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December 7, 1999


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Learning From Adversity

E-Mail this report to a friend Aseem Chhabra

When it comes to lessons on how to succeed in the corporate world or in personal life, Rakesh Gangwal draws analogies from the world of sports, especially from the game of basketball.

"You have the coaches, the players, the general manager and your customer base, which is your audience. And they all have to come together to make it work," Rakesh Gangwal, president and CEO of US Airways, said recently. He was speaking to a group of thirty-something, second-generation Indians at a "power breakfast," hosted on December 5 at Manhattan's W Hotel by the New York chapter of the Network of Indian Professionals.

The "power breakfast'" was a follow up to the 1999 Excelsior Awards event hosted on December 4 by NetIP and the Association of Indians in America. Gangwal was one of the four 1999 award recipients.

The other recipients were Dr John Kuriyan, a professor at New York City's Rockefeller University; Preeta Bansal, solicitor-general of New York state; and Dr Desh Deshpande, founder and chairman of Sycamore Network, Inc.

"There are no substitutes for the fact that (in basketball) you've got to be smart, you've got to work very hard," Gangwal said. "But in itself they are not sufficient. They are not going to get you where you want to go.

"You have to have the ability to deal with failure. And the better you are at dealing with adversity and failure, the better you will have the ability to make a success of your life," he said.

Continuing with his analogy of basketball, Gangwal spoke about Michael Jordan, who, at the prime of his career, quit the game to try and become a baseball player. When Jordan did not succeed (Gangwal described him as "a miserable failure") as a minor league baseball player, he made the decision to re-join basketball and won a few more NBA titles for his team.

"He had that ability to figure out, 'If I spent two more years, I will still not make it to the major league. I gave it my best, I worked at it, I did everything I could and now it is time to go back to something different ( back to basketball)' " Gangwal said.

Forty-five year-old Gangwal's life and career is riddled with instances of failures and adversity and at each moment he walked out of the situation before it would be too late.

In his warm, candid and inspiring speech he spoke about the early 1970s when, after graduating from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, he joined Philips India. Soon after joining Philips, Gangwal realized that his position of a "super clerk" would not utilize the "high tech engineering" skills that he had learnt at IIT.

"By the second year at Philips, I said to myself, 'I could be doing this for very long, except one has to live one's life,' " he said. It was at this point that Gangwal decided to do his MBA in finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

After Wharton, on the advice of a professor, Gangwal joined the Ford Motor Company. His timing was bad. Gas prices were hitting the roof, OPEC had become a powerful cartel and the small Japanese cars were taking over the market shares.

For the second time in his life, after going through a high quality educational experience, Gangwal was ready to move on.

"In 11 months I said this is not it," Gangwal said. "Back then, in order of magnitude, Ford was worse in bureaucracy than Philips India. At Philips, at least I could tell where the product was. At Ford, with all the assumptions, analysis, cost models, and crunching numbers, at the end of the day we could save a few pennies."

He left Ford and joined the consulting firm of Booz-Allen & Hamilton.

"I worked for three years at Booz-Allen and I finally started getting comfortable with my ability to do things and make them happen," he said. "And that gave me enormous confidence."

In 1984, Gangwal made another career move. With the technology and the funding from pharmaceutical giant Eli Lily, he decided to start a venture in India, manufacturing gelatin capsules.

"I quit my job at Booz-Allen, went to India," he said. "I worked seven months and I was a miserable failure at it, because I could not get the Government of India to grant me the license to manufacture the capsules and to import machinery."

Two leading pharmaceutical companies in India did all they could to stop his efforts, he said.

Finally, when he got close to getting the license issued, one of the two companies made a claim that they had developed an indigenous method (which would not require imported machinery) of making the capsules.

Disappointed and dejected, Gangwal asked himself why he wanted to come back to India.

"All of us have the affiliation and affinity to go back to our roots," he said. "Plus there was that moral pressure to be with my parents."

Gangwal had long conversations with his parents. Eventually, he came back flat broke to the US and once again joined Booz-Allen.

His career after Booz-Allen is well documented. In his first job in the airline industry he joined United Airlines, where he held several vice-president and senior vice president level positions. His success at United led to a stint in Paris as the executive vice-president of planning and development of Air France, and then in February 1996 he took over the helm of US Airways. Since taking over US Airway's top position Gangwal is credited with pulling the airline back from the brink of bankruptcy and increasing its revenue fourfold.

His life has taught him several important lessons, he said.

"I know that there are ups and down," he said. "When you are up and successful, you should continue doing what you are doing. But when you are down and out, and nobody is willing to give you a hand, that's when you have to look at your inner self and have the ability to get out of the mess."

Gangwal's other prescription for success in corporate life " to have rigor, discipline and focus".

He goes back to the analogy of basketball. A professional player goes to hit a shot and there is "a mass of humanity yelling and screaming, hoping that he (the player) will miss the shot.

"All the player sees is the basketball hoop," Gangwal said. "He does not see the noise and the distractions you get in life. Hit the shot, get the point.

"You have to able to sort trivia, the distractions that become the stumbling block, from the real issue."

Gangwal said that his being an Indian had never worked against him.

"No one has said anything to my face," he said. "But there is no question that topic is always there in people's minds in varying levels. And I ascribe that to the fact that we are all human beings."

Contrary to his situation, Gangwal said it would be impossible for a Caucasian American to go to India and try and run a large corporation.

His advice to Indians in the US who find themselves in a situation where their ethnicity becomes an issue: "You probably want to get out of that situation, you probably cannot change it -- unless you want to change it, which certainly can be a fabulous social cause."

He said that in all jobs in the US, he had never projected his Indian heritage, nor had he carried it on his shoulders.

"I am who I am, and I can't do anything about it," he said. "I am just a human being doing my best as I can. So don't run from your ethnicity. But don't project it. Be yourself."

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