By Shouvik Mandal
I sit here in my office on Park Street at our headquarters Apeejay House in Calcutta, looking back at the tumultuous months since March. A human sanitizing tunnel buzzes at entrance a few floors below with all our frontline staff in PPE kits shielding themselves and everyone else from Covid 19. This flagship Apeejay property and all others have been operating since the first day of lockdown period, providing support and a safe environment for clients as well as our team members.
Right now, almost all our clients have opened their offices / operations in all the properties across India as against May when almost 80% of our clients started operations across cities. My team walks into client premises twice a day to do surprise checks of temperature of the clients’ employees to ensure a safety standard for everyone in our property.
We have improvised constantly to stay on top of the situation without caring about the expense and just focusing on the safety of our employees and those of our clients. Under the leadership of the Paul family, we have put the employees’ health first and have secured the environment for all in our premises. Our CRM and Operations team have helped or taken over sanitizing all clients offices in our commercial properties. In this NEW NORMAL we are getting cooperation from all and I strongly believe people will learn to live the NEW NORMAL era soon.
We thought initially that business will be hit badly but as the lockdown progressed, things were not that bad as anticipated though there has been a liquidity crunch in ours like all other businesses of the country. Apeejay Real Estate has been able to get confirmation from almost 4 new clients in two of our divisions – Warehousing and Commercial Property Leasing Management – between April to June. So market is not drying up. It is in temporary restructure mode and we are expecting it to be stable again in the second half of the year.
ARE team in Kolkata started operating from office in Group’s headquarters Apeejay House in May when we as a Group decided to start a carefully calibrated Unlock 1.0 and I, along with most others, have not gone back to WFH since then. The only day I took off was the day of Cyclone Amphan as the day was declared a holiday. Amphan was a tragic and deadly experience. All our properties in and around Kolkata and Haldia suffered damages despite taking precautions. The team deserves appreciation on quickly restoring the situation and getting back to normal operations soonest. I believe this is our time to support the business to the best of our abilities. Initially indeed, we were thrown off gear and off routine & ideas but slowly through constant meetings on phone and video calls with the team, we picked up the business and are trying to drive the business back to the pre-lockdown period when we were going strong. Here’s the blog I wrote in Feb 2019 when we closed the year on a high ! I am hopeful that things will fall in place by August and we will all learn to live with the Covid 19 virus with precautions.
This Covid 19 crisis and lockdown has made me think differently. While the lockdown may have hit productivity & revenue, the idle time has brought out the best in people and quite a few out of the box ideas. Once the economy starts rolling again, I am confident that rest will fall in place. Business may take a jolt for about a year, but I believe it will come out strong. There is a huge fear in the job market but my suggestion to youth is – don’t get bogged down to a situation by listening to others (which we all did during the lockdown period). Please get into the root cause, analyse, improvise and get back up. Keep your goal unchanged and nobody can stop you.
Speaking about myself, right from joining late Mr. Jit Paul’s team in year 2000 to now being part of the corporate leadership team, it has been quite a journey from an Executive – Accounts to Assistant Director – Finance and CEO of Apeejay Real Estate. This crisis has enabled me to rediscover my potential. I feel that my value addition to the business to take it to the next level has just begun. Apeejay Real Estate is an important part of our diversified conglomerate and is being well recognised as one of the flagship businesses of the group and this means a lot to me.
A crisis like this extracts a lot from a business leader. We are fortunate to work for the Paul Family who really take care of their employees. We have continued in this crisis without any pain or fear of job loss. Even though a quarter of our income has been wiped off for the year we are putting our people first. I can see how the employee base has reciprocated this support back. It has taught me to hold fort and battle it out.
I feel upbeat. Park Street cannot sleep. It can only take rest. Soon it will be awake to its fullest entertainment capability. With restaurants, pubs and bars opening up, the scenario will change. It is only a matter of time. I strongly believe that Park Street will soon regain the confidence of the people and will get back to serve them like it has done for more than 100 years. Apeejay Surrendra Group has plans for Park Mansions also which has come a long way after its restoration housing the best of pubs like Hard Rock Cafe, coffee shops like Starbucks, institutions like Goethe Institut and Alliance Francaise and other top notch retailers like Reliance Digital, Subway, GKB Opticals, etc. We are trying to make Park Street a family destination and a meeting place for the young generation.
In March, the Group had announced WFH well ahead and this initiative of the organization was commendable when we look at it in hindsight because soon enough by last week of March, the entire country was under lockdown and WFH was made mandatory for many more weeks. I can see how tough it was for our frontline heroes like soldiers during the lockdown periods but they held on. Not only the humans but vehicles were also sanitized before they entered the properties. All necessary equipments and consumables were kept in stock and our team, though were working from home, kept a constant touch with clients and properties and took care of all frontline soldiers for their night stay, rest and food. The Finance & Accounts operations are tech enabled, thus unhindered with any lockdowns. Still it took a huge toll on all of us, especially our front line heroes. I was delighted to see that not a single one of them wanted to go back to their native place and continued to serve.
Their presence and support was critical for upkeep of the properties and for our clients who were operating during lockdown like banks, grocery stores like Nature’s Basket and e-commerce majors like Flipkart. The IT team was not only ARE’s but the entire Group’s backbone and this team also took over the important area of oversight on the Apeejay Data Centres and Server Rooms ensuring we were all remotely connected to each other and critical business applications . They also took charge that our clients, who were WFH, stayed connected by offering oversight of their server rooms thus maintaining the highest safety standards of our properties. We have duly rewarded their commitment.
Though we are fully equipped to WFH, I find it better for team morale to be at office and working along with the team. I hope to continue doing that. WFH is not only a new experience but in an industry like ours its quite unviable way of operating. Teams need to be present at the occurrence of the activity. Our earnings come out of our presence and utilisation of facilities and when these type of interactions don’t happen, it is a loss of revenue.
Personally for me, Work From Home does not work. Home is a home and has its own environment. I cannot get the productivity at home as I do in office. While we have been able to work on certain things during our WFH period like websites, collaterals like brochure which were missing for ARE under the guidance and inspiration of Ms Priti Paul and we have been able to plan out new businesses, re-modelled our strategies and worked on various financial models, which I hope will be on track when those businesses come into operation.
The casualty of this whole lockdown has been my personal passion of Art. I haven’t created any new piece of Art at all! I just could not concentrate enough because of the business situation. Till today, other than the painting that won me the #ApeejayFacetheSunContest while we were WFH in April 2020, I haven’t been able to sit on a single day for something new.
This has been a very stressful period for me and quite fearful in the early days of the lockdown with ageing parents, wife and daughter at home. But in the second week itself, I knew that lockdown was not the solution. With any vaccine or medicine far off, we needed to take Covid head on. I understand the Governments needed time to prepare themselves to fight the situation and for that, this lockdown was necessary. So the moment the lockdown was withdrawn, I started coming to work and others followed soon. My family, though terrified, was fully understanding of the fact that to be happy, I needed to get on with work. I was totally unhappy sitting at home and my family could feel it too. Fortunately, I have relatives & families in UK and US who passed through this stage of lockdown and they also helped in getting my family’s confidence to allow me to get back to work. A great fall out has been that my wife and daughter have become tech savvy, thanks to all the online classes, etc. and don’t depend on me anymore.
Around me, I can see that everyone is eager to join office full time. At work, we are like another family. I feel that this family is being missed by everyone working away from office.
Shouvik Mandal is Chief Executive Officer, Apeejay Real Estate