Leading with compassion

From the October 2022 print edition

It’s common to hear from supply chain professionals that they fell into the vocation almost by accident. Often, those professionals make their way to the field from some other area like engineering or finance. But for Gaurav Batra, the plunge into the business world – and from there into supply chain – was as much about necessity as it was by chance.

Image: Mike Ford Photography

At about age 14, and while still living in his native India, Batra joined the family business when his father, who ran the business, contracted a spinal condition that made it difficult for him to continue running the business.

At the time, the family owned an automobile parts retail company in the commercial and political hub of New Delhi. While challenging, the situation also exposed Batra to entrepreneurship at a young age. And as rewarding as the foray into the family business was, Batra had to juggle his new role in the business while managing his schoolwork.

“That helped shape a lot of my approach to engagement today, and what I do and how I do it,” says Batra, who now lives with his family in Oakville, Ontario and runs a business transformation consulting firm.

“That early experience, as challenging as it was as a child, really helped me significantly in dealing with people and managing situations.”

But Batra didn’t stay with the family business for his entire career. His foray into the supply chain began as a shop floor associate with an apparel manufacturer in New Delhi. The company made apparel for various
companies, including The Gap, Baby Gap and Banana Republic, among other clients. The role helped Batra formulate his own business ideas, and he eventually landed in Paris, France, sourcing and manufacturing textiles for clients based in that city.

It was also in Paris that he met his future wife, Anu, who now owns and operates a designer label called Anu Raina.

Getting into textiles
When he returned to India from Paris, he and his new wife established a textiles business called Just Beans. The new venture manufactured and exported home textiles, focusing on organic, eco-friendly linen and cotton products. The end product fused modern designs with traditional methods of production. The company’s strength, Batra said, lay in sourcing and product development.

“It was a very interesting supply chain challenge because we had to get these people working used to centuries and centuries of doing stuff in one way, to get them to do it in a different way,” Batra says. “It led to a massive amount of success in Japan – somehow this idea of being eco-friendly and organic really hit the mark with our Japanese clients.”

The company’s products proved so popular in that country that Batra went from managing the sourcing process and product development to eventually turning the business over to a Japanese trading firm.
By around 2004, the business was doing well and Batra decided to move his young family to Toronto, where he had enrolled at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management in the fulltime MBA program. By that time, he had already completed an undergraduate degree in commerce at the University
of Delhi. He had a four-year-old son, and his daughter was born during his time as a student.

Before arriving in Toronto, Batra faced a choice between US or Canadian’s graduate schools. Their permanent resident status came through at about the same time, there was a good financial case to study in Canada, where he would pay domestic tuition fees. And with a sister already living in the Toronto area,
it simply made sense to study in this country.

“I’ll be honest, personally, the Canadian value system resonated with us far more than the US, to a point where we couldn’t see ourselves living in the US long term,” Batra says. “So, we said, ‘this is much closer to how we feel and operate and where we would rather have our kids grow up.’ The decision was clear that it will be Canada.”

The MBA focused heavily on finance, although Batra wanted to go back into sourcing and procurement once finished. He had his sights set on consulting after his degree finished, since he felt that would be a fast way to learn.

He finished his MBA in 2006 and immediately joined a consulting firm. But by 2009, Batra had decided to set up his own independent consulting company.

His theory of quick learning has turned out to be accurate. Working with an insurance client, for example, has meant he learned about combined ratios and how insurance operates, indemnity spend, and how some of the sourcing and procurement decisions are different in that field. Consulting has also allowed him to use his own sourcing and procurement skills.

An early project saw him help a large pharma retailer assess their self-distribution potential. He also helped lead a significant, four-year transformation for a manufacturing firm, harmonizing their supply chain operations across their North American manufacturing facilities. Another project, this time for a financial institution, involved helping the organization understand their spend, categorize it, and provide
a roadmap for achieving visibility and more effective governance of that spend.

Whereas many large consulting firms will only give advice, Batra leads his clients through the process until an assignment is completed.

“I roll up my sleeves and get down to work as their representative on the project,” he says. “I’m basically one of the business leads and then I help them get through the delivery portion of that project, not just the strategy part.”

Due to the complexity of the projects Batra manages, each day tends to be different. To ensure project’s are successful, he avoids juggling multiple projects at once, instead putting attention into each client’s needs before moving on to the next one. Still, Batra starts each morning focusing on his three top priorities for that day. The common thread through each project is to act as an observer, especially early on.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a typical day,” Batra notes. “A lot of my day is spent observing. Of course, I’m doing some thinking. That’s very crucial – keeping enough time in the day to really think about what we can do better, what’s coming up, staying about three to six months ahead, knowing where the team might be and driving through all that. And you can’t do that if you’re consumed in doing a lot of tactical work.”

For Batra, one of the most memorable aspects of his consulting assignments has been meeting smart people who have the potential for growth but have thus far lacked opportunities. Several people he has met in the course of his work have benefited from stretch engagements and assignments that help them grow as individuals. Many of those individuals are now doing better in their careers.

“It’s very fulfilling for me to have been able to influence that in some way,” he says.

Volunteer opportunities have also provided satisfaction along the way. For example, Batra has worked to raise money for Habitat for Humanity, and he co-administers a Zen meditation group in Oakville. Even supporting his wife and children in their endeavours has been fulfilling. Like Batra, both his children play squash, and he currently coaches his daughter, Shirin, at tournaments – one of his big passions. She has played in tournaments in the US and England, as well as across Canada. Meanwhile, his son, Zuv, is also just completing his final year in mechanical engineering at Ottawa’s Carlton University. His wife’s clothing and accessories business is now quite successful, and she’s a well-known designer.

Supply chain challenges
Batra sees several challenges currently confronting supply chains. The biggest, he says, involves talent. It can be tough not only to find the right people but also to create the proper environment to help them thrive. Smart chief procurement officers must know how to attract talent. But they must also know how to retain and hone that talent. That takes a mindset focused on people.

“The solution lies in the problem itself where you find ways to become people focused,” Batra says. “Find ways to allow the space and flexibility to make mistakes and grow. The pressure is relentless and there’s not a lot of patience when it comes to being with people. It’s tough, so there’s some personal change required.”

A second major challenge is the focus on costs within supply chain and procurement, Batra says. A basic understanding of costs and sourcing exists, especially in places like financial services. Yet opportunities exist that could add five or six percentage points to the bottom line that people are refusing to take. That’s because, at a bank, annual fee increases can more than make up for cost inefficiencies, Batra notes. That and a lack of competition can kill the motivation to focus on reducing cost.

A third challenge comes in the form of global instability, Batra says. The war in Ukraine, the spread of nationalism, the long-term effects of climate change, and other threats means that organizations can more easily be caught off guard when a supply base dries up.

“Securing those primary, secondary, even tertiary sources of supply is super crucial right now,” Batra said. “These shocks will continue to happen. It will be the new normal. We as procurement leaders are not really prepared for it. People have rationalizations like, ‘Canada is big. We don’t have that much clout from a sourcing perspective.’ All these are excuses. People need to pull up their socks and get to work when it comes to securing sources of supply.”

Going forward, Batra hopes to continue advising senior leaders on strategy and operations issues within procurement and sourcing, he says. In the long term, Batra is interested in potentially pursuing a PhD in public policy. That would open the door to taking on more of a leadership role and setting the policy tone within a provincial or federal body, he says.

Passion for hiking
Hiking and travel remain important pastimes. Batra has an extensive bucket list of places to visit to pursue hiking, including Norway, New Zealand and South America. The family has already hiked in Iceland, Quebec and the Canadian Rockies, and Batra and his daughter went on a challenging hike in the Kananaskis region in Alberta that included five days and four nights in back country areas.

“I think it’s very important to disconnect, and to get perspective, see the bigger picture, in terms of where we are in our place in the broader cosmos,” he says.

Co-administering a Zen meditation group also helps to keep Batra focused, he notes, ensuring that he remains focused on love and compassion when dealing with people in his professional and personal life. The family also adopted a cat during the pandemic. The cat, a Russian Blue, is a “big boy” named Maxim, he says. Batra describes the move of getting a pet as “absolutely fantastic.”

The family has never had a pet and shaking up their comfort zone in this way has allowed them to grow closer.

In terms of advice for supply chain and procurement professionals, Batra compares professional development to learning a new language. The best way to improve is to immerse oneself in it. Similarly, the more hands-on work a practitioner does in the supply chain field, the better he or she gets.

Since supply chain has multiple components, practitioners have the option of focusing their careers on various areas. Whether it’s manufacturing, logistics, procurement-sourcing or the buy side, supply chain professionals can start at many different places along the continuum.

“You can absolutely start anywhere,” Batra says. “But the most important thing is to be flexible, be open to learning, be open to working hard. Procurement and sourcing, by definition, aren’t really rocket science. You have to have some basic common-sense understanding, you ask the right questions, and you can do well.”

Batra notes that basic analytical capability is necessary for success in the field. But most important is a willingness to learn and to be flexible. Without that, he notes, it becomes difficult to excel in any of supply chain’s different areas.

For those looking to take on leadership roles, it’s important to leave your ego at the door, Batra notes. Instead, he counsels, promote love and compassion while also working to get out of people’s way.

“I would just say, seek out an opportunity – there’s lots of demand,” he says. “Good people are required in any economy. Start in any area within the supply chain. If the idea is to understand globally the supply chain, then you can always have opportunities to go deep within certain areas. Just bring an open mind, a willingness to work hard, and the sky is the limit.”