Friday, June 24, 2011

When some business partnerships spell success

In recent weeks and months, while doing stories for a couple of trade magazines and meeting the heads of companies, I have been struck by the seriousness and sincerity most of them bring to the workplace. I have also met a few who’ve gone out of their way to be extremely helpful. Indeed, one senior executive from a company called Esko Graphics in Bangalore readily gave me several leads despite some of them probably being competition.

If I noticed the high standards of quality in organisations such as Autoprint and Fortec in Coimbatore, comparable almost with the remarkable W&R Etikettan facility I visited in the Netherlands, I was also quite surprised to see the kind of passion smaller entrepreneurs bring to their work. In a way, it’s like the turning of the clock – years ago, I had done the rounds of dealers of FMCG products such as Prestige and Kohinoor and Durex while editing a journal for the group I worked for.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the heart of north Chennai, invited to a Ricoh do. Star Xeroxs (yes, that’s how the owner spells it) on NSC Bose Road had purchased a Ricoh machine in January, business had picked up and now the Ricoh heads had chosen the office to launch what they called a Pro-partners programme, which is basically offering the customer business development assistance and on-site service support, and helping the customer grow his business.

For the proprietor, A. Srinivasan, it was a special moment. He was enthusiastic and said he was ready to order another Ricoh machine. In today’s world of business, no matter what you do, it pays to tie up with majors in the field. It makes expansion possible, and if you work hard, you can become a successful businessman in a short time. Srinivasan is an example. The purchase of the sophisticated Ricoh Pro C720 seems to have paid rich dividends. And for somebody like him, just on the fringes of tasting big-time success, it was no mean achievement to have had the Ricoh heads visiting and launching a new India initiative from his premises.

However, when Tetsuya Takano, managing director and CEO, Ricoh India Ltd, and Ben B.W. Chong, senior manager, Product & Solution Marketing, Ricoh, Singapore, arrived with Avijit Mukherjee, business head, Production Printing Business Group, Ricoh India, it was business as usual at Star Xeroxs, with customers crowding around most of the space. The visitors and yours truly were led to a small room where the Ricoh machine was and here the formal ceremonies began.

Joining in later was Srinivasan’s daughter who I noticed was an active member of the business. Perhaps she plans to join the business some time, if she has not already. With the Ricoh partnership going well, the future looks bright for the Srinivasan family. This is essentially what success stories are all about, I guess. But of course you need the stroke of luck and the enterprise as well.

Pictures show Takano congratulating Srinivasan, and a smiling Chong; the Ricoh bosses cutting the chocolate cake along with Srinivasan and daughter; and Takano distributing goodies to an employee.

Friday, June 17, 2011

PR is much more than fixing meetings, isn't it?

It’s not quite easy to be in PR, is it? I should know a thing or two, having been in PR for a decade and more. However, being a journalist, I was able to find the balance, not going overboard with PR, neither with reporters and others. I believed in being open and straightforward (I always do); to me, credibility mattered more than anything else. If a reporter or editor were to arrive for a press meet or a one-to-one, I would be there to ensure that things went without a hiccup. Some of these things are not taught in schools or by bosses, you learn them yourself or you just have it in you. I was fortunate to have been one of the luckier ones.

Recently, I received an email from a PR agency calling me for a one-on-one meeting with the general manager of a division of Xerox. The agency had fixed the time and place. The following day, I received another email intimating me about a change in time. So, from 4pm it was 1pm. The agency did not consider it appropriate to ask me whether the time was convenient for me – it was not a press meet in which case there is no such option.

When I arrived at the venue – the Chennai Trade Centre – and found myself at the Xerox stall, nobody seemed to know there was a press ‘interaction’ scheduled, there was no one from the PR agency, no Xerox PR / corporate communications person. For a few minutes I was lost wondering what to do as the GM I had to meet was not around. Fortunately, another senior executive of Xerox who was in production marketing made me feel at ease even as he was sweating profusely (when you are in a suit and the air-conditioner is not working properly that’s what happens in Chennai), made calls to the GM and took time off to chat and give me his perspective. He turned out to be quite the perfect PR person you would find, although I’m sure he would have least expected to confront a journalist at the stall.

After I had met the GM and everything ended well, there was no call from the PR agency to check and find out whether things had gone all right. Either they had assumed everything was fine, or they didn’t really care. Back home, I sent a bit of a stinker to the agency and soon received calls from its Delhi office trying to placate me. The reason trotted out: the person in question was a new kid on the block. The following day a bouquet of flowers arrived home with a note apologising for the experience I had to undergo. It was supposed to be a friendly gesture, according to one of the agency’s partners. I took it all in good spirit, content that I had been able to drive the point home.

Only a week or so earlier, I experienced something similar when I was invited to a Ricoh do in Parrys, close to Chennai’s beginnings – Fort St George. Having arrived a few minutes earlier to the appointed time of 3.45pm, I thought I’d be nice and early for the meeting. Surprisingly, not a person at the premises seemed to know of the press do and, with hardly elbow space to move around, I came outside and soaked in the sunshine. When I called what I thought was the PR person’s number, it turned out to be the shop owner’s and he said he would be there in ten minutes. Meanwhile, the Ricoh entourage arrived and swept past me inside. Not able to take it anymore, I lost my cool. Then there were apologies and soft drinks were ordered.

In both cases, well-known companies were involved. The PR agencies were different. But the effect was more or less the same – invitations were sent, senior editors were expected, but nobody at the venue seemed to know, and there was no proper follow-up. So, where’s PR heading today? I shudder to think what would have happened had I been as casual during my PR days with a leading corporate group. A dressing-down from the chairman or director would have been certain.

It’s rather ironical that with all the sophisticated communication tools we have today, communication has become even more complex. Emails, SMSes, mobile phone calls, soft copies… yet, where is the human touch? It’s a shame. What’s worse is that it’s unlikely that agencies and managers will learn quickly from mistakes made. If they do, it’ll be a pleasant surprise.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Lunch with the stars in Pallavaram, courtesy Heidelberg

Last week after a hurried trip to Palakkad in Kerala, it was back to work. Mid-week, I drove on to Pallavaram to meet up with the head of the Print Media Academy India, which takes after the reputable PMA in Heidelberg.

Professor Rajendra Kumar Anayath has turned out to become a good friend of mine, and he has been doing some good work setting up the academy in Chennai, backed by Heidelberg support. The PMA in Heidelberg is a worldwide knowledge forum devoted to offering experts and managers in the print media industry a wide range of training opportunities, from colour management and production processes to marketing for printing companies and motivating employees and winning new customers. The widely traveled Prof Anayath is a senior consultant at Heidelberg but he operates in a world of freedom. If knowledge is power, he has demonstrated it in ample measure. For all that, he is unassuming and that again is his strength.

The day began on a rather mad note with me taking a U-turn instead of a simple right, and then taking a U under a flyover to hit straight into oncoming traffic, facing the wrath of MTC bus and all sorts of drivers, and finally managing another U-turn and yet another to head where I had to. I was thankful I didn’t get booked for a stupid traffic offence, with a cop standing right there even as I was doing all the turns. What was he doing and how did he miss a morning scalp, I have no idea.

Well, after a couple of Heidelberg coffees and a long recording session with the professor, he offered to take me out for lunch next door. It was Karaikudi but there was a surprise in store as I ambled up the old wooden staircase. Larger-than-life pictures of Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor, Meena Kumari and others welcomed me indoors. There was a captivating one of Madhubala and I kept turning around to look at her again and again. There must have been a Dilip Kumar somewhere, but if he was, he wasn’t close to the lady he once loved.

Food was wholesome, with jeera water as the appetizer. But with Dev Anand right behind me and Madhubala casting furtive glances from two tables away, it was difficult to concentrate on the job at hand. Perhaps some old Hindi film melodies would have complemented the ambience.

In order of appearance: Dev, Meena, Raj and Madhubala… and jeera water, hot condiments and papad to kick-start the luncheon.

Friday, June 03, 2011

In God's Own Country

I love taking a break and leaving the city. Doesn’t happen too often, or as much as I would have liked, but whenever there is an opportunity I try and get away. However, I wouldn’t say an opportunity presented itself last week when I visited God’s Own Country. An elderly relative had passed away (he was well past his nineties) a few days earlier and then there was a wedding reception to attend.

A visit to Palakkad is never without its charms. With the south-west monsoon edging close, and after the first spells of the season’s rain, leaves glistened in green and flowers of different shapes and sizes and colours were abloom.

The first picture says it’s Kerala; the architecture is a give-away. Adding a bit of gravitas is my uncle with his Telly Savalas look. A view of the old and the new – tiled, conical roofs and new-age cars; a jack-fruit tree in my aunt’s garden; and a well-tended garden outside another uncle’s home.