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Cover Story – Finance & Investment

 

THE REMAKING OF PEERLESS

Peerless

TILL SOME YEARS BACK, PEERLESS WAS STRUGGLING WITH ITS businesses. Despite an illustrious legacy, the Group was faltering. Till Sunil Kanti Roy, son of its founder Radhashyam Roy, decided to take charge and became Managing Director of its flagship company. Today, Roy has led Peerless into new businesses: hotels, resorts, hospitals, mutual funds, realty. Many more are on the anvil as Peerless buzzes with a new energy.

When Sunil Kanti Roy took charge of an ailing Peerless in the mid-nineties, no one gave him a chance. Business was ad and the Company had many dues to recover. But what no one could fault Peerless on was its immaculate track record in the micro finance business. It is this record and Roy’s well thought out growth strategy that turned Peerless back and made it, once again, one of Eastern India’s most exciting corporate houses.

With new regulatory measures coming in, Peerless demonstrates Roy’s skills at innovating and turning the ailing giant into a modern, forward-looking, company with a national footprint and a set of new businesses. Its hotels and resorts are growing. Goa, Mumbai, Kochi, Bhubaneshwar will soon see new Peerless hotels. The mutual funds business has been steadily growing. The realty business in Kolkata is booming. And Peerless hospital has just opened several new wings and will soon become a hub of healthcare in the East. In his interview here, Sunil Kanti Roy describes the road ahead.

IN ITS 81ST YEAR, SUNIL KANTI ROY IS ALL SET to make Peerless a household name. No, it was not an easy journey for the man who leads Peerless today. With RBI setting new rules for his traditional business, Roy had to swiftly move into new areas and discover new opportunities. He zeroed in on hotels and resorts, restaurants, healthcare, real estate, marketing financial products and mutual funds.

Today he is a happy man. The company’s fortunes have changed and as Roy leads a dynamic, new thrust to make Peerless a national brand, it is time for him to once again celebrate the success of the company that was founded by his father Radhashyam Roy in a small town of undivided Bengal.

Dazzling on the large wooden desk in Roy’s modest office in Peerless Bhavan in Kolkata is the Swiss Diamond Eye trophy that Roy received last year in Geneva. This year he intends to go to Rome and Paris to receive two more international awards. Roy is on a roll because Peerless has finally found its new identity.

New hotels and resorts are coming up in Navi Mumbai, Goa, Kochi and Bhubaneshwar. North Bengal too is on the agenda, a token nod at the region where Peerless was once the most renowned name in financial products, going to remote places where no banks ever went.

Today the businesses have changed. Mutual funds and financial products of other companies are being marketed by Peerless all over India. Peerless hospital is the healthcare hub of the East. The real estate business is on a roll as Kolkata expands dramatically. The iconic Peerless Hotel on Chowringhee, one of the city’s most famous landmarks, will open a new annexe this year, doubling its facilities. Aaheli, the Bengali fine dining restaurant that was Roy’s brainchild, is now being globally franchised.

But Roy is eager to do more. He is restless for change. Change that will make Peerless a truly world class institution. And for that to happen he must make his team dream the dream that he has dreamt over the past two decades.

81 years is a long time in the history of a company. Peerless celebrated its 80th birthday last year with a series of prestigious events. There were awards for school teachers, scholarships for bright young students who could not afford further education, functions for its staff and, to culminate the year-long celebrations, the Annual BK Roy Memorial Oration was launched with Lord Meghnad Desai coming from London to Kolkata to address a select gathering of the city’s brightest people on the theme of business, politics, media and popular culture.

The Annual BK Roy Memorial Oration will now happen every year and the finest minds from all over the world will come to Kolkata to talk about the future of India and how Indian entrepreneurship, encouraged by economic reforms can emerge as a world beater. The Annual BK Roy Memorial Oration embodies Sunil Kanti Roy’s vision to make Peerless a brand leader in its businesses and take the Rs 10,000 crore Group to the next level in coming years.

HOW THE PEERLESS STORY BEGAN

Mr.Roy with Team Peerless

Ask anyone in Eastern India about the Roys of Peerless and they will tell you the story of how the company, founded in a small town near Dhaka, now part of Bangladesh, has emerged as one of the most respected names in contemporary India’s corporate narrative.

Radhashyam Roy, the founder, was a true visionary. He left home as a young man and wanted to join the Ramakrishna Mission but the monks sent him back saying that he should first complete his social obligations by serving the people of his district. That is when he founded Peerless. His elder son Bhudeb Kanti took his father’s dream further ahead and grew the Peerless empire, before he decided to relinquish charge to his youngest brother, Sunil Kanti who he had groomed to take over the business.

Sunil Kanti is the man behind the new Peerless. The Group under him has in recent years forayed into real estate, financial products, hospitality and healthcare, living out his vision of a diversified company that intends to spread out all over India with its innovative products and services. Peerless is now constantly exploring new ideas that can rejuvenate its heritage and be part of modern India’s growth story.


Trust is our main asset. People trust us. That is how we have grown.

– SUNIL KANTI ROY


S.K.Roy

“Bengal is where our story begins,” says Roy, “but now we want to play a bigger role in India’s new economic landscape and creating a blueprint for change.” His office in Peerless Bhavan in Esplanade East is bang opposite the historic Raj Bhavan. Nearby is bustling Chowringhee. Peerless Bhavan is itself a historic landmark, where lakhs of field agents would once report. They were the ones who built the Peerless edifice by going deep into those parts of rural India where no banks dared to.

Further down the road, next to the magnificent facade of the Oberoi Grand, stands Peerless Inn, the Group’s marquee hotel which recently won the Diamond Eye Award for Commitment to Quality and Excellence in Geneva.

It will shortly open a sparkling new annexe with more rooms and suites. Meanwhile, Aaheli, Roy’s brain child, the famous restaurant in Peerless Inn is now all set to go to Mumbai, New Delhi, London and New York. It won the Miele Award in Singapore recently as one of Asia’s top restaurant also the Times Award for serving the best Bengali cuisine. Celebrities from all over the world have wined and dined there, leaving behind wildly ecstatic notes of appreciation.

But the real expertise of Peerless lies in its financial products, in insurance with which it originally began its journey eight decades ago. That is why Roy is keen to return to the insurance business. Peerless mutual funds are leaders in their respective categories and are doing well in a volatile stock market. They are aimed, like Peerless hotels in different parts of India, its multi speciality hospital in Kolkata, the real estate projects, to meet the needs of the growing Indian middle class consumer.

They form the core of the Peerless growth story: the growth of the Indian middle class into one of the world’s most dynamic market forces.

“Trust is our main asset. People trust us. That is how we have grown,” says Roy. As the Kolkata summer’s evening light settles on his desk and the busy city outside weaves its magic spell, the quiet tycoon smiles. And says: “It has been a long journey for us and there are still many miles to go before we can rest.” The Swiss Diamond Eye Award gleams on his desk, a constant reminder that more worlds need to be conquered, more challenges remain to be met.

CHALLENGING THE FUTURE

S.K.Roy

Peerless has changed a lot. Change in Government regulations has brought about a change of strategy, a change of vision. But the Company’s assets remain the same: A band of loyal and dedicated employees committed to the dream of creating a world class company to keep pace with modern India’s new aspirations.

Today, Peerless has diversified into new businesses. It is also constantly seeking and evaluating new opportunities which could leverage its history, tradition, manpower and skill sets.

A war chest has been set apart for this purpose and a reputed board of directors, led by Dipankar Basu, former Chairman of State Bank of India and S.M. Datta, former Chairman of Hindustan Unilever are inspiring the change. “We are building on our strengths”, says Roy, “and we are ready to roll out our plan for the future. More exciting, more innovative financial products, more hotels in Navi Mumbai, Goa, Bhubaneswar, Cochin, more restaurants like Aaheli in Mumbai, London, New York and probably other cities of the world as well, where Indian cuisine is in demand, more homes and workplaces, more hospitals and health care centres for middle class Indians. That is our immediate plan. Meanwhile, we are working on our blueprint for new businesses.”

Roy leads a team of old war horses, people who have been with Peerless over the years and a young crack team ready to take on the future. It makes a formidable combination of experience and excitement, tradition and modern management ideas. “My people make a fine talent base”, says Roy, “I rely on them to translate my vision into reality.” But Roy also leads from the front. He travels twenty days a month, visiting his offices and businesses all over India. Whether it is Mukutmanipur in West Bengal or Port Blair in the Andamans or snow clad Srinagar or picturesque Kochi where he wants to set up a new Peerless resort, Roy is everywhere, talking to people, scoping the market, discussing new ideas and initiatives.

When Roy took over as Managing Director in the mid-nineties, Peerless was reeling under huge losses. The balance sheet showed a gaping hole of Rs. 2,500 crore. It took him five years to turn the company around, fix the balance sheet and restore the company into a profitable mode. It was not easy. “We had to change our old ways of thinking and doing business. We had no choice,” says Roy, “and I had to reorganise the business and become more profit conscious. And we learnt the importance of teamwork. This brought about change. We are now strong, resilient, forward looking.” Peerless employees attribute this remarkable change in the company’s profile and business approach to Roy’s capacity to take on problems head-on and resolve them. There is no procrastination at any level. Peerless works seamlessly today, says an old Peerless hand. That is why it is so successful.

What is the future of Peerless? “We will go wherever the middle class consumer goes. We would like to return to insurance. We may go into retail. And we will certainly increase our portfolio of financial products. After all, that is where our core competence lies. We have the enormous trust of people in the rural areas who know that the Peerless brand stands for reliability, safety and long term value. It is this trust that inspires our business policy.”

On the 81st anniversary of Peerless, with 50 million satisfied customers bearing testimony to its track record and Rs. 20,000 crore paid out, Sunil Kanti Roy is confident about the Company he leads with 144 offices in 24 states and union territories powered by seamless IT connectivity. “We are ready for tomorrow”, he says with a smile.

INTERVIEW: SUNIL KANTI ROY


“Swami Vivekananda Inspires Me”


S.K.Roy with His Wife.

Samir Shaikh speaks to the Managing Director of Peerless.

BUSINESS BARONS: What was your biggest challenge when transforming Peerless?
SUNIL KANTI ROY: Building a team that could meet the new challenges of the marketplace.

BB: What inspired you during the process?
ROY:The incredible trust people had in brand Peerless. That was my biggest inspiration. I knew I could not let them down.

BB: Who lent you the biggest support in your efforts?
ROY: My staff. My board of directors. My family. They all stood by me during those critical years and now that we are back in good stride I am very proud of them. We built on our strengths, fought back our weaknesses. Today we are all set to grow into new businesses, achieve new targets and face new challenges.

BB: What does the future look like?
ROY: There are many opportunities that are opening up for us. Our experience and expertise is our biggest assets. We will use them to meet our goals.

BB: Who inspires you?
ROY: Ramakrishna Paramhansa and Swami Vivekananda, and the amazing institutions they built to serve the nation. I respect people like them. They are the builders of modern India.

BB: Do you follow a regular exercise routine?
ROY: I have faced quite a few health setbacks in the past and so I am cautious about what I eat, how I work out and how I cope with the stresses of the job. Today I am 100% fit. For me, good health is the key to all success.

BB: What attracted you to the healthcare business?
ROY: The promise of good health to the common man. At an affordable price. That is my healthcare mantra. Peerless hospital offers that. In fact, all our businesses basically address the Indian middle class consumer.

BB: And hospitality? What drew you there?
ROY: The idea of affordable hotels that middle class families can go to. There is huge potential for inland tourism. Affordable hotels in the 3 and 4 star category can grow this quickly as well as attract middle class tourists from neighbouring Asian countries.

BB: How do you unwind?
ROY: I read. I listen to music whenever I can. I love Rabindra Sangeet. I travel a fair bit. But at least once a week I try to go to the Ramakrishna Mission in Belur and spend quality time there. I find peace there.

BB: Where do you travel?
ROY: Our offices are all over India. And I sometimes go overseas to discuss new ventures.

BB: Where do you holiday?
ROY: My last few vacations were in Switzerland, Austria and Mauritius.

BB: Do you watch movies?
ROY: Not as often as I would like to. But I enjoy Bengali movies, particularly the classics. My favourite film makers are Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwick Ghatak.

BB: Your role model in business?
ROY: Steve Jobs and Warren Buffet, one a great entrepreneur and the other, an amazing money manager. I also admire Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Prize winner from Bangladesh and the man who made microcredit into such a big idea.

BB: And in public life?
ROY: Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi. Also Subhash Chandra Bose who never got his due recognition in Indian politics. Nelson Mandela is another person I deeply respect. Rabindranath Tagore too.

BB: What do you read?
ROY: Mostly inspirational books.

BB: What was the last book you read?
ROY: The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama.

BB: What Peerless event has touched you most deeply?
ROY: The annual oration which we started this year in the name of my brother, the Annual BK Roy Memorial Oration. Lord Meghnad Desai is an exceptional speaker, thinker, public figure and his oration was most enlightening.

BB: Your favourite restaurant?
ROY: Unquestionably Aheli. No one makes Bengali food like we do.We are coming to Mumbai and Delhi shortly. We are also in discussions to open Aheli in New York and London.

BB: What do you see as the future?
ROY: The India of tomorrow will be very different from the India of today or yesterday. 81 years ago, when my father founded Peerless, he had a dream. It is my task to fulfil that dream and bring joy to millions of middle class families all over India with our financial products, our mutual funds, our hospitals, our hotels and resorts, our restaurants, the homes we build for them.

BB: What are your goals in life?
ROY: Just one. To bring maximum joy to the lives of maximum people.

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