He has given thousands of Indians a good night's sleep. A. Mahendran, now managing director of Godrej Sara Lee, is the man who made Good Knight mosquito repellent mats a household name. With a turnover of Rs 500 crore plus, it is obviously worth all the buzz.
Mahendran grew up in Chennai where, according to a recent survey, the Aedes aegypti (the Yellow Fever mosquito) is still going strong. That may explain why he was bitten by this particular product. “My father was a railway employee posted in Chennai,” says Mahendran. “So I grew up in the southern metropolis and did my schooling from the Railway Convent School. I graduated in commerce from Loyola College and also did my chartered accountancy from Chennai.
“I never believed in working for someone else. My philosophy from Day One was self-employment so, unlike most of my contemporaries, I never ran after a job. I practised as a chartered accountant for five years and later joined hands with Mohan, a friend of mine, to start a business. In fact, he had already launched Transelektra Domestic Products with just Rs 5 lakh as capital. We had just one product to start with ' Good Knight mats ' and till date, it remains the only product.
“My initial contribution in terms of money was nil. Later, I brought in Rs 20 lakh from a bank as a loan. It was hard work for both of us. Our product was new and so was our company. We had to fight against the odds. Resources were limited, so we had to work doubly hard to capture the market. Each one of us, from the MD to the junior-most salesman, worked day in and day out to get a foothold in the market. It paid off. At the end of the first year, our turnover reached Rs 1 crore. It was a pleasant surprise.
“With regards to managing the business, it was a huge learning experience. For an entrepreneur, the learning process is faster as compared to a person who is employed by someone. The learning process for a self-employed person goes in geometric progression. For a person working for someone else, it goes in arithmetic progression. You live in a shell when you work for someone. If you are self-employed, you do everything on your own.
“Any small entrepreneur who starts a new business comes across a whole lot of unforeseen problems. When we started, trade unionism was at its peak. As an entrepreneur, I wanted to grow fast but faced problem from the supply end. External political and anti-social elements had taken control of our labour force. I still remember my encounter with a very powerful ganglord who had summoned me with regard to some union problems. I held my own in that “meeting” and refused to give in to his demands. In my opinion, leadership is all about guts. You can use logic and reasoning even with a don provided you have the guts to do it.
“I haven’t come across any major obstacle in my career so far. As I always wanted to be self-employed and manage my own business, I never looked at any other option.
“But there have been challenges that I have had to stand up to. The biggest challenge of my professional career was learning the process of change management. I had to lead the transition in a smooth way in 1994 when Transelektra was taken over by the Godrej Group and immediately thereafter in 1995 when we got into a joint venture with Sara Lee Corporation.
“It was this sudden change in the management from a small, entrepreneur-driven company to a professionally-managed Indian company and then again to a multinational corporation within a span of two years that I had to handle. It was a huge responsibility. We were now in an ocean and everything from the marketing strategy to product development had to be re-oriented in terms of a global market. Fortunately, there has been no major hitch.
“Was it difficult surviving in the market with just one product' You bet it was. Our rivals could change their strategy more frequently for they had other products to fall back on. We didn’t. They could distribute their losses over other categories, but our fate hinged on just a single product. I guess it made us more determined. And it gives me great satisfaction when I look back, for we have never been dislodged from the No. 1 position.”