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The professional craftsman

The professional craftsman
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First Published: Sun, Jul 25 2010. 08 46 PM IST

Utilatarian: (from top to bottom) Rajeev Gupta is fascinated with Mahatma Gandhi and the charkha reminds him of Gandhi’s ideas, from the very basic to the very big; this silver coin was given to him b
Utilatarian: (from top to bottom) Rajeev Gupta is fascinated with Mahatma Gandhi and the charkha reminds him of Gandhi’s ideas, from the very basic to the very big; this silver coin was given to him b
Updated: Sun, Jul 25 2010. 08 46 PM IST
On a hot Sunday morning in Mumbai, the empty office buildings of the Bandra-Kurla Complex have the familiar look of an abandoned financial district in deep weekend slumber. But in a cabin in the landmark IL&FS Financial Centre, the lights have been switched on for a day of quiet, solitary work. This is the office of Rajeev Gupta, managing director and head of the India buyout team of the Carlyle group, a $90 billion (around Rs425,700 crore) global private equity house. Like every Sunday, Gupta has arrived with his lunchbox, to wade through mountains of company reports and industry analysis.
His workplace seems anachronistic in today’s wireless era. The L-shaped desk and storage units are burdened with paper, which could be comfortably read off a laptop in an armchair at home. The layout of the office defies the prevailing open-plan culture—there are cloistered private rooms for managers, and wooden cubicles for assistants to reinforce individual privacy. The office and its solo occupant also illustrate a forgotten idea: craftsmanship, or the desire to do a job well for its own sake.
Finance as a craft
Utilatarian: (from top to bottom) Rajeev Gupta is fascinated with Mahatma Gandhi and the charkha reminds him of Gandhi’s ideas, from the very basic to the very big; this silver coin was given to him by his former boss Hemendra Kothari; his functional, paper-heavy office underlines his streamlined focus on work and his voracious appetite for reading; and though the office lacks expensive artworks or gadgets, it does have a few select artefacts of personal resonance. Kedar Bhatt/Mint
The notion of pursuing excellence and quality as ends in themselves is rigorously explored by Richard Sennett, an eminent thinker and humanities professor at New York University and the London School of Economics, in his provocative book The Craftsman. Sennett contends that the values of the craftsman, rather than pure competition, will produce superior work in any modern industry. He particularly emphasizes the importance of the gradual accumulation of knowledge and skills, through repetition, habit and “slow learning that enables reflection”.
These are almost heretical statements, particularly when applied to a global financial system driven by transactions, testosterone and a high burnout rate. But they seem to be exemplified by Gupta and his paper-heavy office.
To peers, both colleagues and outsiders, Gupta is known for his passion for finance as a craft, rather than simply finance as a career. He thrives on seeking intellectually sound answers to issues such as the right methodology for valuing companies or making investment decisions. He relishes tracking “50-70 industries—all intellectually different”, arguing that “reading is part of our business; if you don’t do it, you’re pretty much irrelevant in a short space of time”. He enthusiastically proselytizes his job as “the most entrepreneurial in the world”.
In search of quality
Gupta attributes the roots of this impulse of craftsmanship to Hemendra Kothari, currently chairman, DSP BlackRock, and formerly chairman of what was earlier known as DSP Merrill Lynch, where Gupta worked for 15 years before joining Carlyle in 2005. Kothari, according to Gupta, “set the tone” for an environment that emphasized quality, rejecting work that was “glib, me-too or superficial”, even if this meant swimming against the tide. During the initial public offering (IPO) boom of the mid-1990s, this entailed devising “well-reasoned arguments for determining company valuation” through detailed study of industries and company metrics, rather than blindly accepting more optimistic, yet baseless, figures.
Gupta’s regard for Kothari is visible. A silver coin with the DSP Merrill logo, given to him by Kothari when he retired as chairman, rests among a select collection of artefacts in his office. Others include a picture of his family home in Jammu (which he visits regularly) and a Gandhian charkha (“a fascination for the leader of India; from the very basic ideas to the big ones, he had them all”, he says).
Gupta’s inclination for quality over quantity is also evident at Carlyle, which has witnessed only one investment during his five- year tenure, fewer than its peers, albeit a much larger transaction than average. Given his 12- to 14-hour workdays, this may seem like a discouraging return on investment of time spent evaluating opportunities. Sennett himself warns that “the desire to do something well for its own sake can be impaired by competitive pressure, by frustration or by obsession” and suggests that “the pursuit of quality entails learning how to use obsessional energy well”.
Gupta offers a contrarian view. “Our founders keep telling us that we want you to do a good deal,” he says, rather than making investments to keep pace with competitors. Once again, he adds an intellectual caveat—“the most amount of learning you get is when someone says: here’s why you are wrong”—as he describes the feedback of Carlyle’s investment committee when rejecting an investment idea put forth by him. His spartan office reflects his focus: It lacks expensive artwork, designer furniture, a panoramic view or other workplace trimmings popular among senior business professionals.
Craftsmanship for life
Is Gupta’s model of “professional craftsmanship” a desirable template for modern work-life? The gruelling hours might seem irrational, especially to newcomers. Being wedded to a utilitarian workplace, especially on weekends, is far from ideal, as Gupta himself acknowledges: “It’s not something I’m happy about, I wouldn’t recommend (it) to anyone, but that’s what I am.”
Yet the implication of such an approach is refreshingly uncomplicated—a straightforward idea that work (even urban, professional, office-based work) is a vocation, based on “the ever-growing conviction that one was meant to do this one particular thing in one’s life”, as Sennett writes. Like any universal ideal, perhaps it requires extreme devotion to make itself most apparent.
Aparna Piramal Raje, a director of BP Ergo, meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspaces and working styles.
Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Jul 25 2010. 08 46 PM IST