Turning Point in Life – How I Finally Ended up as an Entrepreneur

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Caution 1: A long real-life story ahead!

Caution 2: Some Engineering terminologies/ technologies are interwoven in the story
Caution 3: If you are patient enough to read it, you may find some interesting experiences including bouquets and brickbats that I received in life some 30 years ago.

Quit? or Go ahead?

By the end of my graduation in mechanical engineering, I got campus placement in a reputed Auto Ancillary industry where I ended up in the design department engaged in developing Special Purpose Machines for in-house use. It was my conscious decision. I was aware that my first love was designs and I was immensely enjoying the creative and technically challenging work.

But two things proved to be irritants; one was my boss and the other, the factory timings. When I came across an opening in a machine tool firm for application-oriented-selling of Special Machines, I quit the design job and joined the new firm. The new assignment proved to be less demanding on my technical skills but more on my “salesmanship” which was rather underdeveloped in me.

After spending about 7 years in the job, there were frequent situations where I used to wonder whether I was really the right man for a sales/ marketing career.

Then came the turning point.

I was the sales executive in-charge of selling the new Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machines in Chennai branch (that we planned to manufacture in our plant in north India with American collaboration). The CNC technology itself was new to our factory those days; the collaborator from whom we imported the basic machines in SKD (Semi-Knocked Down) condition was new. The specific machining technology offered by the machine itself was a step ahead of similar machines in the market.

In order to gear up for technically selling such sophisticated machines, I was chosen from Chennai for undergoing a two-weeks training at the collaborators’ works at USA to get some good idea about the machine features and capabilities.

Precisely at that time, there came a tender from a Government Defense Firm in Chennai for such a sophisticated machine. I was the one who did the spade work in technically impressing the customer about the benefits of our new CNC Machines and also quoting for the machines against the tender. The customer was very specific that the machines should be supplied “tooled up” and proved to process 33 different jobs on the machine.

As our factory had no personnel with prior experience in this area, they were very skeptical to take up the responsibility. They were only interested in selling the bare machines. However, it was our Deputy General manager-Sales at Chennai who took the risky decision to prove the customer’s jobs in the machines and supply the tooling as a package deal.

Self-doubt

The DGM was a typical sales professional — always over-enthusiastic and over-optimistic.

“CV, you have the design background in your previous employment. I know you are capable and adaptive. The fools sitting in the factory will never move their asses to rise to the occasion. We are not going to get this order if we are not prepared to tool-up these machines. That’s cent percent sure. I want you to do the proposed process-plans for tooling up the components. Use your engineering common sense; consult tooling suppliers. Let us take the risk; I will support you to the hilt” said the DGM.

All my objections were overruled. I was thrust into the job. I was conscious of my limitations – my lack of on-hand experience on the machines. My exposure to the machines were more from the point of marketing them and hardly from the point of tooling them up. Whatever little exposure that I had on these machines by virtue of the 2-week training at the collaborator’s factory at USA was definitely and totally inadequate for the task in hand.

Myself and two of my assistants, (one Engineer and one draftsman) worked for 4 weeks to prepare the process plans, list out the tooling, estimate the cycle times, work out the costs and finally submitted the offers. We did the technical work meticulously in all sincerity, not expected off a marketing setup. When the order was finally received, it was a huge celebration.

But the politics between the Sales department in Chennai and the factory grew sharper in the bargain. The moment the order was booked, the DGM made it clear that it was the responsibility of the factory to carry out the rest of the work. “Recruit people, get them trained in USA, do whatever you want, but get things done. My sales/ marketing guys have done more than their share. I need them to concentrate on future orders” he said to the GM Manufacturing.

There were objections; heated arguments: “You can’t expect us to nurture YOUR baby”. But finally the matter was settled. The factory would train up people and do the job. If something goes wrong, we at Chennai should take the responsibility.

The machines arrived from the collaborator in sub-assemblies. They were assembled, wired up and run; The sample components from customer were collected and trials were started at our factory by the engineers trained abroad based on the process plans and tooling that we had supplied from Chennai.

Sub assembly of a machine

Nightmare

One fine morning there was a Telex message from the factory at the DGM’s office at Chennai.

“Our Engineers report that they machining of trial components in the new machines as per process sheets provided by Chennai office is unworkable. We find frequent tool breakage; unable to complete jobs; cycle times can’t be achieved. Please send your Engineer to sort out the problems. Urgent”.

The moment I finished reading it, I was sweating all over.

“OK, CV. Start immediately to the factory. Go and sort out the problem” said the DGM coolly. I was shaken to the core. Me? With no on-the-job experience or training?

The DGM got a strong cup of coffee for me and started his pep talk: “Come on CV. You can do it. I know it. I trust you more than you trust yourself. Now answer my questions. Did you make the proposals praying that the order should not come?”

“No, Sir”

“Did you make the proposals with a strong doubt that they will flounder at the time of trials?”

“Not really. But I had my share of doubts, here and there”

“What was your confidence level that they will work?”

“about 70 percent”

“Then there is absolutely nothing to worry. Go and prove your mettle and come back as a hero” the DGM waved me off.

At the factory, the reception was cold. I was taken to the machine and the damaged components and broken tools were shown to me. I was surrounded by 4 or 5 Engineers in the discussion room armed with my proposal drawings and the flaws they found in it. I felt I was a sheep amidst the wolves!

Engineering common sense to my rescue

As they unfolded the problems they had experienced, I could see that they too had a similar problem like me – lack of practical experience. But what they lacked, I felt I had: A Better common sense and logic.

“Who did the CNC programming for it? I want him to rewrite it as per my methodology which I am going to spell right now”. I said. The man came forward. I sat with him for next half an hour to modify the programmed tool paths, the speeds and feed rates in specific segments.

The success!

We went to the machine, reset the job and tooling, got the program entered, tested it in idle-run and then cut the actual job. Presto! The job came out beautifully without snags! There were deviations in cycle time over my original estimates. But we had a plus/ minus 25% tolerance permissible as per terms of order and that settled it. Thus job number 1 out of 33 came out successful. There were looks of disappointment amidst the engineers. I was the lone fellow appearing jubilant and there was none to share it.

The matter was conveyed to the GM-Manufacturing. He called me into his cabin and inquired the details. I made a good opportunity of it by emphasizing the “simple need of common sense” for the USA-trained engineers. The General Manager boosted my ego by his profuse appreciation, but made a trap well laid out for me.

“Our boys are not smart enough; There are 32 more components to prove; and many of them are much more complicated than this one. I can’t afford to call you every time our boys get stuck with problems. Stay back; get your assistants from Chennai. Get trained in operation and programming too. You are the right person to take up this responsibility, not only here, but also until proving the machines at the Customer’s factory at Chennai”

It was like a bombshell to me. By nature, I was a person strongly tied to my family and I can’t live at alien places eating non-homely food for long. My wife had just given birth to my second child (a son) and I longed to spend quality time with them. All these were shattered. The GM Manufacturing was smart enough to get concurrence for his plans from the top management at Mumbai. My DGM could not help me to wriggle out of the project. He joined the bandwagon. My plans to go back immediately and take my 1-month old little son on my laps was thwarted. My 2 deputies came and joined me. Together we started learning all the nuances of programming, setting up, and operation of the machines.

We stayed in the factory over next 5-6 weeks and did about 25 varieties of jobs. Ninety percent of the tools selected and ordered by us were perfect and worked right. Of course, there were some snags too; but we were confident that we could sort them out at the site. We were confident that the remaining 8 odd (seemingly much more difficult) jobs could be tried out at the customer’s factory. We packed off and returned to Chennai.

The next three months were hectic and taxing. The summer at Chennai was harsh; The plant at the customer’s site was some twenty miles away from the City; The daily commuting was painful.

The customer being a Government factory, co-operation was poor; demands were high. Every step (collecting trial components, machining them, submitting them for inspection, getting certificate of approval for the quality etc) was time consuming and bureaucratic.

A strong hit on my head for my ego

As we were about to begin the machine trials at customer’s works, my and my team’s ego was at peak for the task we had successfully completed at our factory by belittling the “US trained Engineers” there. Perhaps God was waiting for a chance to give a strong kick at our heads to reduce the extra burden of pride we were shamelessly carrying.

On the very first day of our starting the machine trials, our electronics engineer did a wrong setting in the Numerical Control Software parameters. While the right way to do before we actually start the cutting trials is to make an “idle run” of the machine (without actually loading a job and cutting it), we ignored that step by virtue of the over-confidence we had. When we pressed the “Start” button, the machine slide ran past the set limits and there was a big bang! There was a huge collision of the moving slide with a stationary part of the machine!

Our heart virtually jumped out. We pressed the “emergency Stop Button”. The machine had to be stopped for a few days to repair the damages, which were, luckily, minor. However, It became a huge issue within our organization as well as at the customer’s works. Out factory Engineers sure would have been having a hearty laugh when they came to know of the blunder we did!

Every alternate day, I used to curse myself for having got entangled in such a physically and mentally taxing project, a project which in reality did not belong to me.

On the other hand, the inquisitive engineer inside me was enjoying the technical complications and challenges involved in proving the trial components – putting what I had theorized earlier in to practice and see them working. There were some apparently insurmountable technical and design problems; We had to hunt behind small tool-rooms to get some reworks done on wrongly designed work-holding devices and successfully come out of the problems.

Towards the end of it all, I got my promotion to the level of Deputy Manager, pocketed a hefty pay increase and enjoyed the sadistic pleasure of hearing that the USA-trained engineers in the factory had to skip their annual increment for floundering in their responsibilities!

Ultimately the whole exercise was a self-revelation. I could grasp the fact that I was more of a design and technical person and less of a marketing/sales or an administrative guy. I could grasp that my “technical egotism” did hurt many of my seniors and colleagues. I was aware, with my underdeveloped interpersonal skills and my inability and disinclination for cultivated diplomacy, that I was not destined for growing up in a corporate ladder.

At last, to entrepreneurship

A few months after the assignment was completed, the time was ripe for me to submit my resignation. As mentally planned by me, I started of my own Design and Consultancy firm Productive Solutions. I successfully ran it for almost 20 years; in this period, I learnt software programming too, developed an MS-DOS based Software for an Engineering application and sold it to some of the top-names in Indian Automotive companies.(It was the time before Windows came)

Then came another major turning point in my life that took me away from the mundane worldly life to a life in quest of spirituality. Divine hands were behind me to direct me in that path. When I was peaking at my design consultancy, I closed the show and shifted to the ashram in Kerala along with my wife, in quest of spirituality.

Post Script

I closed my proprietory firm Productive Solutions as a design firm alright, but 3 years later, my son started his own Web marketing and branding consultancy firm along with my daughter and he preferred to name it Productive Solutions with the same logo (with a little tweak here and there!)

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