Rising Above the Covid-19 Crisis

A small-scale entrepreneur ASEEM KUMAR rises above the Covid-19 crisis by giving priority to employee welfare over the profit motive

In these Covid times, big enterprises are laying off employees on massive scales and drastically reducing salaries of those retained, but here is one small-scale enterprise, which has not crumbled under adverse business conditions. Noida-based Kaurub Exports Limited in the business of leather garments and bags, set up in 2001, has had no lay-offs, salary cuts or sniping of bonuses and incentives.

How has Kaurub Exports managed to achieve this? It’s not a matter of achieving the impossible or a God-sent miracle, but a simple example of a businessman considering society or people more important than himself or the profit of the company. Says Aseem Kumar, founder and managing director of Kaurub Exports, “I call myself a social capitalist, because I have an inbuilt or generic inclination to do something meaningful for society, and to do this I need to be successful and rich, but not at the cost of others.”

I have known Aseem for two decades and I can vouch for the fact that his zeal for social causes is more than his yen for money. This is evident in his company’s employee structure. More than 55 per cent of his 75 permanent employees are Dalits and his core work force includes a large number of differently-abled people including deaf persons. Also transgender people are freely employed in his company. He has also rehabilitated rape victims by employing them in Kaurub Exports.

“My HR manager Shahnawaz is a lame man. My assistant accountant Amzad had polio. My computer assistant, Rajiv, is a deaf person. My quality controllers are deaf boys and girls. My gatekeeper is a man with a hump on his back,” says Aseem.

Aseem Kumar: Riding high despite the Covid-19 crisis

If there is one thing that Aseem is fanatical about, it is banishment of religious, caste and class barriers. To drive home this point, he has made it an unwritten rule that once a week any one of his employees, be it a Muslim, Hindu or Dalit, brings him home cooked food as lunch.

Aseem is a staunch believer in the adage, “Small is beautiful.” His vision is to set up small skill units in Nari Niketans across Noida. Elaborating, he says, “With less and less export orders my highly skilled people can be used to train these women in three weeks and start giving them scraps of leather to be made into key rings and coin pouches for which they will be paid and the things made by them can be sold in local markets.”

His is a family where women have equal status. He has two daughters and one of them works in Singapore and the other with him. “My personal vision is to make my wife and daughter run the existing business and I will retire by January 2021.Nevertheless, this retirement will be from Kaurub Exports and not from my creativity.”

He adds, “I will venture into a completely different field to learn and excel for the next 25 years so that I may live my dream of making more money to be able to help more and more people.”

For Aseem, his employees are an integral part of his dreams. “By July 2022, my biggest gift to employees who have stayed with me for over 18 years will be given. These are two-room apartments in Noida for which land is already purchased. The name of the building is Gratitude Apartments,” he reveals.

Aseem with Ranchi Ram Krishna Mission School children. Once a year for three days, Aseem does seva, which includes taking care of school children, sleeping in the ashram and washing utensils.

Kaurub Exports was shut because of the lockdown, but after government permission the company resumed production in April with 20 per cent employees and followed all standard operating procedures (SOPs). There has been no salary cut at all and no retrenchment. Rather the working hours were reduced by 90 minutes so that the workers could reach home before 1730 hrs. The women staff were provided staff cars only for going back home.

From mid-June, Kaurub exports had 50 per cent of their employees back and normal 8 hours’ duty. Initially, there was no overtime, but from July 10, overtime of two hours with compensation and snacks was allowed. As health of the workers is of primary concern, expenses on sanitation and sprays has risen five-fold.

Aseem says, “The pandemic has increased workers’ participation in management and a special bonding has grown between long-term loyal workers and the owners. We share our problems with our workers and their suggestions and help is a great inspiration.”

Aseem with students of the University of Virginia, USA. Different batches visit his factory in January and take practical lessons from him on entrepreneurship and startup strategies.

Outlining the measures to help shore up bottomlines, he says, “We sell cancelled stock in the local market with the employees being given this responsibility with incentives for sale; raw materials bought against cancelled orders were duly returned to vendors at 25% reduced price to provide liquidity; idle capacity was used to make few beautiful clothes styles for sale within India; idle floors have been rented out to support bonus payment for Diwali; the money saved from monthly Europe travel is now saved for a contingency fund.”

I asked Aseem, “Since you have taken in 75 employees or 50 per cent of your employee strength of 150, post Covid-19, what happens to the remaining half? Do you follow a system of rotating employment to eventually accommodate 100 per cent?” Aseem replied, “The remaining 30 per cent are contract workers who have been in stitching and thread cutting under a contractor, who was paid by me since I was the principal employer. He duly paid their ESI and PF and has put them in three different factories other than mine. However, as soon as orders increase in our unit, the contractor will deploy them here as they love our working environment. Also 20 per cent of the employees never came back from their villages. This is a harsh reality beyond my means and control. Rotating employment will deprive employees of their benefits of ESI And PF.”

Kaurub Exports employees at a staff picnic on Aseem’s farm

As is his wont, Aseem’s first concern is his employees.

It’s not that Aseem’s business is immune to the Covid-19 crisis. He confesses: “Export deliveries have been on time, but bulk cancellation of orders have hugely hit our bottomlines. Even today, we work at 50 per cent of installed capacity. Now, with contingency reserves depleting, and overheads remaining the same, things are becoming difficult.”

What is an entrepreneur expected to do when the going gets tough? Ideally, hold on in difficult times, so that employees don’t suffer; find innovative ways to tide over crisis; and think less of profits and bottomlines and more of workers’ welfare. Aseem has done all this with élan.

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