Goal setting is the key to success, says this power couple from Chennai

Despite having shut eight businesses, Nagu Chidambaram and Geetha Nagu never gave up. Their approach has always been to learn from their mistakes and keep moving.
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After establishing over five successful business ventures and juggling between them efficiently, power couple Nagu Chidambaram and Geetha Nagu are aspiring to do more.

When SMBStory caught up with the couple, we were left to think about the tremendous energy levels they have, and the positive outlook they are spreading.

Geetha Nagu and Nagu Chidambaram

One of the most well-known entrepreneurs in Chennai today, the couple has set a strong foot in every business they operate in. They have multiple businesses - from Sun Industries, an auto ancillary, to VNCT Ventures, which is into affordable villas, and the much-famed Kamala theatre.

Geetha Nagu, besides supporting her husband in his ventures, is also an education entrepreneur and runs an IT training company called OCE College India.

Nagu Chidambaram and Geetha Nagu’s story is an inspiration for many aspiring entrepreneurs, and to those who are in the family business.

The duo has not only shown how innovation can be a game-changer for SMB businesses, but has also demonstrated how a family business can be modernised and transitioned without any conflicts and yet retain the core values.

So, what keeps them ticking?

Excerpts from an interview.

SMBStory: Tell us about your early days. How did it all begin?

Nagu Chidambaram: We both come from the Chettiar family, and business runs in our blood. I knew Geetha since school days, and as early as Class 11 we decided to marry. Our family did not accept our love. They thought we were too young to decide these things, and moving each other away would help. I was sent to Chennai from Madurai, since my family had a business there. After graduation, I joined my family business, which was into real estate and movies.

Nagu was a great planner. From the beginning, we decided that we will play on our strengths, complement each other rather than contradict. I think that has helped us in the long run.

The restored famous Kamala Theatre in Chennai

SMBStory: How did your partnership click?

Geetha: I believe the best partnerships begin at home, and luckily, we had a good partnership. Business is just like bringing up a child. The parents have common goals when bringing up a child - that they should be successful in life, and so all our energy is directed towards that. It is the same with business too. If you do it with love and passion, it will definitely see success in the long run.

Both of us had inherent qualities that we thought we will focus on. Nagu had the ability to see beyond, and I always had the inclination towards knowing the unknown.

Goal setting is the key to success. We should have the dual approach – to think broad and to think big.

SMBStory: Tell us about your business journey?

Geetha: Even though we have shut eight businesses, we never gave up. Our approach has always been like - so what if we failed, learn from the mistake and keep moving.  

Nagu: Though we had the family business, we did not want to bask in that glory. Family business was a comfort zone, but I wanted to break it because comfort becomes most uncomfortable after some time. Getting back to the family business was easy, but we decided we should not. Both Geetha and I wanted to be creators - create something large while being thankful for what we have.

Geetha: We need to go through the cycle to understand, experience, and move towards success.

Thus, began their business journey without a single penny borrowed from family members. Though Nagu diversified from the family business, he was operating in the same segment. It was during this time he thought of taking the family business to the next level.

The Sun Industries employees.

SMBStory: When did you re-engineer the family business?

Nagu: In 2009, I felt the need to reinvent the family-run entertainment business. The family was already running a theatre successfully and was into cinema distribution. I strongly felt that we need to change today to be there tomorrow. So, we mustered courage to put forth the business plan of revamping the business to my father and elder brothers.

I gathered guts to tell my father – If you believe in me, step aside and I will do the business.

Nagu believes family can be run and managed by multiple people, but family business should be run only by one.

Geetha: Nagu was able to foresee the business while nobody in the family could see the change that is required to stay afloat. After a week, his father gave him the go ahead. With the acceptance of all brothers, Nagu took on to modernise the existing entertainment business.

Nagu: Rebuilding a profitable business quickly was no mean task. In 100 days, we rebuilt Kamala theatre into an experience centre. While other theatres at that time were turning into malls and mandapams, we never wanted to be away from this business, and hence we built a multiplex. Today, Kamala theatre is one of the most-profitable theatres in the state.

It is important that no single person controls the family business completely. I had set a process so that the operations are run smoothly with anyone being at the helm.

Geetha: Timing is important. We cannot lag behind, nor can we be ahead of times.

Today, the business is jointly managed by all the four brothers, with each of them taking turns every two years to run the business.

SMBStory: What kept you motivated?

Nagu: The very basis of anchoring our life to a larger purpose keeps us going. We are driven by achievement – who we are and what we have done motivates us. The pride of doing for one self and the love and passion in everything that we do drives us.

Geetha: We both are inspired by Dr Kalam, and the numerous stories of rags-to-riches, which keeps us thinking when we have a legacy, how much larger we can grow and create. And that is the basis of our journey.

Most importantly, the couple say that they were in love with what they did.

SMBStory: What is your succession planning?

Nagu: I strongly feel that a legacy that is built need to be passed on with care, and the same passion is equally important to take the business forward over generations. Our son is now into the auto ancillary business, though he never had any inclination in the beginning.

Recognising the core strength and allowing to align and structure according to capabilities is important.

Geetha: We should make our children appreciate what we have, and the environment at home shapes them. Enforcing and inculcating discipline in whatever we do should never be compromised.

Nagu: In a family business, it is critical for people involved to be patient. We cannot take things for granted. Communication is extremely essential to understand each other and being understood.

Nagu and Geetha

SMBStory: How did the social aspect to business come by?

Geetha: Nagu’s father Chidambaram Chettiar was an illustrious philanthropist who held the chairmanship at Madurai Meenakshi temple for nine years, which itself speaks of the repute he commanded. The family has always been custodians of culture, and the social cause runs in the family and the community as well.

Nagu: The community always placed giving back to the society as an important aspect of living. Make, Protect, Divide was the simple logic behind how we function. It was an unwritten law in the community, which has also passed on strong values down the generation.

Geetha: Our previous generation gave back to temples, and we give back to the society. When we fund a child’s education, we don’t stop with just giving money, but monitor, guide, and also open up opportunities for them once they graduate.

SMBStory: What is your message for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Nagu: Place gratitude on top of everything you do, appreciate what the earlier generation has done, but do it different and then pass it on to the next generation. Disruption should be in technology and not in our core values.

Geetha: Have clarity in who will do what, do not work in the same department or area as it will also create confusion among the employees as to whose orders to follow. Most importantly, behave like professionals at work, while at home be friends instead of carrying a husband-wife tag. Couples in business is actually a blessing.