Dynamic Duo - 88 : Sowing seeds of sincerity
Prashath Rajan, Deputy General Manager, Tionale Pte Ltd, Singapore and Mahalakshmi Iyer, Vice President, Wealth Product Management, HSBC, Singapore are a dynamic couple who laid a strong career foundation in India before they took up professional opportunities in Singapore. Now, working in one of the best corporate cultures in Asia, both believe that working hard and taking on every responsibility that comes your way when you are a fresher in the corporate world leads to a smoother career as you climb up the ladder. Believing in the philosophy of give and take and the power of gratitude, they admirably balance work and life, bringing up their three year old son Agastya with help from parents and their Filipino caretaker Gerlie
‘There will be impact of AI, but with technology, there would be another set of increased work for humans to take care of technology. Our roles might change. For example, I would perhaps be more focussed on managing the digital platform rather than client interaction. There is no end to technology development...’
Prashath has over a decade’s experience in international trading, product sourcing, sales & business development, key accounts management and team management. Currently associated with Tionale Pte ltd, Singapore, he is primarily responsible for business development functions and growth responsibilities in markets for APAC & ASEAN markets that include Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Japan and Korea.
Mahalakshmi, in her role as VP, Wealth Product Management, takes care of all the processes that are being designed in the retail bank for wealth products. She is also in charge of wealth system changes that may be required to be done for streamlining existing wealth processes as well as for new wealth processes. She began her career as a relationship manager in HSBC, Pune. Today, she is the vital go to person between the relationship manager and the customer.
Corporate Citizen interviewed Prashath and Mahalakshmi over a WhatsApp call to bring its readers the tenacious, hardworking, fun loving and thoroughly professional couple who represent India abroad and bring high repute to the country. They spoke at length about their personal and professional lives which should inspire young professionals at the beginning of their corporate career.
Corporate Citizen: how did both of you meet?
Mahalaxmi Iyer: I was the one who expressed my feelings towards him first, as I was infatuated with him in the first semester itself and subsequently we became best friends. He is one of the calmest and non-judgmental persons I’ve ever met. He will analyse the situation and even a take a step or two back, if required. In contrast, I’m on the hyper side and can get excited quite easily. Hence, he is the perfect foil for me. Even now, with our three year old son Agastya, he is overly particular about cleanliness which sometimes gets to me, but I know that it is for the betterment of everyone. He is a much more organised person and believes that there’s a place for everything and everything should be in order!(phew). Other than that, he is the perfect partner I could have asked for and we are living happily together.
What attracted you towards her, how did you feel when she took the first step? What did you like about her?
Prashath Rajan: I got connected to her through a common friend who was in my section, and was a Tamilian. In the initial two weeks of joining college, we had presentation sessions so we had formed groups. Each group was divided into sections. My friend mentioned that he had another friend who also spoke Tamil and was from Pune. We got introduced and exchanged pleasantries. Then, we frequently came across each other and that’s how our friendship grew. At that point in time, I didn’t really have any special feelings. It started more likely from the second semester when I joined her group and went around with her friends whenever we had the time.
In hindsight, I feel she is one of the most unassuming and simple girls, with no air about her. She is also not too materialistic and very down to earth. We also come from the same South Indian background, so it became one more reason to connect. As a friend, I had visited her house quite frequently. Her parents’ hospitality was very cordial, which brought us further close to each other. These were a few things that spurred us into a relationship.
She is a bit finicky and gets really stressed about small things. Professionally she is very calm and well in command, but when it comes to the personal front, she gets agitated over things which she can manage on her own; only she needs to get a bit organised.
Mahalaxmi, tell us something about your profession.
Mahalaxmi: I am now in the product team. I take care of process streamlining platforms, which also includes wealth system implementation. I got placed at HSBC, Pune and then I moved here. In about six months’ time, I moved back into HSBC, Singapore. I have not worked anywhere else so this is my 12th year running and I am still with HSBC. I started off as a relationship manager in Pune for about three and a half years and after moving to Singapore, I moved in the offshore banking department as an offshore relationship manager and managing clients from Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Then for about four and a half years now, I have been in the product team, leading the process streamlining division.
How is the professional culture in singapore as compared to india?
Mahalaxmi: From a working culture perspective, if you are with a multinational company, the environment remains pretty much the same everywhere. But obviously, you are a little bit reserved here because there are people from various backgrounds and nationalities; so you very seldom have a particular judgement about anybody and you tend to be as neutral as possible from a personal interaction perspective. In the organisation here in Singapore, I feel it is more professional compared to India. Even the working hours, which are more flexible, and the quickness in replying to an email is more prompt and comfortable. People working in HSBC in India with respect to Singapore are pretty much similar to the work culture here, which is what made it so seamless for me to move back.
Prashath: I have worked with LG, which is a Korean company, back in India. Here, I work for a local Singaporean company, Tionale Pte Ltd. The major difference I actually see is that, while the work stress is pretty much the same, it is imparted more professionally here. Back at LG, the pressure was direct and you could face it head on. Here it is different, it is a professional environment, nothing comes directly. Everybody knows their own responsibilities and carries them out with an undercurrent of stress. You are able to manage the time between work, travel, and your personal commitments well enough to have a balance overall.
What about work hours?
Prashath: I work from 9:30 am to 7 pm and it is flexible to an extent if you have any personal commitment at home or any festivals etc. In the case of Mahalakshmi, with her current role, she has the option to work from home. At the end of the day, it is about getting the work done.
Mahalaxmi: Also, it is about the trust that you build with your supervisors and teams. Obviously, we have grown now in the organisation, so people trust you when you say you will be a couple of hours late, but will take care of the job later. In my current role, I have flexibility. For example, I can come back early or catch up with my son and then continue to work later from home.
Prashath: I have work travels regularly so when you come back from travel, you have a cooling off period of a day, which helps when you have long flights. Then you resume working.
‘As for young professionals, the way to grow is to take on multiple responsibilities in the initial stages meaning, take on whatever comes your way. Initially, when you are just out of B-school, it is worthwhile to stretch yourself and work a bit more so that in the latter part of your career, you don’t feel the pinch’
What are your observations about the indian corporate culture? and what lessons can young indian corporates learn from the singapore corporate culture? What is your advice to young professionals?
Prashath: When it comes to professionalism, Indians have an innate ability to adapt anywhere. We have an instinctive ability to be flexible and accepting of as many roles and responsibilities, if need be. In my present firm, if you are done with your work, you are free to go. You are given the freedom as long as you carry out your responsibilities with sincerity and with full purpose.
As for young professionals, the way to grow is to take on multiple responsibilities in the initial stages meaning, take on whatever comes your way. Initially, when you are just out of B school, it is worthwhile to stretch yourself and work a bit more so that in the latter part of your career, you don’t feel the pinch. At the start of the career itself, you have to learn to set priorities given by your superior or company. My four years back in India helped me to cope with any extra pressure and stress if there was any, and I would manage it well.
Mahalaxmi: My advice to youngsters is be committed to what you are doing, as commitment and sincerity go a very long way in making you successful. Honest efforts may not be recognised immediately, but in the long run they help you. Think that you are working for yourself, then you get more sincere; you will never feel that you are doing a favour to somebody. At the end of the day, you have to make the organisation a part of your family, a part of your inner circle; only then can you look forward to going to work on Monday. What I like here is that Monday blues exist getting up and going to the office; but it is without any of the stress. As Prashath mentioned, if you give your maximum in the initial four to five years, you learn to cope up as you go along in your career. When you are a fresher in the corporate world, you don’t have family responsibilities, so you can manage your time a lot better. Unfortunately, nobody tells us that at that time, how precious those initial years of your career are. I feel that is a golden period where you can give your best to your job as that is your sole goal. So, you can enjoy it, instead of feeling stressed in a negative way.
Prashath: In terms of work life balance, you need it when you are married and after you have a child. But in the initial phase of your career, work should be your top priority. It pushes you to grow faster. You don’t have to struggle as you are used to hard work and then subsequently, you don’t have to push yourself once you have a family, as you are mentally equipped to manage work and familial responsibilities.
‘The best people to work with are Japanese. They are quite clear in what they expect from their suppliers. So once you have committed to something, you have to fulfil it. There is no looking back, and once you falter in your commitment or there is any deviation, they simply cut you off. There is no second chance’
How do both of you manage the baby and work in singapore?
Mahalaxmi: After Agastya was born, in the first 15 months or so, we were very grateful to both our parents who would take turns every two months to come and stay with us, as I had to join back in three and a half months. Now, we have a full time caretaker but initially we needed our parents because the baby was too young. Our parents were more than happy because both our parents are retired. We are very grateful to our caretaker who is from the Philippines and is an integral part of our family now. Without her contribution, I don’t think we would have been able to manage work and home as smoothly and efficiently.
Since Agastya was 18 months old, he goes to kindergarten for three hours. I drop him and then go to work, and then the caretaker picks him up in the afternoon for home, after which he takes his lunch and naps. He wakes up at 4:30 pm and I come home at 6 pm. So I don’t miss much of action. Now he is around three and a half years old.
What are your observations about the sales and marketing departments of the corporate world today? how have they changed?
Prashath: I work with a trading firm dealing in commodity & lifestyle products trading we don’t own products as such. What we try to do is connect the buyer and the seller. We arbitrage between a developed country and a developing country. It is not the conventional kind of sales and marketing. We foresee demand in a particular country, mostly a developed country and try to bridge the demand by getting the supply from a developing market which in technical terms is called arbitrage. It is quite interesting. In this role, you get to travel geographies, understand various markets, know different people, different working cultures and learn how to deal with different nationalities. You learn how to present yourself to get your job done, and how to grow your business as per the country’s requirement.
Back in India, I started my role as a marketing manager at LG Electronics. I was posted in Bhubaneshwar, Odisha where LG had a branch. I used to take care of marketing, which had more to do with Below The Line (BTL) and Above The Line (ATL) activities, with the company focused on increasing penetration in terms of display, organising events, giving training to sales executives in shops and setting up LG brand shops. These were all part of my role. Then I moved to the regional branch which was in Mumbai. There I was put up in the direct sales role. You meet the trade partner, push your product, achieve your targets and of course, consistently feel the pressure of sales. You deliver your best through this pressure, push yourself and push your dealers to get the best out of a brand. So, these were the responsibilities of the previous organisation.
Current marketing and sales activities have changed complexion, with technology being the main factor. The way technology is used now in sales or marketing is phenomenal. Most of the exchanges, conversations, sometimes sale deals happen on WhatsApp and other social chat apps. Back then, the only way was to make or receive calls or meet a person face to face. There were no digital platforms; though there were emails, most trade partners were not tech savvy. As a sales professional, you have to upgrade yourself in terms of using the latest technology for communication with the client. You have to be updated with the current trends if you have to progress in your career
‘I know that my success is not just my contribution, but people around me have helped me in it. We believe in the principle of the universe -life is about give and take. The more you give, the more you get’
Can you give a couple of examples of arbitrage that you deal in?
Prashath: There are two products which I can cite. One is building material – let’s take steel. India happens to be one of the largest producers of finished Galvanised steel or cold rolls. There are different forms of finished products and there are developed markets where the demand is high but those markets are not self reliant. They have to import. What we try to do for those importing countries, which need good quality steel, and at a lower price, is to find a country where they can actually source them. Also, many steel companies in India have their own trading houses JSW Steel, Essar Steel for example. They connect with other trading companies which are well connected with countries across the globe.
In the second instance, we do a lot of luxury product trading, so we focus on luxury products which range from head to toe. The Asian market is a very high luxury consuming market. Fragrance, skincare products, branded watches, branded bags and expensive liquor beverages are much in demand. Every market has a gap in terms of supply and demand so we find a country where the supply is below the demand. For example, for a market like Japan, the demand for luxurious watches is very high. An average salaried person would possibly wear a watch costing two to three lakh rupees, which doesn’t fit into our economies of scale. What we understand is the demand for such products are high, but supply from companies directly is not basically filling the gap, so we find those countries, where the supply is high but there is not much of a demand. We connect accordingly with a trade partner and fulfil the gap.
Mahalaxmi, tell us about your work at HSBC Bank.
Mahalaxmi: I am the Vice President, Wealth Product Management of HSBC, Singapore. I’m part of the wealth product team, where we have product managers who manage specific products like insurance, mutual funds, bonds and so on. I design processes for relationship managers working very closely with different stakeholders like legal, regulatory compliance etc. as well as my own product managers in the team. For example, if there is a new product that is introduced, I work on the key steps required to sell a particular product, which includes designing the sales process, system changes if needed.
Apart from this, since the last couple of years, I have been taking up projects which comprise systems that the relationship managers are using to engage clients for financial planning review and so on. I am the product owner for making sure that all the system changes are done. This has given me the opportunity to use AGILE, which is a software development programme in project management. In the traditional method, we used to gather all the requirements and give it to the IT for designing, which in turn would give us the end product. So, even if you don’t like the design, there was no scope to change it. In AGILE, the project is broken down into ten phases. You give your requirement for each phase and the IT develops it, shows it to you and if you need to change anything, you can give them instant feedback and they can change it. This way, the risk of not getting the desired end result is much less, so now most of the IT companies work through the AGILE method. In a nutshell, I take care of all the processes that are being designed in the retail bank for wealth products. I am also in charge of any system changes that may be required to be done.
‘In terms of lifestyle, the good part in Singapore is you tend to walk a lot. And Singapore is best explored on foot. Without pushing ourselves, our daily walking comes to around 5-6 kilometres. Apart from that, I do yoga twice or thrice a week. Mahalakshmi is a member of a gym close to her office, where she goes twice or thrice a week. In terms of diet, we don’t push ourselves to starve and we eat South Indian food every day, which is quite healthy. We try not to overeat and try maintaining a balanced diet’
Is AI going to affect your work in the future?
Mahalaxmi: The human element will always be required but yes, there is a lot of automation happening. For example, now, for your foreign currency transaction, you don’t need to go to the bank anymore; all banks have their own apps. You just have to download the app and through that you can do all the currency exchange. You can also place future orders if you are expecting the currency to drop or rise; you can put your order limits in advance and so on. Online trading has picked up, but I think this is primarily for the segment for when the client is looking to invest in lower amounts. But clients who are in private banking or are High Network Individual (HNI) clients they still prefer to have a relationship manager, but the next big change that will happen is robot advisory. Clients will start getting advisory on wealth, online. They have to login and they will have a robot to whom questions can be asked and advice will come in as to what to invest, how to invest in and so on. Yes, there will be an impact of AI but I think with technology, there would be another set of increased work for humans to take care of the technology. Our roles might change. For example, I would perhaps be more focussed on managing the digital platform rather than client interaction. There is no end to technology development, and it is happening at such a fast pace.
Prashath: In my field, AI has no role to play, because, in my business, there is a high human requirement, as you have to meet customers, and customers have to meet suppliers, so there is always a face-to-face connection. I would say, not so much AI, but the digital revolution through e-commerce growth that will be on the upsurge will be a catalyst for our type of business. As e commerce companies grow, they would, of course, compete with other e commerce firms but for that they would need companies like ours who have the sourcing strength of products, catering to their sales.
Prashath, you deal with many kinds of people from different countries, like Japanese, Chinese and so on. Who are the best people to interact with and what are the pros and cons of each country’s culture?
Prashath: The best people to work with are the Japanese. The reason being, they are quite clear in what they expect from their suppliers. So once you have committed to something, you have to fulfil it. There is no looking back, and once you falter in your commitment or there is any deviation, they simply cut you off. There is no second chance. Before you are given a second chance, you have to be really worthy of gaining their trust. And they are quite hard working as well. You see them working hard so automatically you tend to mould yourself and push yourself to meet their expectations. The Chinese are the most aggressive in terms of relationship building. They are not focussed on building long term relationships as long as they are able to make money out of the business transaction.
‘The way technology is used now in sales or marketing is phenomenal. The main platform is Whats App. Most of the exchanges, conversations, sometimes sales deals happen on Whats App. Back then, the only way was to make or receive calls or meet a person face to face. There were no digital platforms; though there were emails, most trade partners were not tech savvy’
What do both of you do to keep fit in terms of food, exercise, and lifestyle?
Prashath: In terms of lifestyle, the good part in Singapore is you tend to walk a lot. And Singapore is best explored on foot. Without pushing ourselves, our daily walking comes to around 5 6 kilometres. Apart from that, I do yoga twice or thrice a week. Mahalakshmi is a member of a gym close to her office, where she goes twice or thrice a week. In terms of diet, we don’t push ourselves to starve and we eat South Indian food every day, which is quite healthy. We try not to overeat and try maintaining a balanced diet.
What is the philosophy of life that you live by?
Mahalakshmi: Both of us love to travel, as for us the most important thing is to be able to spend quality time with family as well as explore new places. We also try to take our parents together wherever possible, so it is not like you are missing on family time, and at the same time, you are holidaying. The key is, live your life healthily. Second, age is something natural that happens to everyone, so till the time you are physically fit and age is by your side, you should explore as much as possible. At the same time, save money by spending judiciously. You never know what kind of contingency might crop up in future. Have a lot of gratitude towards family and friends as a young, working mother, any help you get from friends or neighbours is very valuable. It is also important to give back to society wherever possible.
Prashath: Everyone has one life, so make the best of it. I ensure that I push myself to learn new things. I try to be fit and healthy. I try to have gratitude for whatever I have achieved. I know that my success is not just my contribution, but people around me have helped me in it. We believe in the principle of the universe life is about give and take. The more you give, the more you get.