Interview with Great Sports Infra's MD Anil Kumar: The government is the biggest spender on sports infrastructure in India

Artificial Grass at Chowgule College, Goa. Images credit: GSI website

Great Sports Infra, as the name itself makes evidently clear, is an Indian sports infrastructure company. Since its launch in 2004, GSI has made a mark in India’s still-fledgling sports market, through its innovative product range and emphasis on customer satisfaction.

GSI has helmed over 1000 infrastructure projects spanning all across India and South Asia, ranging from big-ticket multi-crore government projects to smaller pay and play facilities for corporates and schools.

In terms of innovation, GSI is best known for breaking the monopoly that was held by water-sucking astro turf till the early 2000s, by introducing a new set of artificial grass that requires zero water and minimal maintenance.

Recently, GSI was also awarded the contract for installing its state-of-the-art SubAir water drainage system at the Chinnaswamy cricket stadium, by adapting technology previously only used for rectangular fields such as those in baseball, American Football, regular football etc.

The company has the distinction of winning numerous awards, including the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII – Southern Region) “Emerging Entrepreneur” Award for 2012, and has been featured on CNBC’s Young Turks programme. In October 2013, Great Sports Infra was listed in the 25 Best Sports Start-ups in India” report published by FICCI.

We spoke to GSI founder and Managing Director Mr Anil Kumar over phone, as he discussed his journey into entrepreneurship, the philosophies that shape his company, the opportunities for growth and the learning from the last 12 years of entrepreneurship.

We also sought his opinion on some of the classic startup dilemmas which include: bootstrapped vs funded; advertising vs word of mouth; sales vs customer satisfaction; work vs life balance; sticking to core services vs diversification and the choice between govt vs private clientele.

GSI founder & MD Mr Anil Kumar

Q1 You don’t come from an entrepreneurial family. What gave you the confidence to succeed, and what did your family think of it?

I have no straight answer to that. Since my school days I have been conducting and managing events. I have been in sports and was a national level athlete and handball player. I was the Head Boy in my school, so aspects related to people/team management came naturally to me.

As I know now, 50% of entrepreneurial work is people management. It is not so important to know every aspect of the business in-depth, but rather to be a jack of all trades. You need to have the ability to see the big picture, and then coordinate with your team by breaking it down into smaller parts.

Another reason [for why I might have succeeded in entrepreneurship] is that I was not driven by money. While starting out I consciously decided to give this venture two years of my time, without worrying about making money.

My family reaction was positive, for I had already built a reputation having successfully worked in the IT industry in India and US for 11 years. My family and close friends in-fact, were the early investors in the company. My wife was in a well-paying job in Microsoft, so starting up was not a fundamental risk as such, in the sense that I knew it wouldn’t be a struggle to have food on the table.

Q2 Why this focus of GSI in the South Asian region? Are there any market commonalities in these countries?

Since we are based in India, it was natural for us to first reach out to states within India. Our projects need 4-6 months in order to be executed successfully; it’s not like a software company. So it was organic to find opportunities within India and then move onto neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Maldives, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, Mauritius.

Q3 Do you wish to expand to other geographies outside South Asia as well?

Yes. We are keeping Mauritius and South Africa as bases and expanding into the South African Development (SADC) countries including Seychelles. We don’t plan to go to places such as Singapore, China or Europe where the market is fairly saturated or where there are already other well-entrenched infrastructure manufacturers with similar product lines.

Q4 Some of your biggest clients have been National and State Governments, followed by defence and educational institutes. What are the challenges of working with government institutions? Are they receptive to new ideas? Because Indian governmental institutions, especially sports federations, are notorious for their slow pace of reforms.

Interestingly, in India, the government is the biggest spender on sports infrastructure. I agree that government clients are not as receptive to new technology or innovation and tend to play it safe. As is standard practice, governments invite tenders for their projects.

At times, even for innovative products, they are hesitant to move ahead unless they see three guys bidding for the same project, which is nearly impossible because our whole USP is that our products are one-of-a-kind!

That said, when government clients see the value for money they are getting, then the advantage is that we get to build long-lasting ties. This is where the positives of working with a government entity really start to come in. We have got repeat orders from J&K, and created facilities in Rajasthan and NIT Warangal, to name a few. Another advantage is collection of payments.

One of the biggest challenges with private sector clients is the risk of non-payment. But as long as you pass the certifications and testing standards, government clients always pay. It may take a while, but the payment always comes in.

Q5 Only 10% of your revenue in 2015-16 came from the private sector, the rest are government projects. Do you see this trend changing in the coming years?

If you include education institutes, it is more like 22%. One of the reasons (for the skewed investments favouring government clients) is that investments being made by governments in the sports sector are increasing significantly.

For our high-end products (the average cost of which is INR 4-5 crores) only governments can spend that, more so because the Return on Investment (RoI) is not the only factor for them.

But for the private sector, there are not many multi-crore projects, but smaller pay and play projects for corporate, and Public-Private Partnership (PPP) projects, where private parties take land from the government, build the property, operate it and return it to the government after some years.

Q6 Some Indian institutes have now started offering sports management courses. Do you think formal education in sports management is necessary now to work in the field or does it affect innovative thinking, since formally educated children tend to be more textbook?

No doubt, a sports management degree will be good to have. It does help to have an idea of nuances of various business terms and models. But it is not a necessity, and definitely not sufficient to succeed.

Running a business can be equated to running a restaurant. Would it help if you were a chef yourself? Yes, but is it necessary to be a chef in order to run a restaurant? No.

Inter-locking modular surface at the Canadian International School, Bengaluru.

Q7 One USP of GSI has been its push towards innovative products especially for the Indian context. These innovations have been either by way of new products themselves or innovative uses of existing products in previously un-thought-of ways. In doing so, GSI products have tackled prickly issues such as multi-usage of facilities for better ROI, issues of water retention on cricket outfields, problems of limited outdoor space, and artificial grass. Can we expect other innovations?

Yes. One innovation we are planning to introduce is temporary stands at big events. Usually, what happens is that large facilities are built for important national events, which fall into disuse once the event has concluded. Based on our experience, we have found that 80% of the cost of construction in sports like cricket and football goes into building the gallery.

In comparison, the cost of the actual playing area is less than 5% of the total cost. We have entered into a tie-up with a partner to create temporary galleries that can be put up at 20% of the cost and 20% of the time. By temporary, we mean galleries that will still have a useful life about 10 years.

Q8 GSI has received numerous awards recognising its flawless service. No legal notices past or present. How was it achieved? How important is customer satisfaction to GSI, especially in this age where there is an undue focus on closing a sale at any cost rather than trying to empathise with each customer’s unique needs?

Customer satisfaction is the DNA of the company and in many ways my own personal outlook. We are not a fly by night operation. Our goal is to be viewed as a professional company, and our outlook is towards creating long associations.

We don’t think of this approach as a choice, it’s just the right way of doing something. Don’t get me wrong, when you execute 1000+ projects, some mistakes will happen in spite of our best intentions and efforts. In such cases, we try and be as reasonable as possible in rectifying the errors.

Q9 Based on your past interviews and shared experiences, you seem to have managed to maintain a healthy work-life balance right from the early years when you had to do things hands on, to expanding your product line and client base, to getting a highly functioning team in place where I imagine your role now has become more supervisory in nature.

Many young entrepreneurs today tend to go overboard, with pressure to make their businesses succeed, and the work-life balance goes for a toss. What advice will you give young entrepreneurs on finding the balance?

When I go home I don’t open my email. I make it a point that weekends I am not disturbed. The thumb rule is that if something is moderately urgent then someone will text me, and if it is very urgent someone will call. It’s also about being efficient with my time through the course of the work week; I don’t go out for lunch during the week (which takes a lot of time) and instead pack my lunches.

Even if my work now is supervisory in nature, it does not mean I am not involved in day to day activities. If it’s a new product then my involvement starts at 95%, and later it reduces. Now 60% of my work is on new initiatives, 20% on problem-solving and 20% on operations and reviews.

Q10 In continuation with the previous question, the pressure to deliver and make the business succeed also imposes a pressure on employees in start-ups to perform, with an emphasis on closing as many sales as possible.

You have come on record in the past and said that sales are not that important for you in judging the performance of your employees. How important is it for you as MD to create a stress-free workplace? What mantra/work-philosophy do you share with your employees who look up to you for guidance?

At GSI we don’t go by weekly sales reports, yet we are unrelenting in terms of the process. I am unforgiving if we don’t respond to enquiries in time. For us, the emphasis on process is merciless, since the end result is not in our control.

In many of our government tenders, which constitute a large part of our sales, we give ourselves a good margin. So if we don’t get the contract, it is my responsibility and not my team’s. With this approach (of focusing on the process) there have been many occasions where we have actually overshot our targets.

Q11 There is a lot of media hype today about investor backed start-ups. What do you have to say about bootstrapped vs funded startup models?

My opinion may have no bearing. Some businesses have no choice (but to raise capital) as they may require years of coding to even put up an initial product. So in that sense, at GSI we had the option of going brick by brick, without having to bet the farm.

Come to think of it, we might have gone faster had we raised more funding initially. Since we are seeing an upside now, for the first time in our company’s history we are reaching out for external investment. So it all comes down to each business model and marketplace.

Indoor sports flooring by GSI.

Q12 Despite your innovations, GSI seems to be old-school in the sense that it lets its actions speak louder than words. Rarely do we see any marketing or ad campaigns by GSI. Is this word-of-mouth approach a conscious approach or necessitated by financial practicalities associated with prohibitive costs of marketing/ad campaigns?

Not at all. We are a fairly big company now and had an INR 60 crore business in the last financial year. So spending few lakhs on ads is not a problem for us. We tend to be below the radar and never engage a PR firm.

We do occasionally send out press releases when something really newsworthy happens (eg. the Chinnaswamy stadium upgrade) or when we won 4 projects for the recent National Games. And we do advertise a bit in some trade journals. But we have not promoted ourselves from a brand building perspective. At some point, maybe we will consider advertising/marketing. We now have enough to brag about [jokingly]!

Edited by Staff Editor
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