keep re-innovating yourself to derive maximum satisfaction. Money is undoubtedly important but everyone gets what he is destined for and there is no point in clamouring after it. So, I kept fulfilling my responsibilities with total dedication and zeal.
I was asked to take over as managing director of Kuwait India International exchange Co. (KIIEC). This was a subsidiary of the SBI, where the bank had a 49 per cent shareholding, whereas 51 per cent of the equity belonged to a Kuwaiti gentleman,HamadAteeqy.I wasinformedthat the subsidiary had accumulated large losses. I was expected to exercise my business acumen to breathe life into the branch and convert it into a profitable venture like I had done with the Guindy branch. Naturally, I was apprehensive about whether I would be able to revive the place but on reaching Kuwait, I studied the situation, planned my strategy and was confident about achieving the target. I saw opportunities in challenges and went ahead with my plans.
At a very young age I learnt an important lesson in business, which came very handy later in life—not to curtail expenses but to concentrate on increasing the income. Innovative ideas have to be generated in situations where things look bleak. Hence, I directed my efforts towards finding a solution to the problem that the regulations in Kuwait do not permit lending. I also had to focus on increasing the market share of our remittances’ business (emanating from Kuwait). It had become imperative for me to find new ways of earning without violating the laws of the land.
All my endeavours paid off. Not only did we manage to wipe out our losses but also, we paid a dividend of 400 per cent in our very first year and followed up with the same dividend in the next year! A number of people have asked me how I managed to transform a loss making company into a profitable establishment in such a short duration.
Here, I would like to share a few of the manoeuvres which contributed to our profits. For instance, we granted loans in kind—we would give goldsmiths five kilos of gold against a reasonable interest rate—the gold used to come on consignment basis from the Swiss Bank. We used float money (float money is generated in the bank if you receive funds earlier and pay later to the ultimate beneficiary) to the fullest extent. We called these float money strategies “working capital in kind” as they not only bolstered business for small scale industries but also generated revenue for the bank.
Also, we increased the volume of the remittance business and used these funds in money lending operations. This required an entirely different marketing approach. My instinct was that the Rupee would depreciate. As a strategy, I always found selling Rupees in advance and buying them later to be profitable. With several ingenious ways of banking, I turned a failing branch into a robust one.
Father of four
A stage comes in everyone’s life where one has to take important decisions for the sake of his family. I have four daughters and I had to get them settled. So, at 43, I resigned from SBI, at a stage when I was at the pinnacle of my career. I accepted an assignment as general manager, Dubai Bank, where I worked for about two-an-a-half years, drawing six times the salary that I was receiving at SBI. In 1986, I decided to return to India to establish my own business. My service career from 1962 to 1986 ended there.
In hindsight, I wonder whether I took the right decision by resigning from the bank but it’s best to perceive decisions as God’s wish, without speculating on their consequences. A man is healthy when he is fully occupied with responsibilities, which I am very much today. Even at 69, I am engrossed in business. Had I continued with the job, I might have been a retired man today.
After leaving service, I founded a small financing and consultancy enterprise and was leading a happy, leisurely life. However, fate had something else in store for me. As stated earlier, I had been a branch manager at SBI’s Guindy branch, which has a number of small scale industry (SSI) units as customers. In 1972, an engineer from Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) approached me to finance a project worth Rs 2 million. I felt that his project, of manufacturing deflection components, was a good idea but could not be started by him alone. At that stage, I brought about a national integration of three families—A Kannadiga electronic engineer (giving him 50 per cent equity), a Gujarati financier (offering him 25 per cent equity) and a Sindhi (my brother), granting him 25 per cent equity. This is how, in 1973, Elcompo took birth. The three of them were to run the business on their own while I remained behind the scenes, offering guidance whenever required. After 16 years, there was a breakup in partnership for various reasons and in 1989, our family had to take over the entire shareholding. I was requested to join the group. It’s been 20 years since I have been associated with this business.
My contribution to the group has been chiefly in the form of consolidation and good financial management. We had a strategic alliance with Philips and this technical marketing tie-up worked as a win win situation for almost 10 years. At present, we are in a transitional mode, from making TV components, to other electronic components for lighting, etc.
The industry is facing challenges from Chinese supplies and we are going through a rough patch but I am extremely confident that we will succeed. A group, which was worth just Rs 500,000 in 1973 is worth approximately Rs 150 million today. I believe in slow but steady progress. We are proud to be a successful, debt free group. We might be conservative in our approach but we strongly believe in sound financial management, good technical delivery of products and healthy business ethics.
President of ELCINA
Today, during my presidentship of the Electronic Industries Association of India (ELCINA), we have started the Centre for Knowledge Management (CKM), where we impart training to our members on several industry related issues, like management and quality systems, cost competitiveness, organisational efficiency and technology upgradation. We play an important role in policy making for the industry. We present to the government problems being faced by the industry and give out awards to create a spirit of enthusiasm and healthy competition.
Soon after taking over as president of ELCINA in September 2007, I visited Israel to attend the 13th World Electronics Forum. I forcefully canvassed for India, hosting the 14th World Electronics Forum, which was conducted successfully in New Delhi in December 2008.
Besides being actively involved in business, I have always enjoyed taking up social responsibilities. I have been associated with several organisations over the years and held important positions like joint secretary, Small Scale Industries Association of Tamil Nadu; president of Lions Club of Madras; and president of Sindhi Chamber of Commerce.
I would like to conclude by advising the readers to do their jobs to the best of their abilities and leave the rest to God. Always be helpful and never be afraid of taking calculative risks in life as well as in business. If they backfire, you can always move on, and if they yield positive results, you will be happier for it. In the end, whatever happens will be the wish of God.
As told to Himanshu Yadav