Stanton Chase India’s Managing Partner Ashwini Prakash, who is also the executive search firm’s Asia Pacific Leader for the pharmaceuticals, healthcare, life sciences, and consumer products industries, recently sat down with Raji Mehta, CEO and Whole Time Director at StoveKraft Ltd for a candid conversation about the challenges of leading a company during the pandemic and how taking risks and learning from our mistakes is the best way forward. Here’s an excerpt of their conversation.

You are a young achiever. You are a CEO, a board member, have worked across different geographies. You were an angel investor and the founder of a new sportswear brand. What kept you fueled to walk that unconventional path at such an early stage of your career? 

My father has been a great influence on me. He has always steered away from the beaten path and encouraged both his sons to take risks early on in life in order to find something that eventually we love doing. Very soon, this way of life became part of my personality. Even in my hobbies, I would veer toward activities that provided me with greater thrill and excitement. I firmly believe that only those who take risks will create disproportionate benefits for society and for themselves.

What out-of-the-box steps did you take during the pandemic to keep your company going? Did any of these decisions turn out to be a major gamechanger? 

At the onset of the lockdown, there was not a single company that could confidently say they would emerge on the other side unscathed. We were a company on the brink of a turnaround. We needed to ensure we would survive the uncertainty, no matter how long it endured. We began with cutting excess across the board. People who were close to retirement or were not pulling their weight were asked to go. The rest of the company was given pay cuts. Every department was asked to propose ways to save money. This was done without emotion.  At that time, a lot of people felt it was not called for, but in hindsight it was the best decision that was taken. Being a manufacturing unit, we were also very clear that working from home would not work for us. As a result, we were the first ones to open up and make it mandatory to work from the office. This set the bar high and set all the people in check without any sort of differentiation; all of us worked as a cohesive unit to ensure that we turned around the company during the pandemic.

Stovekraft has a dedicated team in China that collaborates with third-party original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Has the growing Indo-China geopolitical tension disrupted the company’s supply chain and business performance? If yes, how well equipped is the company to overcome this challenge? 

We have a team in China who have helped us mitigate the disruption that we have witnessed in the supply chain. The Chinese team is prepared to negotiate with factories and also ensure smoother operations for us.

Stovekraft was listed for an IPO in early 2021, during the worst of the pandemic. Was that the plan? Can you share with us the preparedness of the company and how you got the timing right? 

The original plan was to list in February 2020, before the pandemic. But like we say, whatever happens, happens for the best. Due to a technical glitch, we were not able to launch then, and hence just after the first wave when things looked good, the business had turned over a new leaf and we decided to complete the task that we had set out for. We were listed on February 5, 2021. Since we were all working from the office and were very clear that we wanted to list, we were able to accomplish it.

Attracting high-caliber talent has always been a challenge for promoter-driven companies since the majority of them prioritize multinational companies. You have worked with both setups. What is your perspective? How have you used your experience to turn the tide in favor of promoter-driven companies?  

Talent will follow talent is what I believe. Corollary to that is that talent stays when given freedom. Our MD himself is very talented, and there is an immense amount one can absorb from him. Given that, at a senior level we have been able to attract talent, which suits our setup. Once onboard, we have been able to retain them by providing them opportunities to grow, freedom to fail, and also the environment to speak up. We are all treated equally and like a big family. This is something that is usually missing in large MNCs. Here, just have a feeling of being a family sets the bar high for a lot of people who would have otherwise left.

ESG is a serious topic today. How committed is your company toward the road to sustainability? Are there any milestones set in this direction? 

The company has already invested in solar power on our rooftops as well as a windmill in North Karnataka. Eighty percent of the total power requirement today for us is completely sustainable. We continuously look at avenues to become more and more sustainable.

What is your take on the corporate’s increased focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion? Being a manufacturing setup, how challenging is it to have female representation across various layers in the organization’s hierarchy? 

At an organizational level, we have 70% female employees. In total, we have 4,400 employees and 70% are female employees. We strongly believe that having various representations at various levels will only add to the talent diversity of the company and will shape the way we will exist as an organization in the future. We are extremely fortunate to have an MD and a board who support diversity, and hence we are consciously looking at getting talent from various avenues.

You have come a long way managing multiple roles and responsibilities across industries, and you might have faced your fair share of pushbacks. What does failure mean to you, and what lessons have you learned? 

Failure is always an eye-opener. For me, failures have also been humbling as you come off a high horse and are able to introspect and come to terms with yourself. Every setback has taught me valuable life lessons which have been with me and which have made me a better human, if not to anyone else then at least to my near and dear ones. Failures also have changed my perception of a lot of things and the way they have to be done. Each time when there has been a correction or a setback, I have become a better student. We erase something that was there and rewrite it on a clean slate.

Outside your work life, what are you most passionate about, and how do you manage your time to pursue your passion?

Health and fitness and adventure sports are my two passions. I am very particular about training at least five times a week. One just needs 30 mins to 40 mins a day to be able to work on one’s fitness. A fit person is able to sleep well. I am also very particular about my sleeping habits and follow a routine that gives the mind and body enough rest. Once or twice a year, I take time out and pursue scuba diving. I end up going to various places either only to dive or take some time out of a family vacation and dive. When you are passionate about something, you will find the time for it.