Summer is creeping back to Mumbai and the sun beats down on me as I walk into the Cook’s Building, a stone’s throw from Flora Fountain. The Thomas Cook India office is housed in this neoclassical heritage building, one of the many that form an arcaded promenade down DN Road. Thomas Cook has been in India for more than 125 years, many of those headquartered in Cook’s Building.
The air conditioning inside is an immediate relief. I walk through the shiny foyer, past several customer service desks, and go up in an old-fashioned elevator to Madhavan Menon’s office on the third floor.
As I wait in the conference room for our lunchtime rendezvous, I gaze upon a large series of vintage Thomas Cook posters on the wall. The company traces its origins back to 1841, when Thomas Cook himself arranged to take 570 passengers from Leicester to Loughborough, around 18km away, for an anti-alcohol rally.
Since then, the company has expanded, through several acquisitions and mergers, into the Thomas Cook Group—one of the world’s largest travel companies with more than £9 billion (around Rs70,800 crore) in revenue and 22,000 employees.
Menon walks into the room with a firm step and no-nonsense demeanour, absolutely not the sort of man to trifle with at the workplace. And trifler, he is not. Under Menon’s stewardship, Thomas Cook India has made a number of significant acquisitions, seen boardroom shuffles and, more importantly, significant growth in revenue and profit.
Menon is sharply dressed in a spotless white shirt, a narrow green tie with diagonal yellow stripes. The only sign of bling in the ensemble is the unmistakable black Montblanc pen in his pocket. His steel-grey hair is meticulously parted and, salt and pepper moustache neatly trimmed.
Crisis control: Menon has always been in the middle of changing business scenarios.
“I am from Kerala, like you, but I’ve always been a Mumbai boy,” Menon starts as I ask him to tell me the Madhavan Menon story. After schooling at The Cathedral and John Connon School in the city, Menon went to the US for an education in business and finance. First, with a bachelors degree in business, followed by an MBA in international business and finance. “Back then, a good job in banking was what everyone wanted. It was secure and there was great opportunity in India as well. So, I figured I couldn’t fail with a career choice in finance,” Menon says.
He returned to India and joined what was then Grindlays Bank, in the currency trading room, handling foreign exchange. It was a fortuitous assignment. Menon would continue to dabble in foreign exchange operations for many years and eventually enter Thomas Cook, heading the forex business as an additional and executive director in May 2000.
I ask him why he decided to return to India after his MBA.
“Back then, in the late 1980s, there was a glut of MBAs in the US. People were finding it tough to get good jobs. Especially in finance. So, I decided to turn back. At the time, I also had a tentative offer from Citibank in Bahrain. But the Grindlays offer came through first.”
Ironically, after the Grindlays assignment, Menon still ended up doing a stint with Citibank in West Asia. He then moved to Birla Capital Asset Management where he had his first experience with boardroom shake-ups. “I have always found myself in positions where I had to manage change. Birla, in 1998, decided to end their association with Capital Group International. Instead, they forged a new relationship with Sun Life of Canada. Suddenly I was in the thick of things…managing the transition.”
That experience probably helped Menon when he joined Thomas Cook India in 2000. Though, naturally, he couldn’t have known it then. Menon was picked to head one of the largest forex operations in the country. At the time Thomas Cook India had been wallowing for a while and growth had been stagnant.
In 2005, Thomas Cook AG sold off a majority stake in the Indian business to the Dubai Investment Group. Menon had to handle the entry of a new financial investor, with much greater focus on performance. It was just the sort of challenge Menon would revel in.
In April 2006, Menon was elevated to the position of managing director of the company. “And then things got really interesting. By the end of the year, we had made two acquisitions and I was beginning to travel at least two days out of three.”
First with LKP Forex in June 2006 and then with Travel Corp. (India) Ltd, or TCI, in December 2006; Menon spearheaded two critical acquisitions for Thomas Cook that would immediately give it greater national scope.
“On the one hand, we had an entrepreneur-run company that was managed in an extremely centralized fashion. And then there was TCI, which had lost drive and focus over the years. We not only had to integrate cultures, but also rationalize manpower.” It was a tough time and the incessant travel took its toll on Menon. “I am glad I don’t have to travel that much any more.”
Then, just when things looked like they were settling down, in March it was announced that Thomas Cook UK was buying out the entire shareholding in the Indian branch. Menon, now a change manager with the stripes to prove it, is on the ball again.
Menon believes that Thomas Cook is poised to take off in a big way. Not only are Indians travelling more than ever before, but his company is also gearing up to tap into this growth through a variety of channels. (Days after I spoke to Menon, Thomas Cook unveiled their new website, www.thomascook.co.in, with online bookings, calling cards and insurance.)
In addition to leveraging the global Thomas Cook network, the TCI acquisition has helped the company cater to growing domestic travel as well. Menon has his own personal take on the story: “It’s not all growth due to online websites. The real business expansion is coming from small-town India. Tier II and tier III cities are the new markets. That’s why we think our 160 nationwide offices with 2,500 staff are going to help us do well.” (In the press kit I spot several interest-ing domestic travel packages: Ultimate Uttarakhand and Wonders of Himachal.)
Menon continues: “The travel scenario is soon going to change completely. Most travel services are going to get commoditized. And then, even price won’t make a difference. I think it will become all about service quality.”
Thomas Cook, Menon says, is now focusing on improving service. Specific people are being recruited to monitor and improve service levels. “When competition matures, only great service brings customers back,” he reiterates.
For all his commitment to work, Menon has also mellowed a bit over time. “I’ve learned to be much more sensitive to people issues. Move away from the pure process mentality. Handling so many leadership changes at the board level has made me cognizant of that.”
I ask him how he stays sane while managing such a regular stream of “crisis” situations.
“Well, I like the work. If you ask my wife, she will tell you that I am also married to Thomas Cook India,” he chuckles. “But, I do take a two-week vacation every year.”
Menon likes to wind down on weekends at home with a good book. “I’m trying to make up for 30 years of not reading a thing. I don’t read fiction at all. But I do enjoy a lot of socio-political writing. For instance, I am fascinated that India has had some form of a federal structure for centuries.”
This year Menon is going back to Kerala for his vacation. “I started seeing places like Kerala and (the) North-East only on my recent business-related trips. They are such treasures. Kerala is wonderful. The North-East is like a completely different country!”
When he notices the red Chairman Mao brooch on my sling bag, he frowns. “Well, that’s probably the one thing I don’t like about Kerala!” As I grab a glass of water before walking out of conference room, I peer into his office.
Menon is already at his desk, on the phone, and back to work.
Born: 12 February 1955
Education: BA (business) and MBA (finance and international business), both from George Washington University in Washington, DC
Work Profile: Started career at Grindlays Bank. Later worked with Citibank and Birla Sun Life Asset Management Co. Joined Thomas Cook India as additional and executive director (foreign exchange) in 2000. Appointed as managing director in April 2006
Hobbies: Making up for 30 years of not touching a book. Keenly interested in Indian history, sociology and politics.
Favourite Tipple: Menon used to savour good malts. But now he’s a red wine guy. Never drinks while travelling