The captain with an eye for minute details
Ajit Isaac of Quess surrounds himself with his work memorabilia, which trace his career path
There is more than one story in this workplace. In fact, there are three. The Bengaluru office I’m visiting is spacious, brightly-coloured, well-populated with objects, and full of many narratives. Giving me the guided tour is its occupant, 51-year-old Ajit Isaac, chairman and managing director of Quess Corp. Ltd, a business services provider organization. Museum-like precision dominates the workspace’s look and feel. Objects are personally curated and neatly presented. “I don’t like clutter at all," he says.
When A story stays
First up is the story of his professional journey, captured by the ship behind his desk. “This is something that’s stayed with me through all my offices across the last 15 years. I read a story about it. It’s a scale-size replica of a ship that sailed almost 200 years ago in the Caribbean," he says. The metaphor of progress, journeying steadily through time, is apt. Isaac has come a long way, starting out as a labour HR officer in Godrej and Boyce’s industrial plant in Vikhroli, Mumbai, to becoming a first-generation entrepreneur. Quess is one of India’s largest employers, with a workforce of nearly 3,00,000, spanning myriad activities. It provides services that remain invisible, yet essential, to most of us, from industrial machine maintenance to staffing services, facilities management and fixing appliances.
Milestones of Isaac’s travels are placed at intervals: a photograph, on a wall next to his desk, of classmates and him after a management course at Leeds University (Isaac was a British Chevening scholar) and a shelf full of other memorabilia, such as a silver plate from The Essar Group, a former employer. He worked in leadership roles with Essar and IDFC from 1992 for eight years, before starting his own business Peopleone Consulting, a staffing solutions business in 2000. Of all the objects, a wooden axe reflects a particularly dry sense of humour. “All workmen have some tools, and I was a head-hunter so this was something to show for it, a hatchet," he jokes.
A Management drive
Another photograph on a wall near his desk, is special, showing Isaac with his key investor, Prem Watsa of Fairfax Capital, a Canada-based financier, and corporate Indian stalwarts Deepak Parekh and N. Chandrasekaran. “We were at an Invest India conference in Canada," he says, with obvious pride at being clicked in good company, adding, “a lot of people came to take a snap of four of us at that time". Isaac joined Quess (then known as IKYA) as an investor 10 years ago. He took on the role of managing director, and became its driving force, subsequently partnering with Watsa and taking the company public.
The next story is about management, and leading teams in particular. A poster of Invictus, the inspiring biopic about Nelson Mandela and the South African rugby team, has been framed and signed by Isaac’s colleagues. “Every year we have a conference for the top 30 guys of the company and one year we did something different, we watched movies like Doctor Zhivago, The Shawshank Redemption and it turned out to be the best conference!" says Isaac says. “The key lines in the movie Invictus ‘I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul’ resonated with many," he says, adding, “It’s just a good reminder of how our leadership morphed itself over time. The leadership team realized they need to take charge of their own destiny and the opportunity that Quess provided."
The captain reference is echoed by another ship metaphor. Quess’ official corporate vision, purpose and values have been given a nautical twist in their graphic design. A framed blue poster with ship references is placed across the company, to inspire teams.
Furniture has also been configured to accommodate team meetings. Isaac eschews his presidential-style desk in favour of a four-seater table placed to the side of the room. “It’s more functional, there are no barriers between people, and we can connect our presentations when we do video conferences," he says.
Most compelling, though, is the third story, for it tell us more about his leadership style and entrepreneurial drive.
Next to the four-seater table is a huge writable wall made of smaller panels, where Isaac has a detailed set of notes scribbled about his business. “I didn’t want one big board, I wanted to break my thoughts. This is my project board, then that’s the main board for discussions, this one I keep to remind myself of what we bought, various companies that we bought over periods of time, brands that we’ve got and issues relating to them, all the spaces that we deal with," he indicates, referring to the different panels of the wall.
The detailed wall explains how Isaac digests Quess’ rapid run rate. “I think how you deal with matters translates to how the organization runs. If you compartmentalize, you make it manageable. We’ve got a compound annual growth rate of 45% per annum in the last eight-nine years. To maintain that growth, to give a very decentralized method of working, yet track them on what things are going on requires a very “home-growth" style of work," he clarifies.
The map suggests a hands-on, driven entrepreneur; what lies outside confirms it. Right outside his office, located as part of the chairman’s suite, are a group of workstations dedicated to the mergers and acquisitions team, a group of young professionals who directly work with Isaac. In some organizations, such team could be part of finance or corporate strategy, but their proximity to Isaac clearly suggests the importance of the function. Quess has, after all, acquired more than 23 companies since 2007.
“There’s an entrepreneurial culture in India. Unless you seize opportunities quickly and move on that and provide a secure infrastructure for the growth of the business, you can’t succeed," he points out. His nautical manifesto is equally matter-of-fact: “Growth is the basis of our success. Operational agility is our competitive advantage."
Yet rapid growth can lead commentators to question sustainability—whether there has been too much people churn at the top, for example. The stock price has also seen a steep correction in the last few months, like many mid-caps.
Isaac acknowledges the challenges. “You have to be a smooth driver on a rough road. You have to figure out how to manage the bumps. You have to figure out when to brake, when to stop driving sometimes. I think the best drivers are the smoother drivers." Or perhaps the captains of their ships.
Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles. She is the author of Working Out Of The Box: 40 Stories Of Leading CEOs.