We should think less of technology and more of talent

Elgi Equipments Limited is a global air compressor manufacturer

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Elgi Equipments Limited is a global air compressor manufacturer with a broad line of innovative and technologically superior compressed air systems. With a portfolio of over 400 products finding applications across industries, the company has consistently worked towards ensuring that its customers achieve their productivity goals while saving energy and keeping the cost of ownership low. Forging ahead with its global aspirations, the company has strategized its branding through success stories of its customers finding a vantage space in social media. Based in North America is ELGi’s effervescent executive director, who has recently been elevated and inducted into the Board. In a one-to-one conversation with Balasubbramaniian, Editorial Head, Engineering Review, Anvar shares his thoughts on wide-ranging topics including his legacy, education, global exposure to branding, foundational understanding of marketing and business, and the way ahead for ELGi in his perspective. Excerpts:

Q. How excited are you to be the youngest member of the Board of a global company that ELGi is?

Well, I would say I was in a bit of an evolutionary role when I joined ELGi almost six years ago. At that time, we discussed evolving the family’s presence away from day-to-day management and concentrating more on governance. So I knew early on in my tenure at ELGi that this was something that I had to prepare for. So from that perspective, my joining the Board did not come as a surprise. Of course, I am excited, especially since I am in the US, where the business is much younger comparatively, and everything to an extent, such as the culture of ELGi North America, the talent management strategy, the business management, and so on is a blank page right now. It is an exciting challenge to think through how we can take the elements that make ELGi Equipments in India so successful and make it highly culturally sensitive for a place like North America.

The role that I play here is to be able to influence without authority. None of the leadership here reports to me. So the challenge is how to influence change without necessarily having that direct line reporting relationship, and part of being able to do that, I believe, is to understand and align incentives. So a US leader has priorities that he is thinking of executing over the next three months, and I am thinking about long-term priorities that we need to execute here. We need to find an intersection point. Otherwise, it is going to be an impasse. I am going to be talking at one level, and he is going to be thinking about things at a different level. So we are going to spin our wheels a little bit.

Coming to the second part of your question, our Board is fairly compliance-focused. My being a part of the Board now means we are bringing in a little bit of strategic thinking and a lot more of active participation within the Board, which is now at a certain level of maturity. Here one’s age doesn’t matter.

Q. You have studied Economics and Marketing abroad. How did your education help you in changing your perspective and sharpening your business acumen?

I think my education played less of a role than some of my professional experiences outside. I studied economics and philosophy at the undergraduate level, and I believe that my philosophy degree helped more in framing arguments and clarity in writing and speaking. The benefits of having an economics degree were fairly clear in a business environment.

I started my career as an internal auditor at Target Corporation in Minneapolis. As an auditor, you get to see multiple departments of the business. As a 22-year old, there is nothing better than to have exposure of that kind because it gives you an opportunity to understand what you might be interested in, and that’s where I started to see the early interest in marketing and communication, and brand building.

As you may know, Target is an extremely strong and well-recognized retail brand in North America, and they certainly invested a lot in marketing. They are a competitor to Wall-Mart. They position themselves as a more high-end retailer than Walmart that competes not just on price but on the shopping experience and the product mix that they carry. So when I was exposed to the marketing department of Target, that’s where I started to think about specializing in marketing.

I also had a short role at Target in the pharmacy operations. That was a project management execution type role. It taught me the importance of working things to a certain deadline and completing a project on time. So that was also quite beneficial in my early career. Then you know Business School was my first technical and academic introduction into business. I specialized in marketing at Cornell, where the marketing program was focused on product marketing. So it has set you up for a career in companies like Procter and Gamble, Mars Chocolate, General Mills, and so on. In India, it would be like Marico, Hindustan Lever, etc. That was a pretty incredible experience because they started with the basics, and I had the opportunity to do an internship at Mars Chocolate, North America.

I really enjoyed that experience because Mars was similar to ELGi in the sense that it is a family business, a private business that invested a lot in building its brands. So even post-Business School, I spent three years at Mars Chocolate on the Snickers brand and learned the fundamentals of marketing.

So three years at Mars, two years at the Business School, and three years at Target gave me a fairly solid foundational understanding of marketing and business. And that’s what I was able to bring in at ELGi.

Q. Would you like to say something about the legacy you have inherited and the mentoring you received from your father in the formative years of your career?

I think it is an interesting question because I do think that we are slightly different than maybe many other family businesses. Some 6-7 years ago, I didn’t know much about our family business. That’s an enormous credit to my father and my mother for not installing any big expectations of the family business. The other dimension is the implied one that I need to go and make it out on my own.

They meant that they had the responsibility to give me a good education and support me through that. So to a large extent, when I decided to come on to the Board of ELGi, it was not that different from me making a career choice. And it was not until I was in the job for 2-3 years that I started understanding the legacy and the sense of pride that we had as a family for being the custodians of this great business.

I feel my father’s presence in the business can be quite intimidating, not just by force of his personality, but also he essentially being the architect of ELGi from the early 1990s. We have been focused on compressed air solutions, and most importantly, setting us up to be able to compete credibly, globally. I was quite conscious fairly early in my career that there was going to be no sense in trying to replicate his path and that my path and my journey had to be mine, not just to respect the differences in my personality, my strengths and interests, but also to allow flexibly for the evolution of the business. At the time when my father took over the business, ELGi was a very different company in terms of talent, process, technology, and so on. Right now, it’s an entirely different company. And in five years, it will still be different.

The agility of leadership is something that I have always had in my mind. This is to say that my father’s model has been very relevant up till now. But we have to be very conscious about what will be the future leadership within the company and then me more so thinking about how I might play a role in that.

If we talk of mentoring, I would like to highlight a couple of things: My father most certainly leads by example. He is the first one to come to the office and the last one to leave. He is extremely passionate about business. He is a great example of how building skills and building interest in something also leads to passion. And that is something that I have learned from him. I often think about it this way: If you start to play tennis, in the beginning, you will hate it. You won’t connect the ball. The ball won’t go over the net; it would go outside. No one will say that in the beginning, tennis is enjoyable. But once you take some coaching and start playing some points, the game becomes more interesting. And I think that’s the philosophy that he helped to instill in me. And one of the challenges of our generation is that we expect to be immediately interested in things. Otherwise, we lose interest. So we put a lot of pressure on the things that we are doing.

My father has the way in which he has conducted himself at ELGi, and the way in which he approaches problems has helped me take that to heart and try to model that behavior in my own mind. The second part of my father is that he has an incredible level of curiosity for everything. He will ask why, why, and why until his mouth runs dry and everyone else loses patience. But you can always realize that it comes with a certain intent of trying to understand the problem or a situation at a very fundamental level before we start being into solutions. A bit of advice that he has always given me is to be patient in your career and spend the time understanding the situations and the people around you before giving recommendations. That’s where credibility comes from. Your ability to listen and understand someone does so much more for building credibility than coming up with recommendations that might change the world, and that’s not necessarily the obvious thing. As a young professional, you tend to believe that the value you bring comes from the recommendations at the insight you bring from all the experience you have had. He has taught me with a lot of patience that it is first important to listen and understand. Once you build your understanding, you actually find that the recommendations and solutions you offer are far more powerful.

Q. What’s the transformation you could bring at ELGi after taking the reins of marketing?

I think I have had the benefit of hiring some wonderful talent to work for ELGi and build this brand. The role I may have played early on in my career is to be able to clear the path for lateral talent to come and work with us and be successful. It’s a great opportunity to truly allow that and invest in it in terms of finances, bandwidth, and decision-making power. I feel proud of what I have been able to do. In the early years, we took this approach that the ELGi branding will be about telling stories because air compressors themselves are quite boring. No one talks excitedly at dinner about air compressors that they have bought. But the interesting element of air compressors comes from our customers and how compressed air is used, whether in textiles, toothpaste, or food processing. So our early decision to highlight compressed air through the eyes of our customers, their applications, and energy-saving aspects has paid rich dividends. This is what has made us successful in getting our stakeholders interested in compressed air and, by proxy, interested in ELGi.

The best validation I have of that is when employees come and tell me in a market like North America – ‘Hey, you know I saw your LinkedIn page, or I saw your blog or video that you have done, and that’s what convinced me to come to ELGi. You guys are a very interesting company. So those are bits of validation that assure me that we are on the right path and we are doing some interesting things in branding and marketing

Q. Was it easy to get acceptance and implement your ideas in an organization with a set pattern of running the business for decades? Could you share the challenges you faced?

I think I was lucky here because when I came into ELGi, the marketing organization was fairly non-existent. We were doing some basic marketing, such as releasing some ads in publications like Engineering Review. Beyond that, there was not much marketing taking place. So you know, to some extent, there was a lot of trust, and most importantly, there were not a lot of people within the company who had a background in marketing. So even if I was doing something wrong, no one could hold me accountable. On a serious note, I think the challenge was early on when you have something that was almost starting at zero, it was pretty difficult to convince people to allocate resources for investing in some small, highly visible things that are so valuable. So one of the first things that we invested in was a compressed air blog where we started writing case studies and talking about the company. The blog was accessible to everyone within the company, and it was quite a visible outcome of what we were investing in marketing.

5-6 Years ago, LinkedIn was a big thing when it came to having a professional social media presence, and we invested heavily in LinkedIn, and I hired an agency of young people. This was something new at ELGi, being an industrial company. We put out some very innovative content which received a lot of accolades from the press. The customers were saying, “You guys are doing some very interesting things.” This became very affirming for employees and decision-makers to say: “Yes, we want to invest more in this.” So it was a combination of having the good fortune of working in a department where we didn’t have a lot of experience and investing in those areas where we could immediately show meaningful results. This gave decision-makers the confidence to invest, going beyond marketing. In fact that’s the challenge that I face even today. Being in the promoter group and in the leadership team, it would be very easy to go and say – ‘I don’t need to convince you of doing something. This is how it needs to be done”. Now that is a sure fire way to disengage people. By doing that, you are taking accountability for having to do all this work in the future. This is where having solid data is very important. It forms the basis for having a meaningful conversation with the leadership.

Q. What’s your approach to business and industry, and what’s the difference you wish to make in an era when technology is of great help?

Aside from my general marketing experience and background, I think specific to ELGi the biggest challenge that we are going to have over the next phase of our growth is how to communicate the benefits of our technology and products, so that we can convert business not only in India but the world over. Here my marketing background and skills will certainly help.

Coming to your 2nd question on technology, I would say we should think less of technology and more of talent. Having technology alone is useless. It needs to have a certain purpose, and it needs to have people use it. And I think we are still on a journey through our talent. Technology will be just a tool for that.

Q. What are your long-term plans and strategies to fortify and build the ELGi brand?

Firstly it is important to acknowledge that the ELGi brand means different things to different stakeholders namely our customers, employees, suppliers, investors, shareholders, and society. The ELGi brand has to appeal and grow and evolve for all these stakeholders. I shall try to take one by one and put it within the context of my role. I think from a customer perspective, especially as the family gets less and less involved in the day-to-day management and running of the business, how do we ensure that we are always building a culture of ‘customer first’ among our employees. It is arguably easy for my father and me to come in when we are still highly involved in the business and say, ‘it is important to say customers absolutely first’ and forcefully make it happen. But it is quite another task to create a culture of that within the company.

Investors have trusted us and left their capital with us for many years, and they expect growth and profit. It is important for us to deliver results and hold our teams accountable to ensure that investors as stakeholders are satisfied.

Coming to employees, it is really important for us to articulate as to what is it that’s different about working at ELGi – not just from a compensation and benefits perspective, but also as a place that you want to spend time to build your career. We need to have opportunities for growth, opportunities for engagement and challenges, and opportunities for transformation. And we need to be sensitive about what this looks like in India vs. North America, Australia, and all other regions where we are present. As for suppliers, we have partnered with them, especially with our smaller suppliers, and helped elevate the quality and technology levels they bring in. It is important that we continue to take them along in our journey. And finally, society: You know what we do and what’s the impact of our initiatives on the communities we serve. Here as my father describes it, we would like to be an inch wide and a mile deep. So whatever initiatives we take, we want to go deep. Education is very important for us. We are investing heavily into the ELGi School to basically build the engineers of the future. So one of my priorities going to be is the next chapter of that, and what does that look like in regions outside India? How can we make that meaningful?

Q. And what are the values you uphold and try to enshrine in the company’s operating philosophy and work ethos?

If we recap our business goals again, our industry grows between 4 – 6%, and our growth objectives need us to grow beyond 15%. This means we have to win market share from other companies and competitors. And we can do that by having an extremely customer-centric philosophy. So every department, even beyond sales and marketing, has to think about it. Each one should ask oneself: Is the work I am doing today customer-centric? If there is a delay in production or sourcing, the person or department concerned should realize that we won’t be able to meet the deadlines and thereby we are not able to provide the best service to the customer. So we as an organization need to have a single-minded focus to achieve our goal.

Q. What’s driving you and fuelling your insatiable urge to achieve your goal?

I think from a personal perspective, it is an incredible challenge, and I feel fortunate to have a hand to play in, and I will get the opportunity to see a lot of people come and do their best work at ELGi. And again, I see my role as being able to create the best possible environment for people to want to come here and succeed. And if we review our business goal, we want to be a global leader in the compressed air business. We have invested in people, processes, and technology to achieve this. And if we are successful in making this, all of our stakeholders will benefit.

Q. What is the image of ELGi of tomorrow that conjures up in your mind?

If we are successful in doing the things that we are doing, we are not just a successful Indian company but a global company driven by extremely talented people that we have been able to nurture and develop within the organization. In 7-8 years from now, if the public is talking less about my father and less about the family, I think that I would hold that as a big measure of success because it means that we have done some very meaningful things in terms of building talent.

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