Founder of a small enterprise, now owner of India’s biggest HR company in its branch, Sivakasi born K. Pandia Rajan has revolutionised the human resources sector in the Indian subcontinent. Xavier Roderic Hoffman, who interviewed him recently in Sivakasi, discovers the secrets of his success.
K. Pandia Rajan was born in Villampatti, a little village near Sivakasi in Virudhunagar district. His father was a worker in a local match factory and died at the young age of twenty-nine, when Pandia Rajan was only three months old. He was brought up by his maternal grandparents, who, a few years later, started their own match factory in his name.
The factory allowed him to stay in school. Having fi nished high school at the Victoria School in Sivakasi, he joined PSG College of Technology in Coimbatore for the undergraduate course in Engineering. The hard working student, always among the top ten in his class, was also a rebel: he led the students in the fi rst strike in the college. The violence he then saw was suffi cient to shift his interest in a new direction - human psychology and behaviour as applied to Labour Relations.
Pandia Rajan decided to pursue Labour Relations as a profession. Guided by a senior student, he enrolled at Xavier Labour Relations Institute (XLRI) in Jamshedpur for an MBA in Industrial Relations, an uncommon choice for engineers in the 1980s.
During the following years he worked for many international companies, such as BOC and Deutsche Babcock. After six years, in 1989, he married Hemalatha, a chartered accountant in his fi rm, who had set up a small, all women’s audit fi rm. Together they decided to fulfi ll their dream: their very own company.
In 1992, the couple launched Ma Foi Management Consultants. They started with a small investment, but soon saw a 100 percent annual growth. Their initial focus was placing Indian workers overseas, especially in the Middle East (Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other places). But when the Babri Masjid fell, their losses ran into lakhs. Although it was a tough time, they made it through; and their come-back was more than spectacular.
Around those years, a lot of multinationals made their entry into India. Ma Foi got a massive offer from a well known computer company, which allowed them to jump ahead in the Indian scene. During the following years, they consolidated Ma Foi as the biggest human resources company in India.
By the break of the new millennium, the dot-com model was the biggest thing. Ma Foi invested heavily in a dot-com plan; when that fl opped, they faced a new challenge. The solution was international alliances. In 2002, Ma Foi partnered with Vedior, an international multi-brand corporation. With their support, Ma Foi set up offices in the UK, the US, the Middle East and South East Asia, to become the company it is today.
Excerpts from the interview:
ST - Sivakasi Times
PR - Pandia Rajan
ST: When you were a boy, your grandfather owned a match factory. What exactly was your job?
PR: My family was very big, about 50 people; all of us lived together, and worked at the factory. I did a lot of things, from hard work managing the machines to paperwork in the offi ces. When I was older and had found interest in business and entrepreneurship, I spent a lot of time at the transport and logistics department.
ST: While in college, you led the students to the very fi rst strike the university saw. What were you striking for?
PR: Our main aim was fi ghting corruption. It was 1980, and corruption infested absolutely every corner of society. That’s why we demanded the creation of a students union, which was very much necessary. When our demand was denied, we started a strike.
ST: How has this infl uenced your later life?
PR: It was defi nitely a turning point in my life. The strike evolved into a very violent mob, which grew bigger and wilder. At a certain moment, the aggression and violence settled in. In my eyes, it became a traumatic experience, seeing the individuals, but also the collective, fi ght for their ideals. I didn’t understand why they suddenly became so violent, and that intrigued me. That was the moment I started being interested in psychology and human behavior.
ST: When you fi nished your studies, human resources was an unknown industrial sector in India. What diffi culties did you face during the early years of your career?
PR: After fi nishing my MBA, I worked internationally (Britain, Sweden, Netherlands), for several companies. It was the time when the discipline, until then known as Industrial Resources, was evolving into something new, baptised as Personnel Management. When I was working for the IDEA conglomerate, under direct mentorship of V.Krishnamurthi, I had my first full-time contact with personnel management services.
ST: Why was 1992 the right moment to start Ma Foi?
PR: I had married Hemalatha a few years ago and together we saw what was happening in the staffi ng industry. International companies were recruiting Indian workers to work in India. This wasn’t how it should be, Indian companies were supposed to do that, but there weren’t any. It was a true hole in the market, so we decided to venture in that direction.
ST: Why the international focus from the beginning on?
PR: For starters, a lot of Indians were being staffed to work overseas; we wanted to appeal to international companies to employ an Indian HR company, not an American or Australian company, who would recruit Indian workers either way. Our initial focus was the Gulf region, where oil was recently discovered and the need of specialised engineers was high. Apart from that, we always had the ambition to bloom into an international company, for which an international name and image would appeal better.
ST: Then the Babri Masjid fell. What repercussions did that cause for Ma Foi?
PR: When Hindu radicals attacked the mosque, the Gulf region governments weren’t happy; they stopped issuing visas for Indian guest-workers. It truly was a hard time; my wife even had to sell part of her jewelry. But we made it through, and the truth is that it made us all work closer together, creating a better team. Things definitely had to change, and that’s what we did. The limited mono sector focus was outdated, so we expanded to practically all areas in HR.
ST: What other big challenges did you face during your career?
PR: The dot-com fl op was defi nitely another low-point in Ma Foi’s history. A lot of money was invested in that plan, and when it fl opped, we were blasted backwards. Once again, the company went through a tough phase. We had to invent new methods and possibly change our focus. I travelled to the US, to discover how big international Human Resources (HR) companies were doing it. The solution was clear: international alliances; and that’s what we did. Looking back, it was a good decision.
ST: Where do you see Ma Foi in five years time?
PR: Our aim for the next fi ve years is to become the leading human resources company in the whole of Asia. We want to open more offices in our current countries, but also in new countries around the world. Beside that, we want to expand our social charity programmes. By the end of 2015, we want to sponsor 10,000 children through our educational trust(SET) and at least help to set up ten medium sized businesses.
ST: Who has had the biggest infl uence on your life, both professionally and personally?
PR: The most direct professional infl uence came from my grandfather. While working at his factory, he transmitted to me the spirit of an entrepreneur and taught me how to “let go” of certain things. I’m certain I adopted a big part of his style. My grandmother taught me the important family values and gave me the courage to believe in myself and fi ght for what I wanted. I learned a very important lesson from my teachers in elementary school, especially 6th, 7th and 8th standards. They explained how they had confi dence in a village, in a collective; they never put a student down. And, of course, my wife, who has always been there for me, through good and bad times, both professionally and personally.
TEN THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT PANDIA RAJAN:
MA FOI FACTS:
Ma Foi’s Social Responsibility
“Though both of us were fairly well employed, our dream was to build an institution to do something meaningful and give something back to society in whatever way we could,” the Rajans say; and so they did.
The company’s fi rst year’s profi t (Rs. 5,000) was sent to Banyan, a trust created by two college students that helps rehabilitate mentally challenged destitute women. From that year on, they’ve always put part of their profi ts towards charity.
In 1997 they set up the Sornammal Educational Trust (SET) in the name of Pandia Rajan’s grandmother, whose effort was to help the students of his village. When a school with 100 very poor children ran by Hemalatha’s grandmother shut down in 2000 after she passed away, the Trust decided to run it. They also bought a little piece of land and built another school, today known as Sornammal Matriculation School.
It was when Hemalatha met the mothers of the poor children that the idea of self-help groups originated. These women are grouped and given vocational training so that they can become nurses, DTP operators, housekeepers and even auto drivers. Today, over 23,500 women in Chennai have been benefi ted from this initiative.
In 2004, after working with many NGOs, Hemalatha felt the need to bring all the NGOs under one umbrella; that’s how the Confederation of Indian Organisations for Service and Advocacy was born.
In 2007, the Ma Foi Foundation was formed so that all the corporate social responsibility activities are taken care of by one body. Under the Disha Scholarship Scheme, 1,300 children (150 from Sivakasi) get a scholarship to study. The foundation also runs career guidance programmes for 8th, 9th and 10th standard students.