(This Sardar Is Here With A Goal)
Updeep Singh, President & CEO, Sutlej Textiles, has had a well-rounded career – projects, operations, business, HR. And what makes him stand out in the crowd is his signature style – building and valuing relationships with integrity, credibility, honesty. We present to you the second and final part of Mr Singh’s professional journey – dotted with some thrilling anecdotes, which highlight the three important vibes he has always lived by – empathy, gratitude, compassion.
‘Business operations is my favourite role’
Updeep Singh, President & CEO of Sutlej Textiles, has upon his shoulders the immense responsibility of taking forward the legacy of the company, building it into one of the most reputed textile brands, the most sought-after employer in the industry, a valuable asset for all stakeholders. And he is well-positioned to do this, with his rich experience in every possible role in the textile value chain.
“While Vardhman helped in budding my career, Welspun was where I came into my own. To reiterate, corporate culture is very important. Welspun had a very different work culture, a fast paced environment. And once again, I was in the right place at the right time. Both these companies were on a growth trajectory, so the opportunities were immense.”
“I still remember verbatim, my first meeting with Mr B.K. Goenka, Chairman of Welspun India, a visionary indeed. First day at Welspun, Mr Rajesh Mandawewala introduced me to Mr Goenka, with my credentials, previous experience, my current position at Welspun. And Mr Goenka says – `Sardarji, kahan aagaye? (Where have you come Sardarji?). I was taken aback, what played in my mind was – I gave up my previous job of 18 years to join here, I’ve moved from Ludhiana to Mumbai with my family, my kids are in school. So anyway, I paused, and replied – Sardar hoon, aagaya hoon, kuch karke dihkaoonga (I’m a Sardar, I’m here with a purpose). He liked that. We then had a three-hour conversation where we discussed our plans, my background, what he was looking for, his expectations, his aspirations, we spoke about my aspirations, my family. This gave me an idea of him being a visionary leader and a good human being. Some questions were probing, he was testing me on certain issues, I was as always, honest, because that is the only way to be.”
“Welspun was quite different from Vardhman – here decision-making was very quick, delegation of work was equally quick, and the work is solely your responsibility, you have to get the job done. The positivity of Vardhman, and the relationships I had built in the textile and textile machinery industry proved to be a strong foundation for my success in Welspun. At Welspun, I learnt about business operations, I handled the US distribution business.”
How often do we miss opportunities because we do not recognise them as that. Not so with Updeep Singh. He had the ability to recognise the smallest of opportunities, to turn challenges into opportunities, to learn from the challenges, gain confidence, and grow.
The coveted Dornier looms
“So, Mr Goenka wanted to buy some Dornier looms in 2007. I had a lunch meeting with Mr Dornier and his team in Germany. I learnt during the meeting that they were coming to the conclusion that I would not buy the machines. We were enjoying some wine, and I told Mr Dornier that I will decide on these machines before we finish this glass of wine. And we struck a deal for 6-8 machines, at an incredible price. Why? Because I was able to convince Dornier that this deal would be its gateway into the Indian market for home textiles. Which was true.
“Mr Goenka was really surprised and now wanted 16 machines at this price. I managed to convince Mr Dornier once again. Now this does not happen with the usual, normal negotiations. It requires something more – you have to be convincing, straightforward, honest, be a friend, offer a win-win deal. And you have to aim for long term relationship building here. And this art I had imbibed from my days in Vardhman.”
So, what convinced Mr Dornier to sell so many machines at such a low price? “I promised him that I would help him sell a couple of machines to Vardhman, that would be one more prestigious installation for Dornier. I successfully did that. Honest relations, maintaining those relationships with a high level of truthfulness, that’s very important. Credibility pays.”
“And this especially helps when dealing in the capital goods industry, because investing in machines is a long-term commitment.”
Success in the heart of Mexico’s drug zone
And then there was the time when Mr Singh had to travel to Mexico – Juarez, a place across US border from Texas to close down a Welspun factory, and lay off about 450 Mexicans, in an area that was notorious for drug mafia.
“This was a difficult situation indeed. A new territory, I did not know the language, or the people, and laying off workers is rife with danger, almost always. And it was just me with a couple of other Indian employees at this unit. Looking back, I can’t imagine how I handled the situation. It was not just stressful, it was a risk to my life.”
Welspun had a quilting plant in Mexico, with about 400-450 workers. The plant wasn’t functioning too well, mainly due to the drug issues in that area. “We had a huge production line, with assorted best-in-class machines. The rent of the 600,000 square feet leased building was getting unaffordable. Inventories had piled up. Some legal cases were going on. And the workers could turn hostile any time. It was a tricky situation to put it mildly. We quickly realised that shipping the machines back to India was not feasible – it would cost a lot of time and money. We would need people to travel to this place from US and Europe, and there were travel advisories against this border area.”
“I knew a large Mexican textile group that agreed to buy the machines, but backed out after a few days. This was probably one of the most stressful situations I’ve encountered in my life. I was at my wits end. The management back in India wasn’t expecting these machines.”
As we know, the universe is full of magical things. “You may not believe this, but that night when I slept, I dreamt of this person I knew in Ludhiana, who had been in the business of manufacturing machines. I woke up and called him, it was evening in India. I briefed him about the situation I was in and asked if he could help to dismantle the machines for shipping back to India. His words – For you I will do anything, just send me the machine details. For me, this was a Godsend. The next 12-14 hours were spent waiting anxiously, till I heard these honey-dipped words – This is easy, I can do the job. His condition – arrange the visa, and be at the airport to receive me. We swung into action, and on May 2, 2011, this gentleman had arrived at our plant.”
And now Mr Singh was confronted with an angry, suspicious mob of 50 workers, who said they would not allow dismantling of the machines, and did not believe that the company would pay them their dues. “I was alone here, anyone who has confronted angry workers will know what it’s like.”
Mr Singh’s negotiation skills, his integrity, honesty, sincerity, once again came to the rescue. He convinced the workers that they would get their dues. “How can I leave without settling all issues. You know where I stay, the driver of my car is your colleague. You can harm me anytime you want. And of course, from the time I had reached this plant, I had made it a point to communicate with the managers, workers, janitor, etc.”
He even convinced the workers to help dismantle the machines! The machines were fully packed in a matter of 19 days – May 24-25, 2011, at a fraction of the cost. The workers were paid their dues. “I had informed the management about my plans to quit in June-July 2011, with the commitment that I would complete this job and then leave. I was relieved in December 2011.”
But why did the workers, numbering 50, help to shut down the factory? “I was advised by lawyers to deposit the workers’ dues with the Labour Department, which would release them at the appropriate time. The fees to the Labour Department was US$ 6000. The workers agreed to this. I told them, what if I give you the US$ 6000 and the dues, and you help me? They agreed willingly. Over the months, I built good relations with these people. I’ve still kept in touch with them. I visited them once in 2012.”
Who knew that working in the textile industry could be that exciting!
Breaking a flash strike in a flash
After Welspun, Mr Singh had a short stint as CEO at NSL Textiles, Hyderabad. This one incident truly brings out a lot of lessons in relationship building.
“There was a flash strike in one of the NSL factories in Andhra Pradesh, and lockout was being contemplated. I tried to tell the Director this was not the right decision, and that we could resolve this issue. But that only got him little upset. The next day he asked me why the lockout was unadvisable. I told him it would not only create problems with the workers, but also with government agencies. I was told to handle this strike. I told him he would have to be patient, the strike could go on for a day, a week or for months.”
On the second day of his reaching the factory, around 30-40 villagers, local politicians, some workers, some women workers visited Updeep Singh. Mr Singh did not know the local language, and asked the HR person there to be the interpreter, but with the condition that he speak in the exact same tone that Mr Singh speaks. The meeting started, some of the women workers were standing in the full room, he arranged for them to sit. He spoke about the factory, the ETP, etc for about 30 minutes, showing them pictures of the facilities on his i-pad, the investments that were being made, etc.
“The workers’ problems were lack of training, locals losing out jobs to migrants. We addressed these issues. This was around 1 pm. At 3.30 pm the workers called off the strike. And the night shift started at 10pm. We put in place training programs. We did have to fire one person who felt this is not how the company is run. The chairman was apprehensive, I promised to raise productivity levels up to 100%, and I did that. I have taken many bold decisions in those times. I was allowed to do certain things. It gave me immense confidence, and a standing in the company.”
Moving away from the seat of power?
A standing in the textile industry is indeed something to be proud of. But then, Updeep decided to join Italy’s ITEMA Weaving, and move into the vendor industry. A bold step! And once again we get a glimpse of how he turned challenges into opportunities. There were instances when longstanding `friends’ from the textile industry turned their back once he moved into the vendor industry. “I did not let that get me down. I however realised that while I was in authoritative positions in the textile industry, it was the company that had mattered, more than my position of influence. ITEMA was a rich experience for me – to go on the other side and emerge successful.”
“My role here was to empower the India team, boost their confidence, change their mindset, make them think big. Of course, there was a selfish motive. I accounted for over 50% of the company’s cost, I had to justify that, I had to create the environment for sales to happen and the team should have strong conviction and faith in their company and the product they are selling”.
“Guide & govern coupled with Engage & execute is about how leaders need to mobilise and engage with people, communicate in all directions, review progress, and correct course in the process of implementing change. This is possible only by rallying people around the agenda so that everyone is committed to implementing change.”
The experience of the user industry came into sharp focus here. “I knew how sales happened in a textile mill, decision making for capital goods lies at the top. And you have to understand the mindset of every promoter, and present your technology, your services and solutions, your company, accordingly.”
And here again, valuing relationships, honesty, truthfulness came in handy. “It was necessary for me to do things differently. There were many instances where I would take the initiative to reach a customer or potential customer at the earliest, travelling across continents, even though I did not have to be there, the general managers and others would have handled things effectively. But that extra effort gets noticed, gets appreciated. And not just in machine sales, even in offering services, or acknowledging there is a problem, you have to be there, not avoid or run away. That evokes the customer’s confidence, builds a long-term relationship. Only that matters. The chairman of a textile group had told me about ITEMA in India – You may be a late starter in the Indian market, but you are not a back bencher. ITEMA is certainly a frontrunner. For me, this was appreciation and recognition from an industry leader, for my work. ”
Sutlej – A brand to reckon with
With such an eventful career, no wonder Mr Singh has never harboured thoughts of leaving this industry, which is not a very glamorous industry, it demands hard work. The key is not just hard work, but to think and work differently, smartly, with empathy, gratitude, compassion.
“The talent of the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s is difficult to come by today in the textile industry. There was passion to do something, achieve something, with integrity and truthfulness, to grab every opportunity that came our way, to climb up that golden ladder. Today, the opportunities are there, but the takers are few and as leaders we must energise people to commit themselves to the industry. And this is one of the important responsibilities I have taken up in my entire career, to recognise and hone people’s skills, to retain and grow talent. I am proud that I have created some careers along my journey. At Sutlej, this is an important goal I have set for myself – to make Sutlej a brand to reckon with, a company that employees seek out. Sutlej is a legacy business with strong fundamentals, committed and experienced team and a great business family backing it, it deserves this and more. In order to achieve this, I am committed to prime new ways of doing things within an existing organisation, which has an established track record and set of good practices.”
The leaders must embrace change and different hats they must wear, to exercise leadership. These hats are the Leader as Beacon, Leader as Architect, and Leader as Catalyst – of Change and Innovation. This would be possible when we use ourselves as an instrument and develop for effectively unleashing and harnessing the capabilities of our people and organisations. Our people are the ones who will then create value for our customers which is what Sutlej is all about.