In the world of logistics, each company has its own identity and its own flavour. Some prefer to venture out and explore, while others prefer to go by the book. In our conversation with Sunila Yadav, CEO of Anil Mantra Logistix Pvt Ltd., we realised that each company's uniqueness lies in the people who are running it. New Silk Road Network's member Anil Mantra established itself in the 2000s in India. Since then, they have created a strong niche for themselves in not just the local market, but also in Kazakhstan.
The charioteer of this company, Ms. Yadav founded the company against all odds, in an industry that has long kept women at bay. The journey of Ms. Yadav is synonymous to the company. The interview delves deep into the formation of the company, its growing years and achievements. Moreover, we see a picture of the harsh realities of a business world that still has a long way to go in regards to gender equality. Challenging the norms and breaking the barriers is not just a characteristic of Ms. Yadav but also of her company Anil Mantra.
In conversation with Sunila…
NSRN: As the founder and owner of Anil Mantra, can you tell us a bit more about your journey of getting into logistics and then setting up your own venture? What are some of the significant highlights in the company’s history so far?
Sunila: I started in the field of logistics in the year 1999. I finished my MBA in 1998 and began my career at an export company for two years. The job was really monotonous, and it was not challenging at all. I just had to transfer paper from one side to the other. I told my supervisor that I wished to move into logistics planning, but he was not in favour of this. So, I went to the company's CMD and told him that I can perform logistics planning. I have grown up in an environment surrounded by logistics. My father did logistics in the Army for years and years.
As soon as I suggested this, they all raised questions, a woman, in logistics? I told them not to look at me in terms of my gender. Eventually, after a bit of back and forth, they decided to promote me into the planning section. Unfortunately, that did not digest too well with my immediate boss. One fine day he yelled and shouted saying that it was not up to me to look after the company's benefit, instead, he told me to just perform the task I was given. That did not go well with me, because if my job was not to look after my company's needs, then what was it? So I went ahead and put my resignation on his table.
I spent a few months after that looking after myself, I was doing some cycling, spending time with family then. One day, I was sitting with my father and asked him what I could do next? And he asked me what I wanted to do? I explained to him that the industry is such where women are not given enough exposure and for me, the interest in the job mattered a lot more than the money. Soon I got an offer to join a good logistics company, and I became the branch manager for their Delhi office.
There, I was looking after warehousing and shipment operations since everything was planned by us. We were an excellent team, I looked after their every needs as they looked after our customers' needs. Getting the job correctly done was necessary. For three years, I worked there until my husband, who holds a transferable government position, was moved to Ahmedabad. But my boss had a problem with me moving away to another city. Since my job is to plan, I can do that from anywhere. It's not like I have to go to China, to arrange a shipment from there (laughs!). We had a big contract with Motorola then, and I managed that right as I gave birth to my daughter. I was back on my feet in three days after a cesarean operation. I would wake up at 6 am, before my daughter, from then till 8 am I would finish planning for China shipments. Then for an hour, I was busy with my daughter, and then 9 am I was back again on the call with China. I worked in that job for 7 years.
The day my daughter started walking on her feet, my mother-in-law approached me and asked how much money I needed to run my own business. Not even a penny! I said. Then what are you worried about? she asked. I was concerned that I might not be able to give my child enough time. She suggested that I work from home for a while, and when I was ready to go out, she would help me look after my daughter. She was an immense support to me along with my husband who has supported all my decision in moving ahead as a female entrepreneur in logistics.
In 2009, I started a private limited company and began going to the office. That's how we started Anil Mantra. Anila Mantra was a proprietary company wholly owned by me. We began Anil Mantra Logistix after that, which as the name suggests does logistics. In 2012 we received an IATA license and started Anil Mantra Aviation. We also have a trading company called Anil Mantra Tradex. We conduct trading and work in sectors of mining, procurement and medical supplies.
The company is named after my brother 2/Lt Anil Yadav, an officer in the Indian Army. He was martyred while serving the nation. I looked up to my elder brother while growing up as a child. I was quite influenced by him. He taught us quite a few 'mantras' that are now our company's central values and guide the way we do our business. He taught us to share our growth with others and to contribute to society. That's why our company funds the education of some underprivileged children till they start their higher education. We are also doing a project for the upliftment of tribals in India.
I have been working in oil & gas industry for many years now. I have the credibility and excellent service levels, which is the most important aspects of a company. Since prices fluctuate a lot, we make sure that the service never changes. We pitch customers on services and not on the price, as the job needs to be done perfectly no matter how big or small.
In that spirit, we started offices in Kazakhstan as well, in 2016. We have one office in Almaty and one in Atyrau, but Almaty is the hub for us for sure. It is more or less an independent office consisting of all women, who are aggressive in the business front. Sometimes they require our help with the operational parts, and we are there to assist; otherwise, pricing and selling are all done by them.
The person with whom I had organised the office within Kazakhstan was at the time working with one of our importers. Her background is very nice since her family was in the Kazakh rail business for a long time. Anil Mantra/SM Point, apart from air and sea, majorly does rail, because rail is solid in Kazakhstan. We are waiting for Covid-19 to get better to focus on our new Russian office as well. I usually travel often between India and Kazakhstan. But of course, now it is not that possible. Funnily enough, I think it has been a personal achievement for me to prove that women can also perform equally well in this industry.
NSRN: As you mentioned, you have established your own offices in Kazakhstan and Russia too, how does logistics in terms of support, infrastructure, functioning and processes in these two countries compared to and also supplement your business in India? How does this unique set up impact your customers? With such a global world view, what are your expectations while conducting business with other international companies?
Sunila: The first thing that people need to know is that Kazakhstan is an importing country. People often ask, can you please quote the rate from Kazakhstan to Russia, so I say I am sorry, even to mention the rate it will take me seven days. But when you have import, for example, if one has to import cargo from Israel to Kazakhstan, it can be less in a day. These are the conditions while doing private business— but government business in Kazakhstan, it is almost always under tenders. You apply for the tender, and you perform the task if you are awarded. If you don't, then you are blacklisted for five years and all the procedures are done online.
There are only three significant sectors prominent in Kazakhstan: oil and gas, mining and construction. One can't get into mining directly because it is wholly owned by the government. The same goes for oil and gas. So you have to try and catch the vendors around them. As the government only buys from the listed vendors, you have to be in touch with them.
India is a bit easier because you have the local resources to connect to from here or there. Besides, the temperature in India is not as vastly cold and devastating as Kazakhstan. From November to February without the snow ploughers, a single truck cannot move. Moreover, it is a landlocked country, so any trouble at the border effects them. Challenges are enormous, but that's where you stand and everything falls down to what solutions you can offer. There is nothing called A to B in logistics, you have to find A.1, A.2 or A.3 and so on, you must find permutations and combinations. There are no set rules!
My only concern with the international market is the recovery of money. Sometimes we are chasing for three years to get the payment, which is a bit off-putting. If our money is not safe, then it makes no sense to go out globally and do business. We do intense research for our companies and come up with different solutions for them. We make sure our customers are solid, with strong backgrounds. Ten years ago, I stopped doing business myself with China. Mr Alok Gupta joined us in 2015, and he only does China business and no other market. He's been tackling the market for 25 years now and he knows it inside out. China, as a market, will always be there. China is doing good for Almaty for sure. We also do rail, but till the 31st of January, rail traffic is being curbed by China.
NSRN: As a woman in business, you have a strong and determined nature. That has always been evident to us in our conversations with you. Tell us more about how the climate is different for a woman in the field of logistics, plus the challenges you overcame to reach these heights today. What would be your advice to other women in this field?
Sunila: My father used to say, if you think you are a lady, then people will treat you like one and if you think you are a human being, they will then treat you like one too. It is rather frustrating that often women are not trusted in their professional positions.
Our trade, especially in India is a bit dirty. The prejudices that people have against the women in power are outright disgusting sometimes. For a couple of years, people always thought that my business was not wholly my own, and supported by a male figure, either my husband or father. That was never the case. When I go for large conferences and meetings, not a single person from any other country asks me if I am the company's sole owner. But when I meet Indian men in these conferences, they have asked me this question once or twice. This attitude is prevalent in the industry in India.
They don't understand that people work 24x7 to run their business. I maintain a certain standard in my company, which makes us stand apart, and no it is not because I am a woman. It is a challenge, and it will always be a challenge to make people feel that a woman can do something. Once we were in the warehouse packing a BMW bike, and this guy comes to me saying that he is packing and doesn't need to be troubled. So I pointed out that he was packing it incorrectly. I told him that the handle can be reduced, so he looked at me and said, you will tell me? You are a woman, and you will tell me how to pack a bike? I told him I had a Harley at home, I know how bikes work. Where is it written that this knowledge is only with a man? People forget that women have experiences from running a household, from being in the world and running businesses.
At the same time, as women in India, we also need to learn how to prioritise and manage time better. There were so many instances where I see women leaving the office for the smallest instances. We need to create a supportive environment. It has to be both ways. The family has to be supportive and one must be able to demand support from the family to sustain their careers. At one level the change also has to start with you! Honestly, you need to be passionate about this trade; otherwise, it makes no sense. If you are passing your time here, then it will be the worst thing for you. You really need to fall in love with logistics. I get thrilled when I see cargo (laughs!).
NSRN: Tell us more about your services, especially transport via rail between China, Kazakhstan and Russia. Is there any effect of container shortage that you have witnessed while conducting business? If so, how is your team tackling this situation?
Sunila: The container shortage is affecting everyone across the world. Sometimes you don't even get a booking for three weeks, because there are no containers. So we end up telling our customers to either go for a higher price, change the shipping line, or just move the booking. As far as India is concerned, the significant imports used to come from China, but that has come down to only 25 per cent now. The rates are significantly jumping too. What you had last week, it is three times that this week. We hope that this could get better by March-end. Financials and budgeting will be over then, and the vaccine will create openings for China. I have never seen such rates. Probably back in the 1990s, when a Dar-e-Salam container used to cost around $6, 800. That is the same price sometimes I am paying for China now to get the loading!
NSRN: What are the future prospects for the company, in terms of upcoming goals and developments? Would the year 2021 open different opportunities? Or will it be a time to focus on achieving the normal? What can we expect from the coming year for the field of logistics?
Sunila: There is nothing called normal. Normal is boring. Either you get tossed and lose everything, or you become a multi-millionaire (laughs!). Normal is not needed. Now, in terms of upcoming prospects, the first thing we want to do is to start an LCL consolidation out of India, and we really need partners for outbound and inbound cargo. We are entirely ready for this, but we need partners to fill the containers with cargo. We are also planning to start warehousing, including pick and pack, especially for import shipments. Lastly, we have to expand Kazakhstan's capabilities into sea freight because the China route can sometimes be challenging. So we are trying to conduct something via the Baltic way. It is always good to have an alternative too.