Interview: Pooja Bhula and Rohith Potti on their book Intelligent Fanatics of India and inspirational leadership

Written by debut authors - journalist Pooja Bhula and market analyst Rohith Potti, the third book in the Intelligent Fanatics series features seven business builders from India.
Written by debut authors - journalist Pooja Bhula and market analyst Rohith Potti, the third book in the Intelligent Fanatics series features seven business builders from India. 
Written by debut authors - journalist Pooja Bhula and market analyst Rohith Potti, the third book in the Intelligent Fanatics series features seven business builders from India. 

We’re witnessing a time, where not only our country, but the entire world is seeing uncertainties and an economic slowdown. At such a time, Intelligent Fanatics of India, the third book in the series, by debut authors – Pooja Bhula, a journalist, and Rohith Potti, a financial analyst – offers great insights and inspiration about sailing to victory in choppy waters. 

What sets this collection of biographies – including Anita Dongre, Raghunandan Kamath of Naturals, TT Jagannathan of Prestige, John Gomes of Furtados to name some – apart is that the book doesn’t merely harp on success, but also take you through the failures of some of India’s best business builders as well as mistakes that cost their competitors and contemporaries. With detailed documentation of their journey, from where they started to where they have reached, the book reinforced the age-old belief that value-led strategies and forward-looking decisions rather than cold cost-cutting helps intelligent fanatics come out strong in crisis and previous recessions, making it an interesting read for aspiring entrepreneur or individual who wishes to be a dynamic leader. In an intense chat with Indulge Express, Pooja and Rohith take us through the arduous journey of documenting these stories, the story behind the title of the book and what’s in store for the readers. Excerpts: 

Q. From being a features journalist to writing your first book – that too on business – how did it happen Pooja?
Honestly speaking, I’ve always known I’ll write a book. I had a lot of raw material from keenly observing human behaviour since a young age. That’s what egged me on the path of journalism too. As for writing a business book despite my features background, it’s got to do with the way my brain is wired - I like connecting the dots. The basic tenets of journalism (across the beats) remain the same. Delving deep every time you broach a new subject is tedious, but for me, it’s worth the reward of being able to write relevant stories on different topics. 

Q. Rohith, how did you go from an analyst to a writer?
It began with my love for reading. When I was young, we often travelled long distances by train and my mother figured the only way I’d stay put was with a comic in hand. I love reading fiction, particularly journeys of characters and how a story evolved.

Another major turning point was the Behavioral Finance and Business Valuation course taken by Prof Sanjay Bakshi at MDI Gurgaon. Unlike most analysts, who look at businesses as ‘a point in time’, he described them as an evolving story. It kindled my passion for understanding businesses and human behavior, and fanned an already strong love for stories. I try to emulate it too.

Q. The title is unusual. What’s the story behind it?
The term 'Intelligent Fanatics' was first coined by Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s long-term partner and Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. He deemed 'Intelligent Fanatics' so talented that they “can do things that ordinary skilled mortals cannot.” Ian Cassel and Sean Iddings, who are full-time microcap investors, wanted to develop this concept further…

Pooja: …and after studying journeys and personalities of leaders whom Munger considered intelligent fanatics (IF), Sean and Ian saw patterns emerging. Soon they were documenting the findings through books and the website. So the works are titled ‘Intelligent Fanatics’. 

Q. Unlike the first two books, the third one focuses entirely on India. Why the gaze shift?
I believe for the same reason that Ian and Sean brought Rohith and me onboard in 2018 – 80% of IF’s following comprises Indians (including those residing abroad). And I’m glad stories from here were appealing enough for them to believe an Indian edition will be well-received.

Q. You’ve profiled seven business leaders. What were your criteria for selecting them?
Well, culture is central to our book, actually the series, and through the seven biographies we illustrate the crucial role it plays in business. What sets intelligent fanatics apart from other entrepreneurs and leaders is their ability to build a certain organizational environment that allows them to dominate in their niches, for decades, perhaps even a century. Allows them to be anti-fragile i.e. grow stronger under stress. Given this backdrop, I picked entrepreneurs that are not only successful but also boast a dynamic, positive organizational culture. A culture that also percolates to their customers and other external stakeholders. Another criterion was picking well-established businesses – who’re standing tall despite highs and lows, competition, policy changes, economic downturns, etc. – so readers have genuine learnings to take-back.

Rohith: The idea was also to have as diverse a list of entrepreneurs as possible so readers can see how the principles can be applied across different industries. That’s why we’ve covered founders of businesses ranging from ice creams and chemicals to eye-care and clothing; private as well as public companies, first-generation entrepreneurs to those from established business families.

<em>Raghunandan Kamath</em>
Raghunandan Kamath

Q. How was it interacting with these people? Any interesting anecdotes…
It was inspiring meeting them. And not just them, but every stakeholder I spoke to for unearthing each entrepreneur’s story – their sheer respect for these founders and their organizations. Especially feedback from disguise interviews, where interviewees talking to me weren’t aware I’m a journalist. It told me the good image/goodwill of these founders isn’t all marketing. For instance, a music retailer in Pune is so impressed with Furtados’ culture that he dreams of being like them. A shop-floor employee at Anita Dongre’s store told me she preferred working there versus international fashion brands because unlike the latter, HOAD doesn’t pick and discard employees during sale-periods. A Naturals franchisee I met believes in the brand so much, he made it his primary business and his own family business secondary. Who wouldn’t be inspired by such stories?

Q. Each chapter is detailed. For instance, Anita Dongre’s profile also talks about her contemporaries and competitors during each phase. What did it take to get all this?
Intense primary and secondary research. Identifying and speaking to so many stakeholders is challenging, but also most exciting because everyone offers a different piece of the overall picture. At the same time, as people’s memories – especially regarding past details – aren’t always perfect, cross-verification gets tedious. The final distilling, piecing together reams of information while weeding out the irrelevant, is almost Herculean. The brain is lazy, really tests your will power when processing so much.

<em>Anita Dongre</em>
Anita Dongre

Q. TTK Group’s story was very interesting. What made you explore it?
The release of his biography (Disrupt and Conquer) was the catalyst to explore TT Jagannathan’s journey. Being from the South, we’ve always used Prestige pressure cookers at home. I was curious and the book was excellent. To research a profile, I generally read all available annual reports of the company and if possible visit the place of business as well (the stores in this case). The journey of understanding the story itself was a lot of fun.

Q. If you could include one more business leader, who would that be?
Rajiv Bajaj, MD of Bajaj Auto. I love the simplicity of his thinking and how he has designed the business. His thoughts on marketing, focus on creating win-win relationships and applying principles of yoga in business, all point to how deep and multi-disciplinary a thinker he is.

Pooja: For me, it would be Chetna Gala Sinha, who founded India’s first women-only bank. What she has done in micro-finance, for rural banking is commendable and its impact on women entrepreneurs wherever the bank is present is incredible. Chetna truly shows you the way ahead for an inclusive India through inclusive banking.

Q. What are the challenges of co-authoring a book?
At the stage of writing, it wasn’t challenging because our book is a collection of business biographies and we didn’t work on any profile together. Rohith and my styles are different, you’ll notice this when reading the book as well, but retaining our individualities was a conscious choice Ian and Sean made. As Intelligent Fanatics of India is part of a series, in a sense, Rohith and I already had a format to follow. That brings cohesion. Most rough edges were smoothened by Ian and Sean, who’re fantastic editors, and then a professional editor did the final run, got the manuscript print-ready.

Rohith: What was fascinating was though we neither collaborated at each story level nor shared notes, similar patterns emerged. The similarity in certain traits stood out, even more, when we read each other's stories and that helped us rewrite some portions of the book better.

<em>John Gomes</em>
John Gomes

Q. Your biggest learning while working on this book? And what would you want readers to take back?
The biggest lesson for me is how they dealt with difficulties – with grace, determination and grit. The primary questions they ask when faced with major issues is – "How do I come out of this stronger?" They don't just want to survive difficulty but use it as a springboard to push themselves and their business farther ahead. And that’s a wonderful lesson.

Pooja: The value of perseverance and continuous learning. These seem like simple traits, but as I peeled open layer after layer of these intelligent fanatics’ journeys, I discovered that there could have been myriad reasons for each of them to give up, but their determination to find solutions and innovate rather than sulk over obstacles is what enabled them to come out better every time.

What I want readers to take back – as we’re seeing an economic slowdown, which doesn’t seem likely to turnaround soon, I’d like people to glean from the book not only strategies used by intelligent fanatics, but also the kind of culture they created in their organizations to withstand and/or come out stronger during such blows. Layoffs are also a common phenomenon during downturns or when companies see financial instability, but intelligent fanatics value human capital.  On reading the book, I hope people mull over how costly such cost-cutting or attrition is in the long-term. And, in comparison, the compounded benefits organizations accrue, especially during the lows, from past and continuing investments in their human capital.  

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