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Dots that never connected

Vivek Kumar Agrawal was retiring today, leaving behind an illustrious career at Coal India Limited and a model career path for his subordinates to look forward to. VK Sir, as he was called, was the poster boy of what PSU corporate executive should be - astute in his dealings, non-controversial decisions, well read from all worlds - VK would be able to recite lines from Munshi Premchand's novels as effortlessly as he would quote Phillip Kotler's management philosophies.

Yet, VK was wondering if he had indeed taken the right decisions since he left his father's home 35 years ago. VK was the youngest of 3 brothers born in a typical 'Agrawal' family in Allahabad, the family had been living in the "holy" city for generations - at least as many generations VK had heard about! And they were even typical in their commercial engagement - his father like his grandfather and great grandfather ran a Kirana store in the city. VK's brothers, the eldest almost 12 years older, were regular contributors at the shop ever since VK remembers.

VK had a razor sharp mind, just like his brothers, but he was quite different from them in other ways. VK loved reading, whether it was books, the morning newspaper, or even a pamphlet. In hindsight, he borrowed this quality from his father - who was an avid reader himself. In fact, as VK reflected on his upbringing, his life was a reflection of his father's dreams.

Ful Kumar Agrawal or Agrawal Saab as he was known in the locality, was deeply influenced in his growing up years by the Indian freedom struggle. While he could not involve himself into the deliberations, he idolized leaders like Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru who hailed from Allahabad. The incident of lathi charge on a peaceful protest by Lala Lajpat Rai and subsequent death of Lalaji left a deep imprint on him. He was just 21 then, married with his first child on its way; had it been a few years earlier Agrawaal Saab would have plunged into the freedom movement himself.

The longing to get involved with the freedom movement, never fulfilled in reality, pushed him to follow it by reading about it. He read almost all works of Lalaji and other leaders, even regularly scoured nationalist newspapers and had a collection of all the paper cuttings from 1920s all the way till independence. After independence and with advancing age and worry about taking care of his family, his fire to read slowly perished, though he would occasionally find solace in reading the daily newspaper and in later years, books by spiritual leaders like Swami Vivekananda.

For the young VK however, the collection of books and newspaper cuttings kept by Agrawal Saab in the attic, became the first tryst with 'voracious' reading. Agrawal Saab was also impressed by his youngest son's ability to be more involved in studies than the family business. Over years, his impression of VK's studious nature grew enough so that he not only prodded him to study harder, he made sure that unlike his elder brothers, VK was never asked to help in the Kirana shop unless he wanted to.

VK was the first in their family to get admission into an Engineering course and that too to the prestigious Motilal Nehru Regional Engineering College. At MNREC, VK not only outshined with academic excellence, he also learnt and demonstrated venerable management skills - the prodigal skills of managing money were anyway inherent in him being a 'Baniya'! In the last year of his degree, VK was a key student volunteer involved with setting up an industrial estate with 69 sheds within the college. These were also days when he got nicknamed as VK by his friends, a name which stayed with him for the rest of his life.

Soon VK joined Coal India as an Engineer trainee at the Ranchi township, this was a juncture where everyone, including his brothers, felt proud of VK - he was the ideal boy who's example would be quoted to every younger kid in the locality. Soon VK was married and started rising in his career at Coal India. He would however also remain involved with family's finances. Being the most educated of his Sons, Agrawal Saab would often consult VK on the expansion of the family's estate. The one shop had already been split into two by the time VK left for Coal India, but later, in fact on the insistence of VK, one of his elder brothers opened a new garment shop in a different part of the city which soon prospered.

Agrawal Saab was again impressed by VK's ability to suggest the right outcomes. Even though the youngest, VK could think strategically and long term, unlike his elder sons who continued to be mired by the day to day vagaries of business. Every time, he would meet VK, he would ask how he was doing in his job and prod him on questions of returning back to Allahabad and start his own business.

For VK however, his father's questions and interventions sounded uninformed or naive if not anachronistic. He felt that his father could not just see the world outside of the petty little business establishment he had seen. He often took his father around the Coal plant so that he could see the scale at which the plant operated and he would spend time describing his daily work to his father explaining the role he was playing in running the plant.

VK was on his way to becoming one of the youngest General Managers at Coal India. This time round, when his parents came to visit his family, his father got even more restless seeing the amount of time VK would spend in the office. VK had little time to attend to his parents - and he knew his father was feeling a little lonely. This time when his father brought up the question of moving back and starting a business of his own, VK got into explaining him about the hierarchy at Coal India and how he was rising very fast and that opening another Kirana Shop in Allahabad would be too small an enterprise for him.

Agrawal Saab was stunned at the response - he did retort that he never wanted VK to come back to the Kirana shop business, but to start something of a much larger scale and size which would benefit the city he hailed from. Nationalistic thoughts still prevailed in Agrawaal Saab even though he was too old to feel the heat of nationalism. VK cited reasons such as the inability of the private sector to take up projects at the scale like Coal plants or anything, and that was almost the end of the discussion. Agrawal Saab never brought up the topic again - he passed away a few years later.

After his father's demise and also given his rise in career and the time it consumed, VK's involvement in the family business reduced to almost nil. He did make a General Manager a few years later, but office politics and slow down in the Public Sector in general stunted his rise in subsequent years. He got transferred and while his overall stature kept growing, his career graph, in specific, plateaued out.

Given that his role in the family business was lost, VK also lost any de facto share he would have inherited in the family business. The ancestral house was already occupied by families of his brothers so he effectively lost out on any inheritance he could have received from the property. VK didn't mind - he had a handsome salary and the PSU lifestyle provided everything, a huge property to live in, decent education for his children and lifestyle which suited him. They had access to Clubs, movie theatres and shopping centres even in the remotest townships of Coal India. VK had two sons, one went on to graduate from NIT, Trichy and another completed his CA; life was running full and fulfilling.

What VK did not notice however was how his family, his brothers rather, had progressed in life. His brothers had expanded into multiple shops selling electronics and then took on dealerships of large electronics companies. While his sons toiled hard to crack competitive exams, his nephews had started working in the family business. By the time his elder son graduated from NIT, Trichy and got an offer from Infosys, his eldest nephew Aakash was on his way to opening a Honda automobile showroom in Allahabad and younger Simanth was laying out groundwork to open an Engineering college!

And then one day, in early 2002, the newspaper was awash with news of Bharti Airtel IPO. The paper had a detailed profile of Sunil Mittal, the founder. Sunil had started out as a cycle parts manufacturer in Ludhiana, moved into manufacturing push button phones and then suddenly catapulted into becoming a telecom operator when the government opened the sector for private players. That day, VK remembered his father's words - about going back to Allahabad and starting something of scale and size which would benefit the city he hailed from. He wondered if he would have taken heed of Agrawal Saab's words, he could have been someone like Sunil Bharti Mittal.

But alas, Sunil Mittal was the son of a politician, not that of just another Kirana shop owner from a non-descript background. But then he looked back at the commercial success of his brothers' sons and then compared what his academically illustrious sons had achieved till now. His elder son was working with Infosys and younger had just been selected to join PwC. But financially, they were both far from attaining independence while their elder cousins were running businesses worth crores.

Today when he retired with laurels and compliments from his superiors and juniors alike, VK looked back at the satisfying 35-year career at Coal India. The many achievements and the survival in spite of the PSU seeing few bad days. Personally, he had a great network and reputation among his circle of friends, fellows, colleagues and subordinates. He was well respected in his circle of influence. But was he financially where he could have been? But did financial success really mean anything without the kind of prestige his job got him? But again, could he have become an equally revered figure if he had started his own thing in his 30s while attaining financial success also? Would his children have had a better future? Should he suggest this to his children now? But being brought up in a typical PSU twonship culture, will they be happy doing a small business?

All these questions ran through VK's mind - the answers, of course, were lost in a disarray of dots that had never connected! 


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