Mr. Sumit Chandwani is a stalwart in the Private Equity industry in India.
Sumit Chandwani BE ’89 Industrial Engineering, was till recently an Executive Director at ICICI Ventures. He has over 20 years of experience in private equity, project and structured finance. He was awarded the Private Equity Professional of the Year by Asian Venture Capital Journal in 2010. He has been involved in all aspects of the investment process and has led transactions in VA Tech Wabag, Ace Refractories, PVR Ltd.,etc. Prior to ICICI he was with GE Capital where he was the Country Head for GE's Vendor Financing business in India.
Rohit Kumar recently got a chance to catch up with him for IIT Roorkee Alumni Spotlight and talked with him on a number of different topics.
On his background, upbringing and his path to IIT Roorkee
My dad worked in the Military Engineering Service and we moved every three years from one city to another. That experience helped me become willing to experience new things, work with new people and be open to new ideas and thoughts. This has really helped me over the years.
I did my high school in Kendriya Vidyalaya in Jorhat, a small town in Assam. I didn’t have a lot of expectations when I gave the competitive exams. I was in Assam when the results came out for Roorkee. They had not been published in the local newspapers in Assam, so, I asked my brother, who was in Delhi at the time, to check the results – he could not find my roll number on the list.
In the meantime I had got admission to the Delhi College of Engineering and St. Stephen’s. So, a month later, I was in Delhi trying to decide where I should join. Out of the blue, I got a frantic call from my father that I had gotten a letter of admission from University of Roorkee and I had to pay fees by the very next day if I wanted to join. We rushed to Roorkee the next day. Once I saw the campus, there was no question in my mind – I was going to Roorkee.
On his four years at Roorkee
Roorkee in my memory is one with no blemish. We had been scared of ragging going in but I never had a bad experience – instead, I ended up making friends with a lot of my seniors. I had never played squash before but loved it so much when I did that I was there three hours everyday. I view IIT Roorkee as an experience rather than as an academic institution – one that helped me round and develop my personality and broadened my horizons. I do wish I focused a little more on academics – I did well enough but tended to focus on results rather than studying for the love of it. (Note - Sumit was department rank 2 in Industrial Engineering, part of the University squash team and an active participant in Cultural Society)
One of my fondest memories is of the Thomso Cultural Festival. I look back and marvel on how professionally and efficiently we managed everything – at par with anything that event planners and organizers do now. I still remember being a part of the control room team in my first year and running it in my final year – we’d be up all night, making sure everything ran smoothly and having fun along the way.
On his path to Management after graduating from Roorkee
In my first year at Roorkee, I wanted to switch my branch to Mechanical. As things would turn out I missed out on the opportunity to change branches by a whisker. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Industrial Engineering had a lot of management related courses as a part of the program. I found them more interesting than my engineering classes and decided that I wanted a career general management instead of engineering. So, even though I had a couple of offers with great companies on campus in my final year, I decided to join IIM Bangalore for an MBA.
This is just an example, but whenever I have had failures in life, I have looked back realized that things have worked out for the better.
About his transition into the professional world
During my MBA, I really enjoyed my Finance courses. So I actively sought out a career in Project Finance - I thought it would leverage both my interest in Finance and my engineering background. I accepted an offer from ICICI and started with them in 1991 – right when India started the liberalization of its economy. It was a great time to start a career when the shackles of the economy were broken and the entrepreneurial spirit of people came out in abundance. I worked with a number of industries – textiles, sugar, chemical. ICICI was a fantastic place to start a career from – it had an open culture and allowed youngsters like me to experiment, make mistakes and learn. I also met my wife at ICICI. Around the time we got married towards the end of 1994, I moved to GE Capital.
About his stint with GE
I was in India with GE and then moved to the US for a year or so in 1998. This was post-Asian crisis in 1997 and I was working on debt deals in Thailand and Japan. The experience was fantastic - GE is a great organization. It was also wonderful working with people with several nationalities that were a part of our group.
I was offered a permanent position in GE Capital in the US at the end of my stint. In India, I was offered the position to lead the Western region as a vice president. Even though, back then, US was still a better choice in terms of lifestyle etc., I chose to come back to India for two reasons. First, my wife would have better professional opportunities in India. Second, GE was a very large organization in the US and it was easy to get lost in the ocean of people in GE whereas GE India seemed to offer better growth opportunities for me. A lot in life is about being in the right place at the right time and my move worked out well for us. I ended up running the western region and then was the country head for one of GE’s businesses for GE for a while.
About his move to Private Equity
I made a switch to Private Equity from structured finance because it allowed you to work more closely with a smaller set of companies for a longer period of time while project finance was much more transactional. This happened in 2000. Soon after I made the move, we were hit by the dot com bust. It was a terrible time to be in Private Equity – there was no money to be raised and no money to invest. But we had a good portfolio of companies and we tightened out belts and worked closely with our portfolio companies to help them tide over the crisis. I even had to shut down companies - fire everybody and then auction furniture, computers etc. I had to negotiate with banks on debt payments. Fortunately, we were able to turn a few of our companies into winners - Naukri.com, IndiaInfoline I saw the difference between successful companies in tough environments and others that fell by the way side. I saw people who flourished in adversity while others faded away. That period shaped my views on investment and building successful organizations.
Later, we raised a fund that turned out to be one of the most successful funds in the Indian Private Equity landscape. It was around this time that India’s economy did really well and the economic center of the world started to shift towards emerging markets. We did a number of leveraged buyouts and growth capital investments and very successful in our efforts.”
On accomplishments he is most proud of
On the professional front, we did some really successful transactions in the mid-2000s. For example, VA Tech was a 25 million dollar company when we made our investment in 2005. Today, it is 300 million dollar enterprise with presence in 15 markets. In the process, we created a lot of wealth for the employees. In fact, the VA Tech deal earned me an award as the Private Equity Person of the Year in India but more importantly, I feel proud that I helped the company and its employees realize their potential and dreams.
On the personal side, my son had to undergo a kidney transplant when he was six years old. It was a tough time for us as a family. But we tried our best - we got the kidney transplant done in India with a very novel, steroid-free protocol that had never been tried in India before. It all turned out fine. I feel proud as a parent that our family managed to go through the crisis and emerge stronger.
On professional opportunities in India
I come across a lot of very smart, driven youngsters who are working in the US now but want to come back to India. In the last year, we hired three such youngsters at ICICI Ventures. But Private Equity is just one example, opportunities are all over the place. The biggest opportunity we see is the lack of professional managers to manage fast growing businesses. A lot of companies see scale up challenges today – they reach the phase of 50-100 million dollars in revenues based on the entrepreneur’s passion, drive and commitment. But when you want to scale up the firm from small to medium and large, you need professional managers. That, I my opinion, is really where the opportunities are.
On balancing professional and personal life
I don’t know if I have been perfect at it either. But it starts with clarity of what you want to do - if you are clear about what you want to do and how you want to get there, life becomes a lot easier.
I have seen a lot of people in the corporate world that are activity oriented, not results oriented - they see the need to be busy rather than the need to be productive. That needs to change.
There are weekends where I am working. There are weekdays where I go out for lunch with my wife because I happen to be free that afternoon. For me it is not about switching off and on between family and work – it’s about managing both simultaneously. And it’s also about finding time to do things you want to do.
On what attributes make some people successful and others fail?
One attribute that I have seen in everyone who has been successful is the ability to deal with uncertainty when things are not well defined. A lot of people want everything defined, things moving to schedule. But the world is full of uncertainties, of unknowns. Everyday, things change and you need to be able to react to these changes. It is a skill no business school, no engineering school prepares you for. But that ability to not be scared of the unknown and win in such an environment is a real differentiator.
On some words of advice for youngsters starting out in their careers
Most young professionals today are much more focused on what they want – which is great. When we were in college, we were much more clueless. But one thing I would suggest is being more focused on the big picture and the longer term when it comes to money. Because at the end of the day, people are doing to be successful in environments they are passionate about.
The second thing I would suggest is to take risks. The timing may be different for different people. All the risks will not work out. But the process will enrich you. And it does not always have to be entrepreneurship, it can be working for a small company with potential, it can be taking a project that is perceived as high risk within a large company. I see a lot of people who venture out, are not successful and then come back to jobs. But they are just better managers and better people because of that experience.
Follow your passion and take risks and things will work out in the long run.