Reversal of Roles Doesn’t Come Easily

Peering over her glasses and bearing a stoical smile, Girija Bhan doesn’t look like the impulsive sort. Her serene countenance doesn’t tell the whole story, however. Ask her husband, M.K. Bhan. In 1978, she quit her job at American Express bank here on the spur of the moment, took a flight to Kabul the next day to join him.

“What the hell are you doing here?” she recounts him asking her. She was there because she had asked herself the same question in Delhi, wondering why she was hundreds of miles away from her husband of only two months.

This wouldn’t be the only time that Bhan would leave a high-status job for personal reasons. Three years later, she quit her merchant banker job at Grindlays Bank to take care of her newborn son who had developed severe food allergies. Twenty five years later, Bhan controls her own time and work environment.

She now runs Gauri Impex, which helps buyers and sellers in international transactions of fertilizers, metals and several other commodities.

Gauri Impex handles end-to-end work, from finding buyers to negotiating, providing documentation, sorting out transportation and handling the shipment. The firm, which started in Bhan’s home office in 1998, now has 10 employees, clients that include large public sector undertakings in the fertilizer industry. Entrepreneurship is a significant departure from Bhan’s previous career. During more than a decade of work at the government’s Minerals and Metals Trading Corp., now known as MMTC Ltd, in the 1980s and 90s, Bhan served in a variety of positions, eventually reaching chief general manager of the fertilizer division.

“All of India’s fertilizers would come through (MMTC)…it had a monopolistic position in the sector,” she says. “Now,” she says, she has to be at the “beck and call” of the “the same customer” who was at the mercy of the government agency.

“This is how India is changing,” she adds. “The reversal of roles doesn’t come easily.”

Bhan believes that a major cause for the downfall of many entrepreneurs coming from senior level positions in government firms is their inability to adjust to this shift. In her business, she says, the “difficulty of the task” of pleasing both the buyer and the seller makes it impossible to succeed if one is too consumed with one’s own self.