Encourage innovation, it takes courage, says entrepreneur Chandra Mohan
“We are a country that has a culture of playing safe. It’s high time we shifted focus to innovation,” says Chandra Mohan, 86, a visionary entrepreneur who retired from Punjab Tractors Ltd and its Swaraj Group after almost three decades at the helm.
“To innovate, you need to have guts and patience because it takes much longer than three years for startups to cross the design, patent, production and marketing stages before earning the first dividend,” says the Chandigarh-based author of Managing from Zero to Blue Chip on his lessons in management.
Governments should promote new industry as companies need constant research and development to evolve for the new market. “Look at the opportunity today’s youngsters have. Everyone has instant exposure to the best in the world without any social or economic barrier thanks to the cellphone,” he says.
OBSERVE AND ACT
He considers observation as the biggest asset of an entrepreneur. “To understand the market, observation is key. First, know your own strength and then observe the market,” he says.
A mechanical engineer from Roorkee and an outstanding student throughout, Mohan doesn’t believe degrees are the criteria for success. “Approaching a challenge with self-confidence, clear thinking, practical knowhow and the willingness to experiment or take risks matter much more,” he says. He cites instances from his career in the railways, his dream job that he left to eventually set up Swaraj, India’s first company to indigenously make tractors despite competition from global brands.
Of his 11-year journey in the railways, he says, “There was mutual trust and freedom to act. The hierarchy was not as pronounced. It was a colossal learning experience at the Central Railway headquarters in Mumbai before I was picked up for the railways research centre.”
Companies that offer a culture of listening to the customer, trust and delegation, freedom to experiment, learning from renewal and sharing the rewards amid transparency are sure to grow into long-term wealth creating institutions.
“The system of financing new industry through financial institutions that prevailed in the ’80s helped. Commercial banks and state governments turned lenders in the ’90s but the mindset is to play safe. The government should support startups longer, have a flexible approach and ensure there is no political meddling.”
Mohan credits the elders in his family for his capability to experiment. He remembers his father, Seth Ram Gupta, who was a member of the Survey of India, as an incorrigible experimenter and a learner for life. “We designed and put up a bio-sewage treatment in our house in Ferozepur in 1945. I apprenticed to learn model drawing, welding, carpentry, shorthand and typing, watch repair and locomotive maintenance. The fear of making mistakes simply evaporated.”
He remembers how he was placed in the care of his maternal aunt Saraswati, the daughter-in-law of freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai. “My aunt’s elder daughter was born in 1927 and had gone blind when she was just five months old. Lala ji also died soon after and his barrister son returned to England, leaving my aunt to fend for herself and her two daughters. Since my disciplinarian aunt was teaching at Sir Ganga Ram High School, Lahore, my parents offered to take care of my blind cousin, while entrusting my educational responsibilities to her,” he says. It was there that he was introduced to deep nationalism; the reading habit; meticulousness; the spirit of learning and perseverance.
LOOK CLOSER AT CITY BEAUTIFUL
Shifting focus to the city that has been his home for five decades, he says, “Chandigarh was planned beautifully. There is a 100-ft drop in gradient from the Secretariat in Sector 1 to Tribune Chowk in Sector 29 for drainage. Yet roundabouts get flooded after a downpour. That’s because roads now slope towards the inner circle of roundabouts, called banking. How about reversing the slope on one roundabout and seeing if it works? We know Chandigarh gets a maximum rainfall of 3 inches per hour. A simple way to avoid water-logging would be to ensure that kerb stones are at least three inches above the green patch.”
Reiterating the power of observation, he says, “Did you know that wheels on luggage came after man landed on the moon? Look around, identify problems and find solutions.”
Research without application has no meaning. It only breeds frustration which grows into cynicism.
Technology is a process of evolution. Users determine the direction it takes.
Mistakes, grave at times, are an inevitable part of learning. Creating an environment that forgives such mistakes is the management’s responsibility.
Extreme patience, but with aggressive perseverance, alone delivers results.