Never Pick A Career In Finance If You're Not A Hands-On Person

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Starting out in sales with Eicher Mitsubishi to heading its captive finance arm in India, to a stint as Managing Director and Head of Citibank’s SME and asset-based finance business, to being appointed Group Director of Shriram Group, G.S. Sundararajan’s has been one momentous journey. During his tenure at Shriram Group, he was inducted into the Board of Sanlam Emerging Markets (SEM), courtesy his understanding of Asian and other markets. No longer with the `600 billion group, Sundararajan is currently on a sabbatical, dividing time between playing golf and mulling over future plans. Legal Era engaged him in a little chat. Here are the excerpts…

Till recently, you were Group Director, Shriram Group. You joined the group as Managing Director of Shriram Capital Ltd. Please take us through the highlights of your eventful journey within the group.

The Shriram stint was a life-changing experience for me professionally. I was able to question a lot of Banking 101 that I had imbibed in Citibank, so much so that at the end of the first year, I realized that there is a whole new workable framework in the financial services space. I was fortunate to be exposed to this, and being an open-minded individual myself, I was able to learn and contribute to the retail, MSME, and insurance businesses of the group in a significant way.

There must have been several challenges holding the top job in a group as large and diversified as Shriram. Please elaborate.

Shriram is a very complex group for professionals coming from outside, especially for someone like me with a predominantly multinational background. There is complete empowerment for business leaders managing their respective companies and all of them had risen from the ranks and therefore, had a tremendous track record. To get them to do things even marginally differently required a lot of influencing rather than mandating. Although this was a time-consuming challenge, I must confess that I enjoyed it and ended up adding one more skill set to my repertoire.

"Banking and Financial Services is crucial in a diversified economy like India. Inclusiveness is key but there is so much of opportunity if we can define clear niches

What was your experience like being appointed to the Board of Directors of Sanlam Emerging Markets (SEM), part of the world’s leading financial services group based out of South Africa?

Sanlam is amongst the largest insurance businesses in Africa and arguably the best from a governance standpoint. My stint on their Emerging Markets Board gave me a 360-degree view on the entire Board process, substantially upscaling my expertise in Board Governance and enhancing my knowledge in roles and responsibilities of an effective Board.

Earlier, you served as CEO and Managing Director of Fullerton India Credit Company Ltd. and as Managing Director of Fullerton Enterprises Private Limited. How did your stint at Fullerton prepare you for your later career?

The Fullerton experience was a mixed bag in several ways. While I was overawed by Temasek’s confidence in the India team and the support they showered on us during the initial years, I was equally underwhelmed by their reactive postures during difficult times. Having said that, I am one of those who values failures more than successes in professional life and I must admit I had a few of them during my Fullerton stint which have made me a much wiser person in the years after.

At some point in your career, you were also the Managing Director and Head of Citibank’s SME and asset-based finance business in India. The general perception about Citibank in India is that it started off at full steam but floundered somewhere along the way due to which it no longer enjoys the kind of reputation it once did in this country. Please comment.

My view about Citibank is that their India franchise was always amongst their best globally. Be it in the consumer business or in their SME forays, Citi India was right at the top for the bank globally. Citibank was never the same after it became Citigroup, i.e., after the merger of the Bank with the Travellers Group. There must have been a drastic shift in the focus of the group after the merger perhaps, resulting in the perception changes you are referring to.

You started your career in sales in Eicher Mitsubishi, later going on to head its captive finance arm in India. What led to this switch from sales to finance? Looking back, do you think you always had an inclination and aptitude for finance as career?

I had specialized in Marketing and Finance during my Management education. After a successful seven-year stint in sales and marketing, I was quite keen to move into the financial services opportunity when it came by in Eicher as this provided a good platform to test my aptitude and at the same time, learn new skills on the ground.

Speaking of finance, it is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. Please comment.

I think you should never get into financial services if you do not have the skills to be hands-on in your job, irrespective of the level at which you are in the organization. Perhaps this is what makes professionals wary of this field because at no point in time in your career can you delegate and relax. Again, this is my personal view and I do not want the reader to take offence.

You have an enviable academic record – Bachelor of Engineering from Coimbatore and Post Graduate Diploma in Management from no less than the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad. And yet, you chose to work your way up rather than opting for a really plum position abroad or something similar. Please elaborate.

I have always been a huge admirer of India’s diversity and believed that there is so much to learn and contribute I have always been a huge admirer of India’s diversity and believed that there is so much to learn and contribute

You have held very high positions with a string of seriously big companies. Name one thing you adored about the work culture of any of these places where you served and one thing you absolutely would have changed if given a chance.

Eicher, as a group, had the best work culture and I am fortunate to have been exposed to this culture early in my career. I owe the work ethics and human values I have to my nine-year stint in Eicher.

Shriram is a great organization that has achieved stupendous success over the last 10 years. If there is one thing that I would like to change in that place, it is the huge resistance that people have to accept change. With this quality, my view is the group will be poised for greatness in the coming decade.

Now that you are no longer with the Shriram Group, what are your future plans?

I am very much part of the group, albeit in a passive way. I am almost in the last lap of my self-imposed sabbatical and will be very soon picking between two options... be on the Boards of seven to eight companies and actively play golf or spend the next seven to eight years in an operating role and then get back to option A.

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