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Arvind Singhal | Still believing in the supermarket

Arvind Singhal | Still believing in the supermarket
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First Published: Fri, Mar 06 2009. 10 14 PM IST

By design: Singhal is a fan of the late architect Frank Lloyd Wright and wants his home in Ranikhet to be his personal ‘Fallingwater’. Jayachandran / Mint
By design: Singhal is a fan of the late architect Frank Lloyd Wright and wants his home in Ranikhet to be his personal ‘Fallingwater’. Jayachandran / Mint
Updated: Fri, Mar 06 2009. 10 14 PM IST
A little more than 48 hours after sending an interview request to Arvind Singhal, I’m being ushered through the gates of his house in Hauz Khas, New Delhi, by Singhal’s son Aditya. Watching on is an adequately sceptical-looking security guard with a luxurious handlebar moustache.
Aditya leads me past the cars in the driveway, by the impeccable lawn in front, and through the doors into a large, brightly lit living room. By the time I’ve settled into a leather couch, one of many arranged around the room at perfect right angles, Singhal, the chairman of consulting firm Technopak Advisors, strides in, dressed casually in a dark check shirt tucked into trousers and leather sandals.
By design: Singhal is a fan of the late architect Frank Lloyd Wright and wants his home in Ranikhet to be his personal ‘Fallingwater’. Jayachandran / Mint
A quick shake of the hands later, Singhal is generously pouring Grey Goose L’Orange over ice for me and a Laphroaig for himself. I ask him if he is always home this early—it’s just 10 minutes past 7pm. It is an innocuous question, one meant to gradually ease into a more comprehensive interview. My audio recorder hasn’t even been switched on yet.
Singhal is still answering that question 10 minutes later. Mind you, he isn’t rambling or digressing randomly. On the contrary, Singhal answers my query with a logical, step-by-step analysis. An oral presentation of a good PowerPoint document, if you will.
No, he usually reaches home much earlier. Yes, it’s because he doesn’t have to handle as many things as he used to. Yes, that’s thanks to the crop of leaders who independently run the number of businesses within Technopak. Oh yes, let’s see how Technopak works these days.
The story of Technopak began in a little apartment close to where we are talking. “It’s just down the road. My wife had been gifted the flat by her father and when we started, we operated out of it,” says Singhal. “We still own it. Though it’s been empty for many years now. Helps remind me of where I began.”
Singhal had left his last job, before starting Technopak 18 years ago, on terrible terms. He had been asked to leave at short notice, his company-provided car and house had been taken away, and his co-workers had been forbidden from giving him a farewell. “They finally took a small hotel room somewhere and gave me a party in secret. It was very risky, if anyone came to know they could have lost their jobs,” Singhal recalls. Five of those clandestine partygoers would eventually be among his first batch of employees at Technopak—a textile consulting firm at the time of its birth.
As we speak, plates of fresh finger food appear from the kitchen. First up is a plate of chapli kebabs with mint chutney. And then, a few minutes later, a plate of paneer kebabs.
While Technopak has interests in various sectors—food processing, textiles, hospitality, health care—it is best known as one of the top retail consulting firms in the country. And Singhal himself has been at the forefront of the boom in organized retail in India over the last few years. He has advised most of the leading retailers, and Technopak has organized several flagship retail conferences.
But Singhal has also developed a reputation for being brash and difficult to work with. When I point this out, he doesn’t object. “I am just very honest and practical. People can interpret it as they want. I’ve walked away from people who’ve kept me waiting for a meeting, and I’ve turned down work from people I don’t think we should work with.”
Now that retail is going through a precipitous drop in fortunes, are his detractors speaking up? Does he hear a lot of we-told-you-so? “Of course I do. All the time. But it really doesn’t bother me. I am quite convinced about the potential for retail in India.”
What’s the reason for his optimism at a time when there is so much talk of retailers scaling back, laying off people and running out of cash? Singhal takes a moment to top up our drinks and then responds: “A large part of this sentiment is being fuelled by the media. Nowhere else in the world are retailers expanding the way they are in India. Now, they may not be doing (it) in the right manner and speed. But just because someone opened 600 stores in a year and then scaled it back to 400, we shouldn’t say retail is crashing. The fact that someone is left with a net of 400 stores in just one year is unprecedented globally.”
I press on. What about the low-cost retailer that has suspended operations amid reports of a cash crunch and months of missed payments to employees and suppliers? “Honestly, I don’t see why people are making such a big deal out of it. If anyone has had the misfortune to see how the company worked behind the scenes, they will immediately know that this was waiting to happen.”
Singhal then describes a visit to one of the retailer’s facilities, five or six years ago, where he saw employees in a dingy room next to a cesspool, packing bags of food items with their bare hands. He even mentions seeing rats and cockroaches scurrying around the storage rooms. “The media does not get to see that. If they had, they wouldn’t be so shocked by all this news,” he adds.
Another sector that Singhal has deep personal and professional interest in is food processing. “Whether you approve of the concept of processed food or not, for whatever reason, there is no question that India will consume more and more of it. Even if women work in offices, they want the satisfaction of having made dinner for the family. Maybe they want to please the in-laws. So even if cooking means heating something in the microwave before serving it, they are ready to do that, provided you take care of all the steps before that.”
Food processing has not only been added to Technopak’s list of competencies, it is also part of Singhal’s long-term personal plans. He is currently working on developing a plot of around 80 acres near Ranikhet in Uttarakhand. The plot will house a second home, farms and eventually a food processing facility. Singhal calls it a personal experiment that can eventually help the farmers in the locality.
Also on the anvil are three books—Singhal has planned out each one in detail. They include a comprehensive history of Indian retailing, branding and the secret to successful companies. But surely there is something the retail expert does that is a little lighter on the mind? “Oh yes. I am going to do something new this weekend. I am going to try writing some poetry!”
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Curriculum Vitae | Arvind Singhal
Born: 10 August 1958
Education: BE, IIT Roorkee; MBA, University of California, Los Angeles
Current Designation: Chairman, Technopak Advisors Pvt. Ltd
Work Profile: Joined the DCM group as a management trainee in 1979. Moved to the Modern Group, which he left in 1991 when he was senior vice-president. He then started Technopak. Entered into a joint venture with Kurt Salmon Associates of the US in 1996. The partnership ended in 2005
What Does Technopak Mean? ‘It was supposed to signify packets of technology. Not a very good name, in hindsight.’
Client Management Tip: ‘Usually you can identify consultants from a mile away by their attire. I tell my staff to wear whatever the client wears in their office.’
Political Ambition: ‘There are two ways of making it into a political position. Either you can work your way up or parachute your way down. Like many do in the Rajya Sabha. I have some plans for myself.’
Favourite Architect: Suparna Bhalla, who has her own firm in New Delhi, designed Singhal’s home and will also work on his new home near Ranikhet
sidin.v@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Mar 06 2009. 10 14 PM IST