The dream to create a consulting company spurred from his drive to make India the center for learning by creating a think tank
The stories he heard from his parents, of India once producing 70 percent of the world’s GDP and of being the center of wealth and learning for the world, inspired Anil Sachdev at a young age. As a college student, he dreamt of India once again becoming a very strong economic and spiritual power and wanted to contribute to that. Through his journey from Tatas and Eicher, to the creation of SOIL (School of Inspired Leadership), Anil has always followed a cause which consistently provided the energy to make the impossible, possible.
The dream to create a consulting company spurred from the same drive to make India the center for learning by creating a think tank. He wanted to create a consulting company that would transform the Indian industry and remove the stigma of the words ‘made in India’ being synonymous with ‘poor quality and work ethics’. Having grown up seeing very strong values in his father and their spiritual teacher’s work, he believed in the possibility to build something that is world-class.
Things moved very fast for Anil and at a very young age; he was able to experience working in India’s largest manufacturing set-up. Soon after completing his MBA from the University of Pune, he landed himself a job in the HR department of Tata Motors (called Telco then). At 21 years of age, he was in-charge of campus recruitment at the IITs, and was given independent charge of two divisions (2500 employees) of Telco when he was only 22 – the research center and the machine tools division. While Telco entrusted young people with a lot of responsibilities, Anil felt the need to be in a company where he could influence policies. So, in his search to join a smaller company, he discovered Eicher and was attracted by the values of ethics and compassion of its founder – Vikram Lal.
In 1978, at a mere age of 23, Anil joined Eicher as Head of Corporate HR. The clarity of his personal vision is startling in the way he defined his 10 year plans for every agenda that Anil took on thereafter. In his interview with Vikram Lal, he shared his dream to create a think tank and a consulting company, but committed to serve the vision of Eicher for the next 10 years. It was an exciting 10 years at Eicher, where Anil got a chance to define India’s best example of HR excellence which till today stands as a point of reference for all HR enthusiasts. Along with the HR experience, he was also in charge of running a factory of 1100 people at 27 years of age, which gave him the experience of managing operations. After working in operations for 3.5 years, he joined the management team at Eicher. The growth was quick, and the 10-year stint allowed Anil enough time to introduce new policies and test their sustainability, and by the time he was 35, he was ready to set up the consulting company and think tank.
While his plan was to step out at the end of the 10 years to start the new venture, Eicher had other plans. Anil’s commitment over the 10 years and the potential of his idea of doing good, led Eicher to invest in the idea. So, along with 3 others, Anil started Eicher Consultancy Services in 1991 as a separate business under the Eicher umbrella. Thus, Eicher was the first investor in the business. And interestingly, while Anil was the founder of the business, he had no shareholding, since back then, Eicher did not have the option of offering equity to its employees.
ECS had its own independent Board comprising 2 members from Eicher and others friends of Eicher such as Dr. Pranoy Roy of NDTV, Sudhir Kakkar and S. Sandilya, the current Chairman of Eicher and the President of the Automotive Industry. The team moved to a smaller office across the street from the Eicher headquarters, and with limited resources, the first few months were difficult like any other start-up. With no generating sets, whenever the electricity went while a client was in office, they would borrow the Eicher conference room for an hour. Anil’s strength has been the team he chose and he had a keen eye for talent. Many of those who started with him at Eicher are now partners with global companies.
The association with Eicher, a company that had won many national awards for its HR activities and policies, and Anil’s active participation at the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), were instrumental in getting the first few clients for ECS. Dr. Kewal Nohria, the then Chairman of Crompton Greaves who had called Anil to speak to his leadership team, became the first client. Similarly, The Indian Aluminum Company was the second customer. The industry was aware of the excellent work done at Eicher through the ‘one day a month program’, when outsiders were encouraged to visit and experience the Eicher way. A delegation from the Japanese Federation of Employers had visited Eicher in 1988, curious to learn why Eicher was the only company in North India, which for 30 years, did not have a single day of labor trouble. So, this reputation helped ECS attract the right customers.
Initially, ECS did public workshops and offered training programs to sustain, until the first couple of major assignments came in and then there was no looking back. ECS started on April 2, 1991, got its first cheque early May of 1991, and did revenue of about 50 lakh in its first year. Being a management consulting company, along with HR being a part of the offering, they also did work in quality, Six Sigma, operations and even strategy consulting. ECS was a unique company that had an unusual vision of ‘India’s economic development without spiritual impoverishment’. This meant helping clients to create wealth by creating a sense of community at the workplace and using means that were ethical and mindful of using the resources of mother nature in efficient ways.
While ECS was owned by Eicher and Anil had no equity stake in the company, he was happy to be able to see his idea unfold into reality and making a difference in so many companies. ECS had a modest growth in the first 5 years in keeping with the parent company, and grew from 5 employees to 50. ECS was the first to bring in many global players in the consulting space through its joint ventures, such as AT Kearny, until Kearney got acquired by EDS, and later SDG, a California based company which gave them a chance to work with professors from Stanford. The similarity in values in SDG and ECS led to a fulfilling experience of working together and the synergy convinced Anil once again that he would be able to step down as CEO after completing 10 years as the Founder. And exactly after finishing 10 years on March 31, 2001, Anil stepped out on April 1, just when ECS was making revenues to the tune of 20 crores and had a team of around 100 people. In the process, it had become the largest Indian management consulting firm of its times.
With the new focus to invest on the development of human talent, Anil initiated his second entrepreneurial venture – Grow Talent in 2001. His relationships with his clients and partners have always been paramount through the journey and once again he was able to get the required support when he began Grow Talent. At 45 years, Anil decided to invest his retirement funds of about 45 lakhs into the equity of Grow Talent, and found his initial investors in Dr. Kewal Nohria, Analjit Singh, Founder & Chairman, Max India and Yogesh Andlay, MD, Nucleus Software Engineers, who together raised the initial funding of 2.5 crores for Grow Talent.
From the beginning, the Grow Talent revenue sharing model was defined as 10% of gross profits to support the work of the poorest of the poor in the Chinmaya Organization of Rural Development, and from the remaining 90 percent - 1/3rd is given as bonuses to employees, 1/3rd for investment back into the company and 1/3rd is available to shareholders. Being the majority shareholder, Anil took sweat equity and a modest salary in the first couple of years, and decided to plough back the money to grow the business.
The first employees were people who were known to him, but as a principle, Anil never poached from his previous company. Many who had left ECS and joined elsewhere, came back to join him. Grow Talent found itself hiring at the MDI campus when they were very young and on the very first day, they got a day zero ranking at MDI and recruited two of their brightest students.
Operating from the basement of his house, Grow Talent did 2.4 crores of revenue in the first year, and in 5 years, Grow Talent grew to the same size as ECS (revenue of 20 crores) when Anil stepped down and had about 100 employees. And as habitual with Anil, he once again jumped on to the next milestone of his life – to chase his dream of setting up a leadership school on the five pillars of inspired leadership including ethics, mindfulness, compassion, sustainability and diversity – School of Inspired Leadership, SOIL as we all know it today. In the meanwhile, Grow Talent had initiated a small education vertical and began working with the University of North Carolina on global educational programs and executive education. Grow Talent hired the former Dean of Executive Education of ISB, Shyam Vishwanathan who joined as the CEO of the education division, and they even launched a global executive education program called ‘Global Leadership Program’.
While that was a small start, Anil was aware that a venture like SOIL would be capital intensive but was not happy with the kind of investors who showed interest in the project. This led to splitting the company into two – the consulting business and the education division. Grow Talent sold the consulting division to Right Management, and the money was then used as seed capital for SOIL. So once again, Anil Sachdev, chose to let go of yet another flourishing business to start at ground zero – with new plans, new employees and a new agenda. While the initial 2 years were spent on building the institution alone, SOIL does undertake consulting assignments now, which form 20 percent of the total business and 80 percent being education.
Once again, Anil drew his strength from his clients through ECS and Grow Talent, and is proud to share that it has been these happy relationships with clients that has been a differentiator, and he believes this to be critical in the success of any entrepreneur. With its third batch running, SOIL has taken off well and the part-time program for emerging leaders introduced recently is doing very well. His clients and partners from the various JVs have today partnered with SOIL in some way or the other, either in terms of assignments and projects, or joint research. SOIL is unique as it has been co-created by a consortium of 32 companies - most being clients that Anil has worked with for many years. These include Tata Steel, Hindustan Unilever, Mahindra, etc.
Clearly, Anil’s story has always been associated with doing something to follow a cause. While Eicher, when he joined, was a company with the smallest assets, it had a great vision and a great leader who lived that vision. And that helped the company emerge as a significant leader despite its modest resources. In ECS, Anil and his team merely followed the power of an idea of encouraging India’s economic development without spiritual impoverishment, and were able to create a successful consulting company with no prior experience in consulting. Similarly, Grow Talent grew following the idea of helping people to realize their full potential, and today SOIL seeks to build inspired leaders who will care for the planet. So, with each new venture, he took a step closer to his childhood dream of doing his bit to make India a center of knowledge once again.
While most entrepreneurial ventures’ success has been gauged against the revenue size of the business, Anil chose to maximize the number of people’s lives he has been able to make a difference to. In ECS, they built the capacity for large number of companies, in Grow Talent, they touched the lives of a large number of people, and in SOIL, they are dedicated to building a new breed of leaders. While there may be models that have worked for many entrepreneurs, Anil believes in the need to fall in love with a cause, to create the right fulcrum for a successful business. It is the power of the cause that attracts the support of people from everywhere – partners, investors, employees and customers.
While SOIL is a long term dream, for the man who always challenged the status quo, and decided to move on every time things seemed settled, he most certainly has his 10 year plan here as well. At 57, Anil has already planned to step down from the position of executive management and have someone else take over as CEO by the time he turns 63. And why, you may ask? Is this his retirement plan finally? Most certainly not, for the script for what lies ahead is already in the making. Anil is increasingly beginning to spend more time on national service, and working very closely with the Planning Commission where he is facilitating the plan to help India plan its development vision. Just as the interview drew to a close, Anil shared an instance of his first interview by Arun Maira (now Member of the Planning Commission) at Tata Motors, “In my interview, I had told him that by the time I am in my 50s, I will enter the field of education, also do some advisory work for the government and one day work for the Planning Commission.” So the script, it seems, was written all along.