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Lady-at-arms

Aug 23 2012, 19:35   |   By Entrepreneur

By Shonali Advani 

The young G Sree Vidhya had one aim in life. To be a cop. But like you probably know, there are only a rare few who manage to be the person they wished to be as a child. Vidhya might not have made it, but she came pretty close in essence and much better in ground reality with her dream. As Chairperson and Managing Director of Chennai-based Ravindra Services Pvt Ltd. (RSPL) Group, Vidhya is now making a serious dent in the security and facilities management space. Starting from 2010, RSPL as been in the business of supplying security guards, managing facilities and offering temporary staffing solutions to corporates.

An accidental start

Her foray into the space was incidental, when she was handed over a small company providing labor to households-Dialtone Hotline Services in 1990-started by friend and mentor Ravindra Padmanabhan. The company has evolved into its current day avatar of RSPL clocking in Rs. 27 crore in turnover in the last fiscal.

Today, her client portfolio boasts of large corporate names, some of whom have been in long-term contracts, like Chennai-based IT infrastructure firm Elnet Technologies. RSPL has been their vendor of choice for six years, providing 40 people on shifts to manage their premises of 2.25 lakh square feet. "Housekeeping requires continuous maintenance and RSPL deploys vigorous quality-control checks daily," says a Senior Vice-President at Elnet Technologies. "Vidhya keeps in touch frequently for feedback," he adds.

From small orders for two-three guards in the early days to her first big break thanks to L&T, which placed an order for 25 guards, each client has been sought through Vidhya's legwork. The company's security guards division, D Group Security Forces, operated from a tea shop terrace with three people and no formal departments. Interestingly, switching to the corporate segment was circumstantial after she burnt fingers in the domestic segment with Dialtone Hotline Service, which lost money due to poor customer payments. "I went to small buildings where people needed housekeeping staff and clicked an order in 1990," she recalls. In one year, the company grew and raked in large orders, by which time she had a supervisor to manage staff.

"I was fascinated by security guards floating around and thought about diversifying though Ravindra was apprehensive," she remembers. Following her heart, she went ahead with these plans, reading up heavily on the industry and major players. Her mantra: watch and watch. "What I needed to do was train guards in first-aid, fire-fighting, standing and saluting. Top executives in any corporation do need ego massages as well," she quips. By 1995, she had 350 guards in her network and 18 clients.

Scaling up

Conviction in the product and her acumen helped scale the venture. To market it, they brought out a newsletter with articles on finance, management and HR with a half-page advertisement on RSPL and distributed it widely. Soon manufacturing units started giving them business.

By 1998, they were a big brand in Chennai, clocking in Rs. 1 crore in revenue from annual billings of Rs. 2.5 lakh in 1990-'91.

Once operations ramped up, they added branches, first in Bengaluru and Hosur, and subsequently in Ahmedabad, Pune and Hyderabad. "Ravindra was clear this should become the largest quasi-NGO and create employment," she mentions. "If we didn't get paid, we never delayed labors' wages."

Vidhya earned a salary herself and took a conscious decision to plough back her incentives into the company (10 percent on every sale she brought). The company was now run professionally with departments and has given long-term careers to many.

Like Rajesh Kanna, who joined as field officer in 2007 for D Group Security Forces and currently holds the position of Divisional Manager, overseeing the performance of five field officers. "There's direct interaction between staff and management and they know how to react to issues of both clients and employees well," says a content Kanna.

Betting on life

Her desire to succeed wasn't solely driven by business gains. There were personal motives too. Life handed her a raw deal when her marriage fell apart after the birth of her second daughter in 1988. Left with no family or financial backing and a toddler to feed, she was forced to look for work.

Malar Hospital (now Fortis) employed her as a PR executive for a meagre salary of Rs. 1,200 and, after three months, she joined Sterling Group as a sales manager for Rs. 3,200. In all this, she knew that she had to qualify herself if she had to succeed as a single woman and so enrolled herself in IGNOU's MBA program. "I put my daughter in a crèche for Rs.250, checked into a single room in a slum area, and was deprived of all belongings," she says, recalling hardships.

Thankfully, she had a guardian angel in the form of Padmanabhan, who also envisioned facility management as a sunrise industry and pushed Vidhya into it, despite her initial skepticism.

Setbacks came at other times and in more ways too. In 2001, two things happened. They floated a software firm to explore other possibilities; however, unfortunately, Padmanabhan passed away in an accident at a time when the turnover had touched Rs. 3 crore. "He always said don't let the boat rock," she recalls. Barring Bengaluru, she shut other branches to consolidate processes.

Luckily Padmanabhan had, in his will, asked his family to settle her dues or make her one-third shareholder. What ensued was a battle for power-Vidhya wanted to keep his dream alive, his daughters wanted to chase their own, by selling the company to a Swedish firm for an unassuming sum, who insisted Vidhya sign a five-year contract with them as CEO.

"I wasn't naïve anymore and wouldn't work under anyone either. I threatened to take away all the contracts and employees, leaving them with a shell company with PF liability," she says.

Left with no choice and realizing the seriousness of Vidhya's words, the family agreed to her terms. By 2003, she bought over their shares and re-christened it RSPL, at a time when revenues touched almost Rs. 5 crore.

Since then, there has been no looking back. Vidhya has grown with the company to become one of the biggest players south of the Vindhyas and is now looking to go north as well. That will be another challenge but Vidhya is ready. And armed.

© Entrepreneur India August 2012

smementor@moneycontrol.com


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