At any given point you can see three airplanes in the air from here,” says RI President K R Ravindran, pointing to the enormous windows in his presidential office on the 18th floor of One Rotary Centre building, which houses the RI headquarters in Evanston, US.
I notice the huge expanse of greenery; but the trees are donning yellow hues as autumn is folding up to make way for winter in this charming town, also one of the safest in the country. “And there you can see the waters of the Michigan Lake and the North Western University at the back. And on July 4, you get the best view of the fireworks display from here.”
He and spouse Vanathy came here in the night and watched the display from his office just as his presidential year kicked in this July.
So how have been his four months so far in the hot seat?
“I am an ordinary fellow and the most unnoticed president….”
Yeah, sure, I say and joke about his stern warnings to Rotarians of strict action for indulging in politics; his measures at cost cutting and making all his Directors accountable, and wonder if all this was just sound and fury signifying nothing. He just smiles.
He had warned prior to his term that his Directors’ report cards would be assessed too, so is that happening?
“Oh yes, at this and other Board meetings each Director’s performance is being assessed on the screen and with numbers for all to see. They can no longer say I went here or there and had a nice conference.” They have to give numbers, whether on membership or Foundation giving and figures don’t lie. Each one reports on a quarterly basis; “my purpose is to give best value to the Rotarians and one of the way of doing that is to ensure that the people they pay for, which means us, are doing their work and I think that is happening now.”
Long hours of work
But he admits it gets very exhausting. His day at Evanston begins at 5 a m, at 6 a m it is gym for 40 minutes, and then begin the meetings with visitors in between. “I allow anyone who wishes so to come to my office and take photographs. I tell them this is your room I am occupying it just for one year.” Then there are committee meets, “and I have to work on my speeches where I try and make a serious point. And as I’m not such a smart guy I have to work hard at such things.”
Ravindran agrees that an RI President’s job is akin to managing a large corporate. “The value of the work we do is in excess of $ 1 billion; we have another billion in endowment funds and investments. So we are a $2–3 billion organisation.” He is on a two-years leave from his company and has told his colleagues that “if you can’t manage for two years without me what will you do if I die.” His son is there but “slowly coming up the ladder. I believe that children are entitled to profits but not management.”
On the success of the Global Rewards programme he has introduced, Ravindran says it’s a slow process, but working. The target was 50,000 registrations for the first year; now there are 10,000 users, and renting cars is the most popular. “It is meant to be an attraction to bring in new members and to retain existing ones because you can recover the annual $55 dollars you pay ten times over if you use this programme properly,” he says. Apart from attracting new members, a part of the discount comes to Rotary and some vendors send money to TRF. “So when you use the Rewards you are also raising money for TRF.”
Life in Evanston
On his life in Evanston, Ravindran says, “Obviously we feel very homesick and miss our home, our children, our granddaughter. We’ve transplanted ourselves in a totally alien culture and it’s not easy. I admire my wife for putting up with everything the way she does. Not one day has she grumbled.”
At a glance
Next priority after Polio
We’ve discussed it but we’re not yet sure. Polio really frightened the hell out of us. Nobody knew polio would go on for 30 years and cost so many billions of dollars … over $11 billion so far, of which Rotarians raised $1.5 billion. Most of the money came from governments.
Importance of government partnerships
Very important. Governments ran the polio programme, along with the UNICEF and WHO. But we are the voice of the governments who do the implementation to a large extent, and our advocacy worked.
Rotary’s recognition for PolioPlus
You don’t need to go in search of recognition, but nobody can run away from it. We played a big role. We are a part of the WHO announcement, Bill Gates mentions Rotary in many speeches, though not all. If someone complains Gates did not compliment us in his speech I ask did you compliment Gates in your speeches? We too have to say that we did this along with our partners.
Artefacts in his office
Everything you see here is a gift, that portrait (of him and Vanathy) is a gift from Taiwan Rotarians. That Tanjore painting and Mahatma Gandhi’s statue are from Indian Rotarians. Each one is catalogued … when I leave I might take a few pieces, the rest will be given away to children’s homes or auctioned.
Legacy he’d like to leave behind
I don’t intend to leave behind a legacy or statues. When I am done, if I am respected by the staff and my colleagues, that’s all I want, nothing else.
Global Rewards is mine, though I don’t like saying it. We have a strategic plan, we’re looking 3–4 years ahead. I am one cog in the wheel and I’ve got to make sure we are going in the right direction. If I do things to perpetuate my name then I might lose the total picture and start focusing on myself. I read somewhere that you must play for the name on the front of your shirt — your country’s or your team’s — not the one on the back which is yours. If you do that, the name at the back will take care of itself. Or else you become self-centred.
I’ve asked senior leaders to drop their spouses for meetings to save cost and I have to lead by example. I serve on several company boards and nobody pays me to take my wife to a meeting. Why should Rotarians do that?
Manoj (Desai) is brilliant, very focused and hardworking. He has planned everything out meticulously.
Future of Rotary
Post polio we’ll change the face of Rotary and get huge recognition as polio has proved we’re capable of doing something big, and we’ve built great partnerships. All that will come into play. We are trying to move away from operational stuff to transformational stuff. John Germ is excellent, he is much smarter than me and a very clever man and Ian Riseley is even more brilliant. In the next two years Rotary will go much higher with them.
RI has given him and President-elect John Germ apartments in the same building. “We’ve moved from our house in Colombo to this little apartment, but it has its own benefits and I’m enjoying it now. I tell Vanathy that we should move into an apartment. You can just lock one door and walk out. We’ve learnt to wash our clothes in the washing machine, I’ve learnt to work the dishwasher. I take my laundry out in the morning and bring it back. Rotary has given us a car, it’s a 13-year old Toyota … it’s a different life but most of the time we are travelling.”
But surely his family can visit him? “My son wants to come but I can’t give him a date till April 10! Either I’m not here, or busy with Board meetings which require a lot of preparatory work.”
He gives me a short ride in his modest car and I wonder aloud what a difference it must be from the plush cars he has at home. “Oh yes, I like fancy cars and sometimes rent them and we drive around, but at my cost,” he quips. He’s collected his laundry for the day, and after 10 minutes or so we head for the hotel where there is fellowship planned.
So how does Vanathy keep busy, I ask her.
“He keeps giving me little jobs; he’s asked me to design greeting cards for Christmas, and anyway mentally we were prepared to be away for two years. This is a very pretty town and I enjoy walking around, meeting people. He loves to entertain people, but we keep it simple.”
She beams as she adds that Ravindran has also gifted her cable TV so she can watch her favourite Tamil soaps on Vijay TV, Sun TV, etc. And she is now busy packing as they will be away for the next three months.
I compliment Ravindran for his ability to work a room so well; I have watched him in action over three days; at the RI staff reception, at the joint TRF-Board meet and later for one Board session. At each of these, he makes an effort to walk around the room, talk to people, share pleasantries with them, crack a joke. He grins: “Oh they are all very great people, particularly my successors and Ray Klinginsmith. They make me look smart.”
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat