Prakash and Gauri
Meet Prakash Deshmukh, the man who has made it, who is in the big league undoubtedly. The partner director in Pune’s largest architecture firm ‘Space Designers Syndicate’, Prakash can now afford to talk of retirement - a 6 crore turnover, 120 employees and some of the creamiest projects on hand including Magarpatta (which is about 25% of its work). A renowned architect, Prakash is an Executive Member of the Council of Architecture and has served as Chairman of Indian Institute of Architecture, Maharashtra Chapter. I wanted to know the key to his success, the key to the big bucks, to fame and success and I asked him to share his story.
Born into a large joint family in a small village called Peepalgaon near Nashik, Maharashtra, Prakash did not have much to aspire for, no role models to follow. A large family, debts and a small piece of land was all they owned. Prakash remembers his first school – one teacher taught 4 classes at one time, and managed all four at one time. One can imagine the quality of teaching!
His mother, a highly intelligent and pragmatic lady, quickly realized that nothing good would come out of this school with one teacher, and sent Prakash to Vadner a nearby village 20 kms away where his grandfather, an Educational Officer, lived. The first day at school, Prakash’s teacher pulled him up for some trivial reason, and that did it. Prakash is a self-respecting man and his pride shows up even today when he recounts the incident, and the same must have showed in his young days – he bunked school as often as he could to escape the tyrant and watch boys playing marbles or, sit in the temple. Once his grandfather found out things changed. Whenever he was missing, four senior boys marched into the village and carry him back to school – one chap holding each limb, with the school bag on his stomach.
Things improved when he came to the second class, he found an understanding and kind teacher, and Prakash started enjoying school. He continued up to his 10th in this school he but regrets that his grounding in English was poor because of lack of good teachers - even English was taught in Marathi - something that haunted him for many years. But there were many pluses during his stint in Vadner – his grandfather made him read the newspaper everyday and recite the news to him. Prakash soon became an expert at memorizing the news which helped him immensely in processing and retaining large chunks of information. Many would ask him how he did it. The reading habit was inculcated and he went often to the library to read the classics. He remembers fondly that his grandfather actually learnt algebra for the sole purpose of teaching him.
After his schooling, a maternal uncle told him to move to Nasik for his PUC which he did. He took English tuitions from a foreign lady, the wife of a well-known poet, while doing his PUC. After his PUC, he got admissison in the Civil engineering stream in the College of Engineering Pune - another maternal uncle who lived in Germany then, told him that he would bear the cost of the fees.
‘Things were bad at home,’ says Prakash, ‘I was under pressure to take up a job as a clerk with the irrigation department which was offered for project-affected parties. My salary would have helped but I chose to go to Pune.‘
His risk-taking approach came to the fore when he decided to give up Civil Engineering and take up architecture. A decision that was influenced by his self-introspection as much as by Ayn Rand's 'Fountainhead' which he read in those days. Prakash was clear by now that his aptitude matched B. Arch more than Civil Engineering, and despite his maternal uncle threatening to withdraw financial support, decided to go ahead. At home the decision was even more unfavorable because B. Arch meant an extra year, not as secure a job as a Civil Engineers, but Prakash stuck to his decision
How did you fund yourself? I asked.
‘We made banners, cards, Diwali cards, models, took up part time jobs after college, made building models, drawings anything we could do,’ he said.’ In the elections that followed the Emergency, we made election material like banners, hoardings, backdrops for all political parties in 15-20 days. We made enough to last us a whole year - Rs. 25000 was shared between 10 of us and that saw us through.’
How did you get this contract?
‘The hostel was a hub of political activity,’ he said. He remembers meeting many political heavyweights then.
True to the Prakash spirit, he suddenly felt, as late as in the final year, that maybe architecture, as he studied it was not right, that it was superficial because it cannot bring any fundamental changes to the system. He was disillusioned with the structure, he wanted bigger changes, to change the world, to make a difference. Architecture did not seem to be the answer.
He remembers travelling to Andhra to help in the relief work in cyclone affected areas, carrying corpses, burying and burning them, travelling in an ambulance with others who wanted to do something. In those years of disillusionment he met with Thatte saab, Himmat bhai and other thinkers who espoused the Gandhian idea of ‘Trusteeship’ in industry where surpluses are created by shareholders and only what was needed from it taken and the remaining ploughed back into society. Unwillingly or unknowingly he got drawn into being the CEO of a small ancillary unit that was begun on these idealistic notions of Trusteeship with about 20 young workers. The factory was to make scooter and Telco spares, 25% of profits were to go to workers, 25% to capital, 25% to future expansions and 25% to society.
Prakash remembers his dilemma when he got into that CEO position. He had completed his degree in architecture and needed to establish himself. His partner today and old accomplice Zubair, started off with some projects and after work at the factory, they would discuss and make plans and designs. Of course it helped them that they were already doing interiors for big projects in the final year itself.
The experience at the factory helped the young, idealistic Prakash tremendously. He met the top guns on Pune’s industry – Bajaj or the Telco. He asked them to train his young bunch of boys and they agreed, not without a problem though, because the employee unions had a problem with that, and then they had to train the boys discreetly at night!
Despite being the CEO of a factory he did not want, Prakash jumped in with all enthusiasm - from raising bank loans to fund the project (entirely on bank loan) of Rs. 2.5 lakhs, to setting up the factory and running it profitably, Prakash transformed himself from an architect into a successful entrepreneur.
Just as he was thinking of establishing the systems so he could go back to his domain, the senior thinktank came up with another unit, a bus body building unit that Himmatbahi owned, which had 120 workers. Seeing Prakash’s successful track record and the way the experiment worked, he asked him to take over that unit as well. Prakash could not say no and managed both units for 3 years. But this new factory had inherent problems of unions, employee problems with money lenders, older employees not supporting their 27 year old CEO etc.
Despite all this, the unit made a profit of Rs. 5 lakh in the first year. Prakash got Telco to sign an agreement for 6-8 months for buying their products, involved families, got joint accounts for husbands and wives etc. However the employees did not sustain the same spirit and formed a union at which stage Prakash chose to resign, as this was against the principles on which he had joined the firm. The firm went into lockout and was shut subsequently.
Prakash married Gauri in 1981 during these trying times, both having similar belief systems and supporting the same causes. As members of Rashtra Seva Dal they met often for camps and social work. Non-believers both, they chose to marry without rituals, in the presence of the Registrar of Marriages, and 20 guests, 5 relatives and 5 guests each.
‘We never had too many needs,’ he says. ‘Even today we don’t. We told our parents we will fund our marriage ourselves and we did.’
Prakash walked away, rich in experience but without anything material to show from the experiment. But he says those years gave him much confidence. He went back to his domain, architecture, and with Zubair, formed Space Designers Syndicate in 1985. The young architects realized that the new Pune Development Authority Plan was being made, which meant that all architects would be on the same plane and the ones who knew more or studied the market more would have an advantage. They studied the new plans, the market and worked hard for 5 years to establish their own niche. By 1990 they were the biggest architecture firm in Pune with 25 employees (even in terms of turnover) and have maintained the leadership position since then.
So what is it that one needs to take off and hit the highs? I ask.
An adventurous spirit, he says, is the first requirement. Complete dedication, honesty and transparency. Hardwork certainly – he has been working 10-12 hours a day from 1985 and he enjoys it thoroughly. How do you sustain your belief in tough times I ask? Try to minimise your wants, satisfy your needs, be flexible. Always believe that the process will work.
He pauses. ‘It is important to have a basic philosophy of your own, that is based on humanitarian values of love, trust and respect. This basic philosophy of what for am I doing this, what and why am I doing this must be clear and must be held over everything else.'
As a youngster he says he wanted to change the world. Over a period of time you realise that you have limitations and you stay within your limitations and try not to enforce your views on any one, even your children.
A remarkable journey Prakash, and one that any youngster could choose to follow if they wish to achieve the kind of success, both materially, spiritually and professionally that you have. There is a wealth of wisdom in what you have revealed, some explicitly and some implicitly, and one can infer much from your life story itself. Your idealism stands out, your belief in your inner voice is steadfast, your clarity about the higher goals that we as humans must stand for shows, just as your passion to improve, to grow, to never remain stagnant. You made it against several odds, some external and some internal, that you posed with your own severe soul searching but like you said, the process prevailed and after all else, success will follow once anyone chooses to give it their best shot with all honesty, commitment and dedication!
Go for it guys, another live example of the indomitable human spirit and what it can achieve!