It is, perhaps, intriguing that until six years ago, Pramoud Vinayak Rao, whose company was the first to offer over-the-counter home security systems in India, never had one installed in his own house. Till Rao, 50, managing director, Zicom Electronic Security Systems Ltd, shifted into his new house at Khar, Mumbai, in 2002 and was locked out on the very first night.
For Rs200, the hastily summoned locksmith opened the door with a master key without damaging the lock and an astounded Rao never forgot that lesson: No matter how secure you think your locks are, someone out there can always open them.
He got a Zicom security kit installed the very next day and now has his entire building under CCTV surveillance. That experience set Rao thinking and prodded him to develop home security kits and retail them for household consumers (Zicom had only sold B2B products till that point) in 2006.
The sentry: In August, Rao’s Zicom helped train Ganapati volunteers in Mumbai in crowd management and fire safety. Illustration: Jayachandran /Mint
I ask Rao what he thinks about the recent bomb blasts in Delhi. “It is only when a blast takes place that we suddenly want more surveillance, more security measures. A week later, all is forgotten. But the threat never goes away,” Rao says. Currently his company is working to set up India’s first city under round-the-clock wireless surveillance within the National Capital Region and he hopes more cities will follow this model in coming years.
We’re dining at the coffee shop Blooms at Delhi’s InterContinental Eros hotel. He is casually turned out in an open-neck striped shirt, and having spent all day indoors in meetings, prefers to sit out in the open. Rao opts for watermelon juice and risotto—he’s a teetotaller—and I pick a ginger cooler and goat cheese salad.
I am curious to know how this south Mumbai boy, whose parents worked for the government— Rao’s mother worked at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and his father at the Naval Dockyards—ended up as an entrepreneur. “I was miserable at studies and flunked three subjects in class IX and two in class X. But elsewhere, especially in the canteen, I was the leader,” Rao reminisces with a grin.
Rao—who nurtures a love for singing, no doubt honed in his canteen days—had no idea what he would do after graduation. “I wanted a job…any job, but was rejected everywhere I applied. I realized I did not know much and could not even present myself properly.” He remembers the period as a “depressing phase”.
Eventually, he landed a job as a medical representative but lasted only for a year—he hated spending hours in doctors’ waiting rooms. The next stop was a packaging company and this is where he believes the transformation in his personality took place.
“I had a tough Parsi ‘bawa’ as a boss who would not take no for an answer,” Rao says. Through the 1980s, selling PVC cans to oil companies and convincing, as he claims, the managers at Hindustan Lever Ltd. (now Hindustan Unilever Ltd.) to sell its new shampoo— Clinic—in opaque PVC bottles rather than the regular glass ones which were the norm till then, Rao learnt the art of thinking on his feet.
“Today, my greatest strength is that I am willing to try my hand at new ideas,” Rao says, “especially ones that have no precedent in the country.” For instance, he set up a chain of 18 retail outlets two years ago to sell security equipment to homeowners. Apart from these standalone stores, Zicom now has 196 shop-in-shops at Chroma, Big Bazaar, Shopper’s Stop, etc.
Rao’s first jab at entrepreneurship was in the late 1980s, when he tied up with a neighbour. The duo sold fax machines, tea-coffee machines and cordless phones to companies. While their venture, Jayanti Business Machines Ltd, was a success, the relationship soured, and Rao and his friend parted ways in 1994.
Once again, he was at a loose end. Racking his brains for something new to do, Rao decided to try his luck at selling modems and pagers that were the rage at the time. That would be the debut of the Zicom brand name.
Back in 1994, when Rao named his firm, his motivations were tactical: “I chose the name Zicom (pronounced back then as Zee-com) because in 1995, there were not many companies listed at the stock market whose names began with ‘Z’. Plus, Zee TV was a huge hit, so a similar sounding name seemed like a good idea.”
Zicom today has moved on from modems and pagers to comprehensive security solutions— they supply everything from access controls and proximity cards to burglar alarms and LPG gas leak buzzers.
This radical change in direction was a result of business slowing down and some inspiration from his father. By 1995, Rao says, the pager business was going nowhere because the cellphone fever was catching on. So, following the advice of his father, who used to work on freight ships and thus knew a little about surveillance cameras, he decided to branch out into security systems.
Rao hotfooted it to the US and managed to secure meetings with some companies that sold security systems and managed to strike some deals. “My father resigned from the navy and became Zicom’s technical director, and it was he who went to the US to get training in how to install and manage these systems,” Rao says.
It took Rao six months before he could sell his first security system—to the erstwhile ANZ Grindlays Bank, D.N. Road, Mumbai. “Our quote was almost Rs60 lakh lesser than the company they were considering. Yet they were unsure about giving us the business. To check out our credentials and get a comfort letter from our collaborators, one of the guys from the bank actually visited the US to meet our collaborators,” remembers Rao, still amused at his first customer’s lack of confidence.
Five years later, when business started to plateau again, a visit to Singapore and a meeting with a Motorola executive convinced Rao to bring smart card technology to India. With that new technology on his company’s products plan, he was able to raise about Rs22 crore from the market.
Just when things appeared to be slowly picking up, something happened that kicked Zicom’s business into overdrive. One man single-handedly changed the way the security business worked the world over. “What a CEO, general managers could not do, Osama bin Laden did with 9/11. His actions brought into sharp focus the times that we live in and why preventive measures are better than reactive one,” Rao says.
Today, the market drivers for Zicom are IT companies, BPOs, malls, multiplexes and even gods! Rao says with a smile: “We have been managing the surveillance at Siddhivinayak temple and Haji Ali dargah in Mumbai for many years now. We have set up surveillance for over 100 traffic signals in Mumbai and about 80 in Bangalore.”
Despite its turbulent genesis, Zicom had a consolidated income of Rs291 crore in the last financial year, and its first quarter consolidated income for this year is Rs83 crore. With the security and surveillance industry poised to expand at around 20% annually according to a Frost & Sullivan report, that growth looks set to continue.
For a man in a business that thrives on paranoia, Rao is candid when it comes to talking about himself. Married at 23 to a girl his mother chose, he has two daughters—Shweta, 23, who works at Adlabs Films Ltd, and Divya, 21, who is studying journalism at Rizvi College in Bandra, Mumbai.
Currently, he is all set to learn golf “because it is the CEO thing to do”, and his idea of weekend relaxation is visiting nightclubs such as Poison in Bandra, Mumbai.
But what does a teetotaller like Rao do at a nightclub anyway? “I spend time with my friends, enjoy the music, and I dance!” A regular at Gold’s Gym, Bandra, he says he is very conscious about the way he looks. “By the time I hit my 40s, I looked awful, my hair was greying and I had put on weight. Nobody looked at me.” That was when Rao became serious about working out. And the trademark shaven head look? “It really works! I shed years with it!” Rao claims.
Born: 5 January 1958
Education: BSc, University of Mumbai
Current Designation: Promoter and managing director
Work Profile: Worked as a medical rep at Reno Pharma in Mumbai (1980-1981); worked as sales executive at Vijay Flexible Containers Pvt. Ltd (1981-1988); chairman and executive director at Jayanti Business Machines Ltd (1988-1994); managing director of Zicom Electronic Security Systems Ltd (1995 till date)
Favourite Reads: Biographies of Indian entrepreneurs and books on spirituality
Favourite Holiday Spot: London
Technology Update: Zicom is implementing a software developed by a group of ex-IITians that can read the licence plates of a vehicle in any Indian language, with varied font sizes, and store the information with an accuracy rate of about 90%