Nagpur: “On 17th April 2005, I got the tragic message in Lonavala, at my parents’ place, that my husband Amresh had passed away suddenly. On 18th I came to Nagpur with my two children and on 19th I had to throw myself into the business of running Bharatiya Barood Udyog, since there was nobody else to take on the responsibility. I owed it to my husband and my children – it was their legacy!”
So Shyamala Sanyal, an M.A. in Psychology, 50 years of age, took on the running of a sophisticated and quite high tech explosives company whose office is in Nagpur but the two factories are situated 35 Kms away in M.P. and 100+ Kms away towards Wardha!
Her son was in Pune by then and didn’t want to come to Nagpur, her daughter was still studying and her husbands siblings working elsewhere and not the least interested in Amresh’ business.
“Another irony is that I was and still am, an environmentalist to the core and it often appalls me that I am in the ‘explosives’ business ! But I had no choice, it was not just me and my children, livelihoods of all the labour depended on keeping this business running.”
One consolation for her was that the special product her husband had designed himself made fire crackers safer and fail proof. He had worked hard on the R&D and had been encouraged by the prospective customers, many of them based in Shivakasi, who knew the ‘tapes’ BBU was making were better than their traditional ones.
But Shyamala was determined about the way she would run the business.
“All my dealings would be 100% honest and legal ( no two bills for me!), my labour would be paid the stipulated wages with all benefits and I would not encourage short cuts in the production process’ to save costs -no compromise with quality, of product, or process. Even if it made my product costlier, my customers would have to shell out the price – and pay by check with all taxes included!”
When my friends and ‘advisors’ heard about my ideals they all guaranteed my failure.
“You cannot run a business like this!” They scoffed.
But Shyamala stuck to her ethics and the business actually grew. In less than a decade it increased 5- 6 times to reach its optimum level.
“I sell at a premium and I sell 100% of my produce – every inch of it. In the beginning there were no competitors, now there are many, but it hasn’t affected my business” says the lady proudly.
“I had read no Management books then, but I knew that Business was traditionally run on just one P – profit.
But I follow the triple P Bottom line – People, Profit and Planet. ”
Shyamala was an Activist and she continues to be one.
Being a successful industrialist/ businesswoman has not translated into a luxurious, expensive life style.
“I believe, we, upper middle class Indians live obnoxiously indulgent lives unconcerned with the price others pay for it – or the burden it puts on our planet.”
I am an Activist, she states, as I believe that is the rent one must pay for living on this planet.
So Shyamala does not have A/Cs in her house/ office at all, no Italian marble/ granite tiles for her home, even no ‘modular’ kitchen! By vocation she may be an industrialist, by hobby she is an Organic farmer and tries to grow her own vegetables on her farm and in her kitchen garden.
This year she has ‘walked the talk’ by giving Khadi uniforms to her labour – khadi sarees for the women and shirts for the men – and is similarly garbed in cotton/ natural fibre herself.
“When I got married, I had worn not an ounce of gold on my body. Not even a ‘mangalsutra’. My first gold ornament was the mangalsutra my husband bought for me on our 6th wedding anniversary!”
(She has relaxed this rule a little by making some minimum purchase of jewelry for her daughter in law and daughter. ‘I cannot force everyone to follow my ideals” she says but adds “we, as a family, will never go overboard with costly jewels, diamonds etc. It is not in our culture now.”)
Another practice Shyamala follows scrupulously is paying even her house hold staff by factory standards when it comes to minimum wages, Bonus, PF etc.
“Why not? They work just as hard and our well being is dependent on them. They should be compensated fairly.”
Her dream goal is to be able to transition with all her workers and employees into a business that is not destructive.
She is looking and takes every opportunity to learn different ways of leading life. Whether it means enrolling at ISB, Hyderabad for a free course for women entrepreneurs or going to Auroville, Pondicherry and spending some days there.
“I am a simple person wanting to lead a simple life. Both my sisters are brilliant – one is a retired IAS officer, another is a Doctorate from IIT employed in a US University now, I am the ‘ordinary’ one” she says modestly.
The highlight of her life and a reward for everything she has practised was when her labour gave her a ‘surprise birthday party’ last year when she turned 62.
“In the M.P. town near our factory they had hired a hall, done it up in their style and invited 500 of my friends from Nagpur and local villagers for a dinner party!”
“That was more than any national award for me! For I have always believed that my workers are my important ‘partners’ – they mean more to be than my customers!”
It feels good when the compliment is returned!