Rohan: Mr EMC Palaniappan or “Pal Uncle” as I know him has been a close family friend. My mom has been a big fan of his aesthetic taste as the families have gone on multiple holidays to his resort and service apartment properties.
As an entrepreneur, Pal Uncle made his bones in Financial Services and has since then expanded into hospitality amongst other industries. I met him at his lovely offices in Chennai while I was home this winter. I hope you enjoy the chat as much as I did.
Palaniappan (or Pal) has completed 17 years in the Stock Broking and Financial Services business. He is the Founder Chairman and Managing Director of Chona Financial Services Limited (CHONA), a Member of the National Stock Exchange (NSE), Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) and MCX-SX, a Depository Participant and Portfolio Manager.
A bachelor in Commerce, he completed his MBA at PSG Tech, Coimbatore and then went on to the USA to do his M.A. in Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then his Masters in City and Regional Planning (MCRP) at the University of Memphis. He worked as a City Planner for two years for the State of Florida before he returned to India and entered Stock broking and Commodity broking. He writes regularly on market related issues and is a guest on several television shows related to the markets.
Palaniappan was the All India President of the Association of National Exchanges Members of India (ANMI) in the year 2009-10 and was the Chairman of the ANMI Southern India Regional Council – Tamilnadu, Kerala, Karnataka Chapter for four years. He was a Member of the Secondary Market Advisory Committee of SEBI in the year 2009-10.
While always involved in the Real Estate business, his recent business pursuits include Development and Operation of Resorts (The Fern Creek in Kodaikanal, and Old Kent Estates in Coorg), Sales and Charter of Luxury Motor Yachts and the launch of an e-Commerce portal for products and services in the Construction and Interior Decoration space under the name “Build Mantra”.
Rohan: The purpose of this initiative is to meet people and find out their stories. It would be great to find out what you do, why you do it, and what makes it work for you. So let’s start with your background story..
Pal: Where do we start (haha). I did my B.Com at Vivekananda, Chennai. I went on to complete my MBA at PSG, Coimbatore and went to the United States to study for a couple of years. 2 years became 5 years. I did a Masters in Journalism and then one in City and Regional Planning. I worked for a couple of years as a Planner. I got back to India after that. It seemed like I had a clear plan as to what to do when I was abroad, but when I got back, I did not know where to begin. There was a family business to go to, but I was not too inclined to be a part of that.
After a few hits and misses, my wife started a stock broking business. It started growing at a pace where she could no longer do it alone. So, I stepped in. Together, we brewed that business. That was the start of our story. We embraced technology and that was a major factor in our success. We developed multiple other businesses branching out from that. We continue to develop these initiatives and turn them into well-oiled machines.
Rohan: I have two questions. What businesses do you run? I’ve realized that there is always a back-story as to how you learnt what you learnt in entrepreneurship; what would you say is yours?
Pal: I can’t pin point to one experience or lesson and say “that is where it all came from.” Every course I took, every task at work and every experience has given me lessons. They continue to do so, even today. And I hope they will continue forever.
I guess you could say that the spirit of entrepreneurship comes from my family. I started a video games business way back in 1982. It did not go well. My father said, “It is your first business. It’s would have been great if it went well. It’s totally alright if it didn’t. Let’s move on now”. That was his attitude and it rubbed off on me as well. You have to keep trying and keep going. At one point in the US, I was doing three four jobs at the same time. All that helped. Little spark-offs came together and connected.
Rohan: You started off as an entrepreneur and then grew. What have been some of the defining moments in this time?
Pal: Sometimes, success comes without you realizing it. You are often constantly plugging away and working on something, and just when you wonder why you weren’t successful, it seems to come and pour down on you. You really don’t understand what you did differently. It is just that everything accumulates with time. You need to keep going on the right path and it will come.
Rohan: Do you think that is a product of luck or skill?
Pal: Skill is what keeps you going. Luck is what comes to you to keep you on the path. If you are not on the path, luck will never hit you. To me a lot of things depend on integrity. I value integrity and trust above all else. If you don’t let your employees and your company down, everything else will automatically follow.
Rohan: You run so many different businesses! What are your key strengths across the spectrum? And, what is your approach to managing these businesses?
Pal: I think one of my negative attributes is that I start looking at new opportunities every time I have free time! And that spreads you very thin. That was very difficult for me to control. The plus point of being an entrepreneur is probably a negative for me. So, the one thing that I need to focus on is to restrict myself to core areas and not spread out too much.
These have all been totally different businesses. I depend upon a lot of people in my work. I look at the person more than a role.
Rohan: Do match a role to a person or a person to a role?
Pal: I think it works both ways. You are continuously trying to match these two things. Sometimes, you need to take a portion out of one role and give it to another person and vice-versa. It is not a process with an ending. It continues dynamically.
Rohan: There are two schools of thought here, right? You decide on what you are going to do and then hire the fit for that role. The other way is to take a bunch of great people and build something around them. What do you prefer?
Pal: I think its somewhere in the middle. Often times, you could have picked the best person in the world and he may not be what you are looking for. For example, my dad is a great operations guy. He is the kind of person who will “do everything” and even work 24 hours! But, he is not a tech-savvy guy. What can you do about things like that? I just have to pull tech related responsibilities out and give it to someone else.
Rohan: What have your biggest learnings been?
Pal: Entrepreneurship involves great risk. You have to take risks which have to be calculated. One thing I always do is take risks in measured steps. You should know how much you could lose to take the risk. “Is this something I can afford to lose?” should be the measure by which you take the step. Don’t take too big a step. This is the key for our portfolio management as well.
Diversification is the key. If you do that, when the entire business or industry goes down, you don’t feel the pressure. So, the principle is extensive and constant diversification in different areas. That means each step in itself will not hurt you. I apply the exact same principle in business as well.
Rohan: Are there any principles/hacks by which you run your daily life?
Pal: I wish I could say it was that simple. I have a to-do list that seems to always grow and never come down (haha).
I believe management-by-crisis is not the best way to manage things. However, you end up managing a lot of crisis on a day-to-day basis. One way I have managed to keep a portion of the management at production (versus crisis) is through delegation. When you find the right people you trust, you get to focus on the core areas of the businesses.
Rohan: Both you and your wife are working parents. I know you have three kids. So when there is trouble, how do you guys manage?
Pal: It is one of the biggest challenges we faced. Our kids always say that business has taken a prominent place in our lives. We try our best to be around for them. We make sure one of us is always available. Our office and home are next door. We planned it that way so we get to maximize our resources (even if it costs us a lot more, financially!). We also plan getaways from work to be with them and get the family time.
Rohan: Has there been a big evolution with your world so far with respect to your role as a leader? Have you seen your principles change over time or have you just altered minor bits?
Pal: I would love to say that I knew what I was doing all along. But no, it is a dynamic thing. It continues to change till this day. I think learning never stops. There are a lot of things I never do, and there are things I have picked up over time.
Rohan: So where does your learning come from? Is it books, people or how?
Pal: I work with my wife and she is a huge source of my learning. I talk to a lot of people, watch a lot of television, and read a lot of books. There are multiple sources of information in that case. I would attribute value to a lot of things I have discussed with people. When you discuss, you often stumble on insights that seem to come out of the blue.
Rohan: What are some of the things you have learnt that you would like to share?
Pal: Hard work – there is no substitute for that. Take risks and innovate. Don’t bother about failure.
My dad used to say that there was a very thin line between a fool and a genius, “Don’t be afraid to be called a fool, otherwise you’ll never get a chance to become a genius.”
Success is not your decision. It is a product. You have to choose your methods, policies and business. The rest will follow.
I also casually asked him off-the-record as to the role routines played in his life. And, I learnt that he played 90 minutes of tennis every morning to keep himself fit. For someone struggling to get to 30 minutes of exercise in every day, that was really inspiring!
Thank you, Pal Uncle for that inspiring interview!
Real Leaders Team