Taking new initiatives, giving a direction and leading teams is something that was honed in him from a young age by his father, and this includes giving a new avatar and dynamism to his home club — Rotary Club of Karur, Tamil Nadu. When our incoming RI Director C Basker was in his mid-20s and doing a management course at the Loyola Institute of Business Administration and a part time job at the Citibank in 1983, “my father — I was born into a landlord family in Karur — wanted to start an industry. And to do so I moved from Chennai to Karur to start the manufacture of welding electrodes.”
Subsequently they diversified and moved into steel wires for the construction industry and other products. “We’ve created three brands in 25 years, all of which are today the leading brands in South India with a considerable market share, and we are known for quality and commitment in the market,” he says.
Today the VNC Group, of which Basker is the Managing Partner, does annual sales of Rs 1,200 crore, employs 1,300 people in 13 branches across South India, and is the largest retail distributor of all branded products of Tata Steel in Tamil Nadu. Both his sons Gokul and Goutham are now helping him expand and diversify the business.
I had no experience, but was elected president, because the other three active members of our club had already been presidents a couple of times!
We are chatting in Basker’s swank office in Chennai, with spouse Mala seated beside him. He comes through as a workaholic, one who takes both his business and Rotary responsibilities seriously… so seriously that the two of them have never had a single holiday ever!
Starting an enterprise
Soon after his return to Karur, the young businessman found the business community not well organised, and took the lead role in starting the District Chamber of Commerce, and improving telecom facilities for business. The opportunity to prove his mettle as a leader came when the then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa wanted to bifurcate Trichi district. He led a committee that met and convinced her that Trichy should be trifurcated. “Only if you are a district headquarters will you show up on the geographical map; Karur was already a leading textiles town for exports but people could hardly locate it on the map. We succeeded in convincing her and Trichy was trifurcated,” smiles Basker.
He was also instrumental in starting many sports associations — the district cricket, volleyball, basketball and other sports associations owe their existence to him.
A Rotary journey begins
On how he joined Rotary, Basker says, “In 1983 when I returned to Karur, being a first generation entrepreneur, my focus was only on business and I had little time for anything else.” His father was a charter member and past president of RC Karur, chartered in 1955, and is one of the oldest clubs in India. “The doyens of Karur were members and then it was the only Rotary club in Karur; now there are seven. But because they did not admit younger members, the club became dormant and at one stage, wasn’t even functioning.”
In 1988, his father said he would step back and “I had to join and support it. I was only 31 and joined Rotary because my father insisted! We had hardly four persons regularly attending the meetings.” One fine evening in 1990, they elected him president of the club. “I didn’t have any previous experience of Rotary, but was elected because the other three had already been presidents a couple of times! I had no choice but to accept.”
We have grown but without creating a strong base at the club level. My first priority will be to strengthen Rotary clubs and train the presidents and other office bearers, so that we can better address the community’s needs.
The club had hardly 10–12 members “and having taken the responsibility, I decided to strengthen the club by inviting 38 worthy people and they all accepted.” He increased the club’s membership to 42 the day he got inducted; it has never looked back since then and today with 430 members, is “the second largest club in India,” he says.
Apart from the members contributing generously for service projects, and the club being the highest in District 3000 for TRF contributions, its biggest advantage is that it owns an asset worth Rs 40 crore, having its own building, a walking track, and abundant vacant land for future use. “We run a micro credit centre for self-help groups, a Rotary Medical Centre along with the Lakshmi Vilas Bank, where 100 patients are treated free every day, and we do many welfare projects,” says Basker with pride.
His Rotary journey continued and he became district governor in 2000–01. “All the three district-level elected positions I’ve held have been unanimous in that there wasn’t even a nomination against me. The Rotarians of the district have respected me and given me opportunities, for which I am grateful.”
On his year as Governor, Basker says that of the 56 clubs in the district, four were dormant and his primary focus was to revive those clubs instead of starting new ones. He also succeeded in giving 44 of those 56 clubs “an experience of doing international Matching Grants projects and working with international partners for doing good in the world. I identified the international sponsors involving 25 countries and we did 72 projects that year. All the Matching Grants projects were completed on time, and accounts submitted as required by TRF. That became a benchmark in our district. Once Rotarians identify you as a person who can lead and guide you, you gain respect,” he says.
He clearly has well defined leadership skills; so did his business development skills help him gain leadership positions in Rotary, I ask him. “Certainly, they do help, but Rotary also helps to improve your leadership skills in business. I did a management course and entered business, but the different training programmes I underwent as a president, DG, regional coordinator and recently an incoming RI Director… in Rotary everybody is trained… have improved my leadership skills and polished and helped me discharge my duties in business much better than before. So it is a mutually beneficial relationship.”
Once Rotarians identify you as a person who can lead and guide you, you gain respect.
So what aspect of Rotary does he enjoy the most? In a flash, Basker responds, “Undoubtedly, meeting people, making new friends, and understanding how Rotary works. I enjoy thoroughly the fellowship aspect of Rotary.” I smile, thinking he will really hit it off with his RI President for 2017–18, Ian Riseley, who also had exactly the same response to a similar question!
While one of his priorities will be to bring more women into Rotary, on his other priorities Basker says, “India has grown; in 2014–15, we contributed 35 per cent of Rotary’s growth in the world, a very big contribution, of which I was very proud at that time. But now, as Director Elect, I feel that we have grown but without creating a strong base at the club level.”
He says one shortcoming Rotary has in India is “the lack of proper training of the incoming office bearers. Ultimately the organisation depends on how the club and its members work at the grassroots level to understand and address the community’s needs. So my first priority will be to strengthen the clubs by proper training of club leaders and office bearers.”
He adds that this year, across India, the training format has been standardised and it will be uniform for all clubs “from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. The training format has been handed over to the incoming Governors, and at their request, we have translated the Club President’s manual into eight Indian languages, and Sinhalese.” This, he adds, was translated free of cost with help from PDGs, the booklets printed and distributed to the clubs, with the printing cost being borne mainly by him.
The other problem was proper conducting of club meetings. “When a new person walks in and finds the meeting conducted in an orderly fashion, he would like to join. So we’ve prepared an animated video titled Dos and Don’ts to help club presidents conduct an orderly meeting.” (See the video)
Various training programmes have been combined into single events; “after all Rotarians are volunteers and cannot spare too much time, so I’ve requested DGEs to combine programmes, to reduce time and cost on travel. And clubs will also be educated about the standard club constitution and by-laws; many clubs are not even aware that such a thing exists!”
The training programmes I underwent in Rotary as president, DG, regional coordinator and recently an incoming RI Director, have improved my leadership skills and polished and helped me discharge my duties in business much
better than before.
But above all, adds Basker, in doing projects, “I want the Rotary clubs to understand the requirements of the local community and address them. Right now, we are working from top to bottom. But now I have requested the clubs and the districts to look at the local community issues and fulfil their needs, so that you not only improve Rotary’s image in the community, but also attract quality people from the community to join Rotary. And, get better financial support, so I am asking clubs to look at the grassroots level requirements.”
Another priority is of course youth; I’ve called for Rotaractor and Interactor installations in a fitting manner, so they get inspired. And I am open to suggestions/feedback… even from you, and even if it is negative!”
Rotary’s future in India
Basker is happy that India is doing extremely well in the Rotary world. “From two and a half zones we are expanding to four zones. So out of 34 RI zones, four will be in India. I will be the last Director to handle Zones 4, 5 and 6. RID Manoj was handling only 6A, I am handling 6B also, which includes Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia and Myanmar. After two years, these countries will go into Zone 7.”
But, he adds, on a sombre note, “even though we are really strong, constituting 10 per cent of Rotarians in the world, at the same time, I’d say the quality of Indian members has to improve; not only the quality but also our functioning and participation have to improve.”
Relaxation is something I’ve never had in my life. We’ve never been for a vacation… not
a single holiday.
Asked about the opportunities for improvement, Basker says, “Everywhere I go these days I speak only on What is Rotary and Why Rotary. Primarily, these are the most important points. I tell them, first understand Rotary, the organisation, and then answer the question why Rotary? When they’re able to answer these two simple questions, they will become better Rotarians.”
Last, but not the least, the one question that all Rotarians are asking: After polio, what next? What is the Board’s thinking on this? “Well,” replies Basker, “The Board is fully aware of this question, but feels that the polio drive is not yet complete, and we should not dilute our concentration or attention from polio, unless we make the world completely polio free.”
At a glance
Religion: I am a religious person, I pray every day at home in my pooja room, but I rarely go to temples.
Food: (Mala chips in: “Oh, he can have anything.”) Basker adds: I am a vegetarian, and like Indian vegetarian food. When we travel overseas, we always look out for Indian restaurants, and have a good continental breakfast, something light in the afternoon and then dinner in an Indian restaurant.
Relaxation: That is something I’ve never had in my life. We’ve never been for a vacation… not a single holiday so far, and that is the constant problem. I was in the Star Cruise from Singapore for the D 3120 Assembly. We boarded on Sunday afternoon at Singapore, on Monday the Assembly finished at 1.30 pm, we reached Penang and returned home. The DGE and his spouse were very disappointed; but it has always been like this. Earlier, for my business I travelled at least 3 days a week.
Reading: Only some general reading; but I make it a point to read the morning newspapers.
Movies: I hardly see any movies; not much of a movie fan. Even Mala doesn’t go to the cinema theatres… we must have watched a movie in a theatre seven years ago! After marriage, both of us would have seen only 10 movies in a theatre. But at home, I sometimes watch English movies… I like action, fast-paced movies.
Music: The only time we listen to music is in the car. It is always light film music… film songs.
Exercise: I used to walk in the morning on the walking track put up in the Rotary building in Karur, but now due to continuous travel, walking early in the morning has become a challenge.
Mala’s role: She has been a silent supporter in my Rotary journey. When you are a businessman and then become an active Rotarian, the time given at home is negligible. She has taken care of the family, as I discharged my duties as a businessman and a Rotarian. Not being able to give time to your family… that is the biggest sacrifice I’ve made in my life. You realise it much later, but can’t do anything about it. Anyway, Mala is now emphasising to the DGEs’ spouses the need for a separate training programme for them. By the way, Mala is a Rotarian, even though not an active one. I can’t ask Rotarians to bring their spouses into Rotary, without bringing mine first!
Mala adds: I find the spouses very energetic and they want to make a difference. So I have suggested two projects to them; giving sanitary napkins to rural women; and to concentrate on farmers, as Indian farmers are today in a very difficult position.
A project to remember: When I was DG, we put up a talking book library for the visually impaired in Madurai. The former VC of Madras University G Thiruvasagam, a member of RC Madurai Midtown, was passionate about such a library, which only Bombay had then, and sought my help to get an international partner. Before going to the International Assembly, which was then held at Anaham near Los Angeles, Mala and I participated in a hospitality programme in Rochester, where Elizabeth Richardson was the incoming President of that club. She was keen to do a project in India, and I recommended this library project for Madurai and connected the two clubs and the library was established.
Women Rotarians great at projects
On what women have brought to Rotary, incoming RI Director C Basker says, “To be frank, I find women Rotarians to be more committed, more dedicated. I also find they display better leadership when it comes to execution of service projects. They are more focused; and I’ve always found that when women play a leadership role in execution of projects, their quality is far superior compared to men executing them. I have expressed this in all my speeches and it is high time we encouraged more women to come into Rotary.”
Basker urges all male Rotarians to bring their spouses into Rotary and “introduce them to new areas of service. If you go to the US and other developed countries, you’ll find that most of the time both the husband and wife are Rotarians; they travel together for meetings and share their work. And it gives them tremendous amount of satisfaction, as couples, to do this work, which is lacking in India. My request to Indian Rotarians is: Induct your wives into Rotary, take them to Rotary meetings, give them exposure and freedom to work in different avenues of service. It will not only transform them but also transform the image of Rotary in India. You asked me about my priorities as the RI director. This is one of them; bringing more women into Rotary, not for numbers, but because they are good for the organisation.”
Soon a panel to monitor Global Grants
Quizzed on the challenges that Rotary in India faces, such as a district having to be suspended/disbanded, charges of siphoning/diversion of TRF funds, election disputes, inadequate account keeping, etc, Basker sighs, “Yes, these are challenges indeed; election disputes are the biggest challenge I face. I have requested the DGEs, who I call Trendsetters, to run a free, fair and transparent election. Two, with regard to Global Grants, even though India has become No 2 in giving, we are No 1 in getting TRF grants and it is our responsibility to ensure these funds are properly utilised. I’ve also told DGs to appoint an efficient stewardship committee at the district level to guide the clubs on what to do and what not to do; what is acceptable and what is not.”
Basker says that keeping in mind that India does a large number of projects with TRF grants, but also faces a large number of complaints, he has suggested to TRF Trustees, that to check such complaints, TRF should appoint a stewardship committee or “a panel of volunteers to oversee all the Global Grants executed in India. This will ensure that the money is spent rightly and the project requirements are met in true spirit. I’m awaiting their approval. Once that comes, from July 1, all the Global Grants done in India will be tracked by one of our own people. So there will be both a moral responsibility on the Club and the District as well as better motivation and engagement to implement the project properly.”