I worked in Zaveri Bazaar (Mumbai's jewellery district) for 14 years before taking the plunge into distribution of financial products. I started with a part time agency for Post Office schemes, LIC and UTI in 1980 and got into the business full time from 1981.
Only a board outside my house and a "care of" number to get me started
Those were the days when there was no publicity of any kind to support any distribution efforts. We had to rely only on door to door canvassing. Our own publicity efforts and over time word of mouth were what we relied on. Youngsters in our profession today may not be able to understand how we managed to do business and remain in touch with customers without even a phone. When I started, all I had was a "care of" number - a telephone number of a neighbour which I would give to clients so that they could leave messages for me. Every 2-3 hours, I would check about messages received and return those calls. My application for my own phone took almost 10 years to process! We used to have long waiting lists for phones in those days.
My daily routine would be to be out on the field 12-13 hours every day, going door to door, meeting investors and helping them with their savings and investment needs. I had a board outside my house in Malad (a Mumbai suburb) informing people that I was an LIC, UTI and PO Savings Schemes agent. That was it in terms of publicity. Post Office recurring deposits were popular, LIC schemes were popular and US 64 of UTI was also quite popular among retail savers.
Small savings turned out to be BIG idea
The Maharashtra Government in those days was keen to promote its small savings schemes in order to mobilize stable funds for its development activities. They were appointing agents for this purpose and my wife and I signed up for this effort. We were asked to mobilize small savings deposits from 3 suburbs of Mumbai - Malad, Kandivali and Borivali.
This took me into a whole new direction. I decided to first approach Government employees themselves and also people who came to interact with these Government officials. I would go to all our local police stations, and get policemen to invest in these schemes. I was allowed to set up my stall outside the police stations and canvass for these schemes. I would go to municipal ward offices and do the same - first get the municipal officers to invest and then set up my stall outside their ward offices to canvass. I even went to the liquor tehsildar's office and did the same. Basically, every government office which involved interaction with the public became a sales point for me. That got me to interact with many more investors than my door to door efforts would have helped me access.
My frequent trips to police stations and municipal offices got me to interact regularly with policemen, municipal ward officers and people connected with them. I used this opportunity to educate them about other savings and investment avenues. I got them to invest in UTI schemes and as I expanded my distribution efforts over time to all other mutual funds, I also introduced them gradually to market risk oriented products.
Important life lesson from a slum
Maharashtra Government at one point of time introduced a Slum Investment Awareness drive. They asked me to participate in this effort, seeing my wife's and my contributions in mobilising funds for their small savings schemes. I was a little hesitant initially, but went ahead with the idea anyway. I still remember one incident. I was taken by a local leader of one slum - a lady - into the interiors of a slum, through the slush and stench. We reached the designated spot where she had assembled a few slum dwellers. I began my awareness session. One woman from a slum there offered to make a cup of tea for me. I was a little hesitant and told her that I had already had a cup only a little while ago. The local leader tapped me gently on my shoulder and advised me to accept the offer. I did. The slum woman was overjoyed to make a cup of tea for me and was very happy to see me accepting her humble hospitality. I learned a very important lesson that day. From that day, I have always made it a practice whenever I go to any investor - however big or small - to readily accept their hospitality, whether it is a cup of tea or even a glass of water. These are small ways of establishing a bond, which so many of us overlook.
A client base which few distributors would ever interact with
My client base includes segments of savers who most distributors won't even think of interacting with - policemen, municipal workers, auto rickshaw drivers, bus drivers, small shop keepers. They all earn, they save, they have aspirations. I reach out to them and help them realise some of their aspirations through prudent saving and investing. For me, my biggest job satisfaction is that there are hundreds and thousands of families in Mumbai whose financial lives my wife and I have touched and contributed in our own small way to help them achieve some of their dreams and aspirations through wealth creation from mutual funds.
Handling the stress of 2008
When you create relationships, people invest based on their trust in you, rather than the products you sell. I have seen the era of guaranteed return products from mutual funds. I have seen some of the debacles which led to the withdrawal of guaranteed return products and the emergence of market risk products. I have seen market meltdowns in 1992, in 2000 and the big one in 2008 when so many more retail investors were fully exposed to markets than in previous crashes. These were difficult times for my clients and for me. I had to proactively reassure them and help them understand that a market correction, however severe, need not mean permanent loss of capital - which is what they were all afraid about. I would take them through fund portfolios, take them through the top holdings, reassure them that none of those companies have folded up and that they should have patience because markets always bounce back after a fall. To help people understand that patience will solve the issue far better than unnecessary action, was the main focus. "Aapka investment galat nahin hai, sirf uska waqt abhi kuch bura chal raha hai" - that was the main thrust of my message to them.
Clients listened to me, they trusted me and they held on. It was difficult, but at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that I was able to hold their hand when they needed it most and I helped them ride out of very volatile times, without eroding their hard earned savings.
The family business grows from strength to strength
The Sheth family: Deepak and Kalpana Sheth and their sons Tejas and Ritesh
Our sons joined us and have helped strengthen our business and expand our reach even more. Today, we serve over 6000 investors from 2500 families. Our mutual fund AuM is over Rs.175 crores, and its all built up from purely retail investors. Even today, State Government and municipal employees still account for about 40% of our client base and our business. Even today, we are called by the police and naval training centres to give financial education sessions to new recruits, which we regularly do. Even today, we conduct regular tax savings camps at BMC offices (municipal offices). The focus has not diminished, the messages and the way they are delivered of course have changed over time.
Important to remain grounded
As a family, I can say we have come a long way. From a single room and an income of Rs.10,000, we have a comfortable house today and a net worth of Rs.10 crores. I keep reminding my sons to always remain grounded. When I go to meet clients, I still prefer walking or going by local train, despite the fact that we now have 3 cars in the family. I meet so many clients when I walk or travel in the train. They are happy to see me, they call me over in the evening to their house. I will miss out on all these interactions with my clients if I start moving around in a car! Yes, when we are going for a social function, by all means we should use whatever comforts we have. But it is important when interacting with my investors, to ensure that we continue to relate to each other exactly as we have done over the years.
India's Small Giant
In 2014, my wife and I received "India's Small Giants" award from Shri Kalraj Mishra, Union Minister, for our efforts in spreading financial awareness among small savers. Our story was covered by NDTV Profit, as part of this recognition. It was a proud moment for both of us - an apt recognition that you can indeed become a giant by diligently serving small savers, putting them on a road to wealth creation and helping them achieve at least some of their many aspirations.
Content is created by Wealth Forum and must not be construed as an opinion by Reliance Mutual Fund.
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