Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Business Lounge with Neeraj Aggarwal

You could call Neeraj Aggarwal, the new managing director of The Boston Consulting Group, India, a problem solver. Or you could call him a destroyer. His fancy title apart, Aggarwal is one of the investors in Juggernaut Books, a new publishing firm that will publish books meant to be read specifically on phones. And it ties in with his belief that to solve complex, knotty problems, you have to destroy old ways of thinking and existing.

Aggarwal, 44, is warm and chatty. It’s a Saturday and his home in an apartment complex in Gurgaon, adjacent to the Capital, exudes cosy domesticity. His six-year-old son is trying to convince his mother (Aggarwal’s wife Priyanka Aggarwal is a partner and director at BCG) that he should be allowed to watch some more TV. After all, his dad is busy talking to a journalist and if he needs to keep his volume low, this is a good way to do it. His nine-year-old daughter has gone for music class, she is learning Western vocal. His mother is pottering around, keeping an eye on the lunch that is being prepared—a lavish spread of chicken curry, baby potatoes, mixed vegetables, rajma, salad and seriously delicious theplas, followed by an intense rice pudding, brownies and ice cream.

“If you take what millennials today want, they have lesser attention spans, they want to snack," says Aggarwal, explaining what attracted him enough to Juggernaut to invest his own money (much less, he says, than the other investors, Infosys Ltd’s co-founder Nandan Nilekani and Fabindia promoter William Bissell). “They want to do many things at the same time. They want a lot of breadth, they’re not sure about depth. So I think snacking is a critical way of how people will consume going forward. They’re naturally distracted. So the idea of having bite-sized books works" (his daughter, who has inhaled every Enid Blyton book and whose reading time now needs to be restricted, is an exception).

Change is a theme Aggarwal thrives on. It can be traced back to his childhood, growing up in Haryana, moving from one town to another, thanks to his engineer-father’s job with the state electricity board. Since there were no English-medium schools at the class XI level, he moved to the Capital to study at the Delhi Public School, RK Puram, and stayed in the hostel. He took up math—that’s when he realized his love for solving problems—and for the first time was introduced to a computer, a Commodore 64.

“It was this ugly computer but it just got me excited," he recalls, his face lighting up at the memory. “I did programming for the first time and I was like, wow, this is fun." It opened up a new world for him. In 1992, he graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi with a bachelor’s in computer science; he followed this up with a master’s in computer science from Ohio State University, US. He joined Cadence Design Systems in California to work on “IC design and intractable problems". Seeing the blank look on my face, he switches to a mainstream example (no doubt, as the head of a company he needs to be able to connect with equally nerdy colleagues but also with clients and at cocktail party conversations): Alan Turing, the British scientist and pioneer of modern computing, whose life was captured in the Academy Award-winning Imitation Game, is the one who discovered intractable problems, problems that can’t be solved but for which you can find approximate algorithms to come up with close enough solutions.

Right. It’s what made Aggarwal switch to consulting (after a master’s in business administration from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad), to solve the complex, intractable problems of large companies. He joined BCG in 1999 and in late 2000 moved to New York for a year and a half as part of the company’s internal “Ambassador programme" (in which select employees are chosen for extended-stay projects in the firm’s global offices)—he was the first from the India office. Aggarwal, who has seen one of the fastest promotions to partner, has been part of the firm’s global client service team and ran recruiting and operations for many years in India. In terms of consulting, Aggarwal has worked predominantly on the technology, media, telecom and financial service sectors that have been at the forefront of a lot of the change India has seen in recent years.

For instance, 3G data was introduced by Indian telecom firms in 2012 and with it came a whole new vocabulary—giga bytes or, rather, GB. For 199, a consumer could get 1 GB. Except that consumers had no idea what 1 GB was. The question he had to tackle was, “What is the sachet equivalent of that?" His team created offerings, like for “ 3 you can browse on Facebook all day". Consumers could understand that. They designed friends and family packs. “We realized college kids…could trade on data. I have this, you can use mine," Aggarwal says. He refuses to name the client.

He’s also worked to bring technology to the bottom of the pyramid—he worked for a couple of years on the Aadhar unique identification number programme, looking at how it could be a big enabler for financial inclusion.

Given the change in government in New Delhi last year, Aggarwal expects more change in the system. Or at least he hopes that will be the case.

To be sure, some sectors have seen more progress than others. “The intent has been there," he says, weighing his words. “Doing any major change in our nation is complex. GST (the goods and services tax Bill) is a prime example. There’s no argument to believe it should not get done. But it just drags on and on. That’s not for lack of intent but a nature of how complex politics can get in our country. And both parties can be accused of behaving irresponsibly on that, depending upon who was in the opposition when."

He follows this up with another reality check, “Very bold brush shifts are probably harder to do but if we can sensibly do incremental shifts, that can be very good."

In electronics manufacturing, for instance. There’s been enough coverage and more of Asian manufacturers, especially giants like Foxconn Technology Group, signing agreements with different state governments to assemble, and eventually manufacture, cellphones in India. Since they make most of the cellphones in the world, and India is one of the largest consumers, it makes sense for the two to match and bring the suppliers to where the demand is. The reality, however, is that India may not be able to offer the kind of benefits China does when it comes to land, power and labour, says Aggarwal.

“How do we create a reasonably exciting environment for them so they want to come here, that’s a balance that needs to be struck. It’s something that has to be done, that has to be done thoughtfully. Is there interest? Yes. Is there an opportunity? Yes. With a few tweaks, it can be made to work," he says.

Aggarwal is still betting on India. That’s why he moved back from the US in 2002, because he believes in the change he, and others like him, can bring about. “If I look back from when I started at BCG 15-16 years ago, we’ve come a long way. And none of the places like this where we live (he waves towards his expansive living room) even existed. But there’s just tons to be done." Problems to be solved.

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