In a dark business suit and stilettos, Sonal Agrawal, chief executive officer (CEO), Accord Group, one of India’s five major executive search firms, could well be one of the $200,000 (Rs82 lakh)-plus annual compensation, senior management brigade that she routinely woos for talent-starved, corporate India. And much like the vodka that she and her husband, Tarun Bali, love to collect and consume, she appears deceptively colourless.
At the Oberoi’s Belvedere Club, her “office away from office”, as the ice dissolves in her vodka martini and the sun melts over the ocean at Mumbai’s Nariman Point, she reveals: “We collect vodkas from many countries. We even have stuff from the streets of Russia with crown caps—once you open the bottle, you finish it. My favourite is Ultimat, it’s the smoothest. And the other is called Kalashnikov, in a bottle shaped like the gun.”
It was while finishing her MBA at the London Business School (LBS) in 1992 that Agrawal acquired a taste for vodka. Back then, she advised state-owned enterprises in eastern Europe that wanted to become market-friendly. “Our project ended at a research institute in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Every meeting began with a toast to the hosts, then to LBS. Suddenly, a scientist turns around and says, ‘Well, it’s ready!’ There it was, 100% proof, still-warm vodka, at 11am, distilled in the lab!”
With an MBA in her pocket, but without a job in recession-hit UK, Agrawal moved back to India in 1993. Her father Bish—“a single-malt person who never drinks alone”—set up the first professional recruitment firm in 1969, called Associated Business Consultants. This got shortened to ABC “because, by the time he got the name out at a cocktail party, people would move on.”
Although Bish was a Marwari based in Kolkata, his thinking was unconventional: He sent his daughter to study overseas on the condition that she would come back to join his business when needed. Now, it was payback time. “ABC was by far the largest recruitment brand in India. The person running our Mumbai office had just resigned, and my dad said, ‘Go there and make sure everything is alright’.”
Agrawal showed up on the day of the bomb blasts, with her sister, Toral, who had also joined the business. Over the next few months, she shuttled from the living room floor of relatives to Sea Green Hotel (“Most people in Mumbai have not seen its insides.”) to paying guest digs.
Her first month found her looking for a secretary for the Jumbo Group and hunting for a CEO for one of its divisions. “I have to say the secretary was harder to find. I got to handle part of the Shaw Wallace account, for which I clocked up a zillion flights to all the metros. That gave me a sense of the profound changes in the country. I was totally hooked,” she says.
When UTI Bank started operations, Agrawal physically screened around 25,000 applications in two weeks, interviewing 500 people over a month and a half. “Perhaps, because of my B-school background, the people I knew tended to be bankers. So, by default, I got to start the financial services’ practice for the firm which, in turn, evolved into the Accord Group,” she says.
One of the bankers she met in 1995 was her future husband, Tarun, fittingly, over a glass of vodka. “At a friend’s party, there was no ice left, so I could not have my drink on the rocks. He sauntered in, knight in shining armour, and popped a couple of bottles in the freezer. I got my frozen vodka in half an hour, married him a year later, and am still paying him back,” she laughs.
Today, the Accord Group, as one of India’s premier executive search firms, services media, consumer and retail, technology, engineering and financial services, and is part of an international network. Of the six directors, three are women; more than half the firm is female. Agrawal explains: “Now, we only do business heads, functional heads and occasionally, a specialist who is difficult to find. At middle management, if you hire the wrong person, you’ll lose a month’s work. But if you recruit the wrong CEO, your business could close down. Hence, the process must be rigorous.”
Agrawal says that what she does for a living is best described as “building a company’s future through its people. And changing people’s lives by making them look at different opportunities.” She has become a quiet collector of extremely talented people: “You need to have the credibility to discuss a potential change of career with the top-most echelons in the business world. Is it the right job for the person? Equally important, is the person right for the job? Both must match, else it won’t work.”
So successful has Accord been at this that Kishore Biyani, founder of Pantaloon Retail (India) Ltd, devotes an entire chapter to it in his new book, It Happened in India. Agrawal says he had the vision, way back in 1995, to ask her to “keep an eye out for any expats that you come across. Nobody knew what retailing was, so we researched the industry globally and came up with an industry paper that analysts were scrambling for.”
Today’s trend, however, is no longer about hiring the expat, but the returning Indian. Agrawal says, “When a low-cost airline was being set up recently, we worked with partners in five countries for the CEO, looking at every low-cost carrier in the world. We are at an advantage here because for many years, we were the dominant recruiting company before these Indians went overseas. So we are now their first port of call when they return.”
Dinner table conversations in the household are interesting because “my father and my brother run the biggest recruiting company in the country. Tarun runs Manpower India, part of one of the world’s largest staffing companies. You have India’s two largest recruiting companies and the third biggest search firm breaking bread together so, in that sense, we are certainly the first family of recruitment,” she says, laughing.
While the Kennedys of recruitment do make time to collect contemporary art—her prized possession is a Jehangir Sabavala she stole from her father’s 400-strong collection of paintings—there isn’t much spare time. “Holidays are structured around work. We love to travel. In the last three years, between Tarun and I, we have notched up 25 countries. But our favourite place is still Goa. Our long-term ambition is to start Tarun’s Tavern or Bali’s Bar on some beach in Goa.” Wisely, even as the vodka goes down smoothly, the feni is chilling.
Name: Sonal Agrawal
Born: 1967 (Kampala, Uganda)
Education: MBA from London Business School, UK
Work Profile: Fourteen years of experience in executive search and selection. Manages the India practice of Accord/ABC Group, with offices in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. The company is part of Alto Partners Executive Search Worldwide, with a network in 22 countries. Agrawal sits on the global board and oversees the Asia-Pacific region.
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