Choose Your Battles Wisely

by Vikram Beri, an EO New Delhi member and Executive Director of Beri Udyog Pvt Ltd.

In 2008, I left my job at a consulting firm in the U.S. and moved back to India to join the family business. Our agricultural equipment company had been in operation since 1978, and had built a good name for itself as a quality manufacturer. What it didn’t seem to have, however, were well-defined processes, a professional workforce and, most importantly, a strong bottom line. I suddenly had my hands full.

As I started diving deep into our business, I began to notice that the company was run by people and not by data and processes, leading to a lack of clarity, transparency and inaccurate decision-making. My questioning over business basics led to discomfort in people who had been with the company for more than 20 years and ran important departments like supply chain, production and sales. I tried my best to get them aligned with my thinking, but the resistance to change was strong. Chief among them was our general manager, who became a roadblock. We made the tough decision of offering a golden handshake at a time when cash flow was quite constrained. His second-in-line subordinates in various departments stayed committed to us. As it turned out, this was a well-orchestrated plan.

Our industry has low barriers to entry and, upon being let go, the general manager started a company that copied our products … three months after we fired him. Before we knew it, other employees began to depart, leaving us with 40% of our corporation and 50% of our manufacturing workforce. We were shocked, to say the least. What’s worse, the employees who had stayed in engineering, vendor development and procurement were helping the ex-general manager while still being on our payroll. Vendors were forced to supply to him, otherwise their supplies to our company would be discontinued. We were in the middle of a big mess, infuriated by the unethical conduct of our ex-workforce, our suppliers and the shifting loyalties of our customers.

I was 25 at the time, and all I wanted to do was retaliate. I wanted to sue everyone involved and do whatever I could to stop them, but my father convinced me that my energy was better invested in moving our company forward than wasting my time looking backward. We had a choice to make: We could get better or get beaten, and we chose to get better. This required an overhaul of most departments, letting go of people who were not loyal to the company, innovating faster than ever, adopting industry best practices across the board, and, most of all, a firm decision to not react and let the strength of character and resolve emerge as the winners. We made a decision to not waste any time in bringing the other company down, and instead tried to use every ounce of it to take us higher.

The company that came out of our business, quite literally, tried their best to hurt us, take away more people and steal more customers … and we did nothing to stop it. Instead, we elaborated on what we were doing right, the value we offered and our commitment to excellence. Ultimately, this brought us out of our comfort zone, united us as a team, led us to introduce new products, encouraged us to build a stronger workforce and helped us get a better understanding of our business. What seemed like the biggest obstacle in our business’s history turned out to be a blessing in disguise: We became more methodical in our approach toward talent acquisition. This episode also gave us the faith to build, protect and grow our business without being overly dependent on others.

Oh, and that short-lived “competitor” just went out of business. As for us, our top line last year was seven times—and our bottom line 30 times—of what they were in the year we fired that general manager. Ousting him really did turn out to be a golden handshake in every sense of the word, and I’m glad we fought the battles we had a chance of winning.

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