f you think communication skills, good grooming, etc are extremely important when you go for an interview, you are right, says the woman who has helped the placement of over 1.5 lakh people into jobs in and outside India over the last 15 years. Hema Latha Rajan, Director and co-founder of India’s leading recruitment or staffing firm Ma Foi Management Consultants Ltd, puts about 50 per cent weightage on qualifications.

“Of course that’s important, but the other 50 per cent goes to grooming and soft skills. So skill building has to happen from the school level itself, through dramatics, debating, poetry, etc. We always say that communication is really important — how you present yourself, articulate your experience, as also alertness, presentation skills and perspective.”

She doesn’t think a good-looking person has an advantage; “but what matters is how well-groomed you are. Clients give a lot of weightage to this as it is a very competitive world out there.” How you handle difficult situations and retain your composure during trying times can land you a coveted job.

Latha admits that in the last couple of months the job scene has cooled down. “Yes, there is a bit of gloom out there, but in our country, if an 8.5 per cent growth continues, then I see buoyancy in all sectors for a couple of years. Even if the US moves into recession India will have stability.”

A finance professional with over 15 years of experience in audit and executive search, after a B.Com from Nagpur University she qualified as a chartered accountant in 1988. After marrying K. Pandia Rajan, MD and CEO of Ma Foi, they started the firm with a capital of Rs 60,000 — she moved to Kolkata and worked as an auditor with S.B. Billimoria, a part of Deloitte and later became a partner in a CA firm.

The beginning

Eventually the couple moved to Chennai, as “both of us belong to this place” and started Ma Foi, “because whenever we travelled abroad, we’d always wonder why staffing is not an industry in India; it was huge in the West.”

Latha admits it wasn’t “easy to give up a job and staffing was just evolving in India. We started in a small room in my father’s place in Nungambakkam and the first ad we gave focused on engineers since Rajan used to work for a petrochemical consulting firm.”

The initial challenge was that “bankers never understood a service industry, more importantly a staffing industry, so even to get an overdraft was not very easy.” During the first year the focus was on overseas recruitment and visas had to be organised for many recruits to go to the Gulf countries.

“They were very excited but suddenly December ‘92 happened (demolition of Babri Masjid), which was a huge setback because no visas were given to the Gulf countries; at that point we were sending mostly energy, oil and gas professionals to the Gulf and East Asia. It was a nightmarish experience for us as people had already left their jobs and we felt responsible,” she recalls.

But things changed after a 45-day wait, says Latha, adding that at that time not too many Indian companies came to them for their staffing needs. Indian recruitments took off mainly in 1994-95 after liberalisation, when MNCs started coming to India. The job scene in Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Delhi, Pune, etc became vibrant helping Ma Foi to enlarge its domestic market.

Till 2000, the couple was engaged in increasing their equity in the company; “we had taken money from friends, relatives, colleagues — a lot of people had helped us with sums from Rs 5,000 to Rs 20 lakh — and given them shares in the closely-held company with a clear commitment that we would give them 20 per cent dividend every year. We worked very hard but kept this commitment.” Last year the company’s turnover was Rs 435 crore, its own staff strength was 1,800 core employees — half of them women — and 28,000 others on their rolls deputed to other client systems.

Ma Foi has today emerged as a one-stop HR services firm, with operations in 44 Indian cities and nine countries like the US, the UK, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong and West Asia. With dependable staff across their offices, Latha has now cut down on her travel; “my two daughters now get more of my time, earlier Rajan would travel 25 days in a month and I would go for 12 days because I also had a family to look after,” she says.

Overseas bug

On preferences of young Indians, Latha says that today India is a great place to work in and many of those working overseas want to return to India as the salary gap has narrowed. “But there are those who are bitten by the overseas bug and want to experience something different.” Even though life in West-Asian countries might be taxing or dull, the region remains popular as you don’t need to pay income tax.

The most important industry in India vis-À-vis recruitment continues to be IT and ITES but the BFSI (banking, financial services and insurance) sector is also booming; energy is important and in the last couple of years manufacturing has also done very well, particularly auto and auto ancillaries. Ma Foi has started customer retail service to meet the staffing needs of the burgeoning malls and retail outlets.

On aspirations and the way people handle disappointments, Latha says, “There is clearly something called the employability gap; there are the good ones who get two/three job options. It is getting more and more difficult to find good talent so the right match is not always there. On one side there are opportunities and on the other a lot of good people, but somehow they don’t fit into the available slots.”

So what is the solution?

“We really have to find ways of managing or sharpening their skills through special training programmes. Many companies are doing that, and a few years ago we’ve started Ma Foi Academy to sharpen people’s skills, in terms of English accent and other training.”

Their recent study predicts the job market in India will grow at three per cent. But at the end of the day, “the war for talent is real” and people are looking out for fresh young talent that can be creative, says Latha. She adds that while an MBA label is important, what matters is where you get it from. “The first-tier MBAs add a lot of value… IIMs, XLRI, ISB, because there is a certain experience you gain there. Tier-2 places like Symbiosis or LIBA (Loyola Institute of Business Administration) are also good. But an MBA just for the sake of it from anywhere doesn’t add value; it only wastes two years.”

Gender preferences

Latha estimates that of the 1.5 lakh placements Ma Foi had made, about 30 per cent would be women. In IT and telecom services women are clearly preferred. On there being far fewer women at the top, she says in “some organisations vertical movement is now clearly happening and I find more women trying harder to balance family and profession, which is a very positive trend. The struggle is there to handle family, children and office… and women are managing.”

On changing trends at the workplace she says the concept of people being wedded to a single company is gone. The average tenure these days is “three years at the maximum; and MBAs have a two-year itch. We counsel and tell them at least give it four years to create a depth. In the last 15 years in this industry I’ve seen that people who move too fast in the first 10 years actually stagnate in the next decade. And people who can create depth in the first decade move faster as this depth helps in better understanding of the industry, roles, people, etc. So I ask people to hold on for four years and they’d grow faster.”

But do they listen?

“Well, today people want variety of exposure; sometimes it’s so funny that at 30 people come and say they feel so burnt out. When you move too fast, you’re not able to anchor anywhere.”

On the single quality she watches out while placing people Latha says, “It’s cultural compatibility; how you vibe with the other person. Once you get that right, a lot of things are possible, you can train a person. But if culturally the wavelength doesn’t match, it is difficult.”

The last word on the name of the company. “It’s a French exclamation meaning ‘My word’… and symbolises trust. People pronounce it in many ways and some even say ‘mafia’, but I say that as long as the brand recall value is there, I’m fine!”

From India, Mumbai
Dear rajashri,
Thanks a lot for the article.
It's an outstanding one . Its not an easy job to maintain and shows the way of grooming from the initial stage Latha has done excellent job.

So beautifully said by Mrs Hema Latha Rajan. thanx a tonn for sharing this piece of information.
From India, Pune

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