Kruti Jain, Director, KUL
CW presents the third of a series of interviews with women who have made their mark in the construction and real-estate sectors.
At a time when most teenagers obsess about clothes and partying, Kruti Jain had a rather unusual passion: construction. She joined the family business - Kumar Builders - at the astonishing age of 14 and has never looked back. Evolving from assistant and development executive to director of the company, today she plays a critical role in formulating and driving its operational strategies. Adept in all areas of operation, project management, marketing, design and development and people management, her initiative in rebranding Kumar Builders as Kumar Urban Development Ltd, or KUL, has cemented her reputation as a rising star in the industry. She shares her journey in an exclusive interview with Group Managing Editor Falguni Padode.
You've been working since the age of 14 - it's highly unusual. What prompted this?Well, joining the business in our teens is a family tradition; my grandfather did it, my father did it. People did find it a little unusual that as a girl I would take this tradition forward. But creativity is in the blood and I could not keep away. As kids, my younger brother and I often went to see land on weekends with my father. We would imagine what kind of buildings would stand there; magnificent, beautiful structures - it was like a magnet. Also, my father is my idol. We never sat and watched TV. We would play a lot; time didn't matter, we had floodlights at our disposal. All our dinner table talk comprised inspiring stories and accounts of his day at work. His energy and knowledge always fascinated me. After all this, he still had time to do his exercise, meditation and read before he slept. This continues to be a huge influence. I became very ambitious and couldn't wait to prove myself.
Do you feel you sacrificed your growing years?No, not at all. I have always enjoyed watching my father work. During my school years, he would work very long hours. I would often go to office to disturb him and come back home with him at night. I was an inquisitive child and a handful! I joined the company immediately after my 10th boards, did commerce in 11th and 12th. I definitely used that time well. Trust me, though, I did not miss out on the fun as my father was more particular than me. I was not allowed in office during college hours. My law lectures were very early at 7 am and collage would be done by 11 am. For seven years all I did was work and play, literally. The credit for this successful juggling goes to my parents and friends. I call it 'successful' as I did manage to get my degree!
Wasn't it hard to juggle a bachelor's degree and law degree with work?Doing a dual degree was a huge decision. BBA, LLB was a drain although I did enjoy law. At one point, it all got too much even for me; I think it was in my fourth year law. I realised that I hadn't learnt enough in the first three years. After that, I started taking college seriously. In fact, very small instances have framed my life path. I remember I was in a senior counsel's chamber once; I had tagged along with my father during my early years of on-the-job training. I was determined to add value and was aware of the matter under discussion. So when my in-house staff missed a small point during the briefing, I got my chance to speak. And with that I had got direction: I wanted to study law.
Learning the ropes as the executive assistant to the chairman, was the journey tougher being his daughter?My father is a very simple but demanding man. Though he allowed me to disturb him in office early on, there were no free lunches after I decided to join the business. It was clear that he was the boss. Even today, I call him 'sir' in office. Of course, being his daughter is a blessing. I have the best minds in the industry as my advisors. I learnt to consult experts in every field before making critical decisions. There are tough days when you have to prove yourself but I never felt the pressure of being his daughter. His shoes are too large for me even now! Most important, he gave me a free hand; this allowed me to make mistakes without worrying about what someone would think.
Today, you are the executive director, handling operations across four cities and key departments. Can you describe the journey?Our leader is a visionary who is always three steps ahead of us. Ensuring that the teams and systems are scalable enough to meet the growth plan has always been the focus. Early on, I did not agree with the ways of the industry. In my first year, the first major step was to ensure that we had a fixed selling rate. Then, I realised the need for market research teams, call centre help lines and formal structuring as we grew the team three times its size in a backbreaking timeline. The next steps were to enable us to keep up with the changing market.
When I entered the industry, even very large projects would be built in phases, three to five buildings at a time, using conventional technology. The boom that occurred after 2005 once home loan interest rates fell changed our perspective. Scale was everything. We had to be ready to cater to the demand of sunrise industries like IT, hospitality and retail. We had to unlearn a lot of business norms from slab sizing to building design. Everyone wanted the best and the fastest, at any cost. Shopping arcades became history and amenities like swimming pools and clubs became a lifestyle necessity overnight. Even commercial buildings now needed amenities to ensure that employees were happy. FDI and the willingness of banks made the scale and speed suddenly possible. Then in 2009, the market grew wary of FDI funds and banks tightened their taps. The rest is history. But the milestones are set now. In a more mature market, we deliver a futuristic product. My clientele is more demanding than ever. And the ambition to build the tallest and most eye-popping structures has taken over.
Has your age or gender been a disadvantage in terms of asserting yourself? No, though my worst nightmare was going into a meeting and being dismissed by someone because I was too young. If I was not having lunch with my employees, I would be reading my file for the next meeting. It was flattering to be acknowledged as 'gentlemen and the lady' in most, if not all, gatherings, and probably the only time it would dawn upon me that there weren't too many women around me.
Under your supervision and guidance, KUL has seen an efficient and effective re-engineering of several internal processes. What's your driving force?Initially it was to prove something to myself. I am hungry to know it and learn it all. Now I'm more driven to build an organisation that can make a difference. The environment is very close to our heart. I believe in the cynical statement that a developer is only as good as the last ground broken. I now live to build structures that impress my stakeholders - working towards the wow!
As a recipient of several awards such as the 'Youngest Entrepreneur Award' and a member (often the youngest) of several prestigious committees, what is your advice for women wanting to build a career in the construction industry?Frankly, I don't think as a woman; I think as an entrepreneur. And business acumen can be found in a person of any shape, size and gender. All it needs is initiative and a killer instinct to succeed. As for the future of this industry, we are in a formative stage and the norms of business are still very crude. There is huge scope for learning. The industry is glamorous in its own way; people recognise buildings the way they recognise celebrities. It needs heart to dream to build - and it needs courage to live with something as permanent as a building. Any structure is memorable because it houses the numerous memories we live for.
Is there a shift in the way the construction industry is being perceived today? Yes, in all respects; from client awareness to preferred employment industry. I like to believe that civil engineering is no more the option you take if you didn't get into mechanical or computer engineering. As the industry's economy of scale grows, it will become more mechanised and professional. But we have a long way to go. The private sector needs to rise to the occasion and endorse self-regulation while the government facilitates the process.
Traditionally, the industry does not enjoy a great reputation...Even then, the industry was not that bad. It's just that work wouldn't happen without paying someone off. Even today, there's a local union who won't allow labour other than their own to unload your truck. This is a necessary evil created by the system that will change with time. Most of our industrial houses that started from that scenario are among the most reputed people in the fraternity today. That's because rules are in place and you can go by the book. The problem with our industry is that in many aspects it's in a primitive stage; because there's so much demand the government can't go by the book. Moreover, each city and state has its own needs of growth, so rules will not get crystallised overnight. That's one reason real estate is not recognised as an industry.
How has your brand maintained its reputation?As a brand we have never been politically aligned. We don't usually go for any public tenders or government contracts. We pretty much do our own freehold work; even in Mumbai we do redevelopment, which is a very democratic process.
Forget politicians, even at the municipal level, there is rampant corruption at every level. It takes so long to get proposals passed….Yes, there is a certain amount of red tape and it is something that has to change; going forward, it is not something that clients will accept and a professional company can accept. If India has to grow, this has to be curbed.
But such a change has to be a collective effort. Builders have already started playing a role in terms of increasing levels of transparency when it comes to the end user. But what polices are made and how the government of the state decides to conduct itself is not something developers can control or influence.
What are your future plans?I am busy building a company that runs in auto mode. As management, we grow into a more strategic role and professionals take over to play their expert parts. We are investing in growing the KUL Parivar - Kul stands for flourishing growth while keeping the foundation intact. The rebranding has been incredibly rewarding as our stakeholders better relate to our business style and philosophy now. We will continue to nurture our relationships. We are currently focused on acquiring redevelopment societies in Mumbai and consolidating land banks across states. In the short term, we are going into the construction phase of 4,000 slums, 2 BHK tenements for the first time in India, designed and patented by our chairman.
Any personal pursuits?The creative aspect of things fascinates me; I try to paint every evening and on Sundays. I was also a state-level hockey player when I was in school but I never took it forward. I also love to swim, play cricket and badminton but, of course, these are not consistent pursuits. I enjoy doing these things on leisurely weekends or when we are on vacation.
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