Life & Style | People

K Rajaram: I live every day like it’s my last

He heads the world’s largest Porsche dealership that employs more than 1,000 staff, but K Rajaram, CEO of Al Nabooda Automoblies, doesn’t believe in cruising. He tells Friday’s Suchitra Bajpai Chaudhary why he is still driven to chase even greater success

  • By Suchitra Bajpai Chaudhary
  • Published: 15:35 June 24, 2013
  • Friday

K Rajaram
  • Image Credit: Grace Paras/ANM
  • K Rajaram, CEO of Al Naboodah Automobiles.
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Gleaming, sleek, and reassuringly expensive, the latest Audi, Porsche and Volkswagen models stand, sparkling, in the showrooms of Al Nabooda Automobiles. But ask its CEO Kunjithapadam Rajaram what the most valuable asset in his company is, and he’ll say it’s his 1,000-strong staff, many of whom have been with the company since it was set up 36 years ago. “What I really value are, without doubt, the people in my organisation,’’ says the 57-year-old. “It’s because of them that the company has managed to move forward so fast and so far.”

A true people’s person, for Rajaram, the well-being of every member of his team – be it the general manager or the man washing cars in his showroom – matters. And he is a stickler for justice and fair play too. That’s why ten years ago, when he was working out a medical insurance scheme for the employees, he made sure that everyone got the same deal. “When illness strikes it does not discriminate on the basis of class or title and, therefore, the office boy in my organisation has the same medical insurance as the general manager.

Any staff member can walk into the same hospital facility irrespective of his designation.” He also encourages an open-door policy where any member of staff can go into his office at any time. “They come to me not just with problems, but even to share something joyful that’s happened,’’ he says. These policies have had a huge impact on the morale of his team, which in turn is reflected in the company’s growing profile.

It sold around 300 cars a year three decades ago, and now it sells 700-800 cars a month. In fact, the demand for certain brands is so high that the waiting list to buy a Porsche Cayenne – with a basic price tag of Dh252,900 – can be up to a year. But Rajaram knows that all work and no play is bad for business.

A great example of this ethos in action is when he actually shut down the entire company for a day last year, so that his staff could take part in a team-building exercise, creating a 100-metre eco-friendly bridge for an imaginary turtle island project. A metallurgical engineer with a masters in business administration, here, Rajaram shares his work ethic, life and dreams with Friday.

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Success, I believe, is about being at the right place at the right time, doing the right thing and having a modicum of luck. After graduating as a metallurgical engineer from the Regional Engineering College Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu, I returned to Mumbai – where my parents were based – to earn my MBA. I then got a job with Garware Shipping and was posted to Oman in 1977. They were expanding into car rentals, and it turned out that our partner was also the dealer for Volkswagen and Audi cars. He asked me to run his dealership.

Always looking for challenges, I joined him, and remained there until 1996. Once I was happy that the company was doing well, I decided to quit and return to India.
However, I had a stopover in Dubai, and while at a party with some friends, I had the opportunity to meet Khalid Khalifa Al Nabooda, chairman of Al Nabooda Automobiles’ parent company, Khalifa Juma Al Nabooda Group. He asked me to change my plans, stay back for a while and work with his organisation.

I agreed, and now, 15 years later, I can say I am very fortunate to have met some of the finest people in this part of the world, the Al Nabooda family. They are my
mentors. Empathy and an open-door policy is the cornerstone of the company’s philosophy. Any employee in the organisation is free to walk into the chairman’s room without an appointment. I have great faith in my team, and keeping their morale high is a very important aspect of the work culture here. I want every member of staff to come here because he or she loves coming to this job.

One of the primary assets in this organisation is human capital. We do not discriminate on the basis of colour, creed or race. If you have merit and qualify for a job, you will get the salary that is meant for your grade. Another sacred aspect of our philosophy here is the special attention we pay to customer care. Most of our clients are repeat customers, and we go out of our way to please them, even if it means an extra cost to the company.

For instance, if a customer is unhappy with a car and wishes to exchange it, we endeavour to do our best to respect his wishes, even if it means some financial contribution from our side. Our brands are iconic and we are in the business of exclusivity. If a customer walks into our showroom, I always tell my employees the exclusivity of the brand has to be portrayed and the customer must be made to feel special. This has become our strength, and we are now reaping rich dividends.

As the CEO of the company, I am happy to see the organisation grow from strength to strength. I believe the true mark of a leader is to delegate work and trust the employees – let people get along with their jobs and do not breathe down their neck. In the time I have worked here, I think that I’ve changed the way we think. When I joined I decided to change everything, from the colour of the walls to the way we worked.

I imbibed the tenets of optimism and action in everyone. I looked at my staff as one big team, and our goal was to act and move ahead, instead of looking at a problem and stressing about it. One of the simple lessons I taught my managers was how to avoid panic. For instance, if you’re sitting on a cache of more than 700 cars, there are only two things you can do – either get depressed and panic, or get on your feet and start selling. This easy lesson has helped, I guess, because from a small showroom in Garhoud, we have expanded to more than 14 showrooms and continue investing in state of the art facilities for our brands.

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I have fond memories of my life in Mumbai, which is where I grew up. My father Sitaram Kunjithapadam, who was the managing director of a multinational pharmaceutical company, and my mother Sulochana, gave us a very secure and happy childhood. My father has passed away, but my mother, who is now 78, lives in Chennai and I make a point of going there to visit her as often as I can.

One of the most dramatic points of my life occurred when I was just 12 and my father was involved in a serious automobile accident that resulted in him having to stay in hospital for a year and half. The responsibility of looking after my brother Murali, who is nine years younger than me, fell squarely on my shoulders, as my mother had to spend long hours at the hospital with my father. That period taught me to be caring and responsible from early on in life, and it also brought me very close to my younger brother, who now works and lives in San Francisco.

The second turning point in my life came with the sudden death of my first wife Sandhya. I was happy and then suddenly, one night in 1994, she passed away, suffering a cardiac arrest in her sleep. It was devastating for me and my son Aditya, who was 11 at the time. Since this experience, I live every day like it’s my last.  Life has its roller coasters, and no matter what, we have to go through what we are destined for. Work and destiny brought me from India to Muscat, Oman, and later to the UAE.

I immersed myself in work, but my mother took it upon herself to find me a wife. Aditya met Radhika, who is also from Chennai, and liked her, so he then arranged for me to meet her, and today we are a strong family. My son recently married his college sweetheart Sena. He works for an established international business in Dubai, and has moved to his own apartment, but we are still very close as a family.

I must have been destined to tinker in automobiles, as I’ve had a passion for motorbikes ever since I can remember. When I was growing up in Mumbai, motorcycles were the most affordable form of individual transport, and one could save and easily own a cheap second-hand motorcycle. I got my first bike when I was studying at St Xavier’s College in Mumbai. It was a Java – a beat-up, fifth-hand machine, but I loved it dearly.

The passion never faded, and as I grew older it became stronger. At one point I owned nine motorbikes, and until about a year ago, I would ride a different bike every weekend with my friends. But with age, my reflexes have slowed down and now I keep only three bikes that I am really sentimental about – a Honda Valkyrie Rune that my wife Radhika presented to me on my 50th birthday, a Harley-Davidson Fatboy that I completely deconstructed and built as per my own specifications, and a BMW bike that I love for its speed and style. Aditya shares my passion for bikes, and until last year, Radhika, Aditya and I would go for motorcycle trips, riding for hours as a family.

Dream

I must have dreamt about automobiles when I was a child, as I have given more than three decades of my life to this industry. Being a part of Al Nabooda really has been a dream come true for me. My dream is for my company to be the best, the largest and the biggest. In some ways we already are. Al Nabooda is the world’s biggest Porsche dealer, we will have the world’s largest terminal-style Audi showroom on Shaikh Zayed Road, functional this year, and the Porsche showroom close to it will be functional next year.

Before the end of the year, the organisation will start operations from a new Dh85.5 million combined multi-brand facility in Fujairah, comprising individual Porsche, Audi and Volkswagen showrooms, and a combined after sales centre for the three brands.
I dream in superlatives, as I think that the most important thing one needs to build an organisation is a fantastic infrastructure. These things last forever.

As for my personal life, I am blessed with a lovely wife, a wonderful son and now a beautiful daughter-in-law. I try to take at least three holidays with the family every year. Radhika shares my love for travelling, and she accompanies me on my business trips as well, so I’m a very lucky man.

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