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A time to be a maverick
Let me begin with what we call first person singular: I, me and myself. I first came across the word maverick in the late 1980s when my father had got me two books on synonyms and antonyms and one on history and origin of words.
I memorised the history of the word Maverick. It was derived from the surname of a Texan rancher and politician Samuel Maverick who refused to brand his cattle because others were doing so. Now, when I look back, I think I know why. The first reason was that since all of them were branding them, he need not spend his time and resource in doing so. Once all the cattle have been branded, those that are not shall belong to Samuel Maverick. The second was that he wanted to be different, probably. And hence, he has become a name worth recalling by English speaking individuals and columnist.
The second experience was exactly 25-years back in New Delhi wherein I picked up a book titled Maverick about a Brazilian industrialist Ricardo Semler and his business ideas. It appealed to me for two reasons: I had read the word and its origin a few years earlier. And since I was a student of commerce in a college in New Delhi, I thought it should be a natural read for me. The content of the book stayed with me for a long time because it was very different.
Semler used some very different management practices to turn around a loss-making company Semco, one among many that he inherited from his father. Among the few management practices which we can also call leadership practices that made a lasting impression on me were that Semler would ask his employees to fix their working hours, their output level and even their wages, and bonuses. Of course, there were many others like workers’ participation in company committees, workplace ethics, etc. The time when I laid my hands on the book, like the rest of India, was one of post-liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation of the country courtesy the then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. My seeking mind was keen to know how corporate management need to be in an economy that was slowly opening up. In a nutshell, Semler was being different. He was advocating the interest of the workers, and then his company. The results were for all to see, and learn from.
The fact that he is not being spoken and talked about in business schools across the country, if not the world, should surprise none. When employees’ rights are being trampled by a corporate-bureaucratic nexus ably backed by government of all hues in the country, it is not surprising that a maverick need not be highlighted lest he inspire a revolution in the workplace.
Last week, I read a WhatsApp forward, among the very few worth reading, that Asian Paints Limited, one of India’s well known multi-national company, has announced an increase in the salaries of its employees, besides other incentives, and even transfer of Rs 40 crore into the bank accounts of its contractors to keep them afloat during these difficult times for businesses worldwide. My mind immediately went back to Semler, and also to information that I was privy to.
There are three profit making companies that I know of which have cut salaries, bonuses, rentals citing Corona and falling businesses. The case of India’s biggest conglomerate Reliance Industries is well documented. Despite earning Rs 6000-plus crore in the quarter ending March 2020, the company resorted to cutting of salaries, laying off workers on contracts, and slashing the rentals of various spaces that it has across the country. It is reported to have saved Rs 600 crore alone from this salary cut and deferred and reduced bonuses. The data on slashing rentals are not available, though they range from 25% to 50%. So much for one of the darlings of India’s corporate world!
The next company is also a leading conglomerate with interest in aluminium, clothing & textile, etc. In April, it had asked all landlords to reduce its annual rent to 50% for the next 12 months. A company with its assets valued at Rs 70,000 crore has developed week knees in just a month! The other company is one in the private sector with an all India presence. It, too, has asked its landlords to reduce rental charges by 50 % for the next 12 months. Needless to say, all of them have complied in the face of this coercive tactics from the high and mighty in the corporate world.
Of course, reports had come as early as April that Adidas, the German company, has also taken advantage of the German Government’s new rental policy in the wake of Corona-crisis refusing to pay its rentals citing federal laws.
In the post-Corona corporate and business world, it should become clear to small businesses, micro, small and medium enterprises that they need to act like Semler in order to turn their fortunes around when challenges would be many. Workers or employees need to be given the impression that they are like stakeholders or equity holders in the business establishments they are working for.
Let there be no doubt in anybody’s mind that the parameters of business will undergo a tectonic shift post-Corona. Yet, one has a feeling that those who care for their employees first and shareholders after that will escape and survive while those living in an “I, me and myself world” shall perish.
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