Corporate Leader: CEO – Aditya Birla Sun Life – A Balasubramanian, AMP 2008

A Balasubramanian is currently serving as the CEO – Aditya Birla Sun Life AMC and his association with the Birla group is 26 years strong. He has climbed up the corporate ladder by staying focused while living by the values of honesty, integrity and diligence. In this interview, he talks about various aspects of corporate life and providing insight based on his experiences.

Can you please tell us about yourself.

I have been with the Aditya Birla group for the last 26 years, I began my journey with them back in 1992 as a Senior Dealer. I was given the opportunity to grow within the group, and over time have raised through the ranks. I have held many positions of Chief Dealer, Country Head, and CIO. I was promoted to the position of CEO in the year 2009. Before joining the Aditya Birla group I was working with GIC Mutual Funds as a Senior Trader and have also worked with Canara Bank for some time.

On the personal front, I come from a village background. I did my schooling in the village, Mellatur, and later moved to Mumbai for further studies and work purposes. I did my graduation from Bharathidasan University while working at the same time. I always wanted to do an MBA but time was a constraint. Doing an AMP course at IIMB gave me a fresh perspective and regaining the knowledge for building leadership qualities.

The course helped me in long terms of learning, general insight on organizational dynamics, the need for managing, market level activities for any funds, how to build companies for the future. Case studies provided greater learning on building around the business. All these learnings came in handy when I became the CEO, which was immediately after the completion of the course.

I live in Mumbai, with my wife Lakshmi, my daughter and son. My daughter has just completed medicine and was working at the Sri Satya Sai Sanjeevani during the covid period. My son is doing engineering.

You have been associated with Aditya Birla for nearly 26 years now. Was it a conscious decision and how has it paid off for you?

I joined the Birla group in 1995, coming from the public sector. It was considered a matter of great pride to be associated with names like TATA’s and Birla’s at the time. This gave me the sense of stepping stone in the journey to follow. With the brand value such as Birla, I always debated with myself if I was better off to remain in the company or switch for monetary benefit.

The learning curve in Birla is faster than compared to many other companies. The leadership also has a keen eye to identify talent through assessment. I was fortunate to be recognized and awarded with the Most Exceptional Contributor Award in 2004. This was the first award I got from our chairman then. Leadership at Birla nurtures talent this keeps the people motivated to grow within the system. In my case, I was given the opportunity to grow in the company every few years. The idea of excelling in the company gave me far greater satisfaction, higher money was not the motto. Aditya Birla group gave me higher growth opportunities as a reward. Though I am the 9th CEO of the group, I am the longest-serving CEO in the company.

Another aspect that helped was sometimes we work for the organization and sometimes we work for the industry. Working with Birla let me work personally on the industry related activities as well. It was new booming industry on a learning curve and I could get involved in making policy making initiatives. I also became the chairman of AMFI in 2016. All this was possible because I was passionate about my work, the potential of the industry and high growth industry requires higher personal efforts too.

All my hard work paid off as I remained focussed – to work for the company, for the industry and continuous learning.

How do you build a motivated team? Any tips or any mantra that you would like to share?

One thing that I strongly believe in that genuine efforts also yield a good outcome. Nothing is impossible to achieve. Another important aspect is to remain humble. While we work in powerful positions, it is only temporary. It should never come in the way of humility. Passion also plays a major role in building a motivated team. Higher commitment from the people in leadership roles brings in high growth and initiation among the team members. Finally maintaining positivity and team morale is very essential.

As an leader, you lead by setting an example by expressing your own happiness and the need for remaining agile. Leaders should be accessible to extend support to the team members facing challenges and resolve their concerns.

As chairman of AMFI, you ran a very thoughtful campaign – Mutual Funds Sahi Hai? What was the idea behind this?

AMFI was allotted some money as invest educating funds. As the chairman of AMFI it became my responsibility to run advertisements. We invited several agencies and industry experts to bring forth their ideas for the campaign. The idea was to introduce as a common topic for discussion in every household. Something two people can freely talk about over a cup of tea/ coffee. We wanted investments to become a conversation for every individual.

The campaign was a huge success and then we decided that for better understanding of mutual funds we should change the ad campaign from risk angle to opportunity angle. How it could help save money, long term gains, wealth creation etc. We wanted to take the attention away from the risk perspective by providing customers with the benefits of investing in mutual funds.

The campaign was launched on 10th Mar’2017 and we ran it for nearly 2 years. We also made it compulsory for every mutual fund to talk about it as a brand. It created a sense of transparency and instilled confidence in investors. Although I was chairing the committee the success of the campaign is a result of the members and industry players.

How is India different in its approach to investments compared to other countries?

In countries like US, mutual funds is a way of investing whereas in India that’s not the case. Mutual funds are still not considered a vehicle for investments. It is fundamentally different because of how markets work in every country. In US for example, Mutual Funds are given high importance under the 401k Plan which is essentially a retirement plan. In India we consider insurance as retirement plan whereas mutual funds can provide a higher return on investment. It is one the main reason that investments caught up slowly in the country.

However, the mutual funds market share (bank deposit) has risen from 13% to 19% in the last few years. There is still a lot of room for growth in this space. I would credit Mr. Modi’s demonetization policy for redirecting money to the banking system and some of it made it to investment banking as well.

Any significant change that Covid has brought along in your business sector?

Covid has certainly changed our way of thinking. People have understood that they could work efficiently from their homes without having to come to the office using technology. Soon after my completion of AMP at Harvard, I returned to India and implemented zoom for all meeting purposes. We have been using zoom since 2018 for all our sales connectivity. So when Covid struck, we did not have to additionally train our staff for online accessibility. Technology adaptation will bring new business opportunities and also become a way of life in the near future. With the acceptance of remote working, talented individuals will not be limited by their proximity to the workplace.

On the other front, Covid time has brought a lot of distress among individuals. So we introduced constant engagement with team members to emphasize on mindfulness during these testing times.

Post-Covid when the economies are in their recovery phase, which sector/market looks most promising than the others?

Banking and private are robust sectors. Due to the adaption of technology, Fintech platforms also look promising. With the recent budget, power sectors, real estate sector, refinacing of roads. And ofcourse the health sector shows a lot of potential.

How was your childhood? Can you tell us more about your growing up years?

I was born in Mellatur, a small village in Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu. The village is famous for its rich heritage, temples and art forms. I was the youngest of the 8 siblings hence I was a pampered child of the house. I did all my schooling in the village but had to travel to Thanjavur and Pondy to higher studies, as those were the nearest towns and city.

I remember drawing water from wells as there were no pipelines and bathing in the ponds. It was extremely neat and clean. We also had some agricultural land and I used to assist my father with bookkeeping and other related activities.

We took over the village school 6 years ago and I along with my brother, Kumar look after the upkeep and running of the school. The old school infrastructure was very poor, so we reconstructed a lot of it. We have additionally made gender-based toilets under the Swacch Bharat scheme. It’s a government-aided school which provides mid-day meals but in addition, we provide breakfast meals as well to encourage higher footfall in the school. We also celebrate various festivals and distribute clothing, books and stationery to motivate children and parents. Our enthusiasm has encouraged teachers to become better providers. I wanted to do something for my village since all my siblings and I had studied in the very school. My father was also a teacher at the school.

How do you manage your time?

If the intent is there, finding or making time is not a big deal. Most of the work these days can be accomplished through phone calls. Physically I may not be able to be everywhere but mentally I can be, infact sky’s the limit. Delegating work and responsibilities has also helped in managing time. I am believer of keep going and giving it your all.

Any fond memories from your IIMB days?

Our classroom days were behind us hence initial days at the course required some getting used to. I used to especially well prepared for Prof Ramchandran classes, as he was get upset when we were not prepared. But it gave me a deep understanding of analytics and understanding business from various angles. Being a trader, we were trained to think quickly and provide solutions, my learnings at IIMB helped me to reevaluate the quick thinking with analytical approach.

I also made many friends who I keep in touch with. I appreciate the commitment and efforts all the professors put in ensuring we get a good grasp of the concepts.

The campus of IIMB is one the finest in the country with such lush greenery. In spite of being located on the main street the campus has this certain sense of calm & quiet. I wish to visit the campus with my family sometime.