Self-help, management and business books can make for cumbersome reading. They either end up as preachy, convey a do-it-my-way mantra to achieve success or can be riddled with jargon, which may put off the lay reader. Worse, they can contain a self-congratulatory commentary on the part of the author.
To his credit, KV Subramaniam does not go down this route. His recently published book — Taking Wings and Winning — is a brief memoir about his journey through building Reliance Life Sciences, the research-driven biotechnology arm of the Mukesh Ambani-helmed Reliance Industries Limited.
Big business conglomerates are constantly on the lookout for new domains to invest their resources in, and thus expand their footprint. So in November 2001, when Ambani had an intuition of developing biotechnology as a new business opportunity of the 21st century, he entrusted the responsibility to Subramaniam.
Subramaniam was an old Reliance hand by then, having joined their corporate business development in 1994. He does wear the ‘Reliance way’ of running a business proudly on his sleeve. However, he doesn’t let this 22-year long association colour his opinions in the book.
He is candid about important decisions that top Reliance management never took, and of the situations that crop up in the day-to-day running of a company. But he is always honest, unbiased and does not wash any dirty linen in public. In today’s day and age, these could be considered rare qualities to expect from people in positions of power.
It also is not often that people in the limelight share painful personal experiences. Subramaniam begins the book by narrating what must have been an incredibly difficult time for his family: A freak accident on the football field put his talented younger brother in a coma for five years, after which he passed away. A couple of months later, Subramaniam’s father also succumbed to an ailment — or the heartbreak caused by his son’s demise. A little later in the book (and in Subramaniam’s life), he too has a life-threatening accident while recuperating from a surgery. Dealing with such delicate situations, Subramaniam comes across as a strong and practical personality. He doesn’t let his work be hampered and in fact seems to take refuge in it as a way of dealing with the trauma he may have been going through. One also senses how these heartrending situations possibly moulded his socially conscious approach to the work of Reliance Life Sciences.
The book offers a snapshot of how Subramaniam nurtured RLS from its inception, the challenges (both internal and external) the company has faced along the way, the highs and lows, and ultimately its positive growth — which is the bottomline — for any business enterprise. Today it stands as a profit making company with capabilities of making its own investments and one which is an important part of India’s life science sector. Subramaniam, being the leader, is passionately at the heart of every step the company takes. He sees its transition from where even senior members of other Reliance companies wouldn’t take RLS seriously (and their own employees leaving for seemingly greener pastures due to their doubts about the future of RLS) to a stage where the company becomes a market leader in the stem cell research domain and establishes a thriving campus in newly developed areas of Greater Mumbai.
So if the chapters in the book have common business words like ‘development’, ‘momentum’ and ‘principles’, there are also uncharacteristic titles with reference to our larger society like ‘social purpose’, ‘cultivating character’, ‘fending for oneself’ and ‘letting go’. Thus Subramaniam not only comments on the business side of developments in the company but also shares his thoughts on developing a subculture within the larger Reliance umbrella by harnessing a pleasant working environment and highly competent staff. He also is very interested in the moral and ethical principles which he sets himself, and expects his staff to demonstrate.
While dealing with integrity of his colleagues, when Subramaniam found lapses made even by some highly placed colleagues, he never had any hesitation in showing them the door. Once, when the matter of a senior scientist having forged his degrees came to light, Subramaniam asked him to leave. Another time, a newly recruited manager in a senior position was found to have swindled the company of close to US $ 2 million. This caused much stress within the company. The matter was brought to the attention of Mukesh Ambani. Due to Subramaniam and his colleagues’ persistence, the money was eventually recovered. Although they did lodge a police complaint, Subramaniam — in the larger interest of the company — decided against exposing the individual in the press. Ambani also concurred with his decision.
Instances like these indicate that Subramaniam is keenly aware that to take the company forward, a working team should keep the best interests of the customer and the organisation at heart. It conjures a picture of what he is like, as a leader.
If this book is targeted at future leaders of an industry, they should not expect a strong blueprint for running a business. What they will get, is a strong narrative on how to conduct themselves as leaders. For an ambitious entrepreneur, the book might have been more useful had Subramaniam not scattered his ideas and experiences, discussing them fleetingly, but only covered a handful of them in greater detail.
Taking Wings and Winning serves as a reminder of the journey RLS, and Subramaniam, have undertaken thus far. For a man with no background in life sciences (he graduated as a chemical engineer), to have steered the company from its inception to the greatest of heights is indeed commendable.
Taking Wings and Winning by KV Subramaniam; Pages: 248; Price: Rs 434 (hardcover), Rs 73 (Kindle edition)
Published Date: Dec 25, 2016 09:16 AM | Updated Date: Dec 25, 2016 09:16 AM