In the last week or so, I happened to meet quite a few top executives and businessmen socially. And once the golfers were through with their stories about what lengths they have gone to have their weekly half-day doses of golf, and everyone had compared notes on Venice and Bali and Spain, and discussed the various educational options they were considering for their children (the UK or the US? Singapore or Australia? Why not look at Canada too?), and some of the wives had had the customary mock fights with their husbands about their working hours….that is, after the ritual and expected topics, the conversations invariably turned to their work. And I saw gloom descend on them, irrespective of what industry they were in.
Said a very senior manager in a major automobile company: “2012 will be the worst year for us in living memory.” He had come to the party straight from the Auto Expo, the industry’s annual jamboree. The crowds were there, he admitted, in fact there were traffic jams for miles around, but he said that was no indication of anything to do with company bottom lines. “I have been in this business for 20 years,” he said. “I hear what my dealers say, I sit in their showrooms and see what’s going on, I have access to vast amounts of real-time data that I can mine any which way I want. This year is going to be bad.”
Visitors admire Motorcycles on display at 11th Auto Expo 2012 in New Delhi on Sunday. PTI photo
After a few drinks, a top boss in a Fortune 500 IT firm told us how on the last working day of last year, the pink slip was handed to a function head in his company. “Been in the company for more than a decade, 53-54 years old, package of Rs 1.4 crore a year, and we just had to tell him, sorry, it’s over. On the last day of the year. And I was thinking, I would be his age in three-four years, and the same thing could happen to me. That’s the reality, boss. Here’s three months’ pay, thank you and Happy New Year.” The three of us listening to him shook our heads and murmured: “That’s the reality.”
The owner of an export firm had a more serious problem, one that had nothing to do with the “policy paralysis” (which everyone referred to angrily at some point of time or the other). “I won’t be in business ten years from now,” he said. “I am basically a middleman. I pick up stuff from a domestic manufacturer and I send it abroad. Till some years ago, we used to send it to an importer in the destination country who would then sell it to the final buyer. But there are no importers any more in the West, that layer has been removed. We now deal directly with the end-user. We used to export a lot of woolens which we would source from Ludhiana and Amritsar. But the new generation in all those family businesses have studied abroad, and one day, I land up at the year’s biggest garment trade fair in Paris, and I find all these guys have taken their own stalls there. We lost that entire business.”
Half an hour later, I heard him arguing that it was essential to allow foreign direct investment in retail, because that was the only way all the middlemen in the chain from farm to shop could be eliminated, and that would enormously benefit both farmer and consumer.
“We’ve taken a policy decision that when we’re hiring fresh people, we don’t take anyone from the metros,” revealed a heavy hitter from a leading software company. “We are in a situation where we can maintain our profit growth only if we have our programmers working 12 to 14 hours a day. And the metro kids are not willing to do that. But the small-town guys are hungry (“Hungry, hungry…” all those listening repeated, bobbing their heads in full agreement), I tell them that the first five years of your career, you should not be sleeping more than four or five hours a day, and they are happy. Anyway, the buggers are going to leave in two-three years, so we have to get the most out of them.”
“We recently had to let go of this lady who’s been 26 years in the company,” said someone. “And just three days before that, she was telling me that her husband had lost all their savings, playing the stock market. But there was really nothing one could do. We had done the metrics. She had to go. Nothing personal. Some days later, her brother called me up. Said she is in very bad shape, psychologically. Can she be taken back, I’ll pay her salary, the company doesn’t have to shell out a penny. Of course, I told him that that is impossible, but, you know, you can’t help feeling bad.”
I think the happiest moment in each of these parties came when the lady of the house announced that dinner had been served. The mind could now be focused on something other than whatever grim truths were waiting patiently for it to deal with, the next morning at work.