How long would you keep running if your chosen path seemed like a never-ending marathon? Some of us would stay on it if we felt there was no other option in sight – but what if you did have other options? Would you keep running even if you didn’t know if or when you’d reach the finish line?
Suresh Kumar Agarwal is the archetype that embodies these questions. He was faced with these thoughts several times in his journey; yet, he stayed on his path. It was more than 15 years of dealing with financial struggles before he would find a way to break through. Today, he runs 25 food centres across the city catering to thousands. When I met him, I thought to myself that he almost seemed hardened. As he started to share his story with me, it was almost as if he could talk about the worst of situations in a dispassionate manner. As we continued our conversation, the mannerism seemed to fade away and it was obvious that he experiences these thoughts often as he looks back at his life.
The story you are about to read is a little different from the rest; some of these situations could be faced by any of us as well. For the current urban generation, we are quite lucky that we probably won’t have to face a lot of it; This can be a stark reminder as to how fortunate we are. Life can change in a second without us knowing it. What really makes a person different, however, is their choices thereon and his/her ability to succeed ‘inspite of’.
Two steps behind
Suresh had a fairly normal childhood till he reached the age of 14. “I lost my father in 1974. It was a very difficult time for all of us. I was adopted by other family members as this would help ease financial difficulties and was in constant touch with my mother. Everything had changed for me after this point.”
The people who were fostering Suresh had different plans for him though – they wanted him to return to their hometown in Haryana in order to run the local business and discontinue his education. “I was very unhappy with what they wanted me to do – it felt like I was being used for their selfish purposes and it would anger me.” This led to a lot of conflict and he found himself shuttling between Haryana and West Bengal, where he would study. To make things worse, an astrologer told him that he would find it incredibly difficult to pass his final exam. “His words completely controlled me and created hurdles in my mind. For some reason, I could never complete the exam. He even said that I would have a bright future only if I completed it.”
Coupled with the family pressure of joining their village-based business, he eventually lost two years in his education. “I had only finished with my X grade, and all my friends were already enrolling in colleges. This was very upsetting and I simply lost hope. I began to think that completing my schooling was an impossibility. Out of frustration, I decided to no longer pursue my studies.”
The road to corporate success
Fortunately, after a long hunt, his brother was able to arrange a job for him as an assistant to a cashier in a transport company. “I was about 18 years old and my salary was just Rs. 600 per month.” He slowly began to get a foothold in the company, and decided to keep working hard. “I put in long hours right at the beginning.” His hard work paid off and was met with a lucky break. “The cashier went on leave and the manager asked me to take over until he returned. To everyone’s surprise, he never came back!” Given that he created the right impression already, the manager decided to make him the permanent cashier.
Suresh began to develop a sense of accomplishment and empowerment after this point. “I would take care of every part of the business. While my job was that of a cashier, I would handle the movement of lorries, loading of packages .” His ambitious nature led him to pushing his boss to give him opportunities in other branches. Eventually, he was transferred to Chennai in 1983 to work in a new establishment. By 1985, Suresh was promoted to manage the entire branch. He was just 23 years old. “I was given the new role simply because I was the most qualified. I knew then that the reputation and goodwill one builds with people is critical to make it big in life.”
For Suresh, life was smooth-sailing at this point. He got married in the year 1987 and was happy with where he was. “I had achieved moderate success in my line of work, and i was living like a Raja.” He didn’t know that he was just a few years away from a personal tragedy and a terrible financial crunch.
The personal shock and professional downfall
“When I was 28, one of my elder brother suddenly passed away due to a heart-attack. This was very traumatic for me to handle and affected all of us terribly. I realised how fragile things can be.” The death of his elder brother was met with a sudden responsibility for him and his other brothers to shoulder – they were left with five children to take care of. “At this point of time, my wife and I already had a son to take care of. Suddenly, we found ourselves handling the expenses of six! This was such a strong wake-up call and I realised the error of my ways – I hadn’t saved even a single rupee!”
Suresh had to cut his family expenses drastically to take care of this scenario. “I would handle all the big expenses and my brothers would support the day-to-day bits for the children. All of my savings went for every marriage in the family. I had zero in the bank account month after month.”
Like the first push in a set of a dominoes, this was just the beginning of a tumultuous time that he was set to experience for close to two decades.
Six years after the tragic event, his personal challenges were met with a professional downfall. “I had a dispute with the owners’ sons who were also a part of the company. The owner tried to handle it, but it eventually led to the inevitable – I was asked to leave the company.” Suresh couldn’t believe his ears. “I gave 16 years of my life to the company. I put my heart and soul in it and built a strong relationship with the owner through my work. Here I was, a victim of nepotism – my years of hard work suddenly meant nothing, and i was emotionally distraught.” To make things worse, when all accounts were settled, Suresh had to pay the company Rs. 8000 – money he didn’t have. His only option was to borrow from others and settle accounts.
“I had made one clear decision at this point of time. Never again would I take up a job. I realised that job security was a myth – If I could be let go with such ease from a company that I poured my heart into, why won’t it happen elsewhere? What if i got fired in my forties? These are the questions that I asked myself.”
Suresh decided to start his own transport-based distribution business, as it was all he knew at this point. Just as he was about to get started, his mother passed away – 10 days after he lost his job. “I had hit the lowest point of my life. I couldn’t comprehend what was happening. I had no money, I had just been fired, I had several children to tend to and I was coping with another personal tragedy. Facing my situation in itself was painful. What hurt even more is that I didn’t even have money to travel home for my mother’s last rites.” He had to borrow money from a friend in Chennai before making the trip.
Once he returned from his hometown, he decided to move to Bangalore to take his business forward with help from his uncle. His only saviour to raise the money for business – reputation. “I was very fortunate to have built up goodwill with everyone I knew. I kept my promises and committments with many people. This allowed some family members to trust me with money and I would borrow from them to pay them back with interest.”
The decade of business struggle
In running the business, they started to face several challenges common to such businesses as time passed on. Clients would not pay on time, sometime ranging for a period of months. “I would often have to play a strong-hand and not distribute the goods. I had once unloaded several crates in my own house as I had no godown space.”
For almost ten years, Suresh and his family had to power through everything they faced. “Every single day, I would travel 100 kilometres on a scooter to manage distribution. I would leave my house at 7 AM and reach home at around midnight. Trucks with goods would arrive at any point of time, and I had to be around. I still didn’t have money to hire enough people to look after things as everything was going in loans. For almost a decade, I would live everyday with exhaustion.”
His only moment of peace? “Everyday, I would ride my scooter to a tree that provided good shade. I would open my tiffin box and eat the lunch that my wife packed for me. It was my moment to catch a breath. I still remember those spots across Bangalore.”
Soon, he realised the business was going nowhere. “The overheads were so high, it made no sense.” He then decided to branch out with Amul and got a hold of the franchise rights. It took several months to sell his transport-based business. Suresh, however, didn’t realise that he had started the new venture at the wrong time. “We had taken up ice-cream distribution for Amul and it suddenly started raining across the city! We didn’t have enough space to stock our goods in the freezer, and we would receive new stock everyday. It was challenging and very trying”. Over time, things started to change for the better and he started to get a strong foothold in the market.
Eventually, Suresh had built up a stellar reputation – In the market, he was fondly referred to as Amul Agarwal. He was the largest distributor in the city and had a very big turnover to his name. To everyone else, he had reached the high point of his life. Only Suresh and his family knew the truth.
“Our numbers looked great, but the margins were low for us. We were still covering our investment, still living hand-to-mouth and couldn’t afford any big expenses. Nothing had remarkably changed, except for our external perception.”
Interestingly, there was a way out for him – he had several opportunities to get a job at any point of time – he was well-known in the transport business to land something lucrative. “Taking up a job was never an option. I knew back then that it was not my way and the security offered was a myth.. I would never ever go back, even though I had several offers. I had already made that decision.”
For several years, Suresh would live a life where he would travel 100 km a day on a scooter, working from 7 AM till midnight and still not making enough. When he took over the Amul Franchise, not much had changed – he still put in the same hours day after day. He could never see a way out, but had finally reached his breaking point. “We had one retail snack store open in a prominent IT company. This was our only source of revenue and even that would go into paying loans. For a long time, I was stuck – I was afraid to enter a new form of business and I had no idea how to stop the one I was currently running. I would have to start from scratch! Closing in on a decade of business struggle, I was now fed up and had to make it work.”
It took several months for Suresh to sell his business before he could pursue opening retail stores in a full-fledged manner.
The long-awaited taste of success
In 2009, he set his eyes on growing the retail stores in corporate conglomerates. Suresh was still not free of fear. “I would think about what people would say. Some found it odd that I would completely change lines. I had a big office and now I worked out of my home.”
Suresh kept going nonetheless, now with help from his sons who were in their college and school years. They had only one strategy – go all out. Focus on aggressive marketing, reach out to as many organisations as possible and keep doing that every single day. “That’s all we did. No magic formula. Worked extremely hard, with a little bit of luck finally swinging our way.”
They finally hit their biggest breakthrough landing a large corporate deal. They started with taking on the Amul brand name for retail stores, but they were limited in terms of what they could sell. “We wanted to sell more items, but we couldn’t because of franchise restrictions. It was a hard decision, but we decided that we could now build our own brand.” They now run their own entity, Amba Cool Corner. Today, they are a known brand name in several corporate houses across the city such as Infosys, Cognizant, Thomson-Reuters, and many more.
As for the children he was supporting in his hometown? “The entire family, including the children, as now in the same business that I am building today.” He no longer has relatives in his hometown as he has provided all of them with the means for livelihood through his venture.
“We don’t market anymore. When a new corporate office opens up, we get calls and simply open a new store. It’s been 4 years since we started and now we’re in a very comfortable space with close to 25 outlets across the city.”
What are your aims right now, I ask. “I am done! I have no further personal ambitions. It’s been 20 years since I experienced any form of comfort when it came to finances. What’s the point of having money if one can’t enjoy it? From a business perspective, we will keep growing because if we don’t grow, we will go backwards. Personally and mentally, I’ve achieved what I wanted.”
“My only thoughts for anyone reading this – Goodwill or reputation is everything. If you learn to keep your commitments, build trust with your business and get the job done, you can make as much money as you want and experience success in your life. Just focus on building goodwill. Met with a little bit of luck, the rest will take care of itself.”
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