N.S. Narendra: The Fire Fighter
Image: Mallikarjun Katakol for Forbes India
Name: N.S. Narendra
Profile: Chairman and managing director of Firepro Systems
He Says: When trust goes down, your cost of living and your cost of doing business go up. While we can bridge the gap in safety and security, what do you do to bridge the trust gap?
For the elderly gentleman who had worked all his life at the Karnataka Electricity Board, where he had risen up the ranks to become a junior engineer, it was a moment of great disappointment. His 22-year-old son N.S. Narendra (Naren to his family), who had just finished engineering at Mysore’s National Institute of Engineering, had been selected for the Indian Army and was sent for his medical tests to Pune. But, without informing anyone, he had come back.
The family lived in Coorg, a land known for the valour of its men in uniform. For the next few days, the family had an embarrassing time explaining what had happened, and worse, what would their boy do now?
Naren was sent to a relative’s place in Chennai for guidance. The relative, A.D. Naniah, worked for Macneil and Magor and had asked the unsure young man what he wanted to do. Naren said he wanted to do something on his own. Naniah told him it would be better for him to work for some time and then, after getting some experience, consider such an option. He referred Naren to his Mumbai golf buddy, who worked for Minimax, a company in the business of fire engineering. “Join a sector that is about to take off, where nothing major exists today,” was his advice.
Naren listened to him and moved to Bangalore where he joined Minimax. The company sold fire extinguishers and alarm systems; there were few takers in a place like Bangalore, which was still dominated by large public sector undertakings. Naren was restless. After just a year-and-a-half there, armed with a loan of Rs. 25,000, he jumped into entrepreneurship with a friend. The business bombed. The family was shattered, again.
Cut to 2011. N.S. Narendra is chairman of Firepro Systems, a leader in its sector, with 1,300 employees and a business of Rs. 700 crore. He dreams of building a billion dollar company by 2020. I want to know what happened between his first venture going up in smoke two decades ago and today.
“I wanted to start all over again and this time I wanted to do it by myself. Other than Minimax, there were no significant players. The sector was opening up. High rise buildings and large public spaces were coming up and the government started mandatory fire safety rules. Multinational companies started opening offices in India and they followed strict safety codes. But I did not want to be just another player. I wanted to build a great team that would be the best in design and system integration.”
But Naren had no money. This was when two angels arrived. Friend Pappee offered to pay the Rs. 1 lakh deposit to rent an office where Naren, an office boy and another friend’s girl-friend who joined as secretary, started the business. Then, Naren did the smartest thing an entrepreneur can do: He hired a salesman and printed him a box of business cards. The four hunkered down, picking up a deal here and a deal there.
One day, a man walked in asking for the salesman. “Our building secretary has sent me to bring with me someone named Ramesh,” he said. Ramesh, the salesman, had been cold calling the secretary of an upcoming residential complex, but had abandoned the prospect. Now the secretary was asking Naren to step in, and step up.
The gentleman was willing to try out the unknown outfit and though he wanted a lower price, he was sympathetic enough to offer better payment terms so that Naren could manage the cash flow. It was a Rs. 36 lakh job. From then on, it was one turn-key job after another. Friends and benefactors buoyed him, as did a banker — Krishnamurthy at the Canara Bank on M.G. Road in Bangalore — who told him that he was impressed with his dealings with the bank and offered to significantly increase the borrowing limit.
Naren built his business on a foundation of goodwill. “I trust people. I trust easily.”
But what do you do when people fail you? Renege on their word? Leave you in losses?
“That is inevitable. It is how our faith in trust is tested. We cannot simply give up when such things happen.”
I am fascinated with the equanimity of the 43-year-old who sits on a business that has attracted alliances with world leaders and built fire safety systems for the international airport in Mumbai, Formula 1 race tracks in Abu Dhabi, ITC’s best hotels in India, and countless facilities for companies such as Microsoft, Intel and Sun. I have two more questions for him.
What is the one thing he wonders when he thinks of his clients?
“When trust goes down, your cost of living and your cost of doing business go up. While we can bridge the gap in safety and security, what do you do to bridge the trust gap?”
And, finally, what according to him is the most critical factor to withstand the singe of personal success when you build a great business organisation?
There is a moment of silence. Then in an unassuming voice, he tells me, “We must have the power to contain power.”
Subroto Bagchi is co-founder & gardener, MindTree and a best-selling author. His brief: Every fortnight, exchange tales of the road with successful entrepreneurs