The white unicorn painting in Mahindra Group’s strategy office, run by former GE veteran Anish Shah, marks the transformational changes taking place at the 72-year-old auto-to-IT conglomerate that hopes to ride the disruption wave sweeping the industry. Shah, the new group president for strategy, brought the painting before kicking off his stint in 2014. “I found it at an art gallery the same evening this room was completed. This unicorn is serendipity. It is galloping as well. As we get into new areas, into digitalisation, the unicorn is a perfect fit,” he told ET in an interview. The group, which functions more like a loosely-held federation of companies, has come closer as Shah revamped the strategy office’s role in the past three years.
“Mahindra has always been an entrepreneurial group. We are taking the next step as a technology company as well,” said Shah. “The mandate was to bring in the thought process to help further the growth of the group and make it more successful.”Shah, the youngest member of the Mahindra top management at 47, has launched several digital projects across group companies, created a pool of digital and strategic talent, started group-wide projects to harness the synergies among the companies and built in-house startups in areas of logistics and tractor rental.
“The challenge was to explain to businesses and ourselves what digital really meant. We need experts to do that,” said Shah. “One (step) was to build a talent pool of digitisation… helping people understand what digital meant, how it can impact their business and customers, and how do we make that happen.” Shah started with hiring the right team, something he learnt at GE Capital and from his favourite sport American football. “If you hire good people, work with good people, you are going to get good results. The difference between being a catalyst and a driver is that you can work with people a lot better if you help them to be successful,” said Shah.
Shah calls his 45-member Group Strategy Office as a catalyst to companies. His office provides strategic talent to different Mahindra businesses on varied projects — operational efficiency, launching a new product, sales force effectiveness, and so on. “Anish’s team is more like accelerator within the Mahindra conglomerate. He wants to extend offline assets to online to increase utilisation and use technology to diversify the Group into high growth areas,” said a person familiar with Shah’s strategy office. “He knew traditional heads are not going to be receptive to this change so he smartly appointed digital talent to each company to make the shift happen.”
One of Shah’s key responsibilities is also to build capability in the group like digital, Internet of Things (IoT), and analytics. He recently started Mahindra Centre of Digital Excellence, which is trains digital future leaders across businesses. Shah met chairman Anand Mahindra through his former boss Ranjan Pant from Bain & Co in 2012 over an informal lunch at Mahindra Towers in Mumbai. “I told Ranjan that I did not at that time have a role for someone of Anish’s skills and experience, but Ranjan insisted that I should meet him and not regret it. He was right,” Mahindra said. “Anish adds a large inventory of skills and attributes to the leadership team. And by assembling a world class team, he has created robust demand throughout the Group for the services of the Group Strategy Office.”
Just three months after joining Mahindra Group, Shah started by creating common customer database which encompasses details of more than 10 million customers — everything from recent purchases to age to family size. He had to bring all databases into standard uniform format while maintaining individual company control as many firms are publicly listed. “It is up and running now. It is governed by a set of people across businesses. We see tremendous value to be able to cross-sell to each other and add more value to customers. It is about understanding the customer and creating products for them,” said Shah, whose next step will be a common loyalty programme.
Another synergy project that Shah is focused on is getting companies to collaborate on international expansion. He has picked seven focus countries for the Group and has appointed one ‘champion’ for each country who will drive business for all Mahindra companies operating there. “They are helping drive deeper penetration for the Mahindra Group in those countries. It is part of the synergy initiative. Country champions will build relations in that country and work with all different businesses in that country and be someone who is a face of Mahindra there,” he said. Until now, Shah’s office has helped Mahindra Finance, Mahindra Holidays and Mahindra’s auto and farm business chart multi-year digital roadmaps. The group kickstarted an IoT project to place sensors in its trucks and tractors to predict potential breakdowns, began using blockchain to improve its supply chain finance business and is trying out precision farming.
Shah’s next step is to look at new sectors for Mahindra Group to enter and how to position the group longer term. “It is about how we position the group longer term, how do we become bigger in areas which are more important from a global standpoint — electric vehicles, renewable, agriculture,” said Shah.