Ma Foi K Pandiarajan
He lights up hope in everyone he meets, like a lamp that ignites a hundred others and glows brighter. K Pandiarajan, founder of the Rs. xxx crore Ma Foi, India’s no.1 human resources company, started life as a child worker in a match factory in Sivakasi.
“My very birth brought unhappiness to many,” recalls Pandiarajan. “I was an “unlucky” child in a community riddled by superstition; my father
died within three months of my birth, just as some soothsayer had predicted on reading my horoscope. Forsaken by all, I came under the loving care of my grandparents. We lived in the small village of Vilampatti near Sivakasi, known as a mini Japan those days. Grandfather was a cook by profession. He was a man of rough exterior, a stubborn man. I was grandma’s pet. Match manufacture was a cottage industry in the Sivakasi region, and I worked in one such ‘’match factory” after school. Until I went to college my fingers were inseparable from the odour of the chemicals that went into making matches.
“The product we helped manufacture might have brought light, but ours was a life of darkness. I found refuge from poverty in my studies. The greater our suffering, the harder I worked. My hunger, my thirst for knowledge, for success, made me a class topper throughout. Fortunately, there were no obstacles in my way, as my academic excellence brought pride and honour to my school and my village. My grandparents and my maternal uncles spared no effort to educate me, even if it meant that they had to starve.
“A new door opened for me when I gained admission to the PSG College at Coimbatore. I was one of the few Tamil medium students to be admitted there. Though English was a challenge initially, my school education in the Tamil medium had laid a strong foundation for me.
“I made friends easily with my classmates and their families, though I had not the slightest idea that this natural gregariousness would one day help me reach heights in the human resources development field. I became an honorary son of the parents of all my male classmates. I invariably went to the home of one of my friends to spend my vacations. As a good student, I was always welcome at their homes.
“My friends encouraged me whenever I felt low in self-esteem. They assured me that I had ability. One of them, Subramanian, sent me the MBA application form for admission to the Xavier Labour Relations Institute, the excellent institute of higher learning run by Christian missionaries at Jamshedpur. It was a turning point in my life. He helped me shed my inferiority complex by telling me I could compete with smart youngsters from privileged backgrounds. When I received my admission letter, I could not believe my luck.
“At the interview, I was literally in rags compared to my well-dressed peers. Yet my good grades got me in. The next step was to secure a bank loan, which was made easy by the excellence of the institution I was about to join. I soon became the cynosure of all eyes when I earned the Hindustan Lever scholarship for MBA students after a written competitive test. I became the most wanted person in my class, as Lever would hire the scholarship winners during campus placement at the end of the course. I was guaranteed a job in an MNC within three months of joining MBA. The village yokel was now the fount of wisdom every student sought out as a mentor.
“I had never known a woman so far—if you did not count my mother and grandmother. A girl entered my life now. I was love-struck. She was bright and beautiful. And she cared for me. It was a novel experience. For the first time in my life, I neglected my studies, lovelorn. I became a backbencher in class.
“It was shortlived. What she felt for me was sympathy for my poverty, not love, I was to find out. All of a sudden, life lost its meaning for me. I became a victim of self-pity, cursing my ill luck.
“Life was not worth living, I decided. I was so crazy that I tore up the Hindustan Lever job application form. All my classmates took up attractive jobs, but I joined an ordinary firm on a monthly salary of Rs. 5,000. Still, it was a good start for someone of my background, the best yet in my family. For the first time in my life, I faced the frightening, routine prospect of marriage and an average existence, with an average job.
“Having slid down rapidly in a real life game of snakes and ladders, I tried to resurrect my old self-confidence, and grab a ladder.
“The darkest hour is before dawn. I was confident that the doors of success would open if I worked hard, with patience. My experience has proved that confidence right.
“An American expert commissioned to put out a fire that broke out in an oil well in Andhra Pradesh needed 35 engineers to assist him in the project. The Australian HR firm appointed to hire these personnel included 31 Indians in the list of 35 it recruited in all. Of course, an Indian oil major was to pay their salaries!
“The Australian company received a fee of one million dollars for the assignment, higher than the annual income of India’s top human resource enterprise. The episode had a strong impact on me. I could not reconcile myself to the idea that a foreign company earned such huge revenue out of a transaction involving an Indian company and the Indian engineers it hired. We still see the Indian population in excess of a billion people as a burden, not as the huge asset it is.
“Under pressure to find a job, I wondered if it wasn’t a better idea to start an HR company myself instead. My wife Lata supported me in my venture and gave the new business the French name Ma Foi, which meant “my word.” Our dream venture was born on 15 August 1992. Today a Rs. 600 crore enterprise, Ma Foi was launched with a capital of Rs. 60,000.
“We started selecting the right candidates for different prospective employers, training them and sending them on their way to their jobs. We swore never to collect any fees from the job seekers. Our promise to employees was the result of all the bad news we constantly read of people seeking jobs overseas being taken for a ride by unscrupulous employment agencies. Our decision to collect fees only from employers was the first and most important step in our journey.
“According to an old saying, we plan to fail when we fail to plan. My wife and I sat down together to draw up Ma Foi’s objectives and plans, like parents plan their children’s future.
“I was our first full time employee, and Lata a part time resource. I went round on a motorcycle and knocked on the doors of several companies, carrying my dreams everywhere.
“It was not the industry practice then to meet job applicants personally. Recruiters asked them to mail their resumes and applications or drop them in a box at the office. We broke the tradition, by welcoming job aspirants with a cup of coffee and personal interaction. This helped us to match individual expectations with job specifications, as many tended to seek positions for which they were not suited, not really knowing their own attributes. Through personal interviews, we were able to assess the candidate’s qualities accurately and find them suitable employment, earning a good reputation in the process.
“Regardless of our success in finding jobs for the young applicants who came to us, we managed to convert most of them into our ambassadors, thanks to the trouble we took over these personal interactions. The young people who came to us seeking careers were our unofficial ambassadors.
“A poor young man from the Gudiyattam region of Vellore district was the first job applicant we placed abroad. He almost became a victim of the monopolistic practices of Mumbai based HR majors which placed obstacles in the path of smaller HR agencies. Successful candidates in the overseas job market had to go to Bombay to obtain medical certificates. These big companies made sure such candidates were declared medically unfit by bribing the officials concerned. When our young man was similarly treated, we were in tears along with him. We almost got into a street fight with the medical certificate issuer. We had to threaten legal action to obtain the medical certificate. He eventually left for Doha to take up a job that would pay him a monthly salary of Rs. 40,000. The gratitude in his eyes when we saw him off at the airport was incredibly motivating.
“The world famous Apple Computers opened in India and decided to hire 300 employees. The company approached many Indian HR firms. In a highly competitive situation, we were given the job, based on our blameless track record. It was a huge opportunity for us. Advertisements were released across India in all the leading magazines, calling for applications for jobs in Apple to be sent to Ma Foi. The campaign gave us great visibility. We won the confidence of educated youth with our slogan Ma Foi shapes your future.
“Ups and downs are inevitable in business. We created an atmosphere of employee participation in the growth of Ma Foi, which enabled everyone to share the success of the company, thus reducing the chances of failure.
“The journey that began with an individual has now grown to accommodate more than 30,000 employees joined together in one common goal. Ma Foi, which opened its first office near a slum, now has offices in 14 countries. Ma Foi places one person every two minutes of an eight-hour workday, some 5,000 new employees every month somewhere. Our next goal is to place one person per minute.
Pandiarajan has a keen sense of social concern and expresses it when he speaks of the charitable work his company participates in and encourages.
“Every year we spend more than a crore of rupees on education and health through the Ma Foi Foundation. When an employee involves herself in social service, we give them suitable credits in their performance appraisal. We give such employees six days’ leave with pay annually to do social work. We have many more dreams. The sky is the limit.”