History was the past…till it guided me to the future of leadership

Three generations in the family business. My grandfather Kantilal Mehta (right), My father Arun Mehta (center), and me (second from left).

Let’s be honest – when was the last time you, as a leader of your organization, pondered over your company’s history? Possibly when it was time for an anniversary? Did you then you focus on dressing up the milestones and achievements, and lacing it with a lot of ‘feel-good’ adjectives to evoke pride for your employees?

I know I am candid as I say this, and may even have touched a raw nerve - but am I not right? And now for my moment of confession. At Vakils we are close to our 75th anniversary and this train of thought happened exactly for this reason.

Firms seldom document their histories. Too bad, because history is so much more than the balloons and streamers of celebration. To anyone’s argument that it is what lies ahead that is important, I say – how can you hope for the future if you cannot celebrate and learn from the past?

And so I hit the pause button and did a deep-dive into Vakils’ past. I came up with some incredible memories of generations of people who truly envisioned and shaped the organization, pioneered many firsts, and built an incredible culture, values and behaviors. And, in the process, I have reinforced a simple but vital truth – my renewed understanding of our past totally energized me for the future I am planning to shape.

Our founding team with my grandfather, Kantilal Mehta (3rd from right)

The Vakils journey started out in 1926 – with two treadle mills and an Indian businessman named Mr. Vakil. The current          Vakil & Sons was incorporated in 1946 – of which I am a proud and inextricable part. We quickly built a reputation as printers par excellence – with modern presses, and exceptional standards in quality.

Then came our pioneering and creative greeting cards which will remain our signature. It had a proud purpose too – to promote Indian art. Works of great contemporary Indian painters (Hebbar, Bendre, Hussain, Ara, Chavda, Sabavala, Akbar, Padamsee, and many more) featured on our cards and calendars. Paintings from world-renowned museums (Victoria & Albert-London, National Museum-New Delhi, Bharat Kala Bhavan-Banaras, Prince of Wales Museum-Mumbai) made their way as a fine collection Indian miniatures in print. Our Frolic cards, in collaboration with Mickey Patel, was a game-changing idea that won us accolades.

But it was more than just promoting art. Mounted on Indian hand-made paper, it had a social purpose of furthering the budding hand-made paper industry. Later, as we forged a partnership with V-Care Foundation, we carried their message of hope for cancer patients – and used part of the sale amount of these cards to provide medical support for underprivileged cancer patients.

In 1981, we became the first printing house from a developing nation with whom UNICEF placed orders. Both at home and overseas, we bagged prestigious awards for printing excellence. Excellence has been our password to this day – as we successfully transitioned to the modern requirements in the technology business.

As I flipped through my mental pages of Vakils’ history, I realized the enormity of what it was doing to me. I understood how paying close attention to our past shaped our culture today – and will continue to do so in the future. Sure, the context today is different from what it was then. But as I recollected how the previous generations – and especially my dad – confronted and addressed their opportunities and challenges, it was a huge lesson in how I could handle many aspects of running my business.

Leadership, governance, best practices, people management, managing conflict and adversity, innovation, agility, change management, decision-making, foresight, execution excellence – I could find inspirational examples for every one of leadership traits.

So here is my resolution. I will carry the past in the living present and motivate my people to embrace and drive change – so that each of us can find our individual place in history.

(Next in the Anniversary series: Timeless values from the past…)

– Bimal Mehta
  (Managing Director)