Diwali, in India, is a very good occasion to spend some quality time with friends and family and take a break from work. I spent a part of that time with some very old friends of mine.
Friends, whom I haven’t met for a long time.
Yes, I had been feeling guilty of not reading books for a long time.
Hence, picking up a few books and going through them during the Diwali break of 2019 was a refreshing way to get back among old friends!!.
Intelligent Fanatics of India, co-authored by Rohith Potti and Puja Bhulla, was one such book.
Like many investors around the world, we at SSS are also fans of the Intelligent Fanatics (IFs) community.
We read and learn a lot from their stories of outstanding business leaders.
The previous two books from the IF team have been full of interesting stories about Intelligent Fanatics around the world.
Hence, I was very excited to read this up. More so because it had Indian examples to refer to.
The key point the book wants to convey is this:
Uncertainty is characteristic of the world we live in. Economies rise and fall, bubbles form and burst, policies change and evolve. The ever-changing business climate gets mirrored in sentiments of participants in the business ecosystem — swinging between panic and euphoria. Yet during every downturn, we see Intelligent Fanatics emerge. The world’s best business builders, they are antifragile — they don’t merely survive bad times, but strengthen themselves under stress. Intelligent Fanatics of India studies seven such carefully chosen entrepreneurs from the country. Hailing from diverse backgrounds and industries, the list ranges from private to public companies, first generation visionaries to tycoons of established family businesses, as well as turnarounds. The common thread? A pattern of intelligent fanaticism that has allowed them to build businesses that dominate and endure. From the book’s description on the Amazon website.
Here are some of my learnings from the book. I hope you may find them interesting:
- Deep trouble can be a very good trigger for innovation: Sounds interesting and adventurous when we read something like this, but none of us feels good when we are in trouble. In fact, most of us start having self-doubts in tough situations.
However, IFs are a different breed altogether. They do just the opposite. They become stronger in adversity. The book gives a fitting example of Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy (Dr. V), the founder of Aravind Eye Care who turned a self-imposed constraint to his advantage.
And what was this constraint? Three irrefutable principles at the foundation of Aravind Eye Care, which were:
- No one in need shall be turned away. If someone needs eye care, Aravind will provide it, even at a price point of zero.
- There shall be no compromise on quality. The quality provided to the patients should be on par with the best in the world.
- Aravind shall always remain self-reliant.
You must be wondering how an organization can even survive with these tough principles. Providing high quality, free services while being self-reliant seems contradictory to any business mind.
And this is not all. In the book, the authors write:
Aravind not only performed the operations required for the poor, for free, but also provided free transport, accommodation, and food. In giving sight back to its patients, it was not only returning their access to probably the most important sense—of sight—but also returning their dignity and independence, and increasing their life expectancy.
And do you know how this impossible feat was achieved by Dr. V and his team at Aravind?
While the book does a great job of explaining the various reasons which made Aravind Eye Care achieve something so incredible, the ones which will always stay with me are:
Compassion and Empathy
Only if you are really moved by the troubles of millions of unfortunate people around you, you will think of devoting your heart, soul, and life into doing something about it. And that was what Dr.V and his team at Aravind did. They aligned themselves with simple principles of compounding, velocity, compassion, empathy, and reciprocity, and the result is there in front of us to see and applaud.
Think for a moment.
If millions of Indians were not deprived of eye treatment due to poverty, could we have seen the emergence of an Intelligent Fanatic like Dr.V?
So my biggest learning from this inspiring story is this:
Whenever you are in deep trouble, think of how you can radically change the situation for your and others’ benefit through something new. Something which may not have been tried before by anyone. Of course, you will not have an easy answer. But you have to believe that adversities are veiled opportunities to do something great in your life. This simple belief can bring a lot of positive change in your life and in the lives of people around you.
- Focus on Just One thing and Always Focus on improving it: There are multiple instances in life and business of people who have focused on just one thing and have done really well mastering that one art. The real-life story of Raghunanandan Kamath and his venture, Natural Ice cream, is probably one of the best examples of how we can achieve great things in life through focus. Mr. Kamath started his journey by selling ice-cream along with Pav Bhaji. His strategy was simple:
Because it’s spicy and served hot, people were bound to enjoy a cool dessert after it. That’s how I introduced them to my ice creams.
In the first year of his venture, sometime in the early eighties, he reached a revenue of Rs. 5 Lac. Then he made an audacious move that redefined his business.
In 1985, Mr. Kamath stopped serving Pav-bhaji and focused only on selling ice-creams. His concerns were very valid:
My concern was, what if pav bhaji gains more prominence than ice creams? I wanted to elevate the status of ice creams. They are the best medium to bring out the beauty of fruits.
He ended up creating a niche line of natural ice creams- made of only milk, sugar and fruits. And marketed through an exclusive ice cream parlour in Bombay. And the Indian ice cream market was changed forever.
Along the way, Mr. Kamath continued to improve on his business using some basic but important principles like taking feedback from the customers, scaling up by harnessing technology, never compromising on the quality of the product and developing meaningful win-win relationships with his channel partners or franchisees.
But for me as a reader of his exciting story of success, what mattered most was that he focussed on just the one thing which he liked and was passionate about.
And then giving it his whole and soul.
- Burn Old bridges that are holding you back, be a Learning Machine, and you can fly: We are very slow in reacting to our environment. Be it in investment, business, or life in general.
We tend to hold on to our pains for much longer.
Often, the best way forward is to get rid of them and move forward.
We realize it a little too late.
And by then all the damage is done.
However, some people manage to take the right decision at the right time to come out of crisis.
Hrishekesh Mafatlal of Mafatlal Industries Ltd is one of them.
Let us now peep into a part of the story of the Mafatlal Industries as written in the book:
Like Nocil, Navin Fluorine Ltd. (NFL) came to being as a result of a figurative “forced cancer surgery” on the flagship entity Mafatlal Industries. By the late 1990s, MIL was a khichdi (mishmash) of businesses in various industries, including textiles (yarn, fabrics, and weaving), electronic components, engineering, finance, information technology, and chemicals. Its primary business, textiles, saw a steep decline in demand coupled with oversupply, which resulted in considerable losses. Operations at a couple of plants had to be halted for more than two years due to a liquidity shortage. In 2000, the company was declared sick.
The company was forced into splitting the business into three demerged entities—petrochemical, rubber chemical, and plastic. But by 2006, the erstwhile conglomerate was reduced to a single line of business—rubber chemicals, which had earlier formed only around 20% of the total revenues. But being a learning machine himself, Mr. Hrishikesh Mafatlal kept on applying his mind. He did not repeat the mistakes of the past and slowly but surely moved along his experience curve.
While pre-bankruptcy chemical businesses were primarily of a commodity nature, in large markets, both Nocil and Navin Fluorine are among the largest players in the world in niche segments where R&D plays a significant role. Small markets, where R&D matters, automatically prevent a large section of competitors from even contemplating entering the market, which might not be worth the time and effort.
Both NOCIL and Navin Fluorine have created massive wealth for its shareholders in the same period.
My lesson? Decisions need to be made in time, however painful they may be.
- Anti-fragility – How you perform in tough market conditions determines your true potential: If you have to just look at one metric to determine the sustainability of the business and the capability of the owner, just look at how the business performs during a recession. It is a known fact that most businesses are fragile, and face tough times during a recession. But then there are business owners, like Anita Dongre, who thrive in such situations.
Because they are Anti-fragile.
Here’s an excerpt from the book where Anita Dongre’s partner, Mukesh Sawlani tells how their flagship brand, AND, thrived during the recession of 2007:
Between 1999 and 2007, a lot of brands had overleveraged due to the boom in malls, boasting one hundred stores, etcetera, but began shutting many down during recession. The whole retail industry crashed. We didn’t shut a single store, because we hadn’t opened so many. As the mall business went down, owners were desperate for tenants; that’s when we struck great deals. Rentals dipped by twenty to twenty five percent. We signed fifteen properties that year.
How many businesses manage to thrive like that?
I would say very few.
And that is what Intelligent Fanatics are all about. They manage to do what others cannot even think at that point of time. And a lot of hard work and detailing goes behind the scenes to achieve something like this. Personal attention, adherence to standards of quality, making it more convenient for the consumers, having an ear to the ground and adapting to the changing market trends are some of the few tenets that define the work of Anita Dongre. I leave you with two more excerpts from the book to gauge the extent of efforts that go into building a competitive business like this.
There’s great focus on the product, its quality and design. Anita herself gets involved. We differentiate ourselves by paying attention to every minute detail—the piping, that extra something, one half inch more or less of another thing, and so on—to make the design look more premium.
Anita assigns a day for each brand: Monday is for Grassroots; Tuesday, Anita Dongre Couture; Wednesday, AND; Thursday, Global Desi. Fridays are for review meetings. In the morning, she sits with designers on their sketches for the next season and checks samples to show the buying team. In the second half, she reviews what all’s going on social media, with the marketing team.
- Low-Cost Operations, Customer Obsession, and Pricing Power, all together can create a differentiated offering: When you read about the life of a person like Kochouseph Chittilappilly you tend to wonder how a postgraduate in physics, from an agricultural family, with no background in business, can build not one or two but three successful businesses in his lifetime. They are
- Wonderla Holidays, and
- Veegaland Developers
While the book does a great job in detailing about his journey, I will focus on a few core principles which made his businesses sustainable:
- Low-Cost Operations: Three major costs in setting up an amusement park are land, design, and rides. While we cannot control land costs, we often miss the scope of cost optimization in design and rides. Chittilappilly, in pursuit of containing costs, never hired an expert for designing his parks. Instead he himself worked closely with a local architect. It had a two-fold advantage: the cost obviously was contained to a great extent and the look of the park was fresh because it didn’t come out of an expert’s trained hand. Similarly, in-house manufacturing and maintenance of rides saved cost dramatically for his company. In fact, they saved costs further by buying second-hand rides and refurbishing them for their needs.
- Customer Obsession: V-Guard and Wonderla Holidays have no similarities apart from the fact that both have the same founder. Chittilappilly explained the difference very aptly in the following way:
In V-Guard, I had to target the head of the family who took the decisions for purchase of stabilizers and such products. In case of an amusement park, I had to target the kids. Also, in V-Guard, the product is made in a factory but the sale happens outside the factory—my customer is not going to come into the factory, and thus the service skills of my workers are not paramount. But in an amusement park, the customer interacts directly with core workforce and hence the service level focus has to be exceptional.
In order to delight customers and make their experience hassle-free in Wonderla Park, Chittilappilly made the following changes:
- Employees are trained to offer the best experience to customers.
- A single-ticket was enough to enjoy different rides
- Packaged foods are sold at maximum retail price (compare that with what you pay for food at a multiplex!)
- Hygiene is of a high standard compared to what one would generally see in amusement parks in India
- There are no parking charges
- There are no advertisements which help to maintain the ambience.
- High importance is given to safety.
And the result of all this?
Parks offer happiness and excitement combined with affordability, variety, safety, and hygiene, creating a very strong customer pull.
This is called long term thinking. Where you give all the benefits to your customers so that they would not even think of leaving you. Rather, when they compare you with your competitors, they would keep coming back to you.
Speaking of long term thinking brings us to another core principle. And that is Pricing Power.
- Pricing Power: If you are a long term investor in the stock market, I am sure you would know about Pricing Power. In simple words, it is the ability of a business to quote higher prices for its products and services year after year. And customers happily pay it. They never say no. Now, look around yourself. You will find very few businesses on earth which have this kind of pricing power. And the number is only going down over time. Businesses that were once having power do not have them anymore. Wonderla Holidays is one of those very few businesses with pricing power as they have managed to consistently raise ticket prices of both the parks at Kochi and Bangalore for the last ten years. And the long term trend shows that footfalls have only increased over the years.
- Honesty and a “Can-Do” attitude can take us very far in business & life, farther than what we can imagine: John Gomes, the founder of Furtados India, was an inspirational figure. Have a look at how his second son, Christopher narrates the story of Gomes buying insurance policies for his lenders. Christopher says:
Somewhere in the late 1980s, when I’d begun going to the shop, several policies were maturing. When I asked my father about them, he said that whenever he borrowed from anyone, he would buy a policy and make the lender his nominee, so that if something were to happen to him, they wouldn’t suffer. An honest, self-made man with no capital, and still unmarried, dad probably factored in that after him there’d be no one to carry the burden of his loan.
We may speak about many unfair things that happen in life and business. However, I believe that Honesty is always the best policy. We do not realize it often but honesty in our dealings can always create a very lasting impression on people who deal with us. And just look at how John Gomes dealt with his lenders. Who would even care to think about the safety of the lender in the way Gomes figured?
But honesty alone cannot take you far. You must have an enterprising mind to deal with the issues at hand and come out with some solutions or the other for every problem you face in your life or business. Gomes did not have any grooming in the business world. He had no experience in sports, music or printing until he started his venture. But his “Can-Do” attitude helped him cross all the barriers in his businesses one by one. His focus on the core values of honesty, quality, constant upgrading, and great customer service helped him create a long-lasting brand. There are several other facets of Gomes’ personality which are discussed in the book. However, these are the ones I liked the most.
- A Learning Machine has no limits: The story of TT Jagannathan of the TTK Group is a fascinating one. Very early in his life, he got this insight that properly defining the question is more important than finding the solution. Although he began his career as an academician with no interest in joining his family business of the TTK group, he used this mindset to make TTK prestige a truly sustainable business with an edge over its peers. Various events made him go deeper and deeper into the problems of the TTK group. And one by one he diagnosed all of them and through proper problem definition, resolved the issues. In the book, the authors explain how the concept of Gasket Release System (GRS) was innovated by Mr. Jagannathan when he found out that due to cheap and spurious spare safety plugs, many Prestige pressure cookers burst. While you can read in detail about that in the book, I want to highlight a unique decision that Mr. Jagannathan took after discovering the GRS, he did not patent it. His reasons were explained in this excerpt from the book:
It was in fact not a good idea to patent it, for two reasons. One is that, in the US, it used to happen; the pressure cooker used to burst. So the US market went away from pressure cookers. That is something I wanted to avoid in India. And India is the largest market in pressure cookers in the world today—fifteen million pieces. If we allowed pressure cookers to burst, it would not have happened. That was one—I did not want pressure cookers to get a bad reputation. The second is, if a pressure cooker burst anywhere, everybody thought it was Prestige. So I had to avoid that consequence also. So we gave up the idea of patenting it.
This was not the only major problem that Jagannathan had to face. There were many which followed after this. However, his quest for learning ensured that he found an answer to all the problems that came his way.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book. I would recommend it not just to my fellow investors but also to anyone who is curious to know how intelligent fanatics work in the field of business and how to learn from them. Each leader had their own way of approaching things at work. However, one thing which was common in all was their obsession with their work. And that is what exceptional people are made of. They never give up. They just keep working hard on a problem until it is solved.
This post is just to gather my thoughts and share them with you. However, the contents of this post do not cover even 5% of the book.
I know many of you have a copy of this book.
Start reading now.
And if you don’t have it yet, buy it from here.
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