He quit a well-paying job to follow his passion and built a Rs 30cr business — Meet Dharma Teja

16th Mar 2017
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This former Director of Collections at Oracle gave up a corporate career to build an automobile dealership, tasting success at 42.

In 1996, when Dharma Teja G, then 22, graduated from Hyderabad's Osmania University with a degree in mechanical engineering, Infosys and Wipro, which were on their way to becoming multi-million dollar companies, had become the talking point in the country. But companies such as these or for that matter all companies were far from his mind. So what did young Dharma do? He joined a Maruti dealership as a mechanic.

Now, there is nothing wrong with a mechanic's job, except that in 1996 India had yet to grow out of its socialist roots and most people would have given an arm and a leg to land a 'public sector' job. Besides, Dharma's father was himself an engineer at a government-owned manufacturing unit, who later became a businessman and ran a successful fleet company that managed 23 cars.

Dharma Teja founder of 9Star Suzuki, quit a highly paid corporate job to build a bike dealership.

So, when Dharma decided to became a mechanic, he managed to leave his family, close and extended, utterly flummoxed.  Dharma, now the founder of 9Star Suzuki, an automobile dealership in Bengaluru, says,

“Dad was surprised, but he understood that I had made my own decision. I was being practical about pursuing mechanical engineering, and what better way than fixing cars to understand my graduate degree.”

Barely six months after he joined as a mechanic, the showroom he was working for came to realise that he was a graduate, and put him in the sales and marketing department.

Dharma managed to stay on in the dealership until he was discovered by a car buyer who was wowed by his communication skills. This man happened to be from GE Aviation and was keen on hiring him for a senior role in Bengaluru. Dharma relented and his career took a new turn. His family was finally able to heave a collective sigh of relief!

With the move to GE in 2001 began a 13-year corporate career where Dharma learnt to manage teams and execute targets. By 2004, he was picked up by Oracle and he fast-tracked to the post of director, with 200 people reporting to him. However, something kept pulling him back to automobiles.

“I always wanted to trade and also build service networks for the automobile industry. There is something about micro-managing the small details in the retail network that fascinates me,” he says.

But starting up after a successful stint in the corporate world is never easy, and definitely not for everyone. “It is very difficult to start up if you are used to a corporate routine,” says V. Balakrishnan, Founder of Exfinity Ventures.

Starting up

Dharma, however, was determined. In 2013, he started out first by taking a sabbatical from Oracle. The company allowed its employees to try out new things for a year, and come back if things did not work out. So he happened to call one of the contacts from his Maruti dealership who had become a senior executive at the two-wheeler business of Suzuki Motorcycles India. Dharma secured a meeting with the team that handled dealership franchise at the corporate office in Delhi. He also learnt that Suzuki would give any person a hearing if the presentation was about the area in which they would propose a dealership. He signed a deal with a landlord in Bengaluru for 15 years and paid Rs 1 crore to draw up a lease agreement. “Knowing some contacts in the automobile industry made me realise that three things are important: land, investment and a business plan,” quips Dharma.

Once the land agreement was done, by June 2013, he drew up a business plan and a spreadsheet for the folks at Suzuki. He made a presentation saying why Suzuki had to invest in Electronic City in Bengaluru and said that this was the next new town where younger migrants from all over India would come to live in and pursue jobs. They asked him for a deposit of Rs 2 lakh and released the bikes once Dharma transferred Rs 1.25 crore to Suzuki. Thanks to his savings Dharma was able to buy these bikes. Between July and September 2013, he frantically put together an entire showroom. “It was nothing fancy at the time. But we had to have it ready in three months and my team achieved it in that timeframe,” he says.

The first lot of 250 bikes arrived in August but only 66 bikes were sold in the first couple of months. He thought people would walk into the showroom, but they did not. Dharma was distraught but, he began to take charge of the process.

Tenacity and drive

So every day for a month, Dharma, along with his team, would give out pamphlets at the Infosys signal near Electronic City.

Dharma even bought a Maruti van and parked it on service roads and lanes displaying the message that there was a new dealership in town. More than anything, the campaigning worked because they invited Suzuki bike owners for service. The next thing you know, from January 2014, the business began selling more than 200 bikes a month and by the beginning of the financial year 2015, 9Star Suzuki began meeting its 250-bike quota. It currently sells 350 bikes a month.

“One should have the tenacity to make it happen. In the office I am the first to enter and the last to leave in the evening,” says Dharma. Only now does he have a senior team in place to manage the office and leaves for home at a decent hour. “One needs to have the support of the family to succeed and the business succeeds if one applies processes that everyone can follow. There should be clarity in the system,” he adds.

Dharma created processes that manage 15,000 spare parts in the service unit. Other processes like inventory management, managing e-transfer of consumer payments, managing consumer loans, bank partnerships, pilferage, cash management and customer relationships were built as soon as the business began to sell more than 100 bikes a month. He offers concierge service for bikes that need repair too.

"Retail is a business of details. It is highly cash-intensive and managing operations is what wins the game for anybody who is in the retail business," says Harminder Sahni, founder of Wazir Advisors, a retail consulting firm.

According to Society of Indian Automobile Manufactures (SIAM) the total two-wheeler sales in this country is 15.3 million units per annum in FY15-16. This number is expected to go up to 21 million by 2020. Suzuki itself sells close to 4,00,000 bikes in India and wants to raise that number to one million by 2020. By then people like Dharma would be using mobile-based services for their bike inventory to be bought and sold on an app. Dharma thinks that is possible being in Bengaluru. The turnover for the last three financial years has been Rs 20 crore, Rs 25 crore and Rs 30 crore. The net margin in the business is 3.5 percent. His inspiring journey gives one the audacity to believe that even at the age of 42 one could start up and taste success.

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