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Perizaad Zorabian (standing) with employees of Zorabian Chicks at the company headquarters in Santa Cruz, Mumbai. (MINT_PRINT)
Perizaad Zorabian (standing) with employees of Zorabian Chicks at the company headquarters in Santa Cruz, Mumbai. (MINT_PRINT)

To stay in the game, this poultry firm took to gratitude

Actor and marketing head Perizaad Zorabian on how fear of failure, gratitude, open communication with customers and family support helped drive her family-run company through the nationwide shutdown

I barely get a glimpse of Perizaad Zorabian’s cabin through her smartphone before I am ushered out virtually. “It’s too basic and uninspiring," she says. Through the phone, the office cabin seems compact and functional, with a wooden desk, task chair, storage, computer and some family photographs. Instead, she takes me on a guided tour of the company headquarters in Mumbai’s Santa Cruz neighbourhood. The headquarters are also quite modest, with basic furniture and company branding by way of décor.

On the way, Zorabian does what no other business leader has done before in the Head Office series. She introduces me to each of her colleagues. It is a personal touch emblematic of her work style and her approach to leadership.

Zorabian, 46, is the director of Zorabian Sales and Marketing, the distribution arm of Zorabian Chicks, a family-owned chicken producer. “That’s where I sit," she says, pointing out a desk located among her sales and marketing team. Most chief executives worked from home during the lockdown, but Zorabian did the opposite. She left her private workspace to work alongside her colleagues in the open-plan section of the office to communicate that she was as “susceptible to the virus as anyone else", and did not remain cossetted in her cabin, she explains.

The simple gesture was an indication of how she led her team through the initial days of the covid-19 crisis, from the end of March onwards.

When the lockdown started, Zorabian was determined to keep the business going, and work from home was not an option as the company was not fully equipped for remote working. An open-plan office with socially distanced desks, and a regular sanitisation programme were some of the safety measures they adopted.

A former film actor who holds an MBA, Zorabian manages the business jointly with her brother Shazaad, who runs its farming operations. Father Khoram Zorabian is the chairperson and managing director. The company is known for its quality produce, with sales mainly concentrated in Mumbai and Pune and some distribution across India.

Daily gratitude to staff

Zorabian’s leadership style illustrates how a mid-sized essentials business coped with the nationwide lockdown. For Zorabian, 2020 has been a challenging year, starting with reports and rumours in January that there was an association between consumption of chicken and the risk of coronavirus. Demand declined for several weeks. The lockdown, which started in March, then brought financial uncertainty. “I had to make the decision to keep things going. The only other option would have been bankruptcy. We had livestock. What do you do with livestock? There was no other option, honestly," Zorabian admits. Yet during this period, her retail sales have “hit the roof". How did she manage it?

First, fear of going under itself is a powerful motivator, she says. “I remembered bird flu and my dad being in debt. When I started working, we were in that space. After all these years, there was no way I was going back down to zero," Zorabian insists.

Second, a compelling but often overlooked element of resilience, gratitude. Zorabian is a people-oriented leader. But in the first two weeks of the lockdown, Zorabian’s entire office team decided to stay at home, leaving her in the office with just “3.5 people".

“We have in-house drivers and in-house distribution, but that is not the only thing that can keep this going. The orders have to be picked, the orders have to be booked, the orders have to be billed, my trucks have to come in, all that needs people," she explains.

Zorabian then decided to start a gratitude journal on the WhatsApp platform, thanking all those who were coming into the office or being able to contribute significantly to the business, especially those who unexpectedly rose to the occasion.

“I used to do a gratitude journal every single day. I stopped now, but I at that time I did it without fail, and those who were not in the office would read it as well. They appreciated who was doing what, and what I was going through every day. Not to load the guilt on somebody but we are all committed on this journey. It’s not going to happen with everybody sitting at home. We do sales, marketing, operations. A marketing team can sit at home but a sales and distribution and operations team has to be here. You have to be able to execute it." The tactic worked.

“In the first week, my entire sales force came back in. They read my messages," she says. The office is now nearly 80% full.

Third, realistic communication with customers. “We were the only chicken suppliers and there were people screaming and shouting for their orders to be filled. Someone who was sending in 100 orders earlier was now ordering 500," Zorabian explains. She tackled it through communication. “I didn’t care how I looked. I didn’t care if I looked beaten. When things went completely out of hand, I would shoot a video and talk to my customers so that they would understand and just lay off, and give us a break. Because we were the only ones standing tall and trying to do this."

Fourth, adapting to constraints, which is a natural and vital ingredient of resilience.

Challenge to small businesses

As the tour of the office infrastructure highlighted, Zorabian’s workplace is “a very basic company that functions in a very basic way, with WhatsApp, emails and phone calls. We don’t have Microsoft Teams. But we’re in a good place." Lockdown entailed mobilizing IT equipment and transport for colleagues which were “big issues," she says.

Finally, family support. Zorabian acknowledges that her husband, real estate developer Boman Irani, has been “very supportive. Boman’s been at home all through. I’ve been like a warrior over here because my husband’s been at home," looking after their two schoolgoing children who have been home learning for the first time, she says.

Covid-19 is particularly hard on small and mid-sized businesses. Zorabian provides a welcome exception as one that is succeeding despite the challenges.

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.

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