Juggling business, politics and social responsibility – Latha Pandiarajan

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Published: March 28, 2018 3:20:33 AM

Ma Foi was set up in 1992, had a long, adventurous and successful journey, becoming the largest company in human resource (HR) services in the country, placing over 3 lakh people.

Latha Pandiarajan, business, politics, Ma FoiLatha Pandiarajan has always successfully juggled career—starting businesses, setting up NGOs, taking care of the family and various other things.

Latha Pandiarajan has always successfully juggled career—starting businesses, setting up NGOs, taking care of the family and various other things. Now that her husband K Pandiarajan—who founded Ma Foi (one of India’s largest recruitment firms) with her—is a full-time politician and a minister in the Tamil Nadu Cabinet, Latha is juggling more things than ever. Apart from being in charge of a cluster of companies and trusts they have set up together, she is fully involved in nurturing her husband’s constituency Avadi—a western suburb of Chennai. When K Pandiarajan—an MBA from XLRI-Xavier School of Management, Jamshedpur—and Latha, a chartered accountant, launched a recruitment firm, they named it Ma Foi. “We were thinking of various names and I came up with the French term ‘Ma Foi’, which means ‘my world’. We wanted a global sounding name,” says Latha.

Ma Foi was set up in 1992, had a long, adventurous and successful journey, becoming the largest company in human resource (HR) services in the country, placing over 3 lakh people. In 2004, it entered into a partnership with Vedior of the Netherlands, which was subsequently acquired by Randstad Holding in 2007-08, the second-largest HR services company in the world. Rajans exited the business in 2011, selling out their shares to Randstad. “We felt it was time to leave gracefully after 20 years,” she says. K Pandiarajan, by then, was getting seriously involved in politics. “We retained the brand name and launched several different activities in 2012,” Latha tells me as we meet for lunch at Mana Andhra, one of the newer restaurants in Chennai’s high street Khader Nawaz Khan Road. The place has a great ambience, with colourful pickle and spice bottles, and chilly jars dotting the place as decoration. We ask for fresh lime and water, and I ask mine to be heavily sugared to balance the spicy Andhra food.

“We ventured into non-staffing solutions like strategy, research and education verticals, and called it Ma Foi Strategic Consultants Pvt Ltd,” she says, with herself as the director. “The analytics and business services group that we recently renamed Lymbyc has been growing steadily, and has a staff of more than 100 people. We got a licence to set up a micro finance institution. Then, we have the Ma Foi Foundation and the Sornammal Trust,” Latha tells me as we settle down. “We want to make people’s entrepreneurial dreams come true with our trusts. We will help SMEs to move to the next level.” Rajans are working towards turning Avadi into a model constituency. “We have always believed in doing our bit for the society. We donated Rs 5,000, our very first profit from Ma Foi, to the mental health NGO, the Banyan,” she says.

We decide to order lunch before I ask her about her work in her husband’s constituency. Both the vegetarian and non-vegetarian thalis have too many dishes, and would make it difficult to get back to work. We ask for tomato charu, the Andhra version of tomato soup, and decide to share avakaya biryani, a speciality. Latha orders Andhra kodi roast, a chicken side dish, and I decide to try baby brinjal stuffed with various flavourful spices. Because it’s Andhra food, I also ask for a lot of yoghurt. Food arrives quickly and the flavours are strong but nice. “We are looking at education, healthcare, sports, environment and women empowerment,” she says. “There are 17 government schools in Avadi. These schools have a lot of space but which is not utilised properly. We have created sports infrastructure through our Disha Sports Academy. We support underprivileged kids and train them in boxing, athletics and football. We have also started arts and crafts classes. Children are so excited with their colouring books and brushes. We get a lot of outside help for these activities.”

Healthcare is another area she is looking at. “Of the 1,800 girls whose eyes were tested, 300 needed correction. Kids don’t seem to understand that there is something wrong with their vision. We have provided spectacles for 390 children. When we started conducting special classes for board examinations last year, kids were not willing to stay back. They were hungry after their noon meals. We started giving them snacks and they started studying,” she says. Latha tells me about the women’s lives they have touched. Through Ma Foi Foundation, about 1,000 women have benefited. Jewellery-making classes, and beautician and tailoring courses have been started to help women start their own small businesses. Women are being taught to use mobile phones and smartphones.

Ma Foi Foundation, in association with Tech Mahindra Foundation, has launched a Smart Skill Development Centre in Avadi to offer job-ready skill training to the youth. The training programme comes with a promise of job placements in the BFSI (banking, financial services and insurance) sector. “Seeing growth around us makes us happy.” These are just some of the things Latha is involved in. She has a lot to say on reviving water bodies and helping people find their voice. I ask her if she finds time to go to her corporate office! They have moved to their own space after all these years recently. “I go every day,” she says, and keeps K Pandiarajan updated on everything. “It is possible, as we have always worked together. One develops mental flexibility. We have always treated our staff as family, and we continue to do so. I feel quite relaxed. Things do go wrong, but I don’t let it stress me out.”

As we are about to finish our large meal, Latha tells me that now since the ‘period of non-compete’ is over, Ma Foi is back in HR. “It is being driven by a good CEO. We are creating a really good HR business that will do all that we didn’t do earlier. We hope to achieve much more in a much shorter span of time. This year, we have completed almost `70 crore business,” she adds. Rajans have always believed in the franchisee model. “We have more than 40 franchisees now. Most of them are former Ma Foi employees. We are happy that they are all becoming entrepreneurs.”
I ask Latha what has changed in her life. She tells me that she and her husband had to attend five wedding receptions in their constituency the previous evening. “We just can’t find any time any more for corporate social life.”

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