Hello everyone hope you’re doing well and are all safe on board or at home.
This blog is an excerpt of the recent Podcast we had on our website with Mr. Venkatraman Sheshashayee who is fondly known as Shesh!
Mr. Shesh is a very dynamic personality, who has been a marine engineer in his previous avatars. He had a very successful stint on board ships. We will be talking about his life journey and his present ventures to understand and learn for his long and illustrious career! He started as a marine engineer and he was rapidly promoted within a record 4.5 years to a Chief Engineer. He was heading the great Eastern shipping and also played a key role in establishment of the Great offshore. his mantra for life is PURPOSE + PERFORMANCE = POWER. He’s presently helping out SME’s start-ups or an aspiring professional.
Vijay: Thank you so much for joining us, sir! The need of the hour, with Covid, is a question of what we should do next. The world has become unpredictable. We were thinking all our jobs are secure, and we’re well settled. Suddenly. It’s a jolt to us to understand and realize that, it is not the case. We have to have a clear direction for the future. This is specifically for seafarers where we were considering ourselves as a very important people as, we are part of almost 90% of trade worldwide. But during the Covid, seafarers had a tough time for crew changes and life onboard in general. So, who else can better guide us rather than an experienced seafarer, and as an icing on the cake if he’s already in a profession and is passionate in guiding Entrepreneurs and leaders? I’m excited to meet you, Sir. And I’m sure, this short conversation will be having very beneficial for all our viewers and that they will have a lot to take home and learn from this. Thank you so much Sir.
Shesh: Pleasure being with you and your viewers. One thing before we continue. The times have been like this before as well. When we first went to sea in the 80s, this shipping markets had collapsed. People had to wait months and months before they could get a ship. Then picked up in early 90s and again collapsed in the late 90s. In the early 2000s became better around 2003 or so. Just our profession, itself, I have seen at least three or four cycles and that is true for every profession. My cousin, a civil engineer, he passed out around the same time as I did. He did not get a job for two years because the real estate market was in trouble at that time. So, I think more than direction. It is very important and completely agree that direction is important but more than direction we need to build new things ourselves.
One is the ability to persist the ability to continue going after something even when it is difficult, even when things seem hopeless. So that is persistence and the second is resilience, the ability to take shocks. I just wanted to start doing that and that is what I tend to try and help my mentees with primarily.
Vijay: Excellent, I think seafarers have the ability to persist when the go out to sea contract after contract, leaving their families behind. The day of leaving to the ship every tenure for all seafarers is always tough, but they keep doing it again and again. Seafarers are also very reliant where as you mentioned of the cycles in the industry and sea farers still thriving. You were talking about starting your sea career, please tell us about that-Was it a fluke you joined merchant navy or you always wanted to join merchant navy.
Shesh: I belong to a normal middle class reasonably orthodox South Indian family and we are three brothers. So, my parents had decided that my first brother would be an Engineer, my 2nd brother would be doctor and myself would be a CA. When I was in the 10th standard, I realized that I had no desire to be a chartered accountant and was very keen on engineering and so I told my parents and they were very disappointed, but they accepted. When I finished my schooling, I had applied at many engineering colleges and had got different courses in REC Warangal (now known as NIT), IIT Chennai (MSc Chemistry) and DMET, Kolkata. I got mechanical engineering at REC Warangal but the excitement and adventure in the merchant navy made me to take the decision to join DMET.I didn’t know anything at that time, and neither my family. I’m the first person and actually the last person in my family to be a marine engineer. And we didn’t know anything about marine engineering. We only knew that it was engineering on ship and that we had to travel the world and it would be exciting and fun. So, in one sense, yes, it was. It was the aligned with my desire to be an engineer. In another sense, it was something which happened by chance. Then once I went into DMET, I enjoyed myself because I learned about so many different designs about electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, strength of materials. Dynamics, so many things, and it’s great fun. And uh, you know, I thoroughly enjoyed myself at DMET. By the 4th year I was looking forward to joining ship and starting my career. Then in 1982 I started my career with the company called SISCO.I joined them for a few months, but I did not like them. I did not like that company because two reasons. One is that, it was very South Indian. 2nd was that they had all old ships, each of the ships being 20 plus years old and in horrible shape. So, I sailed with them for a few months, signed off and I joined Great Eastern shipping. There I had a fantastic career. I liked the people. I like the company. I loved the ships, so I stayed on ships for 12 months, 18 months. I had great fun, absolutely, and I learned so much. I had wonderful chief engineers and second engineers who taught me a lot. Absolutely great. Those times were actually fun.
Vijay: Sailing for such long tenures were not that bad however sailing for 3-4 months and you are already feeling tired and want to come back home.
Shesh: I don’t understand that actually, because those days, you know, we were longer on ship without any communication. We had no phones, no WhatsApp, no internet, I had to write a letter and I would get the response a month, month and a half later. When we came back to Vizag after a voyage to Japan, I rushed to the Central Telegraph Office and made what was called the Lightning trunk call to talk to my family for three or four minutes. Once in a month, once in 45 days. I’ll speak to my family for about four minutes. Yes. So those days actually it was much tougher. You know today we are able to keep in touch with their families so much better. But you’re right. Even then we will feel nowadays more disconnected even when those days were far worse.
Vijay: it may be because, we were disconnected with the world and we were very much connected with our fellow seafarers on board. Maybe that’s the reason we could pull off more time.
Shesh: I think that is very true. I think you know; every ship was in one sense of family, you know. Relied on each other, you know, unlike today. I didn’t know if something went wrong with the engine. I could not call the office. I had to fix it. I have to find out what the problem is. We worked very well together. Yes, we did have those classic deck engine issues however, we basically respected each other. We fought with each other, but we work very closely with each other. When someone left after three or four months, you actually missed them. Yeah. Oh my God, he’s leaving. He's been with me for four months, and I don't know when I'm going to see him again.
Vijay: We were also worried who would be the reliever, will he be better or worse than the one who is leaving. Fast forwarding your sea career, shifting ashore how was the transition?
Shesh: I had a break, I sailed basically between 82 and 85 and then while when I was on board, there was another engineer who told me that he was going to write an exam called CAT, I did not know very much about it and so asked him what it was and he explained it to me and he showed me some brochures and I thought it looked very interesting. So, I said, OK, if you’re applying to, I’ll also apply. And so again, some bit of chance, you know, I applied to IIM. Signed off from Jag Priya on the 21st of December 1985 and the IIM CAT exam was at 9:00 PM on the 22nd of December. It was a Sunday. I remember not getting up and I my mother waking up actually and saying you have to go for the exam. And I said no, I don’t want to go for the exam. It doesn’t matter. I’m feeling very tired. South Indian mother, she said no, you have to, so very reluctantly, I went. This was in Bangalore. I went to Saint Joseph’s Institution and I sat down. I had not done any preparation. I had not done anything. I knew that these kinds of exams are based on time. So, I looked around me. I saw one guy who looked very studious with soda bottle glasses. I said every time he’s going to turn the page. Whether I finish or not, I’m going to turn the page. So that’s all I did. Every time he turned the page, I turned the page. What happens with these kinds of multiple-choice tests is that you could get caught in one of the questions. How much I was tempted to stay on, I followed the discipline and at the end of it I think I had done about 185 questions. I told my mom; I don’t think I’m going to make it. But very strangely, in January I got a call and they said, you know, you got through and you need to come for the interview and group discussion and stuff. So, then I went did all that, and even then, I was not sure and wanted to go back to sea, but my mother and brother convinced me into it. So, I said, OK. And then I was really happy that I took the decision those two years were absolutely amazing. I earned so much about subjects which had nothing to do with engineering like economics, law about marketing or strategy about industrial relations. I made so many good friends. I finished IIM and worked ashore for a couple of years. But there’s always this nagging feeling that I had left my sea carrier halfway, so 1990. I spoke to my wife. I got married by then, and I said we’re going back to see. And she was also, very encouraging. She said OK. So, I went back to great Eastern shipping. And I sailed again with Great Eastern for about two years, between 90 and 92. And then I joined a Maersk in Singapore. I stayed with him for about three years, I sailed as a chief engineer and then said, OK, now I’m done. I will. Go back ashore. There is something I learned that engineering and technical are cost centre. You’re always under pressure and you’re never a hero. Whereas the guys who actually make money, the people who bring in revenue, they are always the heroes. So, I said I’m not going to go into technical, and I joined this company called AkzoNobel, which is the international paints. I joined commercial side. I went into the commercial, then I did logistics. I did finance, I did marketing, I did HR, I did Sales, you know, I learned and had an amazing experience. And then I came back into Great Eastern as the Chief Operating officer.
Vijay: You had an excellent career in great Eastern, then you went to IIM, did a shore job went back to sea and again came back ashore-what was your thought process like?
Shesh: I wanted to complete the career I started, I had to get my Chief’s ticket and sail as a Chief Engineer, and hence had to go back to sea. Once I was satisfied, I decided to again come ashore. When I first joined AkzoNobel, I was put on Probation for a year and after that promoted me to the manager’s role.
Vijay: What was the salary shock when you came ashore in your 1st shore job
Shesh: Yes, there was a huge salary shock as, I was earning USD 6500 as chief engineer and my 1st salary was inr 35,000. Me and my wife were not great spenders and hence we could manage the show. But what happened was that, within few years, I actually caught onto the ship salary ashore.in 2002 I was actually earning more than what I would earned onboard on shore, if your performance is good, you get promoted very fast.
Vijay: Excellent Sir! Now again your life is settled, but you wanted to move again, please tell us about that.
Shesh: That was pretty straight forward. I basically reached a point where I had only one person above me. He was two years older healthy. He was doing well. So, if I had to grow, I had to leave. I Spoke to him and he agreed. So, in 2003, I put out my CV. In 2004, Great Eastern, their offshore division was looking for a CMO/COO. And interviews with them were good. So, said Thank you very much to AkzoNobel and moved on to Mumbai. This stint also was fantastic. Their Offshore division merged with shipping division and then I build a brand-new company called great Ship India which is the new offshore company starting from scratch. So had I’ve been very fortunate in that sense Captain. I’ve had great colleagues, fantastic bosses and mentors and very good opportunities to grow and to do different things. I’ve been very lucky.
Vijay: Basically if, the team is good with whom you are working, then it becomes very easy route for success.
Shesh: Absolutely. For me, the most important thing was my bosses, who mentored me. You know, I was when I came from sea into AkzoNobel, I was absolutely raw, I had very little understanding of politics, of managing customers, of dealing with different situations and these guys, you know, they didn’t lose their patience and every time I made a mistake, he corrected me gently. They told me how things would be done and it was filled. You know, I learned so much from them.
Vijay: Excellent sir! So, what do you think? Was the background of your Marine engineering or was it the IIM background which helped you succeed?
Shesh:90% of the time it was my engineering, will mention it because 1) It gives the engineers mindset ,2) I learned how to do things without having to depend on others which gives you a great advantage. Because most of the people you know, depend on third parties, depending on secretaries and assistants, even as a CEO, I spent almost 12 years and I have never asked my secretary to take a letter .3) The other thing the seafarers life teaches you is that to learn quickly Because we moved from ship to ship, and each ship is different. Each ship has different parameters, different softwares, different capabilities. This ability to learn quickly helped me because as I told you, I did seven different roles in nine years. 4) Never give up. We absolutely never did. On ship if there was a problem, we did not have a choice but to try different approach till we get a solution.
MBA was also very useful, but really what helped me in good stead was this concept of persistence. The concept of resilience, the concept of proactivity, to do things before it becomes a problem. Prevention is better than cure.
Vijay: If in this present time if a seafarer wants to come ashore, would you recommend doing a course or he /she can start directly.
Shesh: In the 80s the time was very different. It was still, you know, a socialist country in India. There’s the license raj was going on. There were not very many jobs and stuff like that. So doing an MBA at that time made sense. Today India is the place to be for an entrepreneur. You can go after any dream you want. I’m currently mentoring 4 Companies in India, start-ups in India the founders are all kids! One of the companies, which is called ships kart, am mentoring Dhruv Sawhney, Sunny Bagla, Vivek. They are probably around 34/35 now and they came after they had a good career at sea. Came out, found a very important idea that they were passionate about and when they did not have very much money, we put in whatever money they had and they are building this company. There are so many problems in India that need to be solved, there are so many issues that can be dealt with. So, there is no reason today for a good, seafarer with the capability the passion the dedication and the willingness to work hard. Who needs to study as such? As much as you need to find like-minded group, I would never advise it to go alone. Find a group of 2 to 3 guys along with himself and you know go after solving a problem.
Vijay: Excellent. So, we find a pain point in the industry or maybe outside and then get an idea, talk to people, make a game plan and then start.
Shesh: Absolutely, the fact is that we guys were forced to be salary slaves because that’s how we were brought up. That’s how the world was at that time. And if I had to start afresh. In the last 10 years, there’s no way I would have joined AkzoNobel. I would have come back from sea and would have gone and done something absolutely amazing. I would have just started something on my own because today the technology is there, the market is accepting entrepreneurs and in fact encouraging them. When my brother became an entrepreneur the amount of trouble, he had with his own family was huge. This job is so good, you know, and so on. It was very different then you know.
Vijay: By the way did your brothers become Engineer and doctor sir?
Shesh: Yes, yes, my eldest brother is an IT guy and is in the US and my 2nd brother is a doctor and he is in Geneva with the WHO. The fact is that you know, he had so much trouble with his family and finally, you know, it took almost two years to sort of convince everybody that he had to do this. Also, in the 80s and 90s in India, the social cost of failure very high. If you started something and you failed, you know, people will look down upon you say, oh my god you know should not talk to this guy, we should ignore him and so on and now all that has changed.
Vijay: Business itself was a taboo and all feared that if you are doing business you will fail.
Shesh: Today it is possible that a failed start up founder goes back to the corporate world and I respect the guy Yes today also seafarer coming ashore may like to take up various jobs available in the market, nothing wrong with that, however I would suggest, not to waste this opportunity to go and do something on your own.
Vijay: Moving on to the next avatar of your life sir from corporate to self-made-what you are doing presently, who was the transition and what is that exactly you are doing, can you please elaborate?
Shesh: In 2018 after completing 11 years and being CEO of 3 different companies, I thought that is enough and need to give other a chance. I was 56 then and I had always wanted to retire at 55. See once you become a CEO it is very tempting to go on and on, you get a lot of respect, people call you “Sir “and bow down to you all the time so you know, you start thinking that you’re a hero. You forget that you’re a temporary occupant of that chair and you start feeling that this is all me.
Vijay: So, it seems like you don’t like comfort zones, once you are in a comfort zone, you want to move away.
Shesh: Yes, that is true, but also the fact is that I regularly did reality checks because it’s very easy, to get trapped in the illusion. You know you drive this amazing BMW, you have this corner office and stuff like that and you start believing I deserve this. This is who I am, you know. So, every time I take a reality check and I said, OK this time, now I worked with three companies, did a good job, created a lot of value and I said now it’s time to move on. And so, in 2018, I retired and I started essentially focusing on mentoring rising start-ups and professionals. So that’s what I’ve been doing for the last three and a half years. Also, if I, you know, I’ve been fortunate, we have enough money and the kids are doing well. So, I said, you know, there’s no point keeping on earning money for what exactly? Some people say, well, how global you are. No, I was not noble. Everything I’ve done is purely selfish. It is for myself, right? So, I started this and I’m having great fun. I’m right now mentoring 7 start-ups and I have over the last three and a half years I have mentored about 50 plus people. In some cases, it’s for one to three months, some cases are for years. Am having great fun! But you know what? I went in there without any expectations and the beauty of it is that three of the start-ups have given me equity without my asking. And that equity is worth more than everything I earned in my whole life! So, you know when you don’t ask when you don’t expect something. I think the world sort of recognizes that and says OK. You’re not talking, so let’s look out for you
Vijay: How did you actually start this mentoring and how do you choose what the mentee?
Shesh: I did not start anything. The moment people heard of my retirement, start-ups came to me and asked me to help them. They did say, we can’t pay you very much. It was not a problem and I said, I will help you. The only condition I look for in a Mentee is that I should like the team. I look for attitude, humble and willing to learn, I don’t want to work with anybody who thinks they are fantastic. All the teams I work with are very humble, hardworking, you know, committed and they know that they don’t know. And so, it’s great fun working with them because when they raise an issue, we have arguments, they put their point of view. We fight with my point of view, but they recognize that. So, in the start-up side. I don’t interfere with the product. They are product experts, if they are responsible for manufacturing and selling, organic Wellness products, I don’t know anything about organic Wellness products. What I help them with is strategy, marketing plans, Policy and process and financial structuring. You know all the areas which they need help with where they may not be able to afford somebody with all the capabilities to help. Those are the areas of administrative and general management we help. So, there is a clear division of Labour. They focus of building the product and we focus on building the foundation and infrastructure.
Vijay: Basically, you provide the support structure for them to grow in their industry.
Shesh: I presently mentor 7 start-ups varying from a company wo makes Idli, dosa batter from millets to a company in Singapore which is into sports coaching. I don’t want to preach, but all I would like to say to the viewers is, you know, this concept of persistence not giving up and the concept of resilience, which is making sure that you pick yourself up after you fall. I think I see this again, please. Please internalize and assimilate these concepts within yourself, because if I look back on my life and I look back on the lives of those friends of mine who are being successful, I think that is a common thread that runs among all of us. The fact that we have always gone after something without giving up, and we’ve always faced failure. You know and not succumb to failure. We faced it. We’ve got hit by it. But going back and said OK, we’re going to do it again. Yes. This is very, very important for everyone.
Vijay: Thanks so much for being with and for viewers Please go through, Mr. Shesh’ s LinkedIn profile and his website www.radicaladvice.net and you can also get in touch with him if also would like become is mentee.
You can watch the video of the conversation here: https://www.maritimeplatform.com/v/233