First Flight – Team Spirit in Action, in Patches
This is the case study I used during my presentation on Team Building. After the participants read this story, Mathews interviewed me and tried to delve into the aspect of team spirit that propelled First Flight to great heights. Then a few other participants too asked me questions and I answered them honestly.
First Flight Courier Service started operations in 1986, in Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta and Chennai simultaneously. This happened just about 3 months after my marriage.
Tired of the teaching job and the hunt for tuitions in Calcutta, I was happy I found a perch in this new company right from the start. The office of the company was in a 9’ x 5’ space, in the heart of the city. I was told by its founder’s partner in Calcutta that I would be the Manager there.
Instead I found myself in the role of a business executive, selling the services of the fledgling company. I swallowed the insult of the demotion and worked hard more out of compulsion than anything else. The first packet I booked through my effort was lost in transit.
Soon I found myself heading a team of sales people and the business grew despite the many operational hiccups. People at the top, including the founder began to notice my efforts.
One evening, towards the onset of winter, the founder of the company took me to a restaurant and over a few bottles of beer, spoke to me about his deep desires. I remember he told me then that he wanted to compete with the best in the business – Blue Dart, Skypak and DHL. He told me all these with a lot of enthusiasm and a great degree of self belief. His desire seemed farfetched to me then.
A month later, I was again called to see the founder, Mr.O.P Saboo. This time it was to tell me about a serious problem he was facing in his Chennai branch. The branch manager was not only very ineffective, but also harming the interests of the company. In a branch barely 5 months old, the 10 staff members were dissatisfied and there was a strike. He said he had no alternative other than to ask me to take charge in Chennai.
There was growth – very healthy growth every month. The staff strength also grew. So did the number of branches. From Mount Road, to Parrys to Periamet, to Teynampet…….. Then the company spread its wings outside the metro cities into the important towns of various states. In the South, branches in Coimbatore, Madurai, Salem, Cochin, Trivandrum….. were started. That was how I became a Regional Manager.
The people in charge of other regions were close relatives or friends of the founder. I was the only person outside the charmed circle of the group. The founder himself was like the guy next door.
There was something very genuine about Mr.Saboo – I called him Sabooji. He discussed with his team endlessly about ways of improving operations to provide great service. I found him an excellent communicator, despite not being very fluent in English. I began to trust and like him. The enthusiasm levels spreads to the employees. The employees were very decently taken care of – in the best way possible with the scarce resources available.
I had functional financial autonomy. I could spend as I wished and remittance to the head office was steady and healthy every month. We set a fantastic pace with regard to the growth of the business. Soon enough, we had a good HR department and then Chennai set the lead in computerizing operations. Inspired by the owner, we also took up an office space in one of the most prestigious buildings in Chennai. We contacted LIBA and arranged for training our managers heading different branches, during weekends. Very ordinary people soon were empowered with new management techniques and they spread the knowledge among their branch staff members.
Soon enough First Flight became a private Ltd company. He blessed the efforts of regions which were ready to invest money to have their own staff (OBC) flying to Mumbai, carrying their courier loads. Another path breaking idea was sending staff from major metros to Mumbai and Delhi to sort out consignments before they were loaded into the planes. First Flight thus became the only courier to assure deliveries before 10.30 am.
Then he introduced the annual conference, where managers and directors of the company would meet for about a week to talk about strategies in marketing, operations and HR. The first of such meetings was held in Ambassador Pallava in Chennai. There were about 60 people participating in the first conference. This became an annual feature. Around this time, I was also appointed as a director of the company.
The annual conferences, though very expensive, was worth every rupee invested. The conference always started with Mr.Saboo’s address, which during the initial years were prepared by me. The address always set the tone and aspirations with regard to the organization’s present and future. The conference gave every manager the forum to voice his opinion on marketing, HR and operations issues. Particularly during discussions pertaining to operations there used to be animated arguments, pointing of fingers, holding people accountable and setting strict standards. People had a field day, seeing ineffective people squirm on their seats during the conference. People became serious about producing results. They just had to because the pressure from everyone was too much for non-performers.
But at night, everyone joined together to celebrate. They drank the best of drinks and ate the best of food. They danced, sang and forgot all the animosities built up during the course of the day. Mr.Saboo mixed with everyone. People warmed up to him as a genuine person, who could be counted upon to do the right thing.
People – particularly in the South – appreciated my style of leadership. In fact, thinking about it after so many years, I hardly thought much about my role then. I was consumed by a passion which made me travel all over South India to be with my team. We worked a lot with task forces. I think they saw me as a very sincere person and they bonded with me. And we created history in growing the business.
In one of the Annual conferences of the organization, we invited a management expert to create the ‘Mission Statement’ of the company. I think this activity, which involved all the managers and top officials of the company, furthered the sense of purpose within the organization.
With the blessing of the M.D, I also roped in consultants / trainers who spoke about ‘paradigm changes’, to address the board of directors. I wish their sane and wise words were paid heed to. At times I felt there was a feeling of resisting winds of change and getting trapped in comfort zones. The M.D and the other directors felt the ‘foreign ideas’ expounded by experts should be made subservient to the ‘desi wisdom’ gleaned from First Flight’s success story.
During the annual conference and other interactions I made it a point to create in the managers a sense of pride for accomplishing one feat after another. The M.D increasingly depended on me as he saw me as an independent, fearless voice who could argue vehemently with him, while respecting him tremendously for the person and leader he was.
I was in the embrace of Serendipity during those days. The right people and the circumstances would present themselves before me. All I needed to do was ride the wave of serendipity.
Then, Mr.Saboo decided to bestow on me the greatest honour by asking me to relocate to Mumbai to function as the Director – Marketing. He also anointed me, in the presence of a directors, as his successor as he wanted to focus on building the International business. I did not latch on to that opportunity seriously enough. Others did, to thrive.
Slowly my success and the praises heaped on me by people made my head swell.
While I was in Mumbai I was visited by some personal trauma and decided to relocate to Chennai. Sabooji was so considerate that he formed First Flight Cargo and gave me independent charge of building the Cargo business of the company as its President, based out of Chennai.
I tried gamely to build the new business which I thought formed the future of First Flight or any courier company. We created a seamless software for tracking consignments. We were also getting new clients. But perhaps, I did not do enough to involve the top functionaries of the organization. The story in a nut-shell was that First Flight Cargo lost a few crores of rupees. The company, influenced by people heading finance, decided that it was time to wind up the loss making venture.
Many people who belonged to First Flight Cargo lost their jobs. I quit it all, in 1999.
The company then was doing about Rs.110 crores. First Flight is now a Rs.485 crore company.
This is a great story on the building of an organization. The story of First Flight is the story of its Founder, Sabooji. He is the glue that holds the organization. However, team work is not very evident at the top level.
Where excellent team work existed was in the region under my control. I should have focused on that part of the story where the teams under me acted as the catalyst notching up many success stories. Manoj said as much in evaluating the presentation.
The fact is, I contributed significantly by not only helping create great teams and great leaders, but also by leaving behind a legacy of an enabling culture.
Stories are the essence of training. If it is one’s own story, it is all the better. I should have done that while making sure that it is not about stoking my ego.
By the way, where is the me that created the great teams? I know the stuff a bit. It is time I again became a leader without ego constraints, letting other flowers bloom.