He came out of the Dean’s office wearing a white kurta, khaki pants and slippers and holding his son’s hands. A simple man with all smiles on his face wishing a pleasant good morning to everyone around. A first look and little would you think that he is the MD of Cholamandalam Investment and Finance Ltd., Mr. Vellayan Subbiah.  

As he walked from the Admin block to CFI (the purpose of his visit), the old Civil B.Tech. Vellayan of the 1990 batch got invoked. It was a pleasure hearing him comment on the filing sessions in the workshops. In spite of his tight schedule, he took time in listening to the various projects and startups that pitched to him. Its awe inspiring that he still possesses the same passion and curiosity that once made him what he is today.

Lucky we were, to be able to draw out 20 minutes of his time just as he was about to leave for the IIT Madras Research Park. Here are the excerpts from the interview. Read on…

How vividly do you remember your undergraduate days here? Are there any fond memories of the institute you have and cherish?

Well obviously, I think everybody remembers their days here a lot. Whatever and wherever life takes you, those days will always be the ones most cherished. 

Despite being a localite, I used to stay in hostels. I hated doing laundry to my guts and so I used to take them home during the weekends. At that time campus was not as developed as it is today. We used to have our regular chai wala (tea seller) near Taramani where our standard food used to be these double-espee coffees and Bun omelettes.

We used to do all this crazy stuff in college, some that can’t be recorded and some that can! But I think, campus was four great years of our life, lots of good friends and people to stay in touch with, and loads of memories to last a life-time.

You are into Cycling and Running. How did you develop interest in Cycling?

When I was in my final year in Saras, we won Schroeter (the inter-hostel sports competitions). Cycling was one of the competitions. I was also into Athletics and used to participate in Inter IITs as well.

I remember one particular cycle race in which a few of us were approaching Gajendra Circle and a bunch of our cycles got tangled up sending all of us flying. It ripped off half of my right shoulder and I still live with a scar from it! But then I had to get back on my cycle because those days the top four timings from each hostel used to count for the Schroeter and I was one of those four guys from Saras. The cycle had no brakes after that. And at the the end, everyone was behind the finish line not knowing that I had no brakes, and I conveniently went and crashed into them (laughs).

I was also into Athletics and used to participate in Inter IITs as well.

Now obviously I cycle much longer, like to Pondy for instance, but my cycling interests started here. The fact that my family manufactures cycles (BSA, Hercules) could also have been a contributing factor. I still remember that in college I used to have a BSA Mach 1 geared cycle which was very rare then.

Nowadays engineers are going into all fields possible. What is your take on this?

Engineering gives you a strong base, this strong base is the capability to solve problems. One of the challenges in education is that too many people are structuring a problem and then asking to solve it. The good thing in IITs is that you first learn how to structure an unstructured problem and then solve it. I think it’s a science in itself. Once you get these two skills, you can pretty much go into any business.

I did Civil Engineering because of my JEE rank – 900. I wanted to be as close to my house as possible and the best choice in Madras was civil. Honestly, I didn’t really practise any civil engineering. But IIT gives you the ability to solve a problem anywhere you are. I think that’s the reason IIT folks have been successful in any discipline.

Is there any reason you took up finance specifically?

Finance was a choice of my family. My elder cousin asked me whether I could run this particular finance company which was in a bit of fit at that point in time. It was basically since our family was interested to invest in it. I did not even know how to spell the word finance then, but I was ready for the challenge.

In any business, the basic question is how to grow a business profitably. The best way is to keep disaggregating the problems into its component parts and addressing them and that’s just the good grounding you get from IIT. Once you understand what a problem is, our innate nature is to want to solve it!

When you took over as the MD of Chola, it was in a tough situation but now it’s one of the front runners. What are the biggest challenges you faced down the line and how do you feel now that you’ve accomplished it?

I don’t think it’s any sort of accomplishment. For instance, we haven’t got our bank license yet. What stops us from having it? Why can’t we be another HDFC? These are some things that I keep asking myself. Given the humongous opportunities in India, one should never think that anything has been achieved in life. Science itself makes you realise how small you are.

 

What I’ve done and what I will do is so insignificant. I think realising our insignificance makes us do more significant things.

Take any field, the amount of research and development that has been done till now over the years, (by individuals and teams) has been a build-up on the work already done. This shows how insignificant all human beings are. You just think of all the scientists you’ve studied about, all their research and compare it with yourself. What I’ve done and what I will do is so insignificant. I think realising our insignificance makes us do more significant things. The moment you think you’ve accomplished a lot, you get lazy. That would shut the doors on the further where and what. I think the bigger importance of education is to make us realise our insignificance. It’s like, in the cosmos-earth-planet- you are a speck of dust.

Then how do you make yourself significant, how do you attain the highest in your lifetime? You need something to push you, something to test your limits. For instance, we took an organization and now made it what it is – 12,000 fairly motivated people. But why is 12,000 the right number? Why is it not 200,000? The real beauty is the fact that limits are purely what you place on yourself. The opportunity that exists is limitless. There is so much you can learn about nature and it’s one of the other powers nature gives us – it teaches us how to observe.

You’ve worked in McKinsey and did MBA from Michigan State University. How did those experiences help you in your career?

I think wherever you go, you’ve got to learn something that is crucial and which is only dependent on you.  You can learn anything as long as you’re open to it. I think that inherent desire is always there. McKinsey gives you an incredible experience early in your career. They open you up to a bunch of awesome people and they pay you for it too. After my MBA, I was in this room with the CEO of a 12 billion dollar company – now it’s probably 70 – I couldn’t understand what value I could add to them, but I wouldn’t care as long as they paid me. The point is that it opens you up to a lot of people from different industries, gives you real life problems and I think it’s an extension of IIT because of its data driven way and scientific method of problem solving.

What message would you like to give to students?

Right now, you are in the most passionate state of life. Your job is to increase that passion.  I don’t understand why most people go down a pathway where they lose their passion and feel being serious is more important. I’m not implying that you’ve to joke all the time, the important thing is to continue to enjoy living. Losing passion is like losing a part of life – you’re here to live and not to wait for death.

Controlling your own destiny in such a way that it brings good to you and the society is synonymous to success in life.

 

Hence enjoy what you do. Rather than letting someone else dictate your destiny, you have to believe that you control it. Controlling your own destiny in such a way that it brings good to you and the society is synonymous to success in life.  I used to have a professor at Michigan teaching organizational behaviour who wrote a book “Control your destiny or somebody else will”. You have to find your passions and define your destiny around them. Metrics of success and failure for me are bullshit because they are in somebody else’s mind.  You have got to define what you want for yourself. Go with your passion completely believing you control your destiny and work towards it.

18 minutes. That was all and he was off to his next appointment but the values and life insights he left behind for us is worth a lifetime. Values that can undoubtedly change your life for good once adhered to.