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An entrepreneur’s healthy balance between business and social objectives


By Moin Qazi*
All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible. — T. E. Lawrence, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”
Everyone can recognize an entrepreneur when he sees one, but no one really knows how they became one. Was it nature – they were just born to build things – or was it nurture – their environment moulded them into innovators and path builders.
They say all it takes is a few thousand rupees and a dream. Fifteen years ago, Pyare Zia Khan was not too far off from that. With twelve thousand rupees to his name, Khan decided to take the ultimate leap of faith, and set out to follow a dream and become a transporter. What finally materialized was a true rag to riches hero.
Son of a small-time grocer, Khan once lived in the slums with his mother, Raisa Khatoon wife and two daughters. From his humble beginnings, working through a lot of terrible jobs while growing up, selling oranges at a railway station and driving auto rickshaw to running the Rs 400-crore turnover transport company (Ashmi Road Transport Pvt Ltd registered, in 2013) Khan provides a lesson in integrity and adaptability.
Through hard work, and a reputation for remaining true to his internal moral compass, he was able to build a business empire that now includes a fleet of 250 trucks which he owns, and another over 3,000 trucks which he hires every day to move steel and power infrastructure across India and even abroad under his company an annual turnover of Rs 400 crore, the company has 10 branch offices across the country and employs 500 people.75% of the transporters from Central India attach their vehicles with his firm in the logistical operations that he handles for several mega businesses and which span Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh.
Khan’s story has a clear message. Business school teaching cannot by itself make an entrepreneur. It can only sharpen the entrepreneurial skills and talents that one is naturally endowed. Before setting out his business horizon, Khan was very clear about his personal goals. His ambition in life was to become a job creator, and not a job seeker. He believed that you need an idea where you can succeed by being yourself, not fail by being like everybody else. He believes in challenging the notion of work, and combining purpose and business in one place.
At the peak of his career, his advice is: “work hard, never give up and believe strongly in your dream. Don’t become complacent. Stay hungry, driven and motivated. Have a team of passionate and successful people with a diverse skill set but similar values and beliefs, all willing to help push you forward in a positive way.”
Khan is not an archetypal entrepreneur honed in a business school. He has used his own instincts to chart an entrepreneurial trajectory that has now become a sophisticated business philosophy. Behind his success is his passion for innovation in the entire values chain .incremental changes h aggregated into large gains for the business. His success is an example of how management and business lessons crystallize around ordinary individuals who use their intuition to carve a business model relevant and meaningful to their own context.
His story has a clear message: business schools, by themselves, can’t nurture an entrepreneur. They can at best polish one’s natural gifts. You are not necessarily born with an entrepreneurial genome. But there are traits and experiences fuse into a mindset that drives entrepreneurship and, crucially, helps you succeed over the long term. “Management is an application-oriented field where problems have to be solved. I have a flair for problem-solving “, says Khan.
Many young enterprises lack talented employees, coherent strategies, competitive strengths, and adequate controls. To help attract people and resources, the strategy must embody the entrepreneur’s vision of where the company is going instead of where it is. The strategy must also provide a framework for setting policies that will take the company there. Khan has a brilliant in-house team that fleshes out his vision, but it his charisma which finally overrides them and creases any wrinkles in the planning and execution.
Though he has to navigate a tough sector and a complicated ecosystem, Khan has been able to overcome or circumvent it by figuring out the contours and using approaches that recognize the gaps and help convert challenges into opportunities. One of the remarkable traits about Khan is his ability to play multiple roles. He care deeply about how his vision is implemented and feels personally invested in the outcome.
Khan never had corporate experience. He failed in matriculation examination twice before finally clearing it .While he is open to the knowledge and wisdom of business schools, he has designed an indigenous framework and feedback loop based on his own experience and his raw understanding of business. He has a team of passionate and highly skilled people with expertise in finance, business, human resources planning and strategic management who find resonance in Khan’s values and beliefs and are as keenly focused as him.
Khan trusts them and their skills; they, in turn, recognize and acknowledge his robust natural instincts. This makes for an interesting blend of a magical formula. Businesses are built with charged teams working together to create a sustainable venture in the shortest time. Team members remain as long as they perceive the goal is clear. Leadership normally delivers when it is by consent and through demonstration of competence and fairness in action.
Khan’s journey began with a driving license. He took up a job as a driver in a courier company but had to quit it because of an accident when he was 18.in 1994, when he began driving an autorickshaw on rent. Within a year, he purchased a new one with help from his mother who gave him Rs12,000. Till 2001 he drove the auto, but at the same time continued to nurse several dreams. He purchased a 52-seater bus which failed to give him the desired returns, forcing him to sell it.
Khan was also part of Nagpur’s Melody Makers group where he played the keyboard during those days. He needed a bus to ferry his group to programme venues. So he bought one by selling some of his assets but the venture couldn’t succeed. In 2004 he decided to acquire a truck. Khan obtained an Rs11 lakh loan in 2004 and purchased his first truck. “I bought the truck and worked hard by taking consignments to places like the North East, Jammu and Kashmir where other transporters refused to go,” he said. From then on, the business has been on a steep upward trajectory.
Khan’s business story has a lesson for bankers and a reflection on their appraisal methodologies. Khan’s early frustrations and setbacks were on account of the rejection of his loan application because he lived in a locality where residents had bad credit scores and were perceived as risky clients.
Technology has helped banks to extend the boundaries of what could be achieved with a given level of resources. However, while number-crunching with computers can help decision-making, it cannot replace it. Someone in a particular area might pay off your loan well, but computer modelling tells us that anyone from that area is likely to default if the credit culture in the area is bad. Digitizing and automating the lending process may result in excessive standardisation when assessing a customer’s repayment capacity. This can lead to the rejection of a loan based on opaque reasoning premised on arbitrary factors such as place of residence.
Khan chased more than a dozen banks for before a lender agreed to give him the loan.Khan succeeded because the bank manager was impressed by his reputation in the community and could see an inspired entrepreneur in him. But importantly, he was an understanding official with a healthy appetitive for risk. And that has made all the difference. Evidence also shows that the best clients have been those who got an entry not on the strength of credit scores but their reputation
Khan recollects an interesting business episode. “In 2016, I undertook an assignment for KEC International to transport their transformers to Bhutan. The transportation entailed laying a 30-km road by cutting trees in some of the troubled areas of the Northeast and propping up weak bridges on the way to our destination. We reached Bhutan after doing all that but our trucks were stuck at a welcome arch that was lower than the height of our consignment. I requested the Bhutan authorities to allow me to dig the ground and promised to re-lay it later. They agreed and it was done.” Khan’s decision paid off because, like other successful entrepreneurs, he demonstrated courage throughout the process of innovation, bearing the burden of risk and staring failure repeatedly in the face.
Khan’s recipe is clear .While the ingredients for a strategy may be the same, it is Khan’s judicious mix of ingredients in the right proportion that sparks the magic. It’s a mix of a lot of different things, but a strong work ethic is at the core. Passion, dedication and simply the belief that anything is possible has allowed him to take leaps of faith that many people would have taken
Khan’s moment of glory came in 2018, when he won the top prize in a contest for young transport entrepreneurs, a programme organised jointly by IIM-Ahmedabad and Mahindra Truck & Bus. Her he found himself with a bunch of high profile people .Unlike the other 18 contestants, two of them from the US, who were equipped with laptops and PowerPoint presentations, Khan simply stood up and presented his case, in Hindi.
“When the organisers of the contest asked me to take part, I wasn’t sure. I didn’t even know what IIM was. So I went there reluctantly, without knowing what to say,” recalls Khan. The IIM experts were astounded by his business trajectory because it defied conventional business wisdom. It appeared that the venture had been propped up by politicians. But when they made rigorous enquires and also discussed Khan’s story at great length with him they could discover a rare entrepreneur behind this meteoric business success. They recogised that Khan had a special, innate ability to sense an opportunity, reframe the possible challenges and achieve goals by combining out-of-the-box thinking with a unique brand of determination.
Khan has developed a business model that takes care of the entire logistics chain. The company has its own workshop for maintenance of its fleet. Khan explains: “We have a dedicated team to take care of truck maintenance, tyre life, servicing, etc. We have realized we save a lot in stocking our own fast-moving parts and servicing our trucks rather than opting for an Annual Maintenance Contracts. Anyway, none of our trucks are more than 5 years old and we sell them off before they demand large maintenance.”
Khan’s employees are a happy and motivated team. The reason is simple: they are paid fairly, more than the industry wages He has been actively promoting progressive people policies and practices that can builds a sense of belonging in employees .The company trusts its employees and fosters a stimulating and participatory work environment which explains for high organizational loyalty and low attrition levels. Being a believer in ethics and transparency, Khan didn’t have problems with GST.
Far from posing glitches, he said, GST has made highways clutter-free and logistics more efficient. He believes it has translated into increased uptime for trucks, decrease in idle hours, better turnaround times and optimized warehousing structure. According to him, the earlier state-level tax structure was regressive and enterprises had to put up warehouses in every state making the supply chain longer than necessary.
Khan is firmly committed to a socially responsible and ethics-driven business and lays great emphasis on transparency and fairness. His reputation as a trustworthy businessman has been the prime factor behind his rapid rise. He believes corporate philanthropy has strategic implications for business and policymakers. his social agenda touches upon a variety of areas including provision of favorable working conditions to employees, providing services that meet the highest tests of safety and reliability and reaching out through financial support in the areas of education, health, environment and sustainable development. He has acquired a large piece of land for setting up a school for his employees and for children from disadvantaged communities.
Khan’s long term goal is to keep a healthy balance between his business and social objectives. He believes that business should be conducted the way it was always meant to be—looking towards the future, practicing and building processes that are sustainable, respectful of the people involved and environmentally and socially conscious. He affirms that in a free enterprise, the community is not just another stakeholder, but is in fact the very purpose of its existence.

*Development expert

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