“We plan to be an Indian MNC…a respected one.”

—HARISH MEHTA, Chairman
And Managing Director, Onward Group

Harish Mehta shifts between two
boats-the hardware and the software one. His bachelor’s degree is in electrical
engineering, while master’s is in computer science from Brooklyn Polytechnic, USA. After a
seven-year-long stint in the US, Mehta came back to India in 1977. Here again, he was
faced with the same two choices: hardware and software. This time it was between his
father’s film export business or his father-in-law’s bicycle parts business. The choice
was hardware, but not the bicycle variety; Mehta joined Hinditron to service PDP and
Burroughs machines. Years later, it was the turn of software again. In 1991, he
constituted Onward Technologies, which was closely followed by Onward Novell. Seven years
later, it has grown to be a Rs 140 crore group. True to its name, it has marched onward
ever and has managed to catch every new technology that has come by. Sylvester
Lobo
talked to this man who made it happen.

How do you see the performance of
the Onward Group since the past three years?

We are yet to achieve the goal that we set for ourselves, which is to become a competitive
global player. I guess that would be in the next five years. Looking back, I would say
that the we have done extremely well. We grew by over 100 percent compounded over the
first five years though the growth was a bit slower last year. In six years, we have grown
to be a Rs 140 crore group employing over 500 people.

Did you face any hurdles? How did
you overcome them?

Definitely there were hurdles. But they kept on changing from time to time and we had to
chase them all along. The uppermost and almost constant hurdle is of finding, recruiting,
and retaining good quality manpower, especially managers. With the universal challenge of
globalization and the entry of a host of MNCs, salary expectations have risen.
Proportionately, the mammoth rates quoted are increased. The domestic customer is not able
to pay commensurately for the increased prices that are offered to him by the industry.
This is a primary problem and each time we have to deal with it in a different way. Most
of the other factors do not bother us.

Changes in technology?
We are able to handle it really well.

The political and economic climate?

Since everyone is facing it, it doesn’t put us at any particular disadvantage. I would say
that our limitation is our internal capacity to address the huge market with the available
technical resources.

What are the new markets that the
Onward Group has explored in the past years?

We have been quite focused on mechanical engineering solutions, process industry solutions
apart from networking, banking, and financial services segment.

What has been your strategy?
Nothing in particular. We have sought the best partnerships in all the segments. Looking
at it from the classical point of view of developing any new market, we have done the best
possible in all the Ps of marketing. We have been able to manage our competition by giving
the best to our customers and retaining our employees. Again, I would say that it is
nothing very special…sounds bookish actually.

Where do you plan to go?
Our plans are to be an Indian MNC…a respected one. Though I’m sure about reaching this
goal, I don’t know how it will unfold or where it will unfold. I feel you cannot have a
detailed plan for your far-out goals. We do have some macro-level plan on hand, but even
that keeps on changing. But we are sure that whatever be the case, we should not
accumulate flab in our organization. Therefore, our goal is to remain lean, fit, and
nimble to react to market situations. Else, no amount of planning would help. One of our
key focus areas is Java-based development on the server-side. It’s going to be a major
market because we believe Java is the platform and application development environment for
the future.

You pointed out the manpower
problem. Do you see the situation improving?

It will not be resolved totally. It will improve at the middle level but may not be at the
top level. Some of the brightest talents from IITs and IIMs are sucked away by the
outsiders, they don’t remain in India. If that stops, I feel there will be a significant
improvement. Novell is competing against Microsoft Windows NT in the enterprise server
market.

What is your reading of the
situation?

I have never considered Microsoft as a competitor, and we don’t intend to. The Indian
customer is happy with our products, technology, and support. The pie is getting bigger
and bigger and we are also growing, though we could have grown at a much faster rate.
Novell still has the largest marketshare of 80 percent in India. Networking is a complex
technology fundamentally and the customer requires a lot of handholding. It is not the
question whether it is NT, Netware, or Unix; what matters is who can do it faster,
cheaper, and better. We have a long-term commitment and we have already demonstrated that
in the past.

What do you perceive your role to
be in NASSCOM?

I have always been a very active member of NASSCOM. The fact that I was the President for
two years is just incidental. When we started NASSCOM, the primary charter was to build a
healthy India software industry. To a large extent, we have achieved that in the context
of software services, now we have to concentrate on product development for the global
market. That is one challenge. The people skills are now better and making an impact on
intellectual property rights is the other challenge.

What areas require improvement in
the software industry?

There is room for improvement in almost all areas. Quality consciousness, telephone
infrastructure and its availability and service levels in class B and class C cities,
Internet access, shortage of senior management skills, programmer skills, project
management skills, global marketing skills, and areas like that. If someone were to
benchmark us against global standards in these areas, we will be nowhere. Venture Capital
[VC] financing is another major area where the software industry can receive a boost. VC
is normally for software product business or technology development. It needs a very
healthy domestic industry. With more than a million PCs in India, I think it is time to
look at product development seriously. The other issue is that one can’t develop a product
for the US market sitting here. You need to be where the market is in order to understand
customer requirements better. There is also the issue of a lack of a regulatory framework
for VC for software in India. Luckily, we have already made some headway in this
direction. We expect new regulations to be formulated and instituted in the next few
months. We have had a number of meetings with SEBI and the Finance Ministry and there has
been a broad level of agreement on all issues. Though there are no disagreements, it takes
time to convert an agreement into a policy.

What is your personal philosophy?
If you do a thousand small things right, that’s enough. Keep doing the small things
right-call it mystery, magic, or luck, the big picture automatically starts falling into
place.

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