Saturday, March 8, 2014

The (Lady) Enforcer

What is striking about Manju Bhatia's profile is that she comes from a low profile background, is only 27 years young and running a 500 crore business. India needs more women like this to assume leadership in new areas understood as "mardon wala kaam". Also it is not possible (neither practical) to dream of a class-free and caste-free sister-hood but these ladies can take a free-wheeling approach- derive their strength from traditional and modern society as well.

Enter Manju Bhatia, joint MD of Vasuli Recovery, an all-female loan recovery agency. “Women are given respect all across the country, we are not discounted,” she said in a telephone interview. Really? Yes, she countered, “Look at our banks, from ICICI Bank to Dena Bank to the State Bank of India, they’re all led by women.”

No surprise if Bhatia identifies with the likes of Chanda Kochchar and Arundhati Bhattacharya because they too, like her, have blazed their trails in male bastions. Perhaps, it is this unprejudiced world view that made her entry into a male-dominated business--of loan recovery--easy.

At 27, Bhatia’s Vasuli handles recoveries valued at over Rs 500 crore annually, with more than 250 staff in 26 locations across India. The company has come a long way in the eight years since it first began operations, with a monthly income of Rs 25,000, eight employees and one client, the State Bank of India. It now boasts most of the country’s publicly owned banks as clients.

As a 16-year-old growing up in Indore, Bhatia began working as a receptionist at a pharmaceutical company the day after her last twelfth standard board exam, in 2003. In no time, she was handling accounts and trading in raw materials. Over the next two years she learnt the inner workings of the business, including how to get export licenses and increasing the client base, while getting her bachelors in law. It was then that her boss and family friend Parag Shah asked her to help out with his loan recovery company, Vasuli.“There was only one client then, State Bank of India, and they provided a list of defaulters,” Bhatia said. One of the defaulters was a high profile minister, whom Bhatia decided to tackle. “The bank said he won’t be accessible at all but I just called and got an appointment,” she said. It turned out the minister had no idea he’d missed his loan payments and the matter was sorted out in no time.

She decided to get into the recovery business full time and started populating her team with women of all ages and for all roles – from revenue licensing to legal procedures to recovery agents and everything in between. In 2007, Bhatia moved the company to Mumbai to be closer to the major banks.

But, there have also been stray instances of violence that forced Bhatia to now send recovery teams with police protection and videographers. During a visit to a factory near Aurangabad to carry out an inventory, the workers at the site locked Bhatia’s employees inside the warehouse. Another time even the police weren’t of much help as the defaulters rained down acid on the Vasuli employees and accompanying police officials who had come to make collections.

But the dividends have made it all worth it. Bhatia’s success in giving women purpose and putting their skills to constructive use pushes her everyday. She had a real victory when talking to the Police Commissioner of Kolkata about security protection last year. “I explained what we did and he was very interested,” she said, “and then he asked if I could take on the widows of officers who had died in duty so that they would have a revenue stream and come out of their depression… I was very overwhelmed and said yes immediately.”

From smaller accounts and agricultural equipment, Vasuli has now added property auctions to its retinue of services offered. Bhatia continues to challenge herself by pursuing her PhD in law alongside running the business.

On being asked what her advice would be to women entrepreneurs she said, ”Belief is very important…if your mind can conceive it you can achieve it.” She illustrated her point by describing how family members mocked her during the early days of Vasuli and how her conviction helped her carry on.


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