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|September 29, 1999||
The Rediff Business Interview/Ashok Wadhwa
'Indian firms let us down, MNCs supported us'
Two years ago Ashok Wadhwa, 36, quit one of the most prestigious jobs in the country to do his own thing. How has it gone since then? Is it easy to step out of the shadows of a global giant and create a new institution that puts together top-class talent with entrepreneurial adhesive? Wadhwa, now managing director of Ambit Corporate Finance Private Limited, describes life after Arthur Andersen to Pritish Nandy.
What were the compulsions that drove you to quit such a successful, high-flying job to do your own thing?
Much of the credit for that goes to those who are my partners in the new venture today. I was actually trying to recruit one of them to join Arthur Andersen and, instead of saying yes or no, he threw a challenge at me and said: Do you think you can create an organisation as effective as the one you head today? I kept thinking about that challenge for a long time after he had left my room.
Frankly, I had always been an entrepreneur. It is one of my strengths or weaknesses, depending on how you look at it. That challenge aroused the entrepreneur in me. I started thinking very seriously about it. That was the "pull factor", you could say. The challenge of going out of an organisation like Arthur Andersen and creating a new institution virtually from scratch, putting together some of the best talent in the business and making it succeed.
The "push factor" was that around the same time Arthur Andersen were restructuring their business in India and part of that restructuring involved my moving over to Hong Kong. Whereas my priorities, my strengths, my commitments required me to be in India.
These two factors together kind of combined to make me step out to set up a new venture exactly two years ago this month. With a group of partners who saw in this a challenging opportunity.
Four key individuals. All of them used to run small- to medium-sized organisations independently and were therefore already entrepreneurs. In that sense, they had already tasted blood. Ketan Dalal ran a firm which specialised in joint ventures. Dinesh Kanabar ran a firm which specialised in international taxes. Gautam Doshi had a strong reputation as a merger and acquisitions specialist, on the implementations side. Nihal Daldi who is an expert on domestic tax legislation and litigation. The rest were my colleagues who left Arthur Andersen to work with me. This was the team which created Ambit in October 1997.
What are the crucial lessons you learnt about entrepreneurship in these two years? What are the benchmarks of your success?
We are still a very young firm and I don't want to kid myself into thinking that we are already successful. We have done some right things, some not so right things. All of these (the right and the wrong) help us determine our course for the future. But let me try and answer your question from two specific aspects. The personal and the professional.
On the personal side, I think, the biggest lesson was that many of those who I thought were my friends, who had promised me all kinds of support and assured me that their organisations would back me all the way suddenly stopped even accepting my calls. I had relied on them and their assurances and suddenly found that they were not around. At the same time, there were those who I had not relied upon, people with whom I had not even built a relationship, they came in and wholeheartedly supported the new endeavour. On a personal level, this taught me who my real friends were, where they came from. It also taught me who to rely on, who not to.
On the professional side?
On the professional side, my great desire was to create a very high quality institution by taking away the concept of ownership and bringing in the concept of management. For that is the only way I believe one can build something outstanding. With truly high quality people. Our achievements on that side is the list of clients we serve today. I must confess that never did I foresee that we would have such an impressive list. That we would be working on such high-quality assignments for some of the best-known multinationals.
Why is that?
Well, I had always thought that the Indian firms which knew us so well would support us and the multinationals would not. Exactly the opposite has happened. The multinationals have this attitude that if you can give us quality work, we do not care if you have a big brand name or not. We will support you all the way. This was a pleasant surprise for me and changed my entire way of thinking.
Which was your most abject failure?
The fact that the support I expected from certain quarters failed to materialise. It was a mistake actually, not so much a failure. I have also learnt the simple fact that not having a big brand name does make some things a bit difficult. It is not so easy to compete until your own brand name is big and famous. But the biggest challenge has been, for me, to bring people from different cultures into a new organisation and create a culture that can compete with the best.
Is that your single biggest success? Isn't there a specific assigment that brought you maximum satisfaction, maximum pride, maximum money?
The jobs that bring in money are not necessarily the ones that give you maximum satisfaction or pride. On the satisfaction side, achievements are always more intangible. In my opinion, my single most important professional achievement is attracting and continuing to retain the finest professional talent available and making it realise its true potential. I never thought we could bond so many quality people together and create an institution like this, Pritish. This is what I am proudest of.
In terms of jobs we have done, the Star-Zee merger strategy that we worked on was one of the jobs I can say we are truly proud of even though the merger never materialised. It was a very complicated job, with many complicated issues and we did a good job out there in terms of ideas and strategy. It was very satisfying. The Warburg Pincus acquisition of a stake in Marico is another job I think we did very well and can be proud of. We also did it within a very short time and it was something we enjoyed doing.
What was your worst assignment? A job which you picked up and burnt your fingers with?
Fortunately, we have not had such a serious failure. Our main failure has been that we have been so busy doing our own work that we have not had much time for building relationships. Relationships with other professional groups. This is an area we can certainly improve upon in future.
What is the shittiest job you have done? Something that left you with a terrible taste in your mouth? It was a financial services assignment. We had to sell off a business and had almost concluded the deal when suddenly, at the due diligence stage, the acquirer who had trusted us implicitly till then, discovered that the seller had not disclosed all the important and relevant information. The actual losses in the business were many more times over what had been declared. This left us in a rather poor situation. It also taught us one more lesson: Never to accept any mandate till we have done our own due diligence. And, of course, to deal only with high-quality people who can be trusted. People with integrity and honour. This is a lesson we are unlikely to forget in a long, long time.
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