Sivakumar C on building businesses, culture, and positivity


We have a very special video on RealAcad Mondays this week. This is an interview I had the pleasure of doing myself.

About Mr.C.Sivakumar

Mr.C.Sivakumar or Sivakumar Uncle is the father of a close friend and RealAcader, Vikram Sivakumar. His achievements are many. Sivakumar Uncle has moved from very humble beginnings to building a multi million dollar conglomerate with businesses in manufacturing, consumer goods and sports as the CEO of Prabha Engineers in India. He is as inspirational as it gets and he’s got an incredible story that he shares with us.

I hope you find 20 minutes to watch his video. And if you have only the 5 to start the day with, then I hope you find time to read the transcript.

Interview Transcript



Well, I had a great influence from my maternal uncle. When I was just three years and he was nine years old, he lost his dad. When he lost his dad, I saw a dead body for the first time at home and I couldn’t understand what happened. After about 1-2 days I understood that he passed away and that I cant see my grandfather.

My maternal uncle however became more mature. He behaved like a 15 year old boy unlike his 9 year old self. He started taking a lot of decisions on behalf of the family. When he was about 13-14 years and I was about 7 or 8 years he would tell me ‘we need to start some business employing about 10000/20000 people’. And that we would do engineering in particular fields. We were kids talking about business, not knowing what business was all about.

When he finished his engineering, I was in 10th standard, he said, “You need to study well and get into engineering. My plans are working, from my 13 years we have been planning, and now I am joining MTech at IIT to learn about welding”. When I finally finished my Pre University (PU) and joined Regional Engineering College in Durgapur, he was very happy. Every day for me would be to talk to him, say good morning to him, meet up with him and spend lot of time together trying to explore a new world which only both of us knew.

It was in 1976 I joined my engineering. He was happy that plans were working out, not on paper but in our minds. He was 26 years then and had gotten married a few years ago. In 1977 when I was in second year engineering, I returned to Chennai for a short stay. When I was at home, he spent the whole night with me and said he wanted to go for a jog in the morning. He was a marathon runner and so he needed to practice. He went for a long run and came back. All I heard was that he fainted and fell in the bathroom and died.

I lost a very close relative, my maternal uncle. I had a great dream that I was going to be a great entrepreneur and that he was going to lead me. This accident actually brought me into a depression. I could not understand many things in life. I did not understand what was happening in my second year of engineering because it was the deepest shock that I could have ever imagined in my life. It took about 5/6 months for me to recover and after 5/6 months, I gave a different signal to my mind. I said ‘Why should I think that somebody is dead and why can’t I think that he is still living and guiding me?’. After that I used to spend my time with Prabha although he was dead. I used to talk to him, have conversations, try to take his advice and listen to my own mind thinking that it was Prabha’s advice and move forward.

When I finished my Engineering, I decided that I need to be an entrepreneur. But I had no skill for becoming one. Two things that could have best suited me was to become a professor or to take up a job as an executive. I decided otherwise. It was in Bharathidasan University that I did my MBA. When I was in the third semester I told my dad that I had gotten a job in Kelvinator. I only worked for 1-2 months. I went to my boss and said that I wanted to become an entrepreneur. My boss asked me about my capital and business idea. I said I did not have both but that I have been guided by my maternal uncle who died so many years back. So I was going to find a way out.


First venture

I wrote to a lot of banks saying, ‘Can you give me some sick manufacturing units that I can revive?’, because sick units come without any cost. Some banks sent me some projects and there was a family manufacturing unit which was sick. I told the family, ‘why don’t you give me this unit which is sick. There is cash loss for 4-5 years, you are going to close down the unit, there is nothing there.’

The factory had nothing, it didn’t have much of machinery, the workmen were demotivated and there was no leadership. The customers had a lot of problems to talk about. However, I asked them one final question, “why do you want to do business with this company?”. They said, “The quality of the product is very good”. I took that particular cue, and started working on the company. We moved from 10-12 men, we continued to make losses for the next 3-4 years. In that 3-4 years, I made a significant difference in the way SMEs work.


Starting the engine

In an any SME, if it is a profitable one, there is always a management – work men divide. The management is always looking at ‘how do I improve profits?’. And the labourer on the other side is feeling ‘how do I get better wages?’. So any change that has to be brought into the industry will never be accepted. Because the work man feels that he is going to be squeezed for work and the management feels more the work from the labourer more the profits.

Now the first time when I was making loss, I thought to study why people behave in a particular pattern. All that I did was to visit 10 houses and have meals with them and spend time with them trying to find out ‘what his aspiration was and what should I do if I want to make him meet his aspirations’. In their mind they have been tutored that they need to rebel with the management – that’s when you grow and that’s how the industry will perform.

What I did was to continuously try and understand the psyche of the worker. All that I could understand was that this guy did not have the parents we have, he has not been brought up in the way we have been brought up, he has not gone to a school like we have, he has not gone to a college like we have, he doesn’t have peers and superiors like us. Therefore his thinking pattern was different and his behavioural pattern was also different.

Now that the company was making a loss, I proposed, “Why don’t we all meet together in some hill station, sleep together in one area in a dormitory, and we will have a mentor for us and the mentor will tell us what the employee wants to achieve in 8 years time”. (1992-2000).

We asked ourselves 3 questions.
1. What would he like his family to be in the year 2000?
2. What would he like his company to be in the year 2000?
3. What products would the company be producing in the year 2000?

Most of them had one single agenda, that ‘I am going to be a welder here, my son is going to be a welder, perennially we are going to be welders. So the thought process was if I am going to be a welder, my son is also going to be a welder and my grandson is going to be a sweeper, where is the change going to happen in the family. So we need to rebel’.

So we took the cue and we started a program called Gen Next program in our company. The Gen-Next program is taking the small children of the employees, trying to understand what they would really like to become and giving them a mentor from Chennai, Bombay or Delhi at no cost. This family felt that they connected to an educated family.

These fellows started feeling good, they won up with respect to other workers in their community. ‘I have got a doctor as a friend, I have an engineer as a friend, I have a chartered accountant as my mentor and if I listen to my chartered accountant then my son can become a chartered accountant’. So this Gen Next program bonded the producers, (I don’t call them workers, I call them producers) with what was required by the company. They felt that if the company achieves whatever it needed to, he will get what he wants. Life is simple – 24 hours available, 8 hours goes to the sleep, 8 hours somebody is working for you, the remaining 8 hours, can the company take care of that fellow.

We brought respect to this guy, we made the children belong to the society, and the spouse was talking about what was happening in the company. Therefore, he felt the need to help the company grow. These guys started saying “In the year 2000, we would like to win national award for the company”. We were sinking then and they were talking about winning national award 8 years down the line. They put a map of India and put candles all over the map, saying our vehicles must be sold across the nation in all dealerships. Then they started talking about a lot of products.


Positive Slope

People are eager to learn when you give them solution. And implementation is far easier. People usually waste a lot of time between strategy and execution. If your execution is clear, you are able to implement far more things than any of your competitors.

When we were hungry and eager to learn, we suddenly started getting orders because we’d implement one order at a faster rate and there would be more companies saying, I tried it at this company and I got it implemented then another guy from Ashok Leyland would ask someone else to try it out.

And so people would come up and say ‘give me this product’. Thus, from no visitor for about 10 years we had at least 20 visitors per day. For 10 years there were no enquiries, but after this period, we got solid enquiries and solid work. We moved to about 300-400 people in 2000. And made lots of products. We have had market shares of 60% – 80%. Achieved through lots of financial discipline and HR activities.


The 4 E’s

If you want me to talk about HR practices. There are 4Es I can talk about. The first E is enlighten. When we first recruit an employee we first check on the aspiration of the employee. What is his aspiration in life and whether this company can help him reach his aspiration. The second E is engage. You would many people not wanting to resign their jobs because their boss is good. Or they will resign because their boss is not good. You need to stay connected with them.

Enjoy the everyday. You are not working for the salary. You are working because you know that your boss is energised. And that he can take you to the next level. So at engage we see whether we can celebrate his birthday. Whether we can stay connected to their spouse. The GenNext program works that way. We have a sports program running every year. In engage it is all about enabling that particular employee and carry out his hobby/extra curricular activity. That bring a smile in that fellow.

The third part is the enable part. It is about teaching him skills, i.e technical skills. The fourth part is the excite part i.e catch him doing things right. Find out whether we can celebrate. He’s given a good suggestion. He’s improved productivity, he’s changed the process line. If you can catch them doing things right, they are motivated. And they want to it repeatedly and well.


Approach to entrepreneurship

There is something called an outlook fro an entrepreneur. What is it. One has to ask himself whether he’s become an entrepreneur to make wealth or something else. This outlook sends a signal to the others.

If this outlook is very weak, the rest in the army do not know what to do. They are constantly watching you and looking at you for directions. And if they don’t get that direction they are confused. They are just doing routine work. If you get this outlook right you will not be talking about small problems like cash flow or this or that. You will find a lot of solutions for your problems.

If you say I am not getting loan, it means your product is not performing well in the market. The loan is just a symptom the problem is lying somewhere else. You don’t have a great idea. Or you are not able to sell the great idea. You need an idea and a way to articulate that idea.

Steve Jobs was not just an inventor. He could articulate it in many ways and connect to the public. If you are a great entrepreneur, you will have one ability for sure. Never give up. Because an entrepreneur who is strong on his ideas will never give up. He may rest, he may bend, but you will not be able to break him. So bend and overcome the curve but never give up. You will have to stay longer. That way you find your solutions.


A typical Sivakumar day

I spend a lot of time on the financial management of the companies. I have a small meeting with my staff wherever I am, on what I have done in the last week, and ask for any clarifications from my end. I also tell them about what has happened to the company. I also teach them about how to energise somebody. That meeting is about half hour. I reply to mails.

In the afternoon, its reviewing departments. Visiting project sites, retail outlets. I also take part in a lot of activity. MMA activity, CIA activity, sports and NGO activity. Why do I do all this, this is for the purpose for which we are there. I have never found wealth making very important. We must enjoy the everyday work. I love my employees. I always tell the highly talented ones that they should not stay in my company for long. After three four years they should move to a larger company. I celebrate every employee’s birthday. So much energy and things to do in a day.


Advice to the youngsters

Life is a long journey. You can be like a soda bottle and fizz out in a few seconds. Look at cricketers, many of them don’t stand 4-5 years test. They cant perform for 15 years. Can you learn from Tendulkar?(Indian cricket/sports legend) Start at 16 and go until 38. And everyday he is learning and performing. He can be a role model for any youngster!

You might peak at the age of 35. But are you going to stop then? Or are you going to have another dream. Can you dream at the age of 60 or 70 for a new career? Think that you are going to live for 100 or 120 years. And feel the need for energy. Spend it on your health, on the right people. You need the right connect in your life. Everyday of your life, ask yourself ‘Have I helped three people today?’ If you are able to do this, I hear even from psychiatrists that you will be the most positive person in this world!

Thank you so much, Uncle, for taking the time. I walked out inspired! There is just SO much meat in there for us youngsters to take into our lives.

Real Leaders Team