In conversation with Mr. Hari K Marar, Managing Director & CEO-Bangalore International Airport Limited

  • Leadership Series

By Kenneth Lean Rachit Sharma

Managing Director & CEO-Bangalore International Airport Limited, Mr. Hari K Marar talks about an unconventional career journey, building and managing teams, his advice to young leaders, the airport during the pandemic and their strategies undertaken, the travel industry, digitisation, on leading with compassion and his personal life.

Leadership Series 2020 is Mercuri Urval India’s signature leadership series. We started back in February 2020 to bring together various thought leaders from diverse industries to the forefront. We’re fortunate to have Hari join this program.

Hari started by pursuing a career in hotel management and worked with ITC for several years. He shifted from hospitality to aviation with Jet Airways. A chance encounter and a passionate conversation with an important person on modifying airports in India got him an offer as the Head of Operations of Bangalore’s new airport.

The principle they followed was to hire people with the right attitude and train them for skills. Hari implemented the same principle as he went forward. He went on to become Chief Operating Officer (COO) in 2009. In 2011, he took over as the President of the Airport Operations and in July 2017, as the Managing Director and CEO of BIAL.

Here are a few highlights from our discussion:

Building and managing teams

The best thing you can do as a leader is to surround yourself with people who are better than you.

I hired some of the most outstanding people between July and December 2017. I picked people who could learn, had a thirst for knowledge, and a cultural alignment to the way I wanted to run this business. This meant, having a high sense of ethics and a commitment to doing the right thing. I wanted people who were hungry to make a difference in this world, who dared to dream, and who were willing to go out and achieve that dream. 

On mentoring and inspiration

My style of leadership depends on the situation we’re in. For each attribute, I have a different guru or role model. When it comes to team management, the way Dhoni led the Indian team, is a great source of inspiration.

Jamsetji Tata said that communities are not just the most important stakeholders of your business, they are the very reason for the existence of your business. What greater sense of purpose can you have than if you define the purpose of your business as being able to serve the socio-economic development of communities in which you are established

I’m also a great believer in the principled and ethical management of businesses and for that, I don’t think there is a greater example of a man who’s lived his life in a principled manner as per ethics than my father.

When I first started in BIAL, my former boss, Marcel Hungerbuehler played and continues to play a significant role in shaping the way I think. He inspired a sense of discipline in running a business, adherence to time, and principles of professionalism in me.

A piece of advice to young leaders

All of us as leaders have two roles. The first is to run the business and give yourself a sense of purpose, and the second is to grow oneself.  

Young leaders need to invest in themselves across different areas.

  • Invest in learning and in upskilling yourself continuously.
  • Invest in meaningfully important relationships.
  • Invest in your health. You have to stay healthy to serve your organisation and your family.
  • Invest in acquiring experiences in life.

The business, on the other hand, consists of similar four elements.

  • Be committed to serving your customer with obsession.
  • Look after the people who look after your customers with compassion, which are your employees, partners, stakeholders, vendors, and suppliers. They are the people who help you serve your customer well.
  • Earn a reasonable return for your business. Invest in the financial health of the company.
  • Look after the communities in which you do your business.

Inside the airport post-pandemic

The pandemic’s impact on aviation has been unbelievable. Practically, 75% of our passengers disappeared in 2020. For Bangalore airport, the revenues are directly linked to passenger footfall, which means that there was a huge reduction in our revenues as well. Being an infrastructure business, 80% or 85% of our costs are fixed in nature. The revenues had come down to 25%. Even with the best cost optimisation efforts, we had to spend 75% of the costs.

We are in the midst of the largest expansion that we have ever undertaken. It’s a 13,000 crore expansion program with almost 10,500 crores of loans. Questions arise as to how we’re going to make sure that we have enough revenues to be able to meet our costs as well as repay this loan.

On the operational side, there is the uncertainty of people having the confidence to travel again and how to guarantee safe operations. There are huge problems with capacity while there is very little traffic.

On the people front, there were challenges around managing the health and welfare of 28,000 employees, plus 7,500 stranded labourers who had to be fed and kept occupied. We brought many of them back from their hometowns and remobilised them.

On the project side, manpower was a problem. Supply chain sand factories that were supplying goods were shut down. Goods were stuck in customs and contractors were not able to remobilise and return on time.

A fool-safe strategy

We were among the first few people to pick up the pandemic because of the Business Continuity Enterprise Resilience & Disaster Management Team, headed by Dr. Devasia. The pandemic was declared by WHO in February and our war group was constituted in December 2019, 2 months before that. One of the first principles we adopted when the world was still in disbelief and living in denial, was that ‘We accept, adapt, and advance.’

  • We accepted that we were in the middle of a crisis. One that would cause a long-term impact and that we would have to fundamentally change in ways we’d never changed before.
  • If you accept that there will be fundamental changes to the way we live and work, then you have to make adaptions in your life, in the way you work, in your office, in the timings, in simple things like wearing masks, maintaining social distance, several people assembling in a room, and so on.
  • Just because we are in the middle of the pandemic, it doesn’t mean that we don’t advance. We have to come up with coping strategies.

We picked up a principle for our strategy and we called it progressive calibration. There is a group of people who are scanning the environment constantly and seeing what’s changing, and based on that, we are constantly changing and adapting our responses.

The only overriding guidance that we mandated was to stay true to our vision, mission, and values. Our values must guide the quality of our behaviour, and our vision and mission must guide the steps we take and the direction we proceed.

For the first two quarters of this financial year, we will continue the same strategy of progressive calibration as well.

The travel industry in the aftermath

There is an innate desire in human beings for ‘the quest.’ There is the need to touch, to feel, to experience, to smell, to explore and that is not going to be taken away by a virtual medium at any time. I would broadly classify travel into two parts: leisure and business. I think travel for leisure is going to go up. The pandemic has taught us the frailty of life and people are realising that they must invest in experiences.

For a business deal to be done, I cannot look into a screen and decide whether I’m going to sign a deal with that person. I still need to feel the warmth in the person’s eye, the firmness of the handshake, before I decide to sign a deal. That’s not going anywhere.

Some parts of travel, which I call corporate tourism, will go down. Many people have recognised that it’s not essential to run their businesses. But I think many companies also believe that it is an essential component for the growth of individuals as well. Some part of it will stay but there will be a slight drop in, what some people may call non-essential business travel.

On corporate digital transformation

Our digitisation efforts have three key objectives:

  • To provide a better experience to our consumers: The Bangalore airport was one of the first in the world to introduce contactless processing. That’s an example of how quickly we innovated and provided a technology solution during a pandemic.
  • To improve efficiency: Sometimes, the growth in aviation is constrained because of a lack of capacity. We found that technology is a great way to create capacity when physical capacity creation takes time.
  • To grow our revenues by using technology or leveraging technology to improve our share of non-aeronautical revenue streams, like shopping, food & beverages, etc. The bulk of the food & beverages shopping that happens at the airport today is on our digital app.

The secret to success

  • It’s important to make sure that you have a good, strong, and committed team. So, if you want to make sure that as a company, you are quick to adapt, and that you’re agile and flexible in the way you work, invest in good quality people.
  • People need to see that the management’s intent and actions are consistent. We keep our commitment. That’s the reason why, when we did our Great Place to Work Survey. We got the highest ratings so far, in the middle of the pandemic. We lead people with compassion.
  • Among the most important attributes you need to possess as a leader, is compassion. I think in this environment if you've led with compassion, managing change and complex environments become so much simpler because your people are with you and will always support you.
  • Very early in the pandemic, we asked ourselves a question. How can we, in the middle of what is arguably the worst year of our lives, as leaders, leave our people with better odds and chances at the end of the year than they had at the beginning of the year? Can we make 2020 the best year for some of our employees?

We have taken some amazing initiatives: we have allowed many of our employees the chance to become entrepreneurs, backed and funded by the company, in this environment, to start businesses.

Hari outside the office

I believe in simple living and I’m very much a family man. There’s nothing more I like than going back and spending time with my family. There are also very powerful friendships I have, which I still believe in. I have a very strong fitness regimen wherein I do yoga three times a week and gym the other three times. I certainly believe in investing in experiences.

As a family, there are two types of experiences that we chase - the first is, gastronomic holidays, because we all are foodies, and the second is, musical experiences as we're all big music buffs.

I also invest in self-development, like learning and reading. I always spend some time in a day reserved for reading and improving my knowledge.

I'm a happy-go-lucky person. I like to retain my equanimity around me and remain calm. And lastly, I think what I consider my most important trait, is that I sleep well. If you’ve managed that, I think you’ve lived a good life.