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Stanton Chase Talks With Brigade’s Nirupa Shankar

January 2022
Ashwini Prakash
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Stanton Chase India’s Managing Partner Ashwini Prakash sits down with Brigade Group’s Executive Director, Nirupa Shankar, to talk about the challenges of being a second-generation entrepreneur, her pioneering work at Brigade, and her take on how the Indian real estate market has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. She also shares her advice to young women who are looking to rise through the ranks in the world of entrepreneurship.

Brigade Group is a leading property developer in South India. Its projects extend across major cities in the region including Bangalore, Chennai, Chikmagalur, Hyderabad, Kochi, Mangalore, and Mysore. Brigade Group has a uniquely diverse, multi-domain portfolio that spans property development, property management, hospitality, and education.

Ashwini Prakash: As a second-generation entrepreneur, did you feel clouded by the legacy of your successful father? Were there any conventional challenges you had to overcome?

Nirupa Shankar: As a second-generation entrepreneur, I have been fortunate to be given a wonderful platform to begin with. Now what I do with this platform is up to me. Eighty percent of businesses, globally, are family-run businesses. While there is an advantage for a second-generation entrepreneur to start at a much higher level as opposed to starting from the bottom of the ranks, it does come with a lot of added pressure. One is constantly compared to the first-generation founder and has to live up to the expectation of being competent enough to take the business forward. You can either mess it up or do something bigger and better.

This pressure affected me to some extent until I realized that I can never fit in my father’s shoes, because I would need an army for that. We are two different individuals and have our own strengths and weaknesses. My father is an incredible entrepreneur and a visionary. Undoubtedly, I try to emulate his leadership, but at the same time I have my own personality and strengths that I can bring to the table.

Prakash: When you took over the reins of the innovation function at Brigade Group, what was your plan? Would you like to share a few initiatives that you have taken in the capacity of your role?

Shankar: I have been with the company for 12+ years and I set up the Brigade Real Estate Accelerator Program (REAP) to look into innovation and technology in the real estate sector. The idea came across during a brainstorming session where we were talking about scalability, e.g. how does the organization scale exponentially? How does the organization stay ahead of the curve? How does an organization maintain an edge over its competitors?  I realized that technology was the answer to all three questions. If we just keep on doing what we have been always doing, then the growth will be at a nominal rate. We have been witnessing the technological disruption happening in various industries like EdTech, FinTech, HealthTech, and I feel that real estate is next. The real estate proptech space is at a more nascent stage compared to fintech but the disruption is waiting to happen. I got on this journey of looking at the disruption in real estate five years ago, and our team at Brigade REAP mentored about 50 startups over the past five years. Out of the 50 startups, 23-30% are in the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) space, which focuses on sustainability in the real estate sector. A lot of MNCs who take our office spaces are interested in our green and sustainable technologies. They check for criteria like is the building LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), what are the operating efficiencies we can create in our building by using sustainable initiatives such as water management, energy management, sewage treatment plant management, reduction in energy consumption, etc. There is a solution within Brigade REAP where we created a sewage treatment plant that doesn’t need any electricity or chemicals to maintain it. There are startups we partner with that work on bringing in more plants that emit oxygen at night to improve the air quality within an office space,  a startup that looks at clean air as a service by improving the filtration services in  existing heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems. Sustainability with the ESG perspective has been receiving a lot of attention and it is our focus.

Prakash: How did Brigade Group cope with the stifling impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the real estate sector? What were your lessons?

Shankar: COVID was definitely a big blow on the real estate industry. Brigade has residential, office hospitality, and retail projects: hospitality and retail being two of the worst affected industries due to the pandemic. The first wave and first lockdown were a big shock and surprise for everybody. There was less time to prepare for it and we didn’t know how long it would last. During the second wave, we prepared ourselves better by automating our process and working online. For instance, we took videos of each and every unsold residential apartment to share with our clients who were interested to give them a real-time look and feel of the apartment without them having to visit the project site. With regard to hotels, we had to cut down our cost by almost 65 to 70% in terms of fixed cost because hotels had no revenue. Within retail, we took a very fair approach in terms of giving some waivers on rentals to the retailers during the lockdown period and until business picked up.

The two great lessons from this pandemic are to be financially conservative in terms of managing commitments and cash flows as well as automating processes to work remotely if the situation demands. We didn’t overleverage our resources. Almost 50 to 60% of the smaller developers had to close their operations in Bangalore and Chennai. It resulted in an increased market share to for organizations like ours who were able to withstand the worst of COVID-19. Sales soared immediately after lockdown as we had a track record of delivering apartments on time. Our processes were in place to continue business operations even during lockdown.

Prakash: Post-pandemic, do you see any shift in the overall business scenario for the real estate sector?

Shankar: There is a huge shift in the real estate landscape. The established players were able to get a larger chunk of market share and this resonated with the stock market, which saw real estate stock prices skyrocket. The industry is bouncing back to the normal because business is back and people want to travel and get back to the offices, malls, restaurants, etc. The mall business is back almost 90% on a like-to-like basis. Some of the stores had to shut down especially food and beverage outlets that didn’t have the ability to withstand the decline in revenue. The business is moving back to players who are able to manage their cash flows, have a decent reputation, and are committed to honoring their payments be it to banks or lessors. The companies that stood by good business principles were able to survive during COVID and they got rewarded with an extra amount of market share for that.

Prakash: With a rise in demand for remote work arrangement across industries, how feasible is this arrangement for the real estate sector? How have you adapted to this new work environment?

Shankar: It was feasible to work remotely, and we made it work when we had to. Business had to continue, and we were up and running within two days post the first lockdown. But it is not the preferred way of working. People can work one or two days from home and the rest from the office to maintain some sort of a balance. However, the kind of culture that an organization is able to build and the quality of collaboration that happens in-person is significantly better than working from home. I find productivity much lower when people work from home, but it seems to work for some industries. When I talk to people in the financial / IT services space, they say productivity is fine and they are OK with people working from anywhere. I have been meeting all our clients who have begun working from the office and they all want their people back. We started working from the office at almost 100% capacity sometime in October when most of our employees got doubly vaccinated. Everybody, from office assistants to CEOs, had the same rule to come back to office and work. Lot of MNCs are still playing a little risk-averse. I feel the whole WFH campaign is more of a risk-averse plan from a legal perspective rather than a desirable trend. I don’t think it is the long-term solution for everybody. We are social beings and we need to interact. I personally feel energized after meeting with people, and working with a team helps me to think and function better.

Prakash: As a group, how have you internalized the diversity and inclusion practices? Do you have any program encouraging women returning to work?

Shankar: Our policies are favorable toward women. We try to create a safe and conducive environment for women to work whether it is at an office or construction sites. Brigade has been ranked among the Top 100 companies In India as a Great Place to Work (GPTW) for women, for the past five years. We have women-friendly policies pertaining to work, we extend the flexibility for working women post maternity break, etc. It gives me a sense of pride to say that the Arcade at  Brigade Orchards is a project that was managed by an all-women team showcasing our commitment toward D&I. Eventually, people want to see a fair culture, and we promote or give raise to men and women based on how they perform. We are trying to hire more women especially at the senior leadership level, but it is a challenge due to the number of women dropping out of the work force once they get married or have kids. We try to encourage hiring more female employees, but it is all merit based. 

Prakash: What advice would you give to the young aspiring women venturing into entrepreneurial stints?

Shankar: Women should find a way to be financially independent. Find a job, and if it is not your dream job then eventually work toward getting the desired job even if it means setting up your own startup. Financial independence is very important and gives you that confidence to pursue your passion and dreams, and it is the first step to be able to make a decision in your own best interest. If a woman wants to start their own company, I would encourage her to go for it and do something she is passionate about. The money will follow. India is a place that provides a good support system with extended families or nannies and one should leverage that. For any startup there are two important aspects – first to ensure that the business has a financially viable model and two, that you are building it for scale and sustainability. Not all businesses will start making money from year one but eventually the goal should be to figure out how to become profitable while scaling exponentially.

Prakash: With the growing awareness of mental and overall wellbeing, what message would you like to share?

Shankar: Everyone should spend an hour everyday doing what they love. I am a fitness enthusiast and I exercise almost every day because it brings a lot of clarity to me and makes me feel good. Doing something that makes you feel good every day definitely uplifts your mental well-being. Sleep well and eat right. Sometimes sleep is underrated but I think the key to leading a healthy life is to get a proper night’s sleep of seven to eight hours. Break up with SAM (sugar, alcohol, maida), and try to eat well. I personally believe you feel better when you eat better. Do whatever makes you feel energized and alive, be it dance, yoga, exercise, etc. because this much we owe to ourselves.   

Prakash: Beyond work, what are your other pursuits and how do you manage them with your busy schedule?

Shankar: Outside work, I like to write a lot. At some point I used to write articles for various journals and newspapers. Now I don’t find much time do so, but it is still a passion. I love jotting down my thoughts on trends, opportunities of the various verticals I oversee. I write a lot for myself, too. I enjoy speaking and conversing on various platforms. I have started training for triathlons where I swim, run, and cycle, and this has become my current obsession. 

About Nirupa Shankar

Nirupa Shankar is Executive Director at Brigade Enterprises, Ltd., where she oversees the company’s hospitality, office, and retail ventures. She also manages human resources, public relations, and innovation functions for the group.

Shankar has been the recipient of multiple prestigious accolades, including The Face Of The Future, Construction Woman Of The Year, Woman CXO Of The Year, Entrepreneur Of The Year, Young Entrepreneur Of The Year, Restaurant Owner Of The Year, and Rising Star Of The Year. Prior to joining Brigade, she spent time working in New York City, Washington, D.C., and North Carolina. She studied at the University of Virginia and Cornell University.

About Ashwini Prakash

Ashwini Prakash is a Managing Partner for Stanton Chase India. She has over 18 years of experience in executive search and consulting, and specializes in the consumer products, retail, and life sciences and healthcare sectors. She is also Stanton Chase’s Regional Practice Leader Life Sciences and Healthcare. 

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