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DRIVEN BY LEGACY & CHANGE – UJJWAL KUMAR SHRESTHA

Steering the core operations of a business legacy that has been able to consistently win the trust of customers for the past 49 years is no small task to carry forward but Ujjwal Kumar Shrestha, Executive Director of Panchakanya Group, has done with panache. There are certain values that Shrestha has stuck to since he joined the family business 15 years back which has stood him in good stead. He says there are three core areas which he has always believed in and followed throughout his business journey. “We foremost always need to understand our people and culture; where are we coming from,” shares Shrestha, adding that the other two are about winning the trust of one’s business network, and empowering the people who work for you.

Striving to be the most preferred brand in the areas that the company is engaged in, Shrestha has not only imbibed the work values and culture that the older generations have set but also inculcated new global practices in tune with the times. “A person can grow personally and professionally only when they are willing to embrace change and also unlearn the things that didn’t work for them in the past,” he candidly states.

One of the first challenges that Shrestha faced when he joined the company was transitioning the group from a traditionally run family-based model to being more decentralised and autonomous. “It was also about ushering in more professionalism in the way we did our work as a company,” he states.

It may seem to others an easy task when a person joins a business that already enjoys a strong foothold in the market but Shrestha begs to differ. “We started our first venture, Panchakanya Rice Mill, back in 1972 and over the years we have diversified from an agri-based group to one that has interests in building materials, heavy equipment and financial sectors, among others,” he says.
“The day I joined I realised the effort and dedication of the previous generation to make Panchakanya the brand it is today and I had to live up to that legacy,” he reminisces, adding, “But then it was also all about how I personally could add more value to the company. Do I just carry on satisfied with what has already been established or do I try to look into other avenues that have yet to be explored is something I had to be mindful of.” He elaborates, “It’s not only about exploring new horizons but also trying to give a new outlook to what is already being practised.”

As a group, Panchakanya has always strived to be the first mover in the ventures they are involved in, especially in the construction materials sector which is their core business. The company has enjoyed a steady growth over the years but every two to three years, they try to introduce new products. “You also need to give the consumer a new experience every now and then. Technologies are evolving, people are changing and what worked five years back may not at present,” he says.

Previously, one could rest on their laurels but the times are changing and it became vital to learn to stay ahead of the game, not only to survive and sustain but grow too, he shares. “People have access to so much of technology and social media that ideas are being shared across the globe and any person here can pick up any idea and start a venture,” he mulls. “Moreover, with the development of the financial sector, people have easy access to financing too,” he says, elaborating that any person with a brilliant business idea can now give you a run for your money if you are complacent, adding, “Success can at times lead to complacency and complacency will definitely lead to failure.”

Keeping up with change and innovation is something Shrestha is passionate about. “We may have that legacy but in today’s globalised context anybody will be able to lead this market tomorrow, hence we have to be ready for anything and everything. We therefore also try to disrupt the market by coming out with products that change the norm of consumer behaviour.”
Shrestha says, “We have always strived to play a pioneering role, especially in the construction materials sector which I believe goes a long way in contributing to the national economy.” Over the last four years, Shrestha says that they have been focusing on adding more value to the existing business verticals. He says that new products come with a lot of time on research to enable them to deliver the best.

It’s not only about having the best products but also about having a capable distributor network to make certain that the goods that consumers are seeking reach them within desired time, Shrestha says. “During my initial days, that was one area I spent a lot of time on”.

He talks about how the business network was not properly aligned to the vision of the company and for any venture to excel the entire ecosystem has to be aligned. The vision of the management needs to trickle down to the farthest point of the network and then only will there be a holistic and sustainable growth of the company, he states. “This is one achievement which I initiated that I feel proud to talk about as there are other companies in Nepal at present who try to emulate our practices.”

So was Shrestha always interested in joining the family business, we ask. “Ever since I was able to comprehend things I have always wanted to be a part of the company,” he says. Most of his vacations, he relates were spent on the factory premises in Bhairahawa. “I actually grew up watching our employees and that is why I can connect to them. From my childhood itself I was very comfortable in that environment,” he recalls, adding how he learnt to ride a motorcycle and even drive on the factory premises itself.

What also helped him achieve his personal vision for the company, says Shrestha, is that his father always allowed him to experience things his way. “When you are allowed to do things on your own you do make mistakes but it is a learning curve and you train yourself to handle responsibility,” he elucidates. “On the other hand my uncle taught me to be firm and decisive and to always lead aggressively and not fear change,” he shares.

But one advice he always keeps in mind was from his grandfather who often said that success is temporary. “We can be successful with one idea but another may fail but what we must never lose is the trust of the people we are doing business with or for that matter anybody we meet in our everyday life. It just takes one wrong move for decades of work that has gone into building the brand get smashed into smithereens,” he says.

“When I commit to something I make sure that I fulfil it,” he stresses, adding that one must always learn to ‘walk the talk’. “The reason I have been able to make a mark within our group is solely due to that. We have employees who have been in the company more than I have and some of our distributors have been associated with us from long before I joined so winning their trust was a big achievement,” he states.

In all these years of work, he says that the Covid 19 pandemic was one of the most unsure times he has faced. “We took a very conservative approach and braced ourselves for the worst so that we would be ready to adapt and bring the right changes,” he recalls. He adds that the company had to downsize a little but the pandemic was a massive learning process. “The experience of the virtual world sank in really strong”, says Shrestha.

He says that the first lockdown did hurt the company but post-lockdown the construction materials sector has not suffered as much as the service industry has. “But if we look at the general scenario we can see the coronavirus has helped catapult many industries and technology is one area where I think we have leapt 10 years ahead of time,” he opines, adding, “When push comes to shove, people do tend to look for innovative ways and we just need to adapt to the changes.”

What the pandemic also did for many in Nepal was to look at global trends and adopt them, says Shrestha. He adds, “Any global trend is immediately adopted in India, be it the consumer behaviour or the working culture, so we just need to look across and learn.”

Not one to shy away from challenges, Shrestha says people often say Nepal is just a developing country but it is within the challenges that we have the opportunities. “Yes, there are a few bureaucratic hurdles but we have good experts in our government policy making bodies,” he states, adding that the only major problem is politics that has trickled down to every level in the government as well as the private sector. He concludes, “We are always stuck in present day issues. Both the government and private sector know what is at stake for the country but the question is who is going to develop the vision for five years or ten years down the line. Things keep changing on the political front which does not bode well for the business climate because along with change in government, policies too change. It is time we buckle down and develop a clear roadmap for a sustainably developed Nepal.”

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