Lessons from leadership: A talk with TGC Prasad, Founder & CEO of India’s fastest growing B2B2C e-commerce company in the construction, interiors and infrastructure category: MSupply.com

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Lessons from leadership: A talk with TGC Prasad, Founder & CEO of India’s fastest growing B2B2C e-commerce company in the construction, interiors and infrastructure category: MSupply.com

How do you become a better leader? If you are like me, sure bet, books, podcasts, and a few conferences are your paraphernalia. However, one of the best ways to gain insights is to ask those who have pushed boundaries and spring up with idealistic ways to progress their professional endeavours. They keep their organisations fresh and exciting. These leaders address the myriad of challenges- How to grow the enterprise. How to get work done. How to find customers. How to be themselves in the workplace. And so on. They test the waters by making an ‘in the clouds’ move and tend to be the pragmatic problem solvers. Lurching from one trial-and-error, they earn expertise and acumen, people and profit, along the way.

American polymath and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin once said, “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” This leader has done both. Not only had he rooted the foundation of India’s fastest growing B2B2C e-commerce in construction, interiors and infrastructure category, MSupply.com; but also he has penned several management and fiction books. I had an opportunity to interview him and here are the excerpts.

Pedagogy & the start 

A civil engineer by qualification, he completed his post-graduation (Gold Medallist) in management from Tata Institute. He has been an instrumental part of the initial teams of many prestigious brands. Earlier he worked as the Country head and Board Member for Misys, India, a USD 4 billion global IT Software Product Company. TGC was one of the initial start-up team of Mindtree, a USD 900 million IT Services company. He has worked for Alcatel-Lucent leading the M&A Org Strategy for Europe, South and Asia Pacific theatres. While with Coopers & Lybrand, he was responsible for implementation of Enterprise (SAP) & Supply Chain Management solutions. He has also authored several books viz., ‘Unusual People Do Things Differently’ (Portfolio, Penguin), ‘Along the Way’ (Rupa), ‘From the eye of my mind’ (Random House), Working hard is not good enough (Random House), The Last Ten Percent (Penguin Portfolio). He attended, delivered programs and written research papers – Stern School of Management (NY), Fordham School (NY), IIM-Ahmedabad & IIM-Bangalore.

MSupply.com at a glance

Over the couple of years since its inception, MSupply has left an indelible mark on the e-commerce Spectrum of India through its sound practices and customer-centric Innovations in the construction, interiors, and infrastructure category. It has posted robust growth, ensured a journey towards profitability and delivered superior services for its customers. Today it caters to 22,000 pin codes via its commerce platform and has access to a 14,000-supplier network.

Supply Chain Innovation

MSupply started in August 2015 with Singapore as its head-quarters and Bangalore as the India headquarters, in India. MSupply currently operates in fifteen cities and towns and is rapidly expanding to additional twenty pretty shortly. The company so far has raised USD 13 million in two rounds of funding from global investors Artiman Ventures [a US-based (Palo Alto) Private Equity fund and IIML, Mumbai. The construction supply chain is vast, and there is hardly any technology disruption in this segment. The organized manufacturers constitute about 20% of the total space. The rest are small and medium-sized manufacturers with limited marketing reach and distribution scale. MSupply ties up with the small, medium, and large and global manufacturers and helps sell products using its marketing and distribution network. The products are sold to the wholesale segment and thereby disrupting the supply chain and whereby the network helps manage inventory, demand planning and logistics on both ends viz., manufacturer, and the wholesalers/retailers. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg of the brand which would potentially become cash positive in the next six to nine months in FY9-20.

Founder and CEO’s outlook 

He is not a person with many words, but took out time from his busy schedule for us to ask him a few questions and here they are…

Taking it back to the beginning, how did the ideation of the business come about?

Construction, Interiors & Infrastructure segment is $600B, covering almost 30% of the GDP and organised manufacturers constitute about 20% of the total space. The rest are smaller manufacturers with barely any marketing and distribution approaches.

The idea was to collaborate with them, enhance their business by selling their products into the supply chain, thereby managing inventory on both ends – shop floor and the shop. For the manufacturers it is growing their revenues by 10x and for the dealer, it was access to products, demand, and organised credit. That would enhance their business and margins, significantly. Technology to manage to buy and sell supported by supply chain network was the premise. It worked well.

How big is the company right now? Brief us about the offerings. 

MSupply collaborates on an exclusive basis with Local/Regional/Global Manufacturers who typically do not have marketing and distribution reach, and sell their products into the supply chain, predominantly to wholesalers/dealers. In turn, Wholesalers/Retailers use the commerce platform to get credit from banks/NBFCs and access demand from potential customers like retailers and project customers. From a team of 100 people, we are doubling probably soon. We have also signed an MOU with Government of Andhra Pradesh (India) for setting up a material-park for Manufacturers to display, stock, sample, and manage logistics. Alibaba, Amazon, Rakuten, Walmart, Homedepot are global models in this business.

How did you build your personal reputation? 

I think being committed to people who trust you, being straightforward and transparent in my dealings with people, co-workers, partners, investors and my team. Importantly being a role model in demonstrating hard work, integrity, customer focus and exception excellence, which are our core values at MSupply.com.

How do you measure your success as a leader? What has been the secret ingredient to your success?

Success is relative. So is the failure. Neither last long. Actually both are just perceptions. What matters is the journey of creating something valuable to the community and people. Creating economic value, employment, and leaders who can make and lead companies will help a community prosper. That I would call as ‘fulfilment of a lofty goal’. There is no one secret ingredient, though I would say that hard work combined with an inhibition-less mind that is willing to overcome any challenge is a great combo for success. I like what Peter Drucker said, ‘Not all problems need to be solved, and most can be circumvented or managed’.

Are you a risk taker? 

The risk appears when the potential chance of failures outweighs successful outcomes. However, what people forget is that – inherent in the risk lies tremendous learning, which prepares people to build resilience over failures. This is the foundation for better and lasting outcomes. Secondly, if one has the right skills, aptitude, and attitude to fall back on, to earn a lively hood – where is the risk?

What is the most rewarding part of leading people?

When leaders become successful in the goals, they take up. When they become great contributors, managers and leaders. When they can stride forward with confidence and create value to the ecosystem. Importantly when they become great human beings who can make a better community. Lastly, when people don’t need me anymore and become accountable, independent, empowered to take their own decisions and execute.

What motivates you to be a leader?

‘The challenge of growing a company against many odds’.

Secondly, influencing people to see the big picture, think differently, to execute, to

stretch, to become great contributors, managers and leaders. As I said earlier.

What is a day in your life/profession looks like? How you start your day?

Usually, my day starts very early at about 5 am and wind up by 10 pm. This has made a significant difference. The early morning hours help me gets things sorted in my mind. A typical day starts with a lot of brainstorming with people, meeting customers, investors, suppliers, partners, reviews and so on. Corridor conversations are very important for me. I make it a point to have lunch and coffee with people from across different functions. It helps me to understand their perspective. I travel almost 15-20 days a month meeting customers, manufacturers and financial institutions. The insights I gain are terrific.If you ever want to run a business, then you have live more than half the time on the street pounding the roads. There is no other alternative.

How do you encourage the development and motivation of everyone around you? 

Raise the bar significantly. Ask for the sky. Pose difficult questions. Push for data, measure outcomes based on metrics. Review hard. Reward for high performance and be emphatic in highlighting sub-par output. Coach, instil confidence, give timely feedback as needed, throw at the deep end of the pool, but be there to hold them when they are drowning. Be truthful, focus on strengths, and bring the best out of them.  Communicate upfront, and never break their trust. Lastly. Be humane. Make them rounded human beings.

What is the most significant change that you brought to the organization?

People, teams, investors, partners and many have told me that we have changed many times in the past and too very fast. But I believe that most start-ups fail because they don’t change fast enough and they don’t quickly discard what is not working. If we had not changed and morphed rapidly, we wouldn’t have existed today. I can say that MSupply.com is rapidly scaling and is on the path to profitability because we changed with market dynamics and because our people are adaptable and nimble. Now we are laser focused on what we want to do. “Customer Focus” and “Execution Excellence” lead our scalability and profitability. Operationally, as we are scaling, two things matter to us, ‘right skills to right role’ and ‘no English, only Math’.

How did you a handle a time when you had to make an unpopular decision?

Popular or unpopular decisions are short-lived perceptions. As the Founder & CEO, I am not running a popularity contest. My responsibility as the CEO is to do what is right for the company and for the larger ecosystem. My approach is to bring people to the table, explain the problem statement, seek views, discuss pros and cons, evaluate the math around it, understand the feelings emanating, and address them as well to the extent feasible. Then take the decision. Usually, people rally around the decision. When leaders and managers believe in the rationale, then the cascading effect takes care of the required change management.

Well, there are times when I had to take tough decisions contrary to general perception. But I still went ahead and took the decisions. In the long run, it helped the company tremendously. In the short-run some people choose to move on, which is fine. Nothing wrong with their decision either. All these things are contextual.

What is your greatest strength?

Vision, seeing the big picture, number orientation, detail orientation, ability to attract, influence, rally people – are some of my big strengths. Besides, I can work endlessly and don’t tire quickly. Well, I am emotional, I have cried a few times in the past, I can laugh at myself, I reflect and can apologise quickly too. In the end, we are all very human. Aren’t we?

What would be your greatest weakness?

So many weakness – impatience, get irritated with people who lie, play politics, give excuses, don’t stretch, are not number driven and not detail oriented. I over-pack my calendar, don’t give adequate time to my family and personal commitments. Workaholic and tend to check emails and call people on holidays and at odd-timings.

What is the most difficult part of being a leader?

Simply put, being a role model. You will have to be what you inspire others to be.

If you were to write a book about yourself, how would you name it?

If I can, you can too!

Name three websites/blogs/books that you cannot imagine your day without.

Nothing specific that I have to devour every day. A daily dose of ET and Mint is necessary with coffee. Then I read blogs on ‘Medium’. In addition, watch many TED talks on YouTube. I must admit that I read a lot of Bollywood and Hollywood gossip too. I am a movie buff.

Your favourite top three places on the globe are…

My own backyard, Helsinki and California

Apart from running the company/organization, what else you love to do in your unoccupied time?

Unoccupied time is a misnomer. I do my best to spend time with my son, walk for hours at length, watch movies, go on drives, listen to music, read books.

What leadership style do you use?

Contingent leadership style, which is a combination of Influencing; Coaching; being directive and at times being authoritarian. Different situations, different people, and different contexts, need different leadership style.

My focus is to drive values in our people viz, Integrity, Customer Focus, Execution Excellence. Importantly to help them think better, see the big picture and grow them as great managers, leaders, and good human beings.

What improvements would you like to make regarding your leadership skills? 

Being more patient

What advice would you give someone who is assuming a leadership position for the first time? 

Be yourself. If you are into it, give nothing short, but your fullest. Believe that people are everything. Many will give you advice, listen to it, look at the big picture, do not worry about popularity when taking decisions, and do the right thing. Success and failure are both short-lived – stick to integrity.

Finally; what is next for the company? What other plans do you have for your business?

Construction, Interiors, Infra is a $600B market in India. Unorganised and not disrupted and the opportunity is immense. Besides India is going to be the world’s largest construction market by 2022-23. This sector is growing at almost 10% year on year and there is no country in the world anywhere close to this kind of growth rate. This is the second largest employment sector in India after agriculture. Therefore, for MSupply, our plan is to continue to expand and scale significantly and achieve our vision of achieving $1B transaction value by 2022-23.

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