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A Strap Hanger's Guide To Business Paradise
Chandrashekhar Hariharan has shown how enterprise and sustainability needn't be locked into a can't-be-won battle.
By Shreyasi Singh
Photograph by S. Radhakrishna
Chandrashekhar Hariharan defies neat introductions. Describing him as the executive
chairman of BCIL, a Bengaluru-based builder of eco-friendly homes would be
factually correct. But, it would, in no way, capture the sheer range of this gritty
entrepreneur's fascinating life. A chartered accountant by qualification, Hariharan was at
one point a financial journalist. He also has a postdoctorate in econometrics, and worked
on water and energy conservation in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Uttarakhand for
several years. Plus, he's taken a shot at no less than half-a-dozen business ventures—
most of which bombed—including starting a library, a magazine and a photocopier unit.
Today, his Rs 120-crore BCIL, which was founded in 1994, is a leading developer of
ecologically sustainable homes. Over seven projects, Hariharan has shown how enterprise
and sustainability needn't be locked into a can't-be-won battle. BCIL's homes
have pioneered green solutions, using forgotten tradition, knowledge and sophisticated
building technology, and survived doing it. That didn't seem even remotely likely
when Hariharan first sketched out a rough business plan on the back of a calendar, in
the middle of a night in 1994. But entrepreneurship, he says, is about sticking it out.
"Like a commuter who hangs on to the bus or metro strap, you can't let go. Just stay
there and in an economy like India's, even if you don't win big, you'll certainly move." He
breaks down his often turbulent business journey to give us a unique take on survival.
1. Do you have what it takes?
Through the eighties, I did a variety of things. I may have
been trained as a chartered accountant but I could never
limit myself to doing one thing all my life. In 1985, I was a
turf correspondent for the Times of India. One day, I was
told by a punter that if I invested 5,000 in the game, he
could triple it for me by the end of the day. I needed the
money to fund my plans of launching a new magazine on
horse racing, Turf Talk. I borrowed some money to give the
punter. But, I lost the entire amount. Despite the setback, I was determined to
make a go at business. I was clear that I didn't want to work for a living. Merely
making a living wastes too much time. I wanted to blur the lines between "living"
and "making a living". Sadly, my ventures would never take off like the
photocopier unit I set up with another chartered accountant in 1982, or the
lending library. Around that time, I remember reading something that has
clung on to me ever since. In an article on entrepreneurs, a little box item
emphasised the question, "Do you have what it takes?" I've always felt the line
was mocking me. For decades, I've worked to prove it wrong.
2. You can't change the world.
Reset your expectations
and have realisable dreams By the mid-nineties, after working for several years in Uttaranchal
on forestation of watershed areas and ecological preservation,
I realised I can't change the world. The need was to
make a demonstrable model that could, in turn, inspire
change. We were dreamers definitely. But we were pragmatic
enough to know that dreams must be realisable. Ecologically,
there were two areas screaming for attention—one was the
core ecosystem of biodiversity in our hills and rural areas,
and the other was our growing cities that consumed nearly everything from timber
to minerals. In rural areas, projects were driven by donor funds and government
schemes. I wanted BCIL to exist in the real market. When you are
accountable to the consumer and they benefit from your product, that's sustainability.
This could only be done in the cities where people had money. We wanted
to offer solutions to city folks who shared our need for reducing the abuse of natural
resources even as they stayed in comfortable, lovely homes.
obstin acy your
When we started out in
1994, people wondered
why we named the company
Biodiversity Conservation India. Many
warned me that it would be difficult to connect
with home-buyers. But, we were not
your regular builders. We wanted to create a
community of families who would inspire a
new lifestyle that would focus on conserving.
So we stuck to our name. We were confident
that the deeper value of conservation will be
served effectively over a long period with a
name that focused on this core mission. Still
sales calls for our first project, Trans Indus,
located on the outskirts of Bengaluru would
often draw a blank. We would wonder why
the world couldn't see what was obvious—
that we couldn't continue to consume
resources like this. But this was early 1995,
way before global warming was a concern.
We told our customers our homes will
reduce, if not totally eliminate, dependence
on the city grid for water and electricity. We
had master-planned an elaborate system for
enhancing groundwater retention, installed a
biogas digester that supplied 20KW of power.
Our waste water was to be treated, and our
swimming pool would be chlorine-free, and
not use ceramic tiles. But nobody looked or
cared for those things then.
In 1998, we very nearly shut down. In
three years, we had managed to sell only five
homes. Things were at a crawl. In fact, there
was one day where we asked all our 21
employees to leave. Salaries were not paid for
many months. We told them honestly we
would help them find jobs but we couldn't
afford them anymore. Two of these people
came back a month later and said they
wanted to continue working despite these
issues. We rode on this optimism and slowly
overcame the bad patch. Actually, in those
days, we didn't have anything much except
this bravado. My team and I had a few years
of experience in alternate energy systems,
watershed management practices and sustainable
architecture because of the work I
did in Uttaranchal. But our people were
mostly from the development sector. There
was little experience of the demands of an
enterprise. All that I'd learnt from my earlier
ventures was not how to successfully run
businesses, but how to successfully close
them! It took us five years, or till 2000, to sell
all the 60-plus homes in the Trans Indus project.
In fact, till 2002 we were essentially an
NGO-turned-enterprise. We did only
three projects during that time.
4. You can't do it alone. you'll often be lonely
The first three years were full of pain. Everything was a challenge—
customers, finances, sales. I especially didn't know how
to on-board professionals. There was a lot of people movement
in the initial years. None of us are our best when chips are
down. As an entrepreneur, I was essentially the backroom boy
who was just taking care of the market. In my anxiety, I didn't
outline our objectives. I would delegate tasks, not ideas. I
micro-managed. Today, I can see how foolish I was.
The middle layer was not professionalised even as late as the mid-2000s. If you
are the visionary, you have to have professionals who know how to convert that
vision into a process and execute it. But this isn't easy. There are so many variables
in a small business—how can you pay well if you are down, how can you get revenue
till you complete projects, how do you complete projects till you sell? It's a
vicious cycle. An outsider doesn't understand this. Unlike an entrepreneur, a professional
doesn't want to battle uncertainties. Sometimes an entrepreneur is
forced not to be transparent. In 2004, we took on a project seven times larger
than anything we had done before. I knew by then that without scale, we would
never attract professional talent. Today, our team is 230-people strong and we have
some incredible architects, designers and conservationists.
5. Don't get stuck being
When the organisation moves into a rhythm, an entrepreneur
must let go. All he should ask for the vision to get nurtured and
protected. The trouble with many of us is that we either grow
too fond of the organisation we have created, or we don't seek
an identity outside of the company we've built. It's like you dreading the
moment when your daughter will move away from home. You know it is
time, but you refuse to relent.
After 16 years of running the organisation, I am slowly coming to terms
with this. I am learning to step back. All I do is urge my senior colleagues to
internalise the core environmental values of the company. But I let them
bring process maturity and delivery effectiveness. I don't want to stand in the
way of our ambitions to scale up. Today, that finally looks possible.
With a project value base that is close to Rs 250 crore, BCIL is ready to enter
the big league. We want to build 20 million sq feet of homes by 2020. We
want to lead the industry with our model of energy efficiency, that is far
beyond what is seen even globally. We've built an enviable track record in the
last decade. BCIL has got awards from the most distinguished jury panels in
the world. The mainstream building industry will take about eight years to
catch up with us. I'm being conservative, my colleagues say. They think the
competition will easily take over a decade.