It was with the unfettered excitement of a toddler that I started reading “Surge," a book written by Sushila Ravindranath, on the course of industrial growth in Tamil Nadu, India. As I turned the pages feverishly to the chapter on the TVS group, I saw that my father Murali Sundararajan was quoted at length in this chapter. As a son, my heart swelled with pride for the same reason why the late Randy Pausch was thrilled to see his name in the world book encyclopedia (as an expert on virtual reality). Mr. Suresh Krishna, Chairman of the TVS group, had personally recommended to the author that my father be interviewed since Appa had been instrumental in the growth of the exports division of Sundaram Fasteners (a TVS group company). I saw this gesture by Mr. Krishna, and Appa being quoted in the book as a just token of recognition of three things that defined him as a professional – his extensive world knowledge, his fearless enterprise and his carpe diem attitude.
Appa studied mechanical engineering at Guindy Engineering College. After graduating in 1975 at the age of 21, he entered the industry and made meaningful strides in the area of marketing. He never studied marketing in school; he didn’t have to! He was born to be a marketer. Friends, relatives and former colleagues of Appa who knew him then are amazingly consistent in how they describe him – that he was extremely enterprising, spirited, with an abundant gift of the gab but also warm, generous with his time and very giving. As I have progressed in my professional life, I have not only understood and appreciated his gifts better. But I can also see how he has continually honed his talents and has been proactive when it came to his professional development. Be it in simpler things such as poring over the newspaper every morning to other things such as expanding his knowledge network, learning from his professional mentors and being actively engaged in professional societies (such as heading a trade panel in CII and serving as the VP of the Indo-ASEAN Chamber of Commerce), he left no stone unturned in maximizing his potential as a professional without losing sight of the people factor.
As Appa tells the author of “Surge,” he was entrusted with taking initiatives for the development of the fledgling exports division of Sundaram Fasteners (in India) in the 80s. He quickly realized that products from developing countries like India and China were frowned upon by countries like the US and the UK because there was an inherent safety (or lack thereof) bias towards those products. Since he was keeping himself abreast of the latest industry trends (mind you, this was in the pre-internet era), he realized that the ISO 9000 certification was something that Indian firms had hardly invested in. And, he saw that as a chance to make a statement. And, what a resounding statement it was! Thanks to him pushing his management to invest more in quality control and getting international accreditation, he lowered…scratch that…broke barriers and shifted the inherent biases of the global purchasers (of his company’s products), favorably. As a result, the exports department of Sundaram Fasteners flourished. So, the person that was making meaningful strides in his career up until now was now making giant leaps! And, to make those leaps across continents, he required dollops of help from several airline pilots! Because as part of his work, Appa traveled to North & South America, Europe, Africa and pretty much every key market in Asia. (As an aside, while all this travel certainly furthered his professional ambitions, it has taken a toll on his health. And hence, I keep policing him, to stay healthy! He listens to me…sometimes!)
As I had written in an earlier blog post about Professor Robert Kelley, the core components of the Star Performer model (one of the most meaningful outputs of Dr. Kelley’s research work) are (1) taking initiative (2) building one’s knowledge network and (3) engaging in self-management to assess one’s strengths and areas for development. Dr. Kelley describes these as three of the key things that make stars shine brightly. As you can see from what I’ve written about Appa, he clearly nailed the star performer model. What amazes me is that he did all of that instinctively, much before the star performer model came into existence!
The speech that I gave at Appa’s 60th birthday celebrations back in 2014:
As I think of the myriad ways in which he has inspired me, I must say that apart from his professional smarts, the seamless, natural manner in which he has weaved in people into his world is what truly sets him apart among the seasoned professionals that I have seen. He remains to this day, extremely grateful – in a vocal, demonstrative manner – to the people that have helped him develop in various stages of his career. And I have also seen him help a lot of people across various levels, climb up the corporate ladder, with his extremely thoughtful gestures and generous advice. As I look forward to reading the rest of “Surge,” I will do so with a sense of gratitude thinking of how Appa has surged ahead in his career, thereby giving me several comforts that I used to take for granted in my youth. But it is one thing to surge alone but it’s another thing to help other people soar together with you. By continually and generously paying it forward, he has given the greatest gift that any of his mentors could ask for. And that, by itself, is reason enough to give an ISO-type certification for remarkable quality, to this exemplary marketer!