Thursday, September 11, 2008

Virtual Marathon



As a rookie Management Trainee, I had inherited from him the Barsati at Dr Shirole’s Paediatrics Nursing Home – near the Fergusson College (in Pune), as he - being a confirmed Manager - moved up into a prized ‘River-view’ apartment by the mosquito infested Mulla – Mutha in Koregaon Park (the added bonus was the then buzzing Rajeneesh' Osho Ashram just up his street, pun intended) . But, what he didn’t hand me down was his famed little ‘black book’, which – according to his batchmates – contained the telephone numbers of some 200 girls. In college and at the IIM he was known to be a “killer” and with his mobike, his smile, his manners he was every bit of the guy for whom girls fell – like the proverbial ninepins. His friends called him – not inappropriately, I suppose – “the Geese” (twisting his last name a bit).

Yet there was an innocent and trusting side to him. Very early in my stint, I was sent to investigate a cash defalcation at his unit. All fingers pointed at one man - the affable and genial Plant-in-Charge – who was a ‘god-father’ of sorts to the all the staff. Till the end, before evidence nailed him, Rahul refused to believe that he could be the one who had his hand in the till. The only thing odd about this guy, he said, was that he had never introduced his wife to him. Something we joked was perfectly understandable given Rahul’s rakish reputation and only went to prove the man’s deep and furtive instincts.

'Sweemeing and Break-faast'

We struck a rapport after this little saga and the standing joke between us was to go for "sweemeeing and break-faast” (sic) for which our boss – a vet by training - had invited us as a placatory tactic to cover his embarrassment at our blowing the lid of a scandal which he had tried hard to shove – quite literally - under the huge pile of maize in our Animal Feeds factory.

Soon thereafter, from feeding poultry and cattle, Rahul graduated to selling chocolates and milk powder at Nestles. Between all that, the ‘cat’ was nettled by Jamuna (much to the disappointment, we conjectured, of his country cousin ex-Director, who - we used to tease Rahul - surely had his eyes on him as a prospective s-i-l; tho' his daughter later surprised him by marrying someone - to use his own words - from the ‘cow-belt’). I suspect the “Geese” in Rahul was finally grounded by the arrival of their 2 daughters Diya and Nayana (whom I haven’t met yet) – as daughters are wont to do to their Dads (don’t I know!!).

Track 2

And, before long – we heard the Vergheses had shifted to Chicago, where Rahul had taken up a job with Motorola. We were in touch, very infrequently, mostly on email – speaking a couple of times over the phone when I was visiting the US. While in Kathmandu, I recall meeting his Dad (a doyen among Editors – now a near extinct species) who had come as the leader of a ‘Track 2’ Diplomatic delegation to discuss the ever-so-sensitive issue of joint water resource management with Nepal. The old man told me that, Rahul had taken to running in a big way and was going to take part in the next Chicago Marathons. Not being an athletic type myself, I didn’t know what to make of that. Since we were all by now over the 40s mark – I thought it would at best be jogging across the park rather than around it.


After that, we lost contact for a while until I suddenly came across his by-line in a fitness column of the MINT sometime early last year – thus figuring out that they were back in India. I obtained his co-ordinates from a common friend and spoke to him. We promised to meet up soon and go for “sweemeeing and break-faast”, which needless to add never happened.

On the edge

Next – a few weeks ago on a flight, I saw this article in the Saturday Supplement of the Business Standard titled “On the edge of the mainstream”. It was about, “ A few good people who decided to good jobs for better ideas” and Rahul (Salim) Verghese was one of them.

Reading on – I discovered, quitting his job at Motorola, Rahul had set up his own company Running and Living Infotainment Pvt Ltd (http://www.runningandliving.com/) to promote “running” among Indians. He calls himself the “Chief Believer” of the company. Quite a shift from “Sweemeeing” , I thought.

The concept was - to put it mildly – alien to someone like me. We were brought up in a company culture – where Golf was taboo and any other form of sports or physical exercise was gently discouraged – as it would be seen as lack of 100% dedication to the job. Any mention of the need to keep fit was disparaged with a gentle reminder of the rather generous medical benefits the company provided to take care of any old age ailments and in case you copped it while in harness – the superannuation package was unmatched in the industry (thus ran the adage that ‘ ours may not be the best company to work for but it is a great company to die for or retire from' ).

But is their money in Marathons (especially in India) – beyond the few corporate sponsored runs in the Mumbai, Delhi and now also singara Chennai? Evidently, Rahul believes there is.


the ADA syndrome

It seems that ever since ADA made running a status statement – Corporate India has taken to running in a big way. A classic example is Rahul and my old company – which has shed its sedentary (and sedate) image and running has become kind of a cult in the organization. It started with, I believe, the previous Chairman, a close buddy of ADA joining him for the occasional long jogs, followed by the expat CEO who came after him, who was an avid runner even in his mid fifties, inspiring along the way some of his other colleagues – young and old – to hit the road with him.

This lent weight to the hypothesis that, the climb up on the corporate ladder happens on a horizontal track. The theory was proven by the appointment of the new CEO – who is not only the youngest, but also - probably - the fittest, to have decisively piped his peers to the post.

But interestingly – the business model of Rahul’s company isn’t based on sponsorships alone. They sell affordable running gears and most importantly conduct leadership and team building workshops using running as a means to promote energy, health, optimism, self confidence and, of course, high performance. Additionally, they mentor running clubs within the organisation so that this becomes a powerful self-sustaining 'movement'.

His company’s brand line reads – “Unleash your Potential: "Do not lower your expectations to your abilities but raise your abilities to your expectations". I say, those who can - run. Others write Blogs. I call it “Virtual Marathon”.