Nothing escapes Shanmugam Balakumar’s attention. From choosing a talented staff member to be Master of Ceremonies at a prestigious event, to promoting an office boy to timekeeper with a substantial pay rise, the director of HR Solutions at Dulsco – whose operations span everything from marine services, waste management services to providing manpower solutions – makes sure he sees it all. “We’re constantly scouting for talent among the workers who are then trained and promoted,’’ he says. “In fact, every year around 100 workers are promoted with higher salaries.’’
Balakumar, 46, and his 100-plus-strong team keep a close eye on the progress of more than 6,000 staff to see if they can unearth a gem to promote or move around the organisation. Hundreds have benefitted from Dulsco’s policy, which has helped them to rise up the career ladder swiftly. It’s little wonder then that Dulsco was named as one of the top ten great places to work in the UAE for the second consecutive time in February this year by UAE’s Great Place to Work Institute. “Communication is crucial at the workplace,’’ says Balakumar. “Most of the top management here have open offices, making it easy for any employee to walk in and meet us to resolve their problems.”
In a career spanning 25 years – nine of them with Dulsco – he has learnt the merits of lending a patient ear to his employees, which is why he can often be seen having a cup of tea with a forklift operator or celebrating the birthday of a staff member. “A large number of our workers are expats who don’t live with their families – a factor that could lead to stress,” he explains. “To help them we organise regular programmes such as parties, workshops and team building exercises so they can de-stress as well as improve their skills.”
With a genuine passion for finding and retaining talent, he has introduced several innovative programmes at Dulsco. These include a talent management programme for employees, induction workshops for new recruits, skill development training programmes and getting members of Toastmasters International [an organisation that trains people in the art of public speaking] to conduct workshops for blue-collar workers to boost their self-confidence. In corporate circles Balakumar is well known as the man behind the hugely popular Dulsco Classic Golf Tournament.
The annual event provides an open platform for the country’s top decision makers to exhibit their sporting talent on the golf course. A professionally trained musician, when not teeing off on the greens Balakumar likes to play the Indian percussion instrument mridangam and counts self-help guru Robin Sharma – author of The Monk who Sold his Ferarri – as one of his good friends. He shares his work ideology, golfing pursuits and dreams with Friday:
After graduating in business management, I joined the sales team of CMC computers, Tamil Nadu, in Southern India. I was there for four years before I got an offer to join Dubai Wire, a steel products company. As vice-president marketing I landed some major deals and was known for working hard and encouraging the junior staff to do their best. On my last day at work before I moved to Dulsco a group of new engineers, who had trained under me, gave me a card that read ‘to the world’s best teacher’. It was one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. I still have that card and have told my wife that when I leave this world that card goes with me.
When I joined Dulsco in 2003, one of the key areas I concentrated on was on creating a better work and living environment for staff. I introduced a talent management programme for both skilled and unskilled workers. Through this programme we train blue-collar workers to rise up to leadership roles in the company. In fact Dulsco was chosen as one of the best places to work on the basis of an assessment on the level of credibility, respect, fairness, pride and camaraderie within the organisation through an employee survey as well as through a cultural audit of the organisation by the Great Place to Work institute.
Along with other factors, the institute takes into account the best practices implemented by companies for ensuring effective employee welfare. Dulsco has won several accolades in this sphere including one from the Dubai Municipality, which has recognised our staff accommodation as one of the best in the region. We also have a language trainer who helps blue collar workers who don’t know English learn the language. Toastmasters workshops have greatly helped in this aspect. Some of the employees who participated in toastmasters meetings even take on roles of Master of Ceremonies at our staff evenings.
In fact at the Omega Dubai Ladies Masters event last year, I was amazed at the ease with which some of our workers, who were doubling as chauffeurs, were interacting with sporting legends including golf champions Michelle Wie and Laura Davies, thanks to training they received at the toastmasters sessions. There is also great emphasis on sports and you will find sporting arenas as perfect ice breakers between workers and senior managers. The staff are encouraged to participate in games such as cricket, football, softball, among others, which are all about teamwork as well as individual performances.
A calendar of activities – sports, training, welfare initiatives, cultural days – throughout the year ensures that our team-players remain physically and mentally fit. While we also take great care to ensure that the work we do is perfect, we are constantly looking for opportunities to celebrate. The key to my success? The freedom I’ve been given by the top management to bring about changes in the system. For instance, we do not have attendance registers in the office because I am a huge believer in promoting flexible working hours. I am happy if the work is done to the best standards in the prescribed time.
I believe greatly in management guru Ricardo Semler’s innovative employee-centric management style that prioritises workers’ satisfaction over profits. My other favourites are author Malcolm Gladwell and leadership expert Robin Sharma, who is a good friend. I met Robin in 2006 when he came to Dubai for an event. I admire the way he connects with people. Like him, I believe in communicating with everyone. I learnt from Robin to lead by example and leave a legacy.
Some of my legacies at Dulsco include the Human Resource Outsourcing (HRO) Business Unit (earlier we were only into outsourcing of blue collar workers but I initiated the outsourcing of white collar workers), setting up of our Ras Al Khaimah branch office and the Dulsco Classic. Another important lesson I learnt from him is to live life for today. So each day I live to the fullest, get the most out of each moment and enjoy my day without worrying about what tomorrow brings.
I became interested in golf in 2001 and took lessons at the Nad al Sheba golf course. Inspired by the strong sporting culture at Dulsco, I envisioned an event to bring together corporate heads to network and bond outside the boardrooms. The first Dulsco Classic Golf Tournament teed off in 2004. It received such an overwhelming response from the business community in the UAE that it is today a much-awaited calendar event. Held every year in February, the Dulsco Classic brings together more than 80 amateur golfers in a healthy competition for group and individual prizes.
This year was extra special for me as my son Aryan Kumar, 12, was adjudged the best player in division B category (handicap higher than 14). These days I am happy being a daddy caddy. Aryan became interested in golf when he was five. Three years ago he beat me, making it my proudest moment. My daughter Nikita, 18, on the other hand has her eyes set on a corporate career and is studying for a Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of Wollongong in Dubai. Sunita, my wife, works with the United Nations in Dubai. Both of us like to maintain a work life balance. Evenings are usually spent training with Aryan on the golf course.
Weekends we love going to the cinema. I am a big fan of Bollywood actor Aamir Khan and can see reruns of Dil Chahta Hai (a hugely popular Bollywood movie) any number of times. I learnt to play the mridangam – a percussion instrument – when I was young. By the time I was 15 I was able to play at concerts and events, happily earning some pocket money. I lost my father Shanmugham when I was 21 and my mother Hema when I was 33 but their teachings have shaped me to be the man I am today. My dad always told us no matter how high you rise up in life your feet should be firmly on ground.
Like all fathers, my most cherished dream is to see my children happy with the paths they choose to pursue. My daughter wants to be an HR professional and my son has set his sights on a sporting career as a golfer. I pray that they get success in their respective fields. Sourcing manpower from the subcontinent is not an easy task. In the future I plan to initiate a project at Dulsco through which we contact local non-governmental organisations in different parts of the subcontinent. Our representative will spend two weeks in several small towns and villages, procure local talent through these charities, train them in the requisite skills and get them employed in the UAE.
But my heart is really set on a programme to help underprivileged children in India to get education and to help them meet their basic needs. That would be the dream I would choose to follow until the last days of my life.