By Malini Bhupta
The pandemic is transforming businesses like never before and a lot of it for the better. When history books are written, Pawan Goenka, managing director of Mahindra & Mahindra, tells Malini Bhupta in an interview that the positive outcome of the innovations driven by the pandemic will find an equal space, as the disaster that it has created for the economy and for the society.
Has the pandemic led to fundamental shifts in your business?
The most fundamental shift is the digital transformation. This transformation has been necessitated by Covid-19 lockdown and WFH (work from home) but has now become the way of life. No one will ever go back to the pre-Covid way of working. We all carried many myths in our mind — this is how it has to be done, any other way is not practical. Many such myths have been broken. Who would have thought that a group as large as Mahindra would have conducted its annual financial audit with everyone sitting at home or that AGM will be held virtually. So (the) need for travel will come down drastically even after life is back to normal. Large events will come to a trickle. Office staff efficiency will increase in a meaningful way. We are realising the need for supervision may be less than what we have always thought. Manufacturing businesses will learn how to work with a lot less system inventory and, thus, unblocking working capital and floor space.
I think businesses will become a lot more agile. The biggest challenge that we see today is the uncertainty of what may happen tomorrow. With supply chain disruptions and sudden restrictions announced by local authorities, planning has become very difficult and businesses have to work on multiple scenarios. Some of the businesses, like airlines and hospitality, may never come back to pre-Covid era because of fundamental change in the way we will work and the way we will live. There is also a challenge of all our employees and partners to have a good wireless bandwidth across the nation. This situation is improving rapidly as everyone is upgrading their connectivity.
What steps have you taken to address or exploit them?
The first task for us at the beginning of the lockdown was to secure liquidity — which we did very swiftly. We started manufacturing operations very carefully and gradually giving health and safety of employees the highest priority. We are in the midst of planning how our business processes will change, which products may become more desirable and where we may need to rethink our offerings.
What innovations (product or process) have you introduced to cope with the pandemic?
There are many small things that we have done but a path breaker is the”own online” platform that we launched to empower our customers to complete all steps of owning a Mahindra vehicle online – from exploring, to closing the deal including exchange, to financing, insurance, payment and finally delivery. This was in the works for some time. We launched it in May 2020 and already have sold 2,500 vehicles through this platform.
What’s your long-term strategy on work-from-home? What percentage of your workforce is still working from home?
Most of our office staff is still working from home. All of us have become very comfortable and find no loss of effectiveness in working from home. Frankly, I am amazed at how quickly and without any prior planning have we been able to adapt to WFH. We have not taken any call yet on how long we will continue WFH. Full working from home cannot last forever but I think partial working from home is here to stay.
What’s the leadership lesson the pandemic has taught you?
The biggest lesson is that when our back is against the wall, we will always find a solution. In a sense, Mahindra Rise’s credo of Alternative Thinking is in full display. Today, everyone is talking about, ‘in every crisis lies an opportunity’. I would like to add that bigger the crisis, bigger is the opportunity. Covid-19 has forced us to come out of our comfort zone of how a business is managed. I think everyone would have seen more business process innovation in the last four months than in the last four years and I hope that most of these innovations will stay with us and make our business more agile, more efficient and more digital — all for the better.
What challenges do you foresee in your business going ahead?
The biggest challenge is how long will it take for the demand to get to pre-Covid era and start growing. In our tractor business, we have already seen that and Auto also is inching towards it. Equally big challenge is when will the supply chain become normal and unforeseen disruptions will not happen. In the immediate term, the latter is a bigger challenge than the former. Supply chain management is going to take a whole new dimension.
In summary, I would say that Covid-19 is clearly the biggest global crisis that anyone of us would have ever experienced and hopefully will never experience again, but the jolt this crisis has given to individuals and businesses is leading to business product and process innovations which would have perhaps never happened if it was not for the crisis. When the history books are written I think the positive outcome of these innovations will find equal space as the disaster that it has created for the economy and for the society. At the national level, one positive outcome could be renewed thrust on manufacturing and an effort to make India a global manufacturing hub in select sectors.
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