It is perhaps an indicator of a gender bias that if you google Sulajja Firodia Motwani, 40, one of the first results that comes up is a listing on eDesibabes.com (most hot male lists have Bollywood stars and cricketers, not CEOs). So let’s get that out of the way. Motwani is gorgeous, fit and looks a decade younger than she really is (and she is tickled by the eDesibabes reference). But as I learn in the course of our meeting, what makes Motwani really different from other business leaders is not her good looks, but her candour and her ability to clinically analyse a bad situation and choose a rational option.
It’s been 13 years since Motwani started working with the Kinetic group, the engineering and two-wheeler company that her grandfather H.K. Firodia set up. In that time, Kinetic became a household name, a girl’s first set of wheels, a symbol of freedom—from gears and the necessity of a male rider. Motwani, now managing director, was the face of the company.
All seemed great until mid-2008 when, loaded with debts and unable to compete with the big boys of the two-wheeler segment, 80% of the company’s stake was sold to Mahindra and Mahindra. Anyone else would have cloaked this under meaningless, positive-sounding phrases such as strategic redevelopment or changing the paradigm. But Motwani calls it what it is—a disappointment, something that had to be done.
“It was difficult,” she says, “and I had to convince the whole family that the best decision would be to have an alliance. If the market changes and you don’t have the right construct to make it in the changed market, then you can’t succeed.” Motwani saw only three options for a mid-sized player in a market dominated by large companies who have very strong bargaining powers: an alliance, becoming a niche player or closing the business. “If we had done nothing, then we probably would have had to shut it down. Or we would have to be so niche that we become a scooter company only in, let’s say, western India. I thought an alliance was the right way—it would move the company forward. Mahindra is a good partner, they understand the rural market, our customers, dealers and employees would benefit from the deal and we would also profit by being shareholders. So I was convinced this was the best way forward. And I laid it out to the family,” she says.
Motwani has spent the last two years changing tack and quietly focusing on building new businesses. So there’s an auto component division, an engineering services arm and an infrastructure company. But what Motwani is most excited about is an announcement that she will make in the next few months—the launch of a company that she guardedly says will bring the Kinetic brand from your garage to inside your home. The word in the market is that this will be a line of home appliances. “But don’t write us out of the automobile industry. It’s in our blood, we will come back to it at some time in the future,” she says.
Motwani wants to focus on the new consumer business while her brother, Ajukya, will look after the engineering and infrastructure business. Her two sisters are not involved in the company. Working in the family business was not a non-negotiable condition thrust at her, but one she chose for herself. In 1992, after she completed her MBA from Carnegie Mellon University, Motwani stayed on in the US and worked for Barra International, an investment analytics company. But working in Kinetic was always part of her plan and she came back to join the company in 1997. She says she did not just sit back and play the role of the owner’s daughter by throwing her weight around. She earned her stripes, spending the first three years looking after the dealer network, travelling 20 days a month all over the country. “Once people know that you are working hard and your agenda is only that the business should succeed, they are quite supportive. As for being a woman, I feel people’s expectations from women are so low that they are overtly impressed if you just manage to make your point intelligently,” she says.
But a ready-made career in the family business is not as easy as it looks from the outside. “There are challenges to working in your family business. For one, the buck stops with you. If you screw up, you can’t change your job. Of course, when the company does well, you get the benefit. But if something goes wrong, it affects you directly. It becomes your life,” she says.
Though her self-image is professionally driven, she is careful to remind herself that it should not become her life. Nine-year-old son Sidhant is a top priority, as is her fitness regime. “You don’t realize it because you are living it day-to-day. But when I get a chance to sit and look back, then I feel that I have been able to embrace a lot of things; I can multitask—be a good mom, a full-time professional and keep myself fit. I have been able to balance my life reasonably successfully,” she says.
Motwani has not let the business troubles of the last couple of years damage her optimism. “I am always saying ‘be positive’, it’s a joke in the family. In the movie No Entry, Anil Kapoor’s character constantly says ‘be positive yaar’ in a very annoying way. My family makes fun of me by mimicking that,” she says.
Then Motwani discusses something else not often heard from a business leader—gratitude. “There have been failures and problems, but I still feel fortunate. I tell myself if I can’t be thankful and happy, who can. I don’t have the right to complain, I’ve been given so much,” she says.