Young and ambitious
When VS Kumar was 10 years old, his father asked him what car he would like to drive when he grew up.
“Appa, I want a Rolls-Royce,” said the young boy, who dared to dream. It earned him a resounding smack on the head from his irate father.
“He told me that if you want to imagine, be realistic. Don’t dream about something that will never happen, otherwise you would be wasting your time. I said, no, Appa, I will definitely own a Rolls-Royce,” says Kumar.
His father then asked him how he knew what a Rolls-Royce was.
“It was from watching The Green Hornet on TV,” explains Kumar. So while every other boy his age wanted to become a fighter like Bruce Lee’s Kato in the TV show, young Kumar decided he wanted to own a Rolls-Royce.
The founder of Network Courier would eventually get that Rolls-Royce, a year after his father’s passing in 1999, on account of cancer.
“I drove to the cemetery where my father was buried and said, ‘Appa, here is the Rolls-Royce – I’ve delivered on my promise.’ It was a very emotional moment for me,” says Kumar solemnly.
He did also become a fighter – a boxer, in fact, during his national service. And it was during that time when he was a boxing instructor that his life began in 1983 – when it almost ended.
He was riding a motorcycle on his way to camp to train a group of boxing recruits when he was involved in a collision with a lorry. The accident at what was the tail end of his stint at national service left him with a shattered right leg and many sleepless nights wondering if he would ever fully recover and what he should do with the rest of his life. He was only 20 then.
He did recover and started work as a dispatch rider – something he did for the next three years, rising to the position of operations manager. Then a windfall – in the form of damages awarded by the court for his injuries as well as compensation from the Singapore Armed Forces for what was considered a service accident – amounting to $25,000 led him to set up his own courier service business with three other partners.
Played out by partners
Unfortunately, in just three years, he would be ousted by his partners. He was down and left with nothing – the windfall completely depleted. But like the boxer he was trained to be, he refused to be knocked out. Together with his ever supportive wife Veni, he counted the ang pow money they had received from relatives and friends from their wedding. Along with the jewellery she had also received from the wedding which he intended to pawn, he figured they would be able to raise $10,000. He also made the hard and painful decision to borrow from his parents, who loaned him their life savings which amounted to just $11,000.
Since starting in 1989 with just 10 employees and a tiny 250 sq ft office space, Network Courier has grown so tremendously that it now occupies its own five-storey, 15,000 sq ft office building and employs more than 150 staff who serve over 5,000 customers.
Kumar, who describes himself as daring, has had the courage to dream.
“Since I was young, I have always been curious about many things and never allowed fear to stand in my way of learning and growing. Be it my encounter with a snake when I was younger, my boxing days during NS, or even the numerous challenges I confronted head-on in my entrepreneurial journey. If I dream it, I would dare myself to go beyond all odds to make those dreams materialise.
“Much of the growth I have enjoyed in my entrepreneurial journey is because I was daring! There were numerous times I was told that I could not make it, I would fail, I did not have what it takes. Instead of allowing these remarks to discourage me, I used them to further fuel my desire to achieve what I was told was not possible, not so much to prove them wrong, but to prove to myself that I could do it,” says Kumar.
“There will always be risks in business. However, when with our instincts we know that a plan will work or add value, we have to make the call and live with the decision we make,” he says.
But beyond daring to dream or having the courage to fight, running a business is about the sentiment, the desire to do something different, says Kumar.
A heart for his staff
“What was it I wanted to do? I wanted to give people work, I wanted to do what my old partners did not do,” he tells D:Code.
To him, his employees have been crucial to the success of Network Courier and its progress in the past three decades.
“Employees are the heart and life of the business,” he explains. “You feed the employee and automatically, he’ll look after the business. Focus on the wellness and growth of the employees, and they will bring wellness and growth to the business.
“Our success is because of our employees,” he says. “Around 35 percent of our employees have been with us for more than 15 years. Collectively, 65 percent of our staff have been with us for more than five years. We were a small group of individuals with a dream when we first began our operations. Today, our pioneers and long-serving employees have grown with the company and now hold key positions. Along with it, they also have grown as individuals with their own family and some of their children have grown to be working adults now.”
Kumar finds the greatest satisfaction in this.
“I attended the weddings of some of my staff when we were starting out. Now, years on, I am attending the weddings of their children, and that makes me very proud,” he says.
“In Network Courier, we consider ourselves one big, united and happy network family and I am seen as the father figure. I have always kept an open door to all employees. My employees are fully aware that they can discuss anything with me, be it work related or personal matters. I must say that I consider it my blessing to help my employees wherever possible to enable them to make their dreams come true.”
To build rapport among staff, Network Courier holds monthly Networking Nights, which typically involve catering a buffet dinner for all employees in their office premises.
“On these nights, we put aside rank and seniority so everyone can talk freely, share any inputs or feedback they might have. These platforms help the employees understand that beneath our individual roles in the organisation, we are all humans and we care for each other, like how a family does,” adds Kumar.
The customer is always asking why
And while his employees are family, his customers are his teachers.
“Our customers are a big challenge for us,” he says, having had his fair share of demanding clients over the years. “When they scold me, when they hate me, I take that as a challenge,” he adds. “I don’t take them as the enemy, I take them as teachers.
“Because customers always want new things, and they want things cheapest and fastest. They will say, why not fast enough? Why can’t you do this or why can’t you do that? There are a thousand and one whys.”
So he needs to find out how to address the whys of his thousands of clients.
“When I find a new ‘how’, a new idea, I will share it with the customer. I will say, I have managed to do this, so please, enjoy the rest.
“So the customer will say, someone is listening to me. So they are very happy. So they keep supporting us,” he explains.
“So the company has thrived these 30 years not because of my ideas. It was only my plan. It was my clients’ ideas,” he adds with a broad grin.
According to Kumar, he has never had a business plan. It has simply been about listening to clients and learning what they want.
“I started a business with a degree from the University of Hard Knocks. I never had a business plan in my life. Never. How did the company become cash rich? It’s just courage and a fighting spirit. Along the way we amended our methods and found new ideas.
“You have to fight your way out. Not find your way out, but fight,” he emphasises.
And have there been disappointments in this entrepreneurial fight of his?
“I treat my staff as one family. It’s also like getting married – you stay with that one. You fight to make it work. What could I have done better? I have made them home-owners, they’ve grown, and that is what I want. I wanted to do this. For business and the company, but it has also been for their personal gain. So, there are no disappointments. I just keep fighting. Unless there is something I cannot change for the better, then maybe that would be a disappointment,” he explains.
Perhaps there may have been one disappointment, when he had to shut down Network Computer Services, which he started out of frustration at being unable to get anyone to teach him how to use the computer.
“At that time, nobody wanted to teach me, so I was angry,” he says, displaying a mock frown. So in 1994, he started this company to teach IT skills to staff at hospitals, other courier companies, or just about any company that required its staff to possess some computer literacy. It was a mobile computer service – they’d set up computers at the clients premises and send trainers over.
“We had to shut down gradually because of SARS, because nobody wanted to come and learn from us. You could call that a disappointment. But was it, really? I’m satisfied that we managed to train 10,000 people before we had to pull the plug,” says Kumar.
Meanwhile, the challenges that Network Courier would face today or in the near future would be disruptors and funding, but he insists that these challenges also provide opportunities.
“Disruptive starts-ups have brought fast and dynamic changes to the industry. Since they are starting off from a blank sheet, they are able to start with a strong technological foundation and scale up from there while conventional players like us need to still make an effort to realign from our previous set processes.
“And technological developments naturally come with a high investment cost that requires enormous funding, so this is a concern, given the existing overheads.
“But they also present an abundance of opportunities, especially for a company like ours with 30 years of experience in the industry. Most of these start-ups are merely relying on technology to drive their business while we use technology as our enablers. Given our deep knowledge of the dynamics of the industry and being always service-centric, we are able to offer a wider scope of services to the market and back this up with advanced technology.”
Having been an intrepid entrepreneur for the best part of his working life, what’s his advice to those seeking to test their entrepreneurial mettle?
“I’d advise them to ensure they are adequately prepared before they start their own business. We hear many success stories but for every success story, there are many who had to taste failure. Working first to gain some experience while building up their capital would help, for sure.
“And it is not all a bed of roses,” warns Kumar. “Being an entrepreneur means living and breathing your business 24/7. There are no days off, there are no punch cards – you don’t clock in or clock out at a fixed hour. Every waking moment, your mind is occupied with your business with a zillion decisions to make, day in and day out.
“There are numerous potholes along an entrepreneurs route that can sink them in an instant,” he adds.
And would he encourage his offspring to follow his footsteps onto the perilous paths of entrepreneurship?
“I am blessed with two beautiful daughters, Gayathri and Priya,” says Kumar, his eyes sparkling with fatherly pride. “Gayathri is 25 and Priya is 23. They are currently involved in the company where Gayathri heads the digital marketing department, given her aptitude and artistic flair. Meanwhile, Priya is our account manager as she has an eye for detail.
“Realistically, the courier industry is a rough and tough industry and whether they will eventually wish to continue the legacy is still to be seen. For now, I just want them to enjoy their personal journey in their professional growth and I trust that in time, they will find their right place and passion.”
As wife Veni would ask, pushing him throughout his lifelong journey with these two words, what next?
“We already are in the midst of beefing up our capabilities to offer solutions to specific market segments that need the level of professionalised services we are able to offer,” he says, without going into details. “I believe I am, and will always be, in pursuit of success. Success to me is not a destination – it is a journey,” he says.
A journey he will no doubt forge with courage, and which will probably end with the delivery of yet another dream.