An engineering graduate with a postgraduate degree in operations research, S. Gopu joined telecom manufacturer, ITI – widely known for its landline phones – in 1982 as assistant executive engineer. Last year, he took over as CMD. Throughout this period, he has been exposed first-hand to virtually every job in the company, from manufacturing and technology to marketing and HR and, naturally, to how the company’s main Palakkad plant works.
When he took over as the unit head of the plant, the company’s efforts to maintain excellence were being challenged on many fronts. “As the unit head, I had to get the work done by my subordinate managers, sustain the pressure from the vibrant unions on their charter of demands and yet never miss the targets given by the corporate management. The worst was that I had to face the complicated corporate management. Despite all these 360 degree challenges, the Palakkad plant excelled in performance during my tenure,” he says. It was also, his most memorable assignment he adds.
His current responsibility is to see that the company continues on the profitable path that it has found of late and wins substantial orders. Financial stability is the top priority. That is because for 16 years, ITI did not make any profit. The big moment came last year, when it finally turned in a profit for the third quarter of 2017-18. It posted a turnover of Rs 17.01 billion in 2017-18 as compared to Rs 16.21 billion in the previous fiscal. It registered a net profit of Rs 270 million in the third quarter without any grants.
“After being sick for 16 years, ITI was able to turn around from a loss-making company to a profit-making one, owing to the timely decision-making, prudent financial measures and proactive business initiatives,” he says.
It now seems that Gopu has positioned the company firmly on the success path and it could be steered from this position to an even higher performance in the coming years. He has planned for a follow-on public offer for the company’s financial management and at the same time he intends to motivate the workforce to keep them and their families happy.
At present, he says the telecom sector is dynamic and competitive and expected to continue like this in the foreseeable future. “Every telco has to keep abreast with technology and offer services at the most affordable prices. Striking a balance between technological advancements and competitive offerings is a big challenge for operators. This reflects in the entire value chain with all stakeholders trying to give the best of the breed at a low cost,” he says.
ITI has chalked out significant strategies to meet the telecom requirements of the country. Enhancing manufacturing and diversifying into emerging areas of business such as Internet of Things and smart cities have given the company new prospects for revenue.
Gopu says it is poised to deal with broadband connectivity, smart systems, data centres and secured communications. He sees growth in wireless broadband connectivity and smart systems – infrastructure, IT solutions, and applications. ITI, he says, is perfectly equipped to make the most of this expected growth because of its huge manufacturing infrastructure, spread across five units, a committed workforce and an energetic management. Last year, ITI’s Naini unit emerged as a successful solar unit, which is planning to set up 500 kWp of solar energy capacity for captive use.
Coming back to ITI’s 16 long years as a sick and ailing company, one needs to take a look at its past to understand why this came about. The company, which was shielded in the past by government rules, started incurring losses in the early 2000s owing to falling telecom equipment prices, with the entry of various multinationals.
This, coupled with rapid changes in technology, high production and employee costs and the fact that its research and development capability was taken away and given to the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), was a major factor in its downfall. In 2003, it was declared sick and referred to the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction the following year. However, the assistance that ITI received was mostly non-cash, including loan write-offs. A proposal to make the company the sole supplier to the armed forces was rejected.
However, last September, it won a Rs 70 billion deal from the defence ministry to deploy and maintain Phase IV of the Indian army’s modern communication network, Army Static Switched Communication Network (ASCON), across the country. ASCON was established by ITI 25 years ago. It has been maintaining the network to date. The network is the army’s telecom backbone and is being implemented in phases along the country’s borders. The company was pleased with taking up ASCON Phase IV. Under the project, telecom solutions and infrastructure will be provided, with a warranty period of two years and network maintenance support for eight years after the warranty period.
“After being sick for 16 years, ITI was able to turn around from a loss-making company to a profit-making one, owing to timely decision-making, prudent financial measures and proactive business initiatives.”
On a roll, last November the company signed an MoU with C-DAC to collaborate in the area of IoT. Under the MoU, ITI will manufacture and market various IoT products being developed by C-DAC for specific smart city components like a smart environment, smart agriculture, smart poles, smart water management, smart traffic management, and smart safety and security. It also aims to provide end-to-end IoT solutions and services to central and state government establishments, and to large enterprises. Now, the only area where Gopu still wants the company to improve is its marketing set-up, but this too is being revamped.
As for Gopu’s own strengths, these are his passion for working at ITI (as is demonstrated by the 36 years he has been with the company), his self-motivation (“since I lost my father at an early age, I had to face a lot of struggles, so ‘never give up, keep fighting’ has been my motto”), the ability to think out of the box, timely follow-ups of tasks at hand, and a capacity to handle tough trade union issues.
“As CEO, I believe in delegating work and responsibilities rather than micro-managing. However, whenever there are difficult challenges, I plunge into situations and take the lead in handling them. In this way, the junior staff can learn to handle situations themselves subsequently,” he says.
Gopu went to a municipal school and graduated from the prestigious University of Madras (A.C. College of Technology) in chemical engineering. For his postgraduate course in operations research, he went to the College of Engineering, Guindy, Chennai.
As a young man, he dreamt of going abroad to work. He wanted to see the world – partly because he had grown up in a small Tamil Nadu town (although he comes from Andhra Pradesh). But his desire to go abroad didn’t last long. After joining ITI, he changed his mind. He enjoyed such a high level of job satisfaction at ITI that he abandoned those tentative plans and devoted himself to the company.
Gopu starts his day at 6.30 a.m. with a walk and meditation and after finding out what’s going on in the world, he has breakfast. He reaches the office at 9.30. “My day is tightly packed with meetings to discuss strategy, project development, etc. I ensure that I finish review meetings and discussions with vendors/visitors on various business proposals before leaving for lunch. I always prioritise my tasks to meet deadlines.”
Work often spills over to after he gets home. His family are by now used to this routine, though they don’t always accept it without protest.
When not working, Gopu enjoys visiting temples and other places of interest.