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The soft aggressor Venkatachari Jagannathannews
Venkatachari Jagannathan
26 October 2004

Young executives in a hurry to reach the top would happily give their arm to Sam Ghosh, CEO, Bajaj Allianz Life Insurance Company Limited, to learn the art of 'managing' their wives.

"At home it is me who decides," says Ghosh's wife Arunima, alias Anu. Nothing strange about that, as wives are the decision makers in most homes. "But when I mull over a decision, I often realise that it was actually Sam's decision that I took. He certainly has a way of wrapping things around me with words."

Not only that. Ghosh's charming ways instantly endear him to every body and at parties the boyish face makes him the cynosure of the fairer sex. "I hate to be with him at parties," laughs Kamesh Goyal, Ghosh's counterpart at Bajaj Allianz General Insurance Limited.

Behind that charm and suave tongue dwells the active, shrewd brain of a chartered accountant and a mechanical engineer.

Goyal vouches for that too. "As the Indian representative of the German insurer, Allianz AG, Ghosh negotiated the parting of ways with Alpic Finance with ease, while simultaneously tying up with the Bajaj group."

Assuming the mantle at Bajaj Allianz Life early this year, Ghosh has taken the company three notches up up-from seventh to fourth rank in the life insurance segment (See: Allianz Life aims high).

"My target is the third spot among the private sector life insurance companies," states Ghosh emphatically. The competition couldn't have failed to take note.

The 44-year-old Ghosh comes from a well-off family and had a comfortable childhood. Father Subash Chandra Ghosh was a director in Assam Investments and mother Rena was a lecturer in a Kolkata college.

The junior Ghosh spent a good part of his childhood studying in boarding schools first at St.Paul's in Darjeeling and later at Truro School, London before returning to complete his schooling from St Xavier's, Kolkata. Terming the boarding school years as the best thing that happened to him, Ghosh says, "I was a bit homesick at St.Paul's but not when I was in Truro. Twice a year I visited my parents. But the school made me a man at an early age."

An average student during his school days, Ghosh was good at maths while languages were not his forte. "I do know Bengali, English and a little bit of Hindi." At school, he was an active sports person and represented St.Xavier's in tennis and played right-back in the Truro football team.

After school, he enrolled to study mechanical engineering at the London University. While life at boarding school was comfortable and sheltered, university life was different.

"First, I had to look out for accommodation and food as there was no hostel. Second, at school students from all nationalities mingled well, which was not so at the University," he recalls.

To meet his pocket expenses, Ghosh took up odd jobs in a Greek restaurant. "No I didn't learn any Greek recipe' he laughs.

As a part of his engineering course Ghosh underwent a three-month on the job training at Metal Box in London and Kolkata. To his utter disappointment he discovered that a trainee accountant in the UK earned more than a qualified engineer working in India or in the UK. So, after completing his engineering, Ghosh switched over to chartered accountancy.

Finding his match
Life cruised along for Ghosh till he met Arunima at a dinner. The daughter of a Punjabi couple settled in Botswana (Africa), Arunima was studying for a degree in English in London.

The chemistry between them worked and soon the two started seeing each other regularly. "Our relationship grew steadily. He is a good palmist and would offer to read my future - a ruse to hold my hand," she laughs.

However, their parents had other plans and were on the look out for suitable matches for their respective children. Ghosh's parents even arranged a meeting with a prospective girl in London. "He even went and saw the girl and asked me to take a look at her. I did from a distance," she reminisces.

That's when it dawned on him that Arunima was more than just a friend and decided to propose. "She is caring and nice and that attracted me to her. It was I who proposed," he blushes. The two were married in London, despite stiff parental disapproval.

However, within three months the parents soon reconciled themselves to their children's choice and relatives welcomed the couple when they arrived at Kolkata for a traditional Indian wedding.

With a decent stipend from the accounting firm where Ghosh did his articles and with Arunima starting to work, running a family was not difficult for the two. Completing the accountancy course within the minimum stipulated time, Ghosh joined Ernst & Winnie (later Ernst & Young), where he was posted in the audit and corporate advisory cells.

The Ghoshs, who by now had two children (daughter Pia, now 17 and son Neal, 13) moved on a transfer to Australia in 1996 where his firm audited Allianz, the German insurer's subsidiary.

A year later, he accepted an offer by Michael Diekmann, the current chairman of the Allianz group to join Allianz's Australian subsidiary as finance director / controller.
Since Allianz was setting up operations in the Asia Pacific region, Ghosh applied for received an Australian citizenship.

However, with the liberalisation of the Indian insurance sector, Ghosh became Allianz's choice to steer the group's entry into India.

Relocating the family in 1998 was a major decision. "While the work environment is not very different, the lifestyle posed a major difference," he says. However, they soon acclimatised themselves to the new environment and today Arunima loves India.

Underwriting success
In July 1998 Allianz set up its Indian office. Initially the German group had a tie up with Alpic Finance for the insurance venture. As the venture did not get going, Allianz teamed with Bajaj Auto to start life and non-life insurance companies, with Ghosh at the helm of the non-life venture.

From the outset, Bajaj Allianz General was ahead of many private insurance companies. Apart from the captive group business, the company generated sizeable business and raced to the second slot amongst its private sector rivals.

Last fiscal, the company declared a net profit of Rs21.6 crore on a premium income of Rs480 crore and offered the highest returns to its shareholders compared to other private players in the country.

These aside, Ghosh's major contribution at the non-life outfit was transparency in operatons.

"As the first CEO of the company, he had the responsibility of defining the corporate culture. He chose to be transparent and my job now is that much easier as I am just continuing with the legacy," remarks Goyal, who succeeded him when Ghosh moved to the life insurance company.

Executives at Bajaj Allianz General recall how Ghosh would flash them SMS messages regardless of the hour, the moment he would disembark at the airport at Mumbai or Pune.

In January 2004, Ghosh was shifted to the life insurance outfit and elevated as the country head for Allianz.

"I haven't worked in a life insurance company and the assignment fascinated me as life insurance was basically a retail game."

Heading Bajaj Allianz Life Insurance was the opposite of being with the non-life company; the culture was internally-focused with centralised authority. Its product portfolio was limited to just seven products and the company didn't have a unit-linked policy, which then were gaining popularity for the life insurers.

He redrew the corporate plan and turned the organisational approach around. The product range and the distribution network were expanded. Soon results started to show. (See: Bajaj Allianz Life aims high)

Speaking about his management style, Ghosh says, "I am aggressive. I try to motivate people, give them freedom and direction." Unlike an accountant and a mechanical engineer, Ghosh is driven by sales and is actually a field person who never misses out on a chance to meet clients.

A quick decision-maker, Ghosh is always ready to review his decision and make necessary amendments when required.

"Ghosh is a hard worker and a ruthless delegator. But he is very demanding when it comes to results," says Goyal.

According to Dalip Verma, managing director, Tata AIG General Insurance Company Limited, "I have known Ghosh for the past six years. We are now family friends. He is frank and a nice person to get along with."

As Arunima and Neal live in Mumbai and the Bajaj insurance companies company are headquartered in Pune, Ghosh shuttles between Pune and Mumbai once in two days. "If one takes into account my touring schedules, I actually end up living out of a suitcase."

While Neal studies at the American School in Mumbai, Pia is in standard 12 at a London boarding school. "But he has made the necessary arrangements for Pia to come to India once in eight weeks," says Arunima.

"I do miss not having her here. But it is good for her future," Ghosh adds. As a matter of fact, he also wanted to send Neal to a boarding school but Arunima would have none of it. "I wanted to enjoy watching Neal grow up. With my husband in Pune and daughter in London, life would have been difficult without Neal with me."

A typical Bengali when in matters of the palate, Ghosh loves fish and is also a Chinese food aficionado. "It is the children's preference that decides our eat-out joints. We frequent Royal China in Mumbai," says Anu. As a husband he is caring and levelheaded, says Anu, adding, "I like the complete package called Sam Ghosh."

And, like any other devoted couple, they resolve their differences amicably. "The differences are always sorted out," she says emphatically. To find out how, just read the first paragraph of this article, once again.

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The soft aggressor Venkatachari Jagannathan