After Math

The best time to prevent a problem from happening is after the problem has already happened.

Just the other day people in our housing society got into a heated argument, almost verbal fisticuffs, over a video circulated over, what else, WhatsApp, of a child being run over by a car within the secure boundaries of a housing society. Somewhere. May have been in our building or may have been in some other. No way of knowing for sure. May have been in our colony or may have been in some other. May have been in our city or may have been in some other. May have been in our state or may have been in some other. Such was the relevance of the video to our society residents. The only certainty, based on the physical features of the people involved, and the car model involved, is that it was recorded in India, if we assume for a minute it was a real video.

It might have been recorded yesterday or it might have been recorded last week or it might have been recorded last month or it might have been recorded last year or it might have been recorded any time before that. The only certainty is that it was perhaps recorded after the time when video recording technology started becoming commonly available, perhaps twenty years back. Moreover, it seems that neither of two main characters in the video, the child and the driver, were known to any of the people involved in the heated discussion. Over this undated and possibly morphed video, with unknown characters, residents of our housing society got into a real-time heated argument, with name-calling and walkouts from the virtual group.

But that is us. We Indians, at least most of us, are caring, sensitive people. We will not shy away when a needless fight, at least a verbal argument, looms, particularly over events already transpired, at an unknown time, involving strangers. We will not turn away like cowards when there is an opportunity of offering homilies that shed a new, well researched light on the situation, like “people must drive carefully” or “parents must ensure children play in safe areas” or “traffic lights should work”. How would we know if they did not tell us? Did you?

And always in a timely manner. Like for a few hours after a child has been hurt by a careless driver. Like for a day after a fire in a building that firefighters were unable to access because of the path being blocked with castaway furniture. Like for a few days after firecrackers have been burnt on a festival adding to atmospheric pollution in the winter months.

We don’t waste time in preventing problems before they have happened, or even offering homilies. How would we squabble over it afterwards if the event was not allowed to happen? Forcing others to discover for themselves that “people must drive carefully” or “parents must ensure children play in safe areas” or “traffic lights should work”.

In the days, months, and most thankfully, years when a child did not get hurt, how many times have we seen residents get into a huff about someone driving rashly inside the society? Or been careful themselves while driving? How many times have we come across a resident chiding an irresponsible parent for letting their young children play without supervision? Or not let their own children play without supervision? Never, right? In fact, some residents of our society wanted to permit holding skating classes for young children on a section of the road. Since an accident had not happened in the skating class in the past as there was no skating class, it was safe to allow an accident in the future. “We just need to be careful.” “We just need to post a guard there.” “The trainer is an adult, he will ensure children are not hurt.”

When an errant driver hurts a child of irresponsible parents, all hell breaks loose with insightful observations that should have been implemented earlier. Mostly by someone else. Like the society management. Or the traffic police. Or the government.

But complainers abound. Trying to fix a problem even before it has happened. Trying to prevent people from living their life. Always complaining.

To all those complainers who complain about overcrowded vans picking up even more children going to school, I say, “Why should they not? Have you heard of any accident involving overcrowded vans ferrying school children in the last twenty four hours? So what if there have been accidents earlier?”

To all those complainers who complain about people blocking corridors with big planters and bicycles and spare furniture and impeding passages for emergency services to operate, I say, “Why should they not? Have you read about a fire breaking out in the last few days where firefighters were unable to access a flat on account of corridors being impeded? So what if there have been instances earlier?”

To all those complainers who complain about traffic cops turning a blind eye and letting cars drive in the wrong direction on roads designated as one-way, I say, “Why should they not? Have you seen an accident in the last week in which a vehicle driving the wrong way was involved? So what if there have been instances earlier?”

In any case, if a problem does happen it is someone else’s fault. Like it was the train’s fault that it  continued to move on the tracks laid out for it instead of getting down into the fields to avoid people standing on tracks to watch a performance near Amritsar. Like it is the government’s fault when devotees rush to the most crowded places in the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad to get the most bang for their holy buck and a stampede ensues.

I feel safe. If I ever get hit by a speeding truck or a car travelling in the wrong direction on a one-way road, or get caught in a stampede at the Kumbh Mela, I know well-meaning people will try to solve the problem by squabbling about it and offering well researched homilies for almost twenty four hours.

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Mergers and Acquisitions – Part 2

Much as we admire the government’s handling of mergers and acquisitions, as we saw in the last post titled Mergers and Acquisitions, the government has a lot to learn from private businesses on the right way of doing mergers and acquisitions.

Take the case of the recent acquisition of Flipkart, India’s largest online retailer, by Walmart. Excuse my ignorance, but I was honestly not aware of the real reasons behind Walmart’s acquisition of Flipkart for USD 16 billion, the largest e-commerce deal in the world. Ever. 

Because they can, is what I had always put it down to, when news of this event had first surfaced, barely giving a second thought to what the real reason might have been. Till I was enlightened by several articles in April and May this year, like one titled “Walmart-Flipkart: How will you benefit” in MSN Money.

Benefit? Me? USD 16 billion? They did it for me? Unbelievable.

As opposed to mergers of government entities that have absolutely no impact on the common man, private businesses, it emerges, are competing hard to merge and acquire for the good of the common man. Yes, for you and me.

Now, I am the first to admit that I have been quite critical of corporate actions being at odds with their stated intentions. But Walmart bought Flipkart for me? I still can’t believe it. But the evidence is overwhelming.

Through the various articles I came across during that period, I learnt that Walmart bought Flipkart for USD 16 billion in order to serve customers, support job creation, small businesses, farmers, and women entrepreneurs.

I learnt that Walmart bought Flipkart for USD 16 billion to partner to create sustained economic growth across agriculture, food, and for extensive job creation through development of supply chains, commercial opportunity, and direct employment.

I learnt that Walmart bought Flipkart for USD 16 billion to support the ‘Make in India’ programme of the government, through direct procurement as well as increased opportunities for exports through global sourcing and e-commerce.

I learnt that Walmart bought Flipkart for USD 16 billion to partner with Kirana (mom and pop grocery) store owners and members to help modernise their retail practices and adopt digital payment technologies. They will also support farmers and develop supply chains through local sourcing and improved market access.

I learnt that Walmart bought Flipkart for USD 16 billion so that the Indian consumer base – a huge chunk of which is the middle class, gradually moving to lower middle – can benefit from cheaper prices through Walmart’s playbook, which has seen success across the world.

Silly me.

I had always thought Walmart bought Flipkart for USD 16 billion because executive incentives are aligned to phantom metrics that reward not shareholder value creation but short term revenue spike.

I had always thought that Walmart bought Flipkart for USD 16 billion because companies take advantage of their over-valued stock to make an acquisition while their currency is strong.

I had always thought that Walmart bought Flipkart for USD 16 billion because of the vanity of decision makers.

I had always thought that Walmart bought Flipkart for USD 16 billion because of fear of competition stealing a march over them.

I had always thought that Walmart bought Flipkart for USD 16 billion to become a giant in the space it operates in and makes its owners rich beyond belief.

But I could not have been more wrong. It was me all along. They bought Flipkart for me.

“Everything I do, I do it for you”…sang Bryan Adams.

Mergers and Acquisitions

It seems that the board of Dena Bank has cleared the merger proposal with Bank of Baroda and Vijaya Bank that was announced by the government a few days back.

What a relief! To have the board of a government owned bank act in conformity with the announcement of the government. Strange things do happen. We now wait with bated breath for the boards of Bank of Baroda and Vijaya Bank to do the same.

It seems the time for initiatives of great magnitude, that have absolutely no impact on the common man, and can be both forcefully justified as well as denounced with irrelevant arguments, depending on which side of the fence you are on, to be announced, is upon us once again. In this case it is the planned merger of Bank of Baroda, Dena Bank and Vijaya Bank, three government owned banks.

Why is it being done? There are good reasons, it seems.

“Simply”, as they say in some parts of the country, where the p sounds more like a b, seems to be one important reason.

“JLT”, acronym for “just like that”, like they say in some other parts, where the j sounds just like a j, is another.

And, “the cause is in my will”, the lines Shakespeare got Julius Caesar to mouth in the eponymous play, yet another. Who could have guessed?

The Finance Minister has categorically said that no jobs will be lost. Whether they are needed in the rationalised, merged entity or not. That in itself can justify a transaction of this magnitude and nature, without the need for bringing additional supporting arguments to the table. After all, the cost of running the merged entity will continue to be similar to the sum of the three entities, as cost of human resources is a major cost for banks. What better reason can there be to merge?

This merger is also expected to lead to the recognition and resolution of stressed assets, already under way, which will help improve asset quality over the next six to twelve months. As we all know, stressed assets cannot be recognised and resolved if three nationalised banks stay independent.

In addition, cost of funds for the merged entity is expected to come down since Vijaya Bank has a high dependence on short-term bulk deposits, which are typically high cost in nature. And, since Vijaya Bank’s cost of funds will go down by leveraging cheaper funds of the other two banks, it follows that the cost of funds of the other two banks will not go up as they will have to shoulder a proportionate burden of Vijaya Bank’s higher cost of funds. Elementary. Moreover, this arithmetic of weighted averages would not have worked if the three were separate entities.

Even analysts are agog. According to them, the success of this exercise is crucial for future such attempts. Not for this transaction, but for future transactions. As success of the merger is not crucial, it is important that it was done.

In particular, the proposed merger is seen as a test of the capacity of a large bank, which itself is facing pressure on asset quality, to absorb a weaker peer. Even though mandated by the government.

It apparently matters. Because when a state lender faces pressure on its Balance Sheet, the government does a complex transaction known as money transfer, which is christened as “recapitalisation” in case the receiving entity is a stressed government bank. It takes from one of its pockets, which mostly has your and my tax money, and puts it into another, the one called “Balance Sheet of Nationalised Banks” which has become depleted either because farm loans had to be waived off or because a well-connected businessperson had to be given unsecured loans as he had the ear of the minister or capacity for favours to government bankers with compensations that have no relation to the huge amounts of money handled by them.

Ultimately, how well the three banks combine could well end up determining the future of consolidation among public sector banks. Alternatively, and more probably, the future of consolidation among public sector banks could also be determined by when the next period comes around when someone in power needs to show actions that do not impact anyone an iota but can be forcefully justified as well as denounced with irrelevant arguments, depending on which side of the fence you are on.

Of course, it is important for the government to continue to run businesses instead of merely governing and making and enforcing laws. This is why these banks could not be offered to private investors and bankers. Unfortunately, private investors might have sought unreasonable conditions like value.

 

Loud and Clear

You have to hand it to the Gurgaon administration. When it comes to deploying advanced technologies for better management of traffic, they are second to none.

After a careful review of tools that modern technology has placed at our disposal, Gurgaon traffic police has decided to introduce the cutting-edge technology known as “loudspeakers” at prominent intersections in the city, starting with two, one of them, as always, being at the intersection closest to where I stay, the HUDA City Centre. As the name goes, it is the City Centre and perhaps one of the busiest.

On a trial basis. Mind you. They make sure, don’t they? Nothing implemented till fully tested. Without any tracking or monitoring of results. They have our backs, don’t they?

Like in the case of the series of underpasses that punctuate the length of Golf Course road, that still have an “Opened for Trial” board hanging at the entrances even though it is more than two years since most of them have been thrown open, with some having already notched up enviable records of death and destruction.

Trials are trials. And must be done. Especially in cases where the project is a fait accompli. Like the series of underpasses which, I believe, are uni-directional constructions. You cannot unmake an underpass once made, can you? I mean of course you can, if you take it literally. You can get back all the rubble that was excavated to create the underpass, and fill in the big hole, and demolish all the construction that had been done and send back that rubble to the place it had been excavated from. But you know what I mean, don’t you?

But, as usual, I get distracted. Perhaps it is the excitement of being back at the fairgrounds of my youth, with loudspeakers blaring music, announcements and ad jingles and everyone having a great time.

I am fortunate enough to pass through the City Centre intersection almost daily. Today was no exception. I drove out of our building and the next thing I know is that I had stopped at the red light at the City Centre intersection.

As I was jostling for space with other motorists to be the fastest on the draw as soon as the light turned green, I heard a booming sound, “Don’t use your mobile phone while driving. If you do, it could be your last call.”

I froze. I furtively looked on either side, then guiltily at my mobile, lying silent and forlorn on the car dashboard. I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Did the government then manage to even switch on the great ancient Indian invention of “Akashvaani” (literally, Celestial Voice), the celestial messaging system perfected by our ancestors and recorded in mythological texts, that sent out personalised messages to humans, in time for the next general elections. I confess that I have questioned senior ministers’ claims of having invented flying and their arguments that apes are not our ancestors since no one saw an ape turn into a human. But a personalised “Akashvaani”? That would have been the tipping point for me.

Alas, it was not to be. At least at that point. I recollected, in time, the Gurgaon traffic police’s plans of installing loudspeakers at that intersection. I looked around at drivers in other cars. Only the ones not talking on their mobiles seem to have heard the announcement. The loudspeaker strategy seemed to have achieved the desired early results.

“Please stop at the red light”, came the Akashvaani again. But this time I was ready. It was a great message, this one. Made a lot of sense to me as I was already stopped at the red light.

“Please wear seat belts while driving and please wear a helmet when on a two-wheeler,”

“Please park only in designated areas,”

“Don’t drive on the wrong side of the road. Doing so could cause grievous harm, even death, to yourself and others,”

…came in quick succession, while I was still waiting for the light to turn green. Such a simple idea. How would people know that they should wear seat belts while driving, or helmets if on a two-wheeler, or park only in designated areas, or not drive on the wrong side of the road, doing which could cause grievous harm, even death, to yourself and others, unless “loudspeakered” to them at busy intersections? After all, they only been issued driving, or riding, licences, after suitable checks.

No apprehending offenders. No traffic violation fines. No cameras. No issuing tickets. No electronic tagging. No satellite tracking. No concern for noise pollution. Just plain announcements. Revolutionary.

It was mesmerising. I was transported to another world. How long before they unleash its full potential by handing over the system to corporates, was the question raging through my mind.

“While you wait for the 2 minute long red light, have a 2-minute noodle snack made by an MNC.”

“Turn your nails from green to red while the light turns from red to green.”

The possibilities boggled my mind.

“Will the black Fabia please move. The light has turned green.“

“Will the black Fabia please move. The light has turned green.”

Was it my imagination or did the loudspeaker just become even louder? There was a tap on the driver side window. I was woken from my reverie. A traffic policeman was standing there and about to tap again. I lowered the window and looked at him with some disgust as he had interrupted my train of thought. I asked him crossly, “what is the matter?”

“Sir, can you please move. The light turned green 30 seconds back and could turn red again any time again. We announced it twice already.”

“Uh, oh,” is all I could mutter while I engaged gears of my black Fabia and testily jerked out of danger of the impending red light.

Don’t get me wrong. I am all for great ideas and technological innovations that further the agenda of humanity. But I draw the line at getting personal.

Alive and Kicking

Traditionalists have had the last laugh, for once. Doomsday predictors predicting the demise of Test cricket, the oldest and, according to many, purest form of cricket, have been forced to eat humble pie. Test cricket is alive and kicking.

And all credit to the Indian cricket team for this swift turnaround, all in a matter of two weeks. Pretty much in keeping with its position as the leader in world cricket. Generating over 80% of global revenues from cricket and, well, generating some x share of cricketing capability where, in mathematical terms, x currently is tending to zero.

The Indian cricket team has made a rousing statement for Test cricket in the ongoing series in England. It has often been felt that in the modern world, Test cricket, which is played over a period of 5 days, has no future, as nobody has either the time or patience to spend 5 days on one game. After threatening to compete in the first game, they have pulled out all stops and shown that a Test match can be completed in a period of just two days without ending in a tame draw. Overcoming rain and inclement weather as well.

Imagine the amount of time they have given back to the nation; 3 billion days, assuming a billion follow the game.

Imagine the amount of time they have given back to themselves for shooting commercials.

Great teams do not follow established rules and standards. They set their own. This team has set a new standard for speed. At which a team ranked number one can plummet to the bottom of the pile. Top ranked teams don’t just lose. They capitulate. As they have so ably shown in the past as well. To ensure the last two weeks’ performance does not turn out to be a flash in the pan and to constantly remind themselves of the uphill task at hand, they even have coined a new motivational slogan that they break into each time they go out to play:

Come rain, come bright shine

Defeat, thou shalt forever be mine

Selflessly, risking their own legacy and rankings, they have ensured that future teams, irrespective of their performance, look like they have fared better than earlier ones. And, like great politicians and great corporate leaders have done so successfully earlier, kept us salivating at the prospect of a bright future without trying to worry about events past.

They have also been able to give us a hero that we so desperately yearn for. Not good performance, not winning teams, but individuals as heroes. How many other teams can make this claim? By collapsing in a heap around one player, the legend of that single player, in a game of eleven, has been fed and strengthened.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the richest sporting body in the country by far, and always ahead of its times, has constituted a committee to look into the performance in the first Test, which took almost four days to finish. Could we not have lost that match as well in two days?

Another committee has been formed to address the issue of talent in cricket. Why are we still allowing talent to thrive in Test cricket? Why have we not killed it, as we have so effectively done in ODI and T20 cricket? Why are bowlers still allowed to bowl fast and swing the ball and be accurate? All at the same time. Difficult questions will need to be answered.

The BCCI President has also called for a revamp of the ranking structure in Test cricket. It has to be kept independent of performance, he has apparently stated. You cannot mix two unrelated things together.

I am looking forward to the next Test starting later this week. I have already made plans for the three days the team will give back to me. Have you?

Customer Loyalty

While trying to clean up my mailbox, I came across an email from an airline that I had, apparently, left in my inbox without any action, like Delete, which I often resort to in haste and sometimes repent later at leisure. The subject line of that email is the title of this post.

This airline had come into being with a lot of fanfare several years earlier, promoted by a flamboyant liquor baron. I used it occasionally, circa 2010, around the time of this email. For the record, this airline is now out of business, apparently on account of its inability to pay mounting debts.

I now recollect that when I had received this email, I was more than a little confused and of the view that the subject line did not do justice to the content, or perhaps the content did not do justice to the subject line. In my confusion I left the email parked in the Inbox, to be read and disposed of in a more relaxed frame of mind. It came to my attention today when I was trying to clean-up my Inbox. And it confused me all over again.

From the subject line of the email, I gathered that the email was sent with the objective of building loyalty amongst its customers, like me. But after reading through the email several times, I was not at all sure. But it could just be me and my sceptical outlook. You judge for yourself.

Presented below is the complete email, with my interpretation of a particular section in parentheses, in green italics, immediately after that section. If you delete the content within parentheses, it becomes the complete original email received by me. To avoid ruffling feathers more than need to be ruffled, we will call is ABC Airlines.

The Email, then:

Dear Sir, As one of our most valued guests, I share with you our commitment to building a stronger ABC Airlines.

(We have not been able to do it in the several years of our existence. However, we assure you that now we are committed to doing it. Of course, we are informing you because we believe our building a stronger airline will be of tremendous interest to you, as it will make all of us at the airline, richer, and make no difference to you whatsoever as you will continue to have options of other airlines to fly with.)

Since inception, ABC Airlines has stood for the best in air travel in the Indian skies. As we navigate through one of the most turbulent times, we remain strong, committed and driven.

(Even if you had not come to know of it from other sources, we want to ensure that you, our loyal customer, is aware that we are navigating through turbulent times, so that you can think twice before giving us your business, which might give us the opportunity to navigate through even more difficult times, and allow us to remain stronger, more committed and more driven. Especially as it makes no difference to you whatsoever as you will continue to have options of other airlines to fly with.)

We will emerge, stronger than ever before. Our key mission remains, placing your experience at the heart of our operation. We are committed and expect to continue to:

• Provide safe and reliable service. I assure you that we have full confidence in our aircraft fleet, and will not fly an aircraft unless we are completely sure that it is safe to operate.

(Though in the past we have not had full confidence on our fleet, and have flown aircraft without being completely sure that it was safe to fly, we assure you we will not do the same again. Promise.)

• Operate our flight as per schedule and on-time.

(Now we are going to. As stated earlier – Promise.)

• Provide competitive fares across cabin classes and markets.

(We thought the in-flight video of our boss asking in-flight stewards to treat you as a guest in his house would be enough to charge you a premium. We may even have got away with it on occasion. But now that we know that the premium service of the boss’ video has turned out to be inadequate, we will offer competitive rates.)

• Ensure that our guests continue to earn and retain their elite tier status and that the Frequent Flier Miles earned by our guests remain secure and intact with Frequent Flier Club.

(We had planned to wilfully downgrade the tier status of guests, and also to arbitrarily reduce the miles already earned and accumulated. But we will defer this plan to a more appropriate time in the future.)

• Enjoy benefits with the Frequent Flier Club which is at par, if not more advantageous than what is on offer. Our schedule along with best fares is available at http://www.abc.com With your continued faith and our nerves of steel, we are confident in restoring our position of excellence in the Indian sky.

(We have confused even ourselves with our first statement here. We think what we are trying to say is that you will get benefits with the Frequent Flier Club, which you are already getting. And that is a great privilege which is why we need to call this out in our email to you. Further, we have understood from our experience that the one key attribute required to succeed is “nerves of steel”. Not knowledge, not experience, not customer service, not operating excellence, but “nerves of steel”. We have got all employees grafted with this key attribute. So now, as a logical conclusion, we are bound to restore our position of excellence in the sky. Which we have never held in the past. You may also need them (nerves of steel) if you fly with us, we might add.)

My team joins me in thanking you once again for your loyalty and patience.

Unquote

After having read through the email section by section, I feel bad for the investors and management of the company.

Is this a sincere but misguided effort at building customer loyalty?

Or is this a planned and meticulously worded effort at eroding whatever little customer loyalty remained?

Or is this an email which actually helps in enhancing customer loyalty, which I suspect was the original purpose of the email?

What do you think? This could be used as a case-study in customer communication.

 

All About Us

It has been an educational week past.

I now know that Mukesh Ambani is India’s richest person.

I am kidding. I already knew that.

I now know that he has a son by the name Akash. Actually, I might have known that also.

So how was it educational? What DID I learn?

I learnt that Akash got engaged to Shloka Mehta on 28th June and a grand party was thrown by the Ambanis on the 30th to celebrate the event.

I learnt that Shloka has known the Ambani family since she was two years old.

I now know Shahrukh Khan was the host for the evening and that he and his son Aryan had a father-son moment at the bash. I learnt that they, Shahrukh and Aryan, even shared a light moment with Gauri Khan, Shahrukh’s wife and Aryan’s mother.

I learnt that Sachin Tendullkar has a daughter whose name is Sara. I learnt that Sara looked resplendent at the bash.

I learnt that Amitabh Bachchan’s maternal grand-daughter is called Navya. I also learnt that Navya stole the show at the event in her sari.

I also learnt that Abhishek, Aishwarya and Aradhya looked like a happy family.

I learnt that Karen Tran is a luxury floral decorator from California. I learnt that Karen Tran decorated the venue.

I learnt Argentina grows flowers. I learnt some Rs. 25 crores (about USD 4 million) worth of them were flown in from Argentina to decorate the venue. I learnt that it is possible to put Rs. 25 crores worth of flowers in one single house in one single night.

I learnt there is a bakery called Laduree in Paris. I learnt that Laduree is famous for its macarons, a sweet meringue-based confection that is made with egg white and icing sugar, among other ingredients. I learnt Laduree whipped up some delicious desserts for all at the bash.

I learnt that decorations at the venue included transparent umbrellas with wax chocolates hanging from them.

Phew!

These learnings were flying at me from many directions, like TV news channels, like newspapers, like workplace gossip, like the Internet, like WhatsApp forwarded messages between other forwarded messages asking people to refrain from wasteful consumption and mind their own business.

And I was hungrily lapping it up.

Because it matters.

Because now I can speak more than others about the ceremony that I think everyone else is talking about.

Because now I can authoritatively confirm or debunk the trash that people are bound to circulate about the event.

Because I can now send more WhatsApp forwards, in between messages to avoid wasteful consumption and minding our own business.

If so much can be learnt during the engagement, the sky will be the limit when the wedding comes around. I am hungry for knowledge. I am already counting the days to it even though I don’t know the date.

Now that I know it, I wish Akash and Shloka a happy married life.

After all, it’s all about us, baby!