It is the urge to take the path ‘less travelled by’ that has always driven N. Jehangir, MD and vice chairman of NeST Group (a global Fortune 100 organisation, of which SFO Technologies Pvt Ltd, an ESDM firm, is a flagship company). In a candid conversation with Sudeshna Das, senior executive editor at EFY Group, he shares some inspiring vignettes from his life.
- Year of birth: 1957
- Favourite music: Old Malayalam and Hindi melodies
- Favourite food: Home made Kerala delicacies
- Favourite actor: Shah Rukh Khan
- Favourite actress: Manju Warrier
- Favourite singer: Yesudas and Pankaj Udhas
Education: I was in a boarding school from Standard 3 to 10. For my pre-degree course, the equivalent to the Standard 12 of today, I went to the Union Christian College, Aluva, Kerala. Then I joined TKM College of Engineering, Kollam, to study mechanical engineering. However, I quit the formal engineering education in just three months and returned home. You may be surprised to know that I dropped out of engineering, but today own a large technology company of world fame.
My idol: Dr Abdul Kalam, who was from a very ordinary family and rose to become the president of the country, has been a great inspiration for me. His contributions are many—both to the scientific community and the country. Men with such ‘prathibha’ are rare and I may not see another one like him for the rest of my life.
My family and background
My father was an agriculturist and my mother a homemaker. I have one elder brother, Javad Hassan, who is chairman of the NeST Group, and five sisters. My wife is a homemaker and supports me always. Both my children are engineers and have joined the company. Nazneen is looking after the software business and Althaf the hardware business, mainly.
I lost my father before I started NeST. My father fell ill back then and was taken to CMC, Vellore, where I stayed and looked after him for three years. Even though my father passed away and I lost my business due to my absence at work, I still believe those days shaped my personality a lot. I saw suffering every day at the hospital, and understood the value of the ‘concern’ and the ‘care’ given to the sick by the staff at Vellore. I have adapted this concern as a management principle, and am trying to practice it with my employees and also with others whom I meet. This has helped me a lot in the subsequent stages of my life. I learned to listen to everyone like the doctors and nurses did with the patients at Vellore. Even today, I am a good listener and work patiently with my staff at the company.
We live in a society in which the ideals that were dear to many in yesteryears are no longer valued. People have lost the urge to live by ideals these days. Hence, in one sense, this question is not relevant to the present society. Yet, let me tell you, I have lived by the following values.
- I respect and honour the sacrifice my parents made for our family and its future. It is their prayers that have built our business.
- I respect and honour the visionary ideas of my elder brother and mentor, Javad Hassan. Incidentally, it is he who is the visionary – while I am the executioner of his vision in the NeST Group.
- I believe that risks are part of everyday life and those who master the art of overcoming them with courage and firmness are sure to be winners.
- I believe that just like success needs to be celebrated, when one fails in spite of having put in one’s best efforts – that too is reason enough for celebration. This could lead to success in the future.
Leading from the front has always been a passion in my life. I love to demonstrate that success will follow a committed leader who leads from the front.
Turning into an entrepreneur
The famous poet Robert Frost once wrote,
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
I truly believe in this principle. I have followed it religiously, and it has helped me face the odds with courage and calmness. What I’d like to say about our firm is this: “We might look like ordinary people, but we are doing extraordinary activities from this company.” Our company is working with ease in very complex technology fields like embedded software, middleware, applications, digital electronics, RF and wireless, wire harnesses, optronics, mechanical/plastic packaging, etc. which many pioneering companies still have not dared to take on.
While there is a lot being talked about how India has a great opportunity to lead the world in electronics manufacturing services, we—my elder brother Javad Hassan and I—had spotted this opportunity decades ago. We have carefully planned every expansion at SFO, and have built the firm by putting one brick upon another. Today, SFO has reached heights that many marvel at. We will soon expand this company to new geographies and new businesses, and will continue to grow to become the most admired company of our times.
My journey so far
As I told you earlier, I had lost my first business in the early stages itself. I started a small oil business when I returned home after my father passed away. I used to take coconut oil from my mother and sell it in the Aluva market. She would give me only one day’s credit and, hence, I had to return her money from the daily sales, at the end of the day. I used to earn very little profit. I also worked on my family’s plantations those days. Slowly, I started a fertiliser business and, in a few years, moved on to the C&F business in the pharmaceutical line for two to three years.
My brother was then working as a vice president at AMP, USA. My mother asked him to help me out, and he took me for training to the US. My brother had immense faith in my capabilities. Both of us together started the outsourced manufacturing business in 1989. From then onwards, I have never looked back. I was hard working, committed to customers and employees, was willing to take risks and had a ‘can do’ attitude, always. I received the Young Business Man Award 1998 from Rashtra Deepika, and the Udyog Patra Award & Young Business Man of Kerala Award 1998 from Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. We added on businesses every year, and are today the largest exporter of electronics in India, with over 60 Fortune 100 customers, the world over.
Kerala was known to ring the death knell for industries across various sectors for many years in the 90s. But SFO grew above the industry average due to our ability to fight the odds on the most difficult manpower front and achieve success, while involving all the stakeholders like labour unions, administrators, politicians, management staff, employees, etc. Today, SFO has emerged as the largest employer in the electronics industry in Kerala, with 55 per cent of market share in Ernakulam district and 29 per cent market share for the whole state. Our company has even become a case study at management schools. Apart from that, we have become the unbeaten leader and flag bearer of high tech industries in Kerala, winning many accolades from industry bodies like ELCINA and our Fortune 100 customers across the world. We have also participated in the Make in India, Digital India and Skill India programmes through some of our products and services. So bringing Kerala onto the map of high tech services providers is the main contribution from my side, to the industry.
I am an agile decision maker. I don’t know whether this is a common management jargon, so let me explain what I mean. Readers must have heard about Agile Project Management, which is similar to what I’m referring to. Under this style of management, the task first chosen for completion is based on the requirements of the customer, and this task is completed by all the resources working in parallel. I also base many of my decisions on the ‘Customer First’ strategy. This has helped me to get the support of my customers in building up SFO.
Setting up a management team has not been a simple exercise. I always look for inherent talents coupled with the suitable experience to fill key positions. Sometimes, positions lie vacant for some months before a suitable person is found. The management team member we hire is expected to fully comply with the NeST values, culture and ethics that we have nurtured over the years. I like an environment where my people take on responsibilities and authority.
Motivating my team
There is no one single mantra for providing motivation. Hence, I use many different types of motivational methods for my team members. A pat on the back, an appreciative email, recognition for outstanding work, out-of-turn promotion, enhancement of compensation, special incentives, showing concern for the family’s health, setting an example by doing certain things by myself, a scolding – I have used all of these methods to motivate my team. Of course, the method varies from one individual to another and from one situation to another.
Success at a glance
I am not a management school graduate. Yet, today, I manage PhDs, MBAs, engineers from the IITs, and experts in many professional fields. When I chair meetings where all these wise men are gathered, I am able to contribute to their thinking as well as instil confidence in them with some practical and business ideas. Further, when I am with top businessmen of Fortune 100 companies across the world, I have been able to convince them about the value our company would bring to the table, thus bringing many large businesses into the NeST kitty. Even when I deal with top bureaucrats and administrators of world fame, I am able to instil confidence in them about our trustworthiness. I am at ease with even the politicians. Now, for an ordinary person like me, I consider this as a real professional achievement.
Five years down the line
As a person, I would still be the same, of course, with the changed style of working that would help me manage my companies successfully in this world of transformations. As for the NeST Group, we would have definitely crossed a turnover of US$ 1 billion and would be racing towards our next target with full steam.
My evolution over the years
I have been associated with one thing all these years—change. I have been evolving every day or transforming myself to address new situations and realities all the time. I have a mantra for myself and for my team. It goes like this: ‘Change is painful; pain for growth; growth makes success’. You would have by now realised how much I hate the status quo. I am changing constantly and there will be changes in my approach, attitude, behaviour, camaraderie, pattern of thinking, etc, as the days go by. However, I am sure I will be changing only for the better, not only for myself, but even for those I associate with.
Nurturing relationships successfully
I think the media should be able to understand that aspect after your keen observations of me over the past 25 years; however, based on what I have been able to understand, I think it is my simplicity and forthcoming nature that makes others notice me initially. I try to be jovial, making myself approachable by showing concern in people’s affairs. I ask them probing questions about their areas of interest or expertise, and this helps them to explain things to me. This approach provides them with an opportunity to start a transparent dialogue, which enables me to further the relationship in the future.
A long lasting impression
I had met Bill Gates in Bengaluru some years ago. His speech on that occasion had inspired me a lot. He had mentioned that he, too, was a college dropout and I started analysing my life more after that. I identify with people like him who are impatient with curriculum based learning; though he has really made it big. This meeting helped me broaden my vision and think big. I am also aiming high now and, God willing, I will be able to cross many more barriers and reach greater heights in the future.
Hobbies and hidden talents
My hobbies are somewhat diverse One is spending time in a workshop where I remodel cars, to make replicas of famous vintage models. I have a couple of specialists who work with me in this workshop. I have a large collection of such cars now, about 70 of them, of which I have personally remodelled many.
Another major hobby is working at my plantations. Almost every week, I make it a point to visit my plantation in Puliyanmala in Idukki District in Kerala where I grow cardamom. Many other valuable crops are also grown there. I have found that I relax when I work there.
I think I have a mechanical engineer’s bent of mind. I do not have a formal degree from a university, but the thought processes show that I am able to solve some mechanical engineering problems with my practical approach. I think God did not allow me to become a mechanical engineer, because if at all I ever had become one, I would have got deeply engrossed in it and would not perhaps have thought of becoming a businessman.
Advice to budding entrepreneurs
For long-term success, budding entrepreneurs have to always have a mentor who is really a senior or a veteran in the industry—just like I had the privilege of being mentored by my elder brother, Javad Hassan. This will provide them with the right balance of experience and talent to achieve success. NeST would be keen to take up such a role for some of the budding entrepreneurs, provided they are working in our chosen lines of businesses.
What’s next on the agenda
After my retirement, I would like to spend more time to help the poor and the needy, both on the education front and also to raise their standard of living. I would also like to do something for the aged, who require support.