Sunday, May 29, 2005

A Concert for Money


This is simpler than managing cross-border taxes (pic courtesy:Tomko Consulting)

Jethro Tull lead singer Ian Anderson (he of the shining steel flute, wild eyes and deep, resonating voice fame) told this writer, in the course of an interview in an expansive sea-facing hotel suite in Bombay that one of his biggest headaches was not, as many thought, the hardship endured in his spirited stage performances. The question pertained to the source of his boundless energy which he dismissed to passion and love for music.

Anderson and Jethro Tull, for those not acquainted, average some 100 live concerts a year. A somewhat taxing schedule you might admit. Yes, particularly if you were born in 1947 (that makes you 58 today) and your first album (This Was) was released in 1968.

Lets put it this way; not many, including much younger rock musicians, can leap across the stage, wave a steel flute menacingly, pose like a heron, with one foot lifted up, touching the other knee, in addition to playing the flute, acoustic guitar, mandolin and harmonica and of course, singing too. At Anderson's age, most folks are either gardening or planning their post-retirement holidays.

The headache, as Anderson, who also runs a successful salmon farming business in Scotland told me, was international taxation. “Why is that ?” I wondered. “Well, we perform all over the world and reconciling the income and tax payouts across countries is a bloody pain.” So, thrashing out the intricacies of cross-border taxation was critical if not as important as repairing to the barn with the boys and stringing new melodies.

Money from Gigs…

A few weeks later, quite co-incidentally, a partner at audit firm Ernst & Young mentioned in conversation that they were quite familiar with the tax issues performers like Mr Anderson faced. E&Y, he said, ran a successful practice which catered just to this segment of clientele, managing the tax and audit requirements for performing stars and groups. One should have guessed actually.

Jethro Tull is not alone in its tax predicaments over concert incomes. For, the fundamental nature of revenues in the global music industry has changed. The big rock groups and stars, including Jethro Tull which is not in, lets say, U2 or Metallica league in size, often earn far more income today by way of performances than they do by way of CD sales.

Earnings from concerts have soared in the last six or seven years even as CD sales have either remained steady or dwindled. Actually, few artistes make real money from CD royalties. Visit a music shop today and a large, prominent section, even in stores like Rhythm House, Bombay, is devoted to DVDs of live concerts of popular rock groups, pop stars and even blues artistes playing for Black Entertainment Television (BET). Thus, its the DVDs which are the new arrivals not the CDs of long ago.

On The Road, For Money

A recent New Yorker article on the new touring economics is most revealing. Take the case of Metallica which still sells CDs from its back catalogues and has cut just one album in six years. Dying out, you might ask ? Well no. The New Yorker goes onto say that two years ago, the band earned almost $50 million from its Sanitarium tour and last year, it earned $60 million from its Madly in Anger with the World tour.

Last year, the article says, 13 different artistes earned more than $40 million each at the box office while Prince alone earned $87 million. Music lovers might hesitate to pay $19 for a CD but willingly shell out several hundreds of dollars for a live performance, the New Yorker says.

It’s a global phenomenon. Most of us would hesitate to pay more than a few hundred rupees to buy a Mark Knopfler CD but gladly paid Rs 3,000 a few months ago to stand on muddy ground and watch him live on a warm summer evening in Bombay. And it was an old Knopfler, seated most of the time, not the youthful, energetic British rocker who recorded Money for Nothing two decades ago.

The New Buffettonomics

It’s a phenomenon that's almost inexplicable. Stars of yester-years are back on the music circuit with their concerts. Today, record sales promote tours, unlike earlier, when tours were chiefly a means to promote records. The DVDs of the concerts often attract more attention than perhaps their CDs, creating a new cycle of earnings. If the early visits of singers like Ricky Martin to India represented the old trend, Sting and Joe Satriani represent the new order. And the almost bizarre part is: it’s the oldies who are scoring the most..

How old ? Well, have you heard of Engelbert Humperdinck ? If not, it might be worth trying to, either from your parents or Google, whichever you can access first. Tickets for the crooner’s auditorium concerts in Bombay, Delhi and Bangalore are expected to, if rumours are to be believed, sell for for a cool Rs 7,500 for the front seat and Rs 3,000 and Rs 1,000 for the back benchers. Humperdinck (The Last Waltz, Release Me) was born in 1936 in Madras which makes him, well, just 69.

Or try country singer Jimmy Buffett, born 1946 in Pascagoula, Missisisipi. He might be a year younger than Tull’s Anderson and his concerts far less strenuous but that does not stop him from being one of the top concert grossers in the world ! Trade magazine Pollstar (who New Yorker quotes liberally for the article referred here) says in 2004, Madonna aged 46 drew an average $5.7 million per city. Elton John, now aged 57, stood at $3.9 million and Jimmy Buffett, two years short of 60 years, an average $1.3 million.

Surprised. So was Buffett, apparently. In a recent interview to a journalist, he said, “What gets so surreal to me is that I figured this was going to peak some time ago. I thought everybody would start going to somebody else’s shows. But it hasn’t happened.” Buffet, as I discover, has something in common with his namesake and legendary investor Warren Buffet ! The singer owns shares of Berkshire Hathway and sang a two-line ode that was played at the company’s AGMs in 2003 and 2004 ! He’s also friends with Warren for more than two decades.

And Buffet mania continues.. Pollster, in an article a few weeks ago, questioned the $100 parking fees for a Jimmy Buffet concert in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania next month. The parking company which controlled the lots said they felt fans were willing to cough up since they had paid (the concert’s sold out) anything between $46 and $126 for tickets. The company was now looking forward to a Rolling Stone concert where they hoped to levy similar if not higher parking charges. Buffett has 6 concerts in June.

36 Years & Going Strong

The Allman Brothers take the proverbial cake. Records of the band are tough to find in India, Allan, a close friend, is a fan, sings their songs, strums the chords on his guitar and yet one senses a fading association, that has lost connect over time, pretty much like when someone attempting an imitation of the Delta blues musicians of the 1950s and 1960s.

Allan ought to take a little detour in his next visit to the US. The Allman Brothers, founded 36 years ago, is playing to sell-out crowds later this month at Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The day after, they are at Toledo, Ohio and two days later at Augusta, Memphis. They close the week at Manchester, New Hampshire before returning the following week to Ohio to perform at Cleveland.

Greg Allman, all white hair and beard, will perform in 14 concerts in July and 13 in August, from Rosemount, Illinois to Canandigua, New York. Tickets are more affordable when it comes to the Allman brothers. An internet ticket booking site I looked up showed tickets at Milwaukee going for around $20, excluding a building facility charge of $8.15 and convenience charge of $7.80.

Pay & Be, Up, Close & Personal

Welcome to the performance economy, where folks dish out huge premiums just so that they can see, experience perhaps even touch a performer. For instance, most of us would hesitate to pay more than a few hundred rupees to buy a Mark Knopfler CD but gladly paid Rs 3,000 a few months ago to watch him sing live to us on a warm summer evening in Bombay. And it was an old Knopfler, seated most of the time, not the youthful, energetic British rocker who recorded Money for Nothing two decades ago.

Have you heard of Englebert Humperdinck ? If not, it might be interesting to find out, either from your parents or Google, whichever you can access first. Tickets for the crooner’s auditorium concerts in Bombay, Delhi and Bangalore are expected to, if rumours are to be believed, sell for for a cool Rs 7,500 for the front seat and Rs 3,000 and Rs 1,000 for the back benchers.

And it all adds up quite neatly: Margins on performances are much higher (almost 50%) and can be collected more or less upfront, unlike CDs where royalties at a maximum of 12% of sales and will arrive only after a host of other commitments, including studio time, packaging costs etc have been met. Yes, its hard work.

The new performance economy will ensure countries like India get a better share of live gigs in coming years. Yet, the US is way ahead. A big band can do 12 to 15 sell-out concerts in just five or six north American states – in one month. Allman Brothers is contemplating a Europe tour for some years now, they just don’t have the time. America still has a huge and hungry populace waiting to see, watch and experience them.

Indian Roadies..

The performance economy has its own economies of scale, Milwaukee to Toledo can be achieved in a day, Bombay or Delhi cannot. Distances are not much in developed country terms but transporting gear from Bombay to Bangalore or Delhi can take two days and is a process fraught with risk.

And its just three or four cities in India which can command the ticket support required to host the big gigs, contrast that with 12 concerts in four or five states, with of course much easier transport logistics. And average ticket prices have to be higher to pull in an Elton John (avg price: $158) or Madonna ($144) and Celine Dion ($136).

Huge sponsorships accompanied by complicated accounting jugglery typically involving donations to causes like Aids awareness have to be put in place to balance the costs. Cities like Bombay are plain hostile to gigs. Entertainment taxes have been relaxed but the logistical strain has not reduced. A constant bugbear is politicians to senior policemen wanting free tickets.

And yet there is hope. A few concerts are happening, driven clearly by the performers’ desire to earn an income rather than, perhaps, the public’s desire to see them live. Pop artistes are hitting the road, traveling to smaller towns, beginning with Chandigarh and ending up at Bangalore. Bollywood’s playback superstars don’t see much potential on the concert trail though, the organization is missing as is perhaps the deep rooted desire.

Which is perhaps why Bollywood leans on the same model and flies to America with exhaustive stage shows managing at one go to satiate diaspora appetite, beat piracy and of course, as many claim, salt away the dollars somewhere..That's performance economy for everyone !

Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Battle For Britain - A Campaign Story


One reason the 1997 election was exciting (pic: Tory Campaign)

Tony Blair's third successful return to Government brings back memories of his grand arrival on the British electoral scene eight years ago. This was the first time one had hit a campaign trail for an election, with any politician. And the willing participant happened to be a British Asian Member of Parliament seeking re-election.

The year was 1997 and a momentous one for Britain. After 18 years of ruling powerful and mighty, Tony Blair's labour party was set to boot out the Tories. Labour not only went on to hold the electorate with a near vice-like grip but also proceeded to, quite smartly, redefine itself as New Labour - its world view had more in common with the Tories it just defeated than its own past.

It was this, month of May (British elections are predictable, unlike the rains) and I had just arrived in London having completed an exhaustive but educative sojourn across some European Union member countries, courtesy the European Commission's India unit at Brussels.

St James Court

I flew British Midland from the dazzling Schipol Airport, Amsterdam on an early morning flight, having noticed little except that the air-hostesses sported lovely hats. A friend's friend's car fetched me from Heathrow. It was a cold, depressing and overcast morning, like perhaps most mornings in London and I was fortunate enough to be deposited at the venerable St James Court in an hour.

The St James Court, then a Taj Group property, is a wonderful repairing place for anyone visiting London. It has all the class and glory of a British institution, even located a short walk away from the Buckingham Palace and yet, for those seeking it, has that bare Indian touch, in the form of a the manager or a lone front office staff. Else, there is nothing to suggest that the flagship property of this hotel
chain sits halfway around the world, facing a filthy waterfront in Bombay.

A meeting with Lenny Menezes, then Executive Director at the Taj Group and now running Hilton in India, was on the agenda. Amidst a pleasant lunch in a rather finely liveried Chinese restaurant off the lobby, Menezes wondered if I had met a Keith Vaz. The answer was no. "Oh, you haven't, then you must, he's a very interesting chap," said Menezes.

My features must have suggested that I was speculating on some Goan connection working here but Menezes was quick to explain, "He's young and a very successful British Asian MP, running for election again." And then, after deftly tossing some more noodles into his mouth added, "You must visit his constituency in Leicester East and see how he's doing on the election trail."

Going up the M1

An hour later, we were on the mighty M1, tearing up North in a sleek Jaguar, an XJ6 I think. A young St James Court manager was deputed to accompany me and he filled me in on London, England and the Midland city of Leicester, our destination in a few of hours' time.

The chaffeur, an ageing but tall gent with a classic British aquiline nose spoke very little except to point out that our progress might be slow because of heavy rains which had been forecast. Else, for most of the time, he stared rigidly ahead even as the Jag ate up the miles.

The plan was to turn off at Junction 21 and head for the Stakis Hotel, where we would be fetched by a Keith Vaz campaign volunteer. Two hours on, we were there and strode into a buzzing lobby with lots of convention folk milling around. A ten
minute wait looked like it was extending itself, so hot coffees were ordered as I began taking in a little history lesson on Leicester and its people.

BBC Radio's first mainland local radio station was launched in Leicester in 1967 and the first weekly programme for Asian listeners, on the same station, followed in 1974. Asians, notably Indians and Pakistanis had been pouring into Leicester since the late 1950s and early 1960s. Many were East African in origin and were fleeing Uganda and Idi Amin.

Leicester did not exactly offer them a rousing reception. A 1961 frontpage story in The Illustrated Chronicle, for instance, was titled "Lecester's Indian Invasion". Even a decade later, local authorities were advising Asians against coming to Leicester. In one case, this was done by inserting an advertisement in the Ugandan press ! Matters appeared to have cooled off over the years, as the proverbial melting pot began to boil away. The Chronicle wound up in 1979.

Loyal voters live here (pic:internet post on Leicester)

Leicester comes away as a modern English town. As you drive through, you pass the usual terraced, brick and stucco houses with brightly coloured doors and gleaming brass knobs. Some parts here bear close resemblance to Wembley and Southall back in London, especially the Asian eateries and the people milling around them.

Interestingly, Leicester was better known, once, as the home of the Attenborough Brothers (Richard & David) and Thomas Cook, yes a Mr Thomas Cook, who took the first group of tourists apparently from Leicester to Loughborough, in 1841.

A young man of Asian origin, a Keith Vaz functionary, charges into the Stakis lobby looking around wildly. My companion locks eyes with him, they wave at each other and he motions us out of the lobby onto the portico. `Follow my car,' he says as we walk up and shake hands. And we are off, giving chase on the streets of Leicester, our Jag and his ordinary car.

Some 20 minutes later we arrive at the campaign headquarters, a homely looking, independent brick house with a large garden. Keith Vaz, wearing his trademark round-rimmed spectacles arrives, beaming. In a quick burst of energy, characteristic of Vaz, we are quickly introduced to his lawyer wife Maria and mother Merlyn Verona Vaz. The mother, who was also an elected councillor of Leicester died recently, from cancer.

While Keith and his wife look suitably English in attire and speech, his mother reminded me of the pleasant and brightly attired church-returning Goan ladies one typically encountered on a Sunday morning grocery shopping stroll in Bandra, Bombay. Merlyn completed the connection when she asked about Bombay and where I lived in the city.

Party Workers Jam

Vaz ushers us inside, where a row of young and old men and women are writing up forms, filling up little kits with all about, obviously, Keith Vaz. Its less than a week to go and everyone is working hard, says Vaz. He introduces us to some of the volunteers. First lesson of British democracy: the concept of a `party worker' does not really exist here. Everyone volunteers, out of choice, most of the folks manning the kits earn several times more than Keith does.

One I discover runs a prosperous shipping agency, his daughter is also a volunteer and smiles from two tables away. Another is a well known, local restaurateur. The only thing common that's common to all is their Asian lineage. Having been suitably forewarned, Keith has had occasion to prepare a small itinerary of sorts - we wait while he finishes up a bit and then we are to drive to an Indian restaurant for

Keith has never lived in India, he was born in Aden and educated at Cambridge in England. He worked as a barrister and solicitor from 1980 to 1987, the year he was first elected. Since then, he's had the privilege of being returned to power continuously. Vaz was also the first British Asian member of parliament in the House of Commons preceded only by Baron Sinha of Jaipur in the Lords in 1919.

An obsession with Kashmir

Soon, we are off, this time in his car, seated behind, driving slowly. He glances out regularly, dividing his attention between the conversation going on and a running check on his campaign signs all over. Most of them are in the form of posters of a beaming Vaz and a red rose alongside, pasted on the glass windows of houses we drive past.

Was he doing something else or would he like to, I ask. "Not quite, I am what you would call a career politician," he says. While Leicester may be far from India, the Indian influence is not, Hindi film tunes with rewritten lyrics are a key campaign tactic here.

Vaz is a regular visitor to India and to his land of origin, Goa. While he articulates the Labour cause and speaks of the future of Britain, he admits that his hands are often tied by local issues. "Often I am approached to take up cases of people where a spouse in India or Pakistan wants to migrate here," he says. Immigration worries thus take up time.

The other obsession, he says with some regret, is with Pakistan. "Of course I have a view on Pakistan and Kashmir," he says but adds, "That's not my only view." Often though, media typically pesters him for his comments on the latest developments on Kashmir. Even a few hours in Leicester tells you Kashmir is not a burning issue for the local populace.

All customers are equal !

We reach and enter the somewhat dark confines Indian restaurant (called the Taj Mahal I think) and wait to be seated. Now, a politician entering is not a big deal here. No scampering, hurried movements, chairs shifted about or waiters rushing forth to please. No such thing. We wait and are soon seated by a waiter with a smile which must be customary for all.

Looking around, the restaurant has a healthy mix of Asian and non-Asian patronage. The portions are large and most diners are busy hacking away at their tandooris as the waiters circle around. Vaz continues to talk, about his life as a solicitor, his constituency and his regard for Tony Blair - that regard brought him a position of power in the Blair government later. Later, he was to step down, somewhat unceremoniously.

A little Asian girl comes forth and shakes hands with Vaz, as her parents, a young couple, seated a few tables away watch proudly. "Hello Mr Vaz," she beams and darts back. The couple wave and Vaz waves back. Lesson number two: Maybe its because there are less than 100,000 voters in this constituency but politicians never seem to be
too distant from their voters.

With elections a week away Vaz may have no choice but to be friends with one and all but anyone could tell this was a politician who knew his constituency and more importantly, the people who represented it. As is evident when a middle aged man, again Asian, emerges from the kitchens and walks up towards us. He shakes hands all around and introduces himself. I don't catch it but Vaz explains, we are talking to the owner of the restaurant. The owner sits down asks the customary question about the food and then quizzes Vaz about the election campaign.

Dinner & democracy

The restaurant owner says things have changed for the good in Leicester but feels the food business needs to be nurtured a little better. "Lots of Asian restaurants coming up here and we need to train our cooks and chefs much better," he says. He then places his campaign demands: "Could we look at having a training college for chefs in Leicester ?" Vaz nods his assent, saying he would surely look into it.

We go through a full course with dessert and soon it is time for us to hit the M1 and head back to London. The evening with Vaz was illuminating, as much to understand the role of British Asians in England as the very functioning of an efficient democracy and the role and duties of elected leaders within it. Of the two, the latter left a far greater impression.

That year, 1997, saw Vaz going on to win handsomely, taking in 65.5 per cent of the votes and beating hands down his nearest rival, conservative Simon Wilton, who made do with just 24% of the votes. Vaz won the subsequent 2001 elections as well though he was embroiled in allegations of bribes and misdeclaration of assets. On the way, he became a parliamentary private secretary and a minister for Europe at the Foreign Office. He stepped down in the face of controversy but his ground strength has continued to hold, evidently.

Two weeks ago, the loyal voters of Leicester returned Vaz to power. And resoundingly so - Vaz secured 58.1% of the votes beating convervative rival Suella Fernandes in the process. Bollywood's influence hadn't waned in the 2005 elections either, quite the contrary; actor Dilip Tahil, who last made news for his skirmish with British immigration authorities, was seen actively campaigning for Vaz.

Still to return: The Buzz Series !

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Back To School


Some day, all this will be for real

There are perhaps several hundred highly specialised courses which tell you, the young aspiring B-School student, how to, among other things, manage the two or three grim looking morons sitting behind the table. For it is they who will decide on your admission into this B School and thus help you along the path to becoming a CEO in three years. Or does it take less nowadays ?

Fortunately, they will only contribute and not whole-heartedly drive the process. That's because you also have to battle a strenuous group discussion and clear a psychometric test (yes, its not just aspiring astronauts who face this) before landing up at your interviewers' doorstep.

The interviewers are typically drawn from all walks of corporate and business life. One really means all walks because that's how this writer was privileged enough to find himself on a Sunday morning last week facing a fairly long line up of young students engaging the last hurdle in the selection process to joining a well-known Mumbai-based B-School.

Indian management colleges have grown to boast impressive facades, ocassionally you can even say the same about their students. This one is located in the heart of Mumbai city on a road that's actually lined with trees on both sides. You enter through a well-guarded gate and are faced with a grand staircase that, on ascending, deposits you in the institute's inner portals. Inside, a modern architectural construction, with large beams, broad hallways and open spaces strewn with branding and ocassional plasma screens greets the visitor and student.

Classrooms are air-conditioned with ergonomically sculpted wooden seats and come equipped with a statutory overhead projector fixed to the ceiling and a computer idling in one corner. The way to see how institutions of learning have truly arrived is to visit the basement car park, which one did on ingress; smartly uniformed guards guide your car over painted red lines into designated slots. So, malls and multiplexes are not the only ones who boast such fine vehicular care.

The reason one is sharing some experiences here is simple; for all the coaching that several students must be formally and informally going through, they seem to say and do a surprising number of wrong things. Here then is a little guide of a few do's and few dont's. Warning: this is one person's perspective and to the dozens of training institutes, who might want to differ, be my guest !

Kicking off & Introductions

While the interviewers have had some time between a cup of tea and small chat to go through your four-page form with your life's goals crammed into it, chances are the first thing they will ask you is say something about yourself. There are two reasons: first, it’s a simple opening gambit and puts the pressure on you to respond. Second, it provides a starting point for the next round of questioning.

Some students grabbed this opportunity to trace their immediate family trees; now the funny thing is that while one does glance at the family background on the form, you know, business background or not, what are the siblings doing etc, not everyone is able to carry off a narration. Candidates often stumble through in the Indian way, talking about how "my father is in service, my mother is a home-maker and I have two sisters who are studying".

The trick is thus to be prepared with a simple description about yourself and your interests though not necessarily hobbies and a quick one or two-liner on whether you hail from a business family background or one where the father works for the Government or the private sector or if both parents are working. But keep it simple and general is my advice.

Role Models & Influences

This was the disappointment. Not to say that Mother Teresa was not a great soul but, in my opinion, as an aspiring manager you should be highlighting influences that have something to do with the kind of career you have chosen. Someone said Richard Branson and it sounded reasonable. After all, he is a contemporary and a maverick businessman who we all can learn something from. Surprisingly, not one said Jack Welch and one made a passing mention to Bill Gates.

Many said Dhirubahi Ambani and stuck to his cause despite being asked if they knew that some of the methods the old man adopted in order to succeed in the early years might be considered un-parliamentarian. That's a lesson: be thorough and confident about your choice and don't waver on grilling, some did !

As a student, having decided on your role model, please spend some time researching the person, a not so daunting task in Google age. As interviewer, it was sad to note that awareness levels were often low. Is it important ? Yes, one would think so. There are only two or three things that the interviewer can use to understand your personality and approach and this is one of them.

On the flip side, Mario Puzo is a no no. Being somewhat younger, perhaps, I was tempted to pass this off as cool - my pleasant but somewhat stern co-panelist was aghast. "How could someone even suggest a Mario Puzo as an influence ?" she asked. Being a well-known HR professional and a visiting faculty in the same institute, she was clear on what worked and didn't. I quite agreed.

On an allied note, if you mention a book that you’ve read and liked, please ensure you’ve really read it ! Again, the `Seven Habits of..' does not really make the mark, it could be the second but not necessarily the first, at least as far as this writer is concerned. My co-panelist pointed out most students couldn’t remember the authors when asked !

Why MBA ?

Why do you want to do an MBA ? From Wellingkar to Wharton, there is no escaping this one. So, while one does not recommend memorizing and rattling off an answer on cue, be very very clear in your mind how to project this one, because the question may come straight or be bowled as a googly ! "I want to do an MBA because I will get a job that gets me Rs 6 lakh per annum," is one refrain. Now, this does not pass muster as an aspirational pitch anywhere.

What do you want to after your MBA ? "Oh, lets see what I get, I'm open to everything" or something similar does not work too well either. Well, that's the truth isn't it, you might ask. Yes, but you need to project a clearer picture of yourself, your goals and aspirations. Always remember, that's what is going to distinguish you from the rest, if at all.

Does that mean these answers are not valid. Of course they are, its just that they won't fly. You thus have no choice but to prepare yourself to mouth a somewhat `larger' objective, which is yet concise, clear and researched. For which, you have to prepare, do considerable introspection, understand what you want, why you want that and then take a call.

Work Experience & Learnings

Two young `techies' working in well known IT services firms left the best impressions when it came to clarity of purpose. A young boy, an engineer from a good university, said he was writing code for a large insurance project that was underway in the US. While that was okay for now, he was really keen to understand the insurance business itself and get a feel of his project's role in it. Then on, perhaps drive the project the way he saw it.

All this was the project manager's domain, and these chaps, according to him, were all MBAs. Having worked for a year and a half in his present role, he had a distinct feeling that this is what he would keep doing were he not to get out and `add value' to himself, preferably in the form of a MBA degree.

The other, young girl, who had an unusually incisive understanding of her company, the project and her role in the grand scheme had a similar tale to narrate. Being an engineer, she was on a good starting wicket, but the future did not look all that bright, unless she moved on to a managerial position quickly. “I am a computer engineer but I don’t understand a balance sheet,” she summed up.

Students who’ve worked with BPOs are pretty much up there in terms of perspective, better still, I learnt that many of them self-fund their courses nowadays. Most importantly, they come with high energy, a customer service orientation and often, the exposure to world class systems and processes. B-Schools, particularly beyond the IIMs, could thus be positively inclined towards such students. So, a decent BPO stint before heading to a B School may not be a bad idea.

Work experience clearly confers a degree of self clarity which is otherwise difficult to imbibe. But its not always a ticket to a B-School degree. My co-panelist had an interesting take. Having listened carefully to the engineer working on the insurance project, she acknowledged the clarity in objectives but concluded, from his demeanour, that a B-School degree may not be the best thing for him, he might be better off applying for a MS in an American university.

Seek Advice

So what if you lack work experience ? Well, you are undoubtedly at a natural disadvantage. But you could make up for it somewhat. The trick is to seek advice and tonnes of it. Speak to people who are already working, older and younger, understand what's the difference between a TCS and an Infosys (a majority of the youngsters announced they would only work for TCS !). Understand how a company works, managerial
structures, where you would fit in and why.

A small digression here, TCS appeared to score in this sample because of a perception of a more collegial, learning atmosphere. My co-panelist pointed out that most youngsters considered TCS a sound learning ground for the first few years before contemplating moving on.

I know Infosys would leap to counter this. Having visited its sprawling campus and waded through its many garden paths and sauntered around its expansive, multi-cuisine food courts and souvenier shops, I would think N R Narayana Murthy and gang ran a university rather than a Rs 7,000 crore plus IT empire. But clearly, the youngsters think otherwise. Its quite possible that, being the highly networked generation they are, they know better !

While the coaching classes and their ilk might offer the right training for CAT and other entrance exams, there is no substitute for real-life understanding. A few days spent visiting a factory and understanding how things work on the shop floor and outside, talking to a HR manager, can teach you a lot more than any class. I say this from experience as a business journalist !

While you may have an IT bent and will most likely spend the next few years alternating between staring at a flickering screen and pigging out at a pizza court, there is perhaps no better place to understand work flow and organization structure than on a manufacturing shop floor. Of which there are many in this country, fortunately !

Will people help you ? One is pretty sure they will. This has to be organized but most large organizations like to contribute their bit to better workers tomorrow - senior managers one has met have often recounted some of their most memorable learning encounters from their student and intern days on the shopfloor.

Ethics & Beyond

Do ethics matter ? Of course they do. But, in my opinion again, some youngsters overstressed the `I want to work with a company that is the most ethical' bit. Make a statement like that and you can get caught in knots, for instance, are you saying TCS is more ethical than Infosys ? And if so, why ? So, great to stress on ethics in this tricky, post-Enron era, but have a clear view and tread carefully.

Entrepreneur - Manager – Entrepreneur

Lots of young students hail from business family backgrounds and are quite clear that they want to head back to their businesses after working for a few years. Conversely and perhaps increasingly, lots of students who come from non-business backgrounds want to become entrepreneurs or consultants after working for a bit.

Some coaching seems to be at work here, says B-School `expert’ Rashmi Bansal, though she does point out that roughly 30 per cent of most B School graduates do end up as entrepreneurs, either way. A survey done by IIM A (her alumni) revealed as much, for a few batches.

The importance of sounding focused for a business-family-background student is equally critical. For instance, if you have a family business in oilseeds, have you established exactly what is the kind of knowledge you want to gain, how you would apply it in your business and when ? What is your world view on your family business and why do you think it needs managerial input as opposed to pure entrepreneurial input ? These are some questions that are bound to come up and you must have good answers.

This is perhaps why, as my co-panelist put it, some of the students came out as possessing a desire to achieve as opposed to a desire to perform. A desire to achieve is good but not enough to get you into B-School, whereas the desire to perform obviously incorporates elements of specific knowledge, focus and understanding helps better.

On Your Marks

And finally, do marks matter. Given my sterling academic record, I would like to think they don't. But unfortunately they do. So, be ready to answer a blunt question like: "Why are your marks are not consistently high ?" Guess what, they are expected to be !

One candidate said his `backup strategy' failed. Pray, what was that ? Anyway, the statement brought a smile to my co-panelists but having concluded that this was a smart alecky remark, they only resumed the grilling with greater intensity.

Some candidates reeled off impressive track and field records, other sports achievements and it appeared that they had been upto something serious while they were not focusing their energies on their text books. Its tough to get out of this one, but be sincere, perhaps even better prepared with your career and knowledge objectives. Work experience could fill the gap as well.

World View

Can’t close without a passing reference to this. World view is a generic term which means I guess, the ability to articulate a firm view on a variety of relevant subjects. Most people fail quite badly here and often, one supposes, this is because the questions come from nowhere. At our interviews, one candidate clearly set the benchmark amongst his peers when it came to holding a world view on his career choice.

He wanted to get into manufacturing, work with a company like ABB and Siemens, he said. On being asked why not IT (since most others were headed that way), he said he had a strong feeling that manufacturing itself was on the rebound and countries like India had potential. He delved into this in some more detail and seemed pretty clear that he had chosen and said the right thing.

Given my own experience in talking and interviewing people, I can pretty much tell the difference between someone who says it because he read it somewhere and someone who’s formed an intelligent opinion based on observation and experience. This young man, whose father, by the way, was listed as a taxi driver in the form, is bound to do well, if not now, ten years later.

A world view thus cannot be the result of coaching, it’s the result of reading and debate, without too much recourse to Google; my co-panelist told me that colleges had to figure out ways of ensuring more students spent more time in libraries and read books. Something that my generation relates well with !

PS: Will return to the Buzz series momentarily !!

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Buzz II


`Seamless Integration' at Bandra Station, North West Bombay (pic: author)

Do cities like Bangalore and Delhi have the buzz, well, umm, lets see..! Anyway, the diversity of feedback-opinion is interesting as it is most insightful. Before one proceeds, one must acknowledge the contribution of fellow journalist and co-blogger Rashmi Bansal who has been kindly directing readers and bloggers to this otherwise barren blog. She will also give her take, separately. A poll is also planned so keep checking in !

So, what defines or constitutes Buzz ? Different things to different people, clearly. While Bombay seems to win hands down as India's biggest buzz generator, other cities are lining up. Lets look at some of the reasons put forth by all you who pitched in with your views:

Seamless integration, the zone absorbs you into its fold !

This surely applies to cities, Bombay welcomes you with open arms, locks you in its embrace and makes you feel totally wanted. As a lonely, young soul in Bombay, coping with a first job and a low salary to boot, you never felt impoverished, because you felt wanted and part of the flow.

Now, lets forget Bombay for a second and return to New York and London. These cities and, notably, the hotspots within them, have an uncanny ability to absorb you instantly, treating you like a friend from the past. Once, on a cold March evening, this writer wandered into, on Leicester Square, London, a spirited Latin American band armed with pan pipes and guitars, belting out some truly entrancing music.

Despite the biting cold, this writer sat cross-kneed and alone and listened for more than hour - so high were the buzz levels at this jam session. Anyone who truly engages with Bombay, from the bustling Colaba Causeway to the neo classical Kala Ghoda, is bound to experience something similar..

A corollary to the previous point: one point of feedback was all about connecting with your fellow beings on the street, `even when you are immersed in your book or your iPod. This could thus be the result of any congregation of similar minded people, with a similar aim or purpose in life, a threat of unity that goes beyond physical and material differences.'

The Buzz `quotient' varies from city to city

Goes without saying ! One reaction goes this way: `Bombay is cool, New York confers the sense of importance, Berekely the sense of being hopelessly senseless and Rome, the sense of Romance'. Clearly, Berekely is something one would truly want to sample. But buzz zones in the same city can leave you with varied feelings.

Back to Bombay and 7 Bungalows, you sure do feel a sense of excitement but you can't compare that with a walk on Marine Drive at the same time of day or hanging out at Kala Ghoda in the middle of a hot summer afternoon; vastly different, yet, each zone pumps out vibes that are quintissentially Bombay !

Cities with buzz are strong

A co-blogger has confessed, like this writer, to the impact of `a mind-numbing absence of buzz' while travelling outside ! Bombay sure does that to you, forcing its pace and restlessness into your being, ensuring you never sit too still or rest too much. Little wonder, this city can bounce back from any calamity at a speed that leaves most amazed.

Come to think of it, the cities with the highest buzz seem to be the most resilient to any form of external or internal agression. New York, post 9-11, quite obviously, would be a classic example, as would be Bombay after the 1993 bomb blasts. The manner in which the citizens of Bombay returned to their work places a day after the blasts, is the stuff of legend.

Is it the moolah ?

Is buzz then, the consequence of money ? Well, maybe...more thoughts coming up soon !

BELOW: All About Buzz !

Monday, May 02, 2005



Actually, you have to feel it..(pic: author)

Groups of young, well heeled boys and girls in their trendiest walk along animatedly, almost purposefully, as they dodge and wing past saree-clad ladies, impatient toddlers tugging at their bags, haggling with the vendors standing behind their vegetable carts.

A white Maruti Zen slows down, music pounds from within, the teenage driver and his three companions appear suitably nonchalant, like they couldn't have guessed they are the cause of the distraction that's caused pedestrians and passers-by on both sides of the street to inspect them, albeit momentarily.

The Zen moves on, the throbbing beats fade out, other sounds take over, a stationary bus shifts gears noisily as it takes on the last passenger from the bus stop, right behind the carts. The honking resumes with gusto as the bus moves out onto the road and a small traffic jam develops. A delivery boy on a cycle dashes madly past, the wooden box affixed on the back sports the name of a tandoori joint a furlong away. A group of scooters wait expectantly outside a pizza joint, ready to tear off into inner lanes with fresh orders.

Suburban energy

This is 7 Bungalows in the north-western suburb of Andheri in Mumbai, one of Bombay's many `golden quarter miles', Over a dozen restaurants of various sizes and hues can be found on this strip and on a normal day at around this time, 8.00 pm on a weekday, they are mostly or close to full. On Sundays, scores of patrons hover on the pavements outside, in eager anticipation.

Walk around 7 Bungalows on such a day and you are enveloped with an all pervading sense of excitement, of heightened activity, purpose and near carmaderie with the dozens of folks milling around or passing through. You not only want to spend time and possibly money but also come back, if nothing else, to hang out. A first-time visitor might use the term `buzz' to describe his or her emotions.

Is 7 Bungalows unique in imparting a buzz when you arrive there ? Well, not quite, hundreds of spots in the teeming metropolis of Bombay give you a similar feeling, with varying degrees - a lady visitor from Delhi, returning to the city a few weeks ago, after almost a year, remarked she felt the buzz the moment she emerged from the airport terminal.

To feel a buzz at Mumbai's airport, when the first and present reaction ought to be a combination of frustration and disgust at the mess created by the reckless construction and the pile-up of arriving and departing passengers, luggage and vehicles that drop them off and constantly whistling guards shooing away parked cars is interesting to say the least.

I Love NY, now you know why

Yet, Bombay does that to you. On every other parameter of liveability, it would score between 0 and - 10 except buzz. Most visitors over the years say they like Bombay because it has a buzz, they stay on because it does so. I would confess that I can feel the lack of it more strongly than I feel its presence, try going to Delhi, Calcutta, Madras and Hyderabad. Once again, Bangalore, I can grandly pronounce, is beginning to display the first strains of a city that has `buzz', albeit in some parts.

Is Bombay alone ? Well, no. Emerging into the bright sunlight from the underground New York Penn Station on to Manhattan's 33rd street, between 7th and 8th Avenues, you get hit with a buzz blast that, in my mind, is tough to replicate anywhere else in the world. Walk down further, on New York City's famed sidewalks and you can feel the electricity surging, traveling up your feet and into your senses.

NY street energy is of course, well documented - You feel elated, with it, removed, happy and just kicked to be there. Keep walking and you are almost one with everything around, the traffic, the fast walking commuters. Leicester Square in London comes close, on ocassion. Morning or evening, high powered waves of energy, rather than mere air seem to be coursing through this Square, which if you were to analyse clinically, is a small piece of real estate with nothing more than a few movie halls and a restaurants located around a garden.

There are of course many buzz zones, small and big, in and around where you live and of course all over the world. Bombay by night, Madrid by midnight, London by day, New York anytime !

People of the world unite

So, what constitutes buzz ? If, in most cases, it is nothing but an aggregation of hang-outs, like 7 Bungalows in Andheri, Bombay or to stretch the analogy, Leicester Square, then what really injects that form of energy into any location ?

People could be one, obvious, answer, often young people, but it does not seem to be as simple as that. Lots of young people congregations do not necessarily create a buzz, whether its a permanent location or a semi-permanent, temporary hang-out.
A Greater Kailash II hang-out in New Delhi is similarly populated at a given time, socially, demographically but buzz levels (if any !) may not be as strong as the Andheri (W) scenario described earlier.

Cities themselves create a buzz, Bombay is an example back home. Many people can relate to the lady who stepped off the plane from Delhi and felt the city's buzz touch her. Similar experiences can be had in the great Asian cities of Hong Kong, Singapore and, more recently, Shanghai.

A COO of a large Silicon Valley firm told me late last year in Shanghai that he could feel the electricity on the streets. He was comparing this visit to a previous one which obviously did not leave such a lasting impression. And Shanghai does leave you somewhat overwhelmed with its energy; manifested in the young couples on the streets quite visibly in love, the tall buildings, the cars, roads, the lights - encompassing in one city, everything about the new China that you hear so

Vast congregations of excited people are high energy and buzz centres. Watching a cricket match in a Wankhade in Bombay or an Edgebaston in England can be an exhilarating experience, to say the least. After a recent India-Pakistan match in Edgebaston where this writer was present, several desi spectators were heard remarking about the `amazing atmosphere' despite the severe drubbing the home team got. Translate that into buzz !

If its not just about congregations, what is it then ? Could it be weather ? Does moisture or humidity play a role ? Bombay is more humid so you feel the energy prickling you and Delhi, you are most probably reeling from a heat wave. Sounds a bit bizarre, doesn't it ? Guess it is, what then are the other variables ?

What according to you generates the BUZZ ?

Write the discussion continues..the writer confesses a disinct, even unfair Bombay bias versus other Indian cities !

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