The Indian Optician, August, 2009
In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.
— Eleanor Roosevelt
This is a short story that dates back to the 1960s but the wisdom expressed by the principal lead is very much relevant in today’s fast-moving world.
Not even two full decades had passed since India’s exciting independence and the traumatic partition, which resulted in a state of affairs wherein positive and negative aspects occurred together, just like two sides of the same coin, as happens so often in life.
We were staying in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar area. Kundan Sahib ran a small bakery shop, called Kundan Bakery, in the local market.
In 1947, the then very young Kundan Lal Sahni had migrated to Delhi with his family, leaving all material possessions behind in Lahore, where the family had seen great times and plenty of wealth. Armed with perseverance, capability and willingness to work hard, he landed in Delhi as a ‘refugee’ and set up a bakery shop – not a simple task during those trying times – but the ingenious Kundan Sahib took his work seriously and as a reward for good service and honesty, gradually, step by step, the volume of business increased and people flocked to his store to enjoy his delicious fare.
I still recall how as kids we often used to go to Kundan Uncle’s (that is how all the neighbourhood kids called him) bakery to buy bread, cakes etc. It was always a pleasure to go there, whether in a group or alone, as Kundan Uncle always had a kind word, a joke or a sweet for everyone. We used to play pranks with him and he enjoyed with us. He was like a family member to all of us. When adults went to buy something at the bakery, they and Kundan Sahib would have discussions on all sorts of issues – politics, Nehru, Raj Kapoor – anything. Kundan Uncle used to know what each of his customers liked. “Mrs. Mehta, I have this fresh bread that came in just now, the type Mr. Mehta likes. Should I pack this also?” or “Mr. Sood, it is your son’s birthday next week. Shall I bake that special cake he likes?” The best part was that throughout the day one could enjoy the fresh and tasty products. Personal requests regarding different kinds of products were also easily taken care of and we could not even dream of ever going to another bakery. Kundan Uncle was a part of the ‘ecosystem’ there and an integral part of our daily lives !!
Years went by. Our family moved to West Delhi. I went out to study and then for work to various cities. We stayed in touch with Kundan Uncle though – sometimes through telephone calls and occasionally, visiting his shop to share a cup of tea while passing by that area. It used to be about a once a year contact. His son’s Rajeev and Manoj were of the same age as me. We had played together as kids. Kundan Bakery continued to flourish. Clientele grew and a very loyal clientele at that !! Customers still would not go anywhere else for their bakery needs. Rajeev and Manoj also joined the family business. They opened more shops : one to start with, then two, three, four and five, in nearby localities of South Delhi. Kundan Sahib and his sons learnt to manage the business, shuttling between shops. They continued to have one central bakery where everything was baked and then distributed to different locations in the city.
Two years ago, I got a surprise call from Kundan Sahib. “Son, you have a management degree and have worked in big companies. I need to talk to you about our business. Can you come over?” he asked. “Sure”, I immediately agreed. We fixed a time to meet at his shop – the first one. I reached there at the time agreed. Rajeev and Manoj were also there. After some pleasantries and a cup of tea with the usual cakes, Kundan Sahib, now in his mid-seventies, said “Son, business has been going well. We have expanded and now have five shops. Rajeev and Manoj have been managing the business with me. Their children are also growing up. Lately, our family discussions have centred around finding a future direction for our business and we thought we should take your views also.” Manoj, the younger one, added “A few years back, a national company called Montana Bakery, started opening bakery shops all over the country. Montana has opened thirty shops all over Delhi, out of which fifteen are in South Delhi. They offer a wide range of bakery products : cakes, pastries, breads etc. Montana has a huge central bakery and distribute products twice a day, through temperature controlled vehicles. Our business is doing well, but Rajeev and I are worried that we may start loosing out to Montana going forward. We are telling Papa that we should look at some other businesses and reduce our risk, otherwise Montana could take away our business. It is a big brand. How can we match them? What do you suggest?”
“Kundan Uncle,” I said, “you have seen life. You have a lot more experience than all of us. While I may have an opinion on this, what is your suggestion?”
Kundan Sahib : “Son, I started this business from nothing and with nothing in hand. Over the years, I nurtured it and worked hard. I have tried my best to keep my customers happy. I have personally interacted with them, and by God’s grace, Kundan Bakery is a much respected name today. I am proud that my children Rajeev and Manoj continue to follow my tradition. Now, my grand children have also started getting involved in this business and I am happy to share the knowledge gained through my personal experience, with them. I am aware that Montana has brought in new technologies and business practices and that this has made them more effective in today’s business world. They are fully equipped to meet the changing needs and requirements of customers; they have hired professionals to look at logistics, marketing, selling techniques, human resources, customer care etc. But although we may not have all the resources that Montana has, we do know a lot about our customers. My suggestion is that perhaps we should look at upgrading our processes, that is, the way we do business. This would mean a new way of approaching marketing, technology, inventory management, customer service skills, our people and hence our business outlook, while building on our customer relationships. This will make us more efficient, profitable and competitive enough to not only survive, but to come out stronger in the coming days. We have to upgrade and look at new ways of doing business in these new circumstances. Son, I have seen tougher times and I have always learnt new ways of doing business with changing times. That is what made me successful in my life”.
I was amazed at the way this man in his seventies looked at situations and circumstances !! He was willing to ‘relearn’ and change even at this age. I was reminded of a well-known personality, who, I am told, in his late eighties used to start a discussion with, “Twenty years from now …..” . He was always living in the current context with a dream for the future !! Nobody grows old merely by living a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals”.
Kundan Sahib concluded by saying “A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t. You cannot change your destination overnight, but you can change your direction overnight. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. The mind moves in the direction of our currently dominant thoughts.”
I was immediately reminded of a popular saying, “There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction”.
I thought to myself, “What advice can I give this man?”
“Kundan Uncle, you are very wise indeed, and have truly understood the situation. You have obviously given a great deal of thought to this impending threat but I am sure your way of tackling this problem is probably the best option and I am sure, your business will emerge stronger and more competitive going forward. Efforts at brand building, newer techniques in logistics and inventory management, investing in employee development and customer service, so that your employees take care of customers as well as you did ….. are things that will definitely pay dividends ”, I declared after much consideration. After all, as another time-honoured maxim goes, “Luck is the by product of Continuous Improvement”, I reflected.
Note : This is a true story. Names and some facts have been modified for reasons of confidentiality.
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