|Recounting his younger days nostalgically, he dreamed to enter United States when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. "I was in the ninth grade at that time. I was so very impressed with the United States and in those days, the Govt. of India didn’t give foreign exchange", mentioned Ravinder 'Ron' Shahani, CEO of Acro Service Corp. |
Ron's goal was set at an early stage. The next natural step in his life after completing his bachelors was to pursue his dream of entering the land of opportunities. Growing up as the youngest of three brothers in a middle class family in Northern India, Ron completed his degree in Commerce from the elite Sydenham College Of Commerce And Economics, Mumbai.
Ron entered the United States with his baggage of dreams in August 1975 to pursue his Masters in Business Administration (Finance) from the University of Detroit. Pointing his first hurdle to financial assistance, "Finance was a struggle. I had enough money to support me through just the first semester. I was totally focused on getting an assistantship"
Why Detroit? - Ron had family friends who came to India with stories about Detroit, which created a favorable impression in his mind. This also triggered his sixth sense to research about Detroit at the local US embassy, the library while gathering knowledge about US culture by watching films.
Questioned about his initial experience as a student in Detroit, Ron exclaimed, "There were many times when I missed home. It was very different in the beginning, but over a period of time I got busy and stayed focused." He believes that United States offers so much to learn that he really did not miss home that much. Ron was just like any other normal F1 graduate student holding three jobs at a time that included washing dishes in the cafeteria. "I didn't like this concept of working in the cafeteria, washing dishes and waiting tables. But I realized that if I don't do it, then I am the one at loss. From then on, I began to appreciate labor of all kinds"
After completing his Masters, Ron worked as a financial analyst for Ford in the early 80's. During that time, he saw the competition brewing from the Japanese automakers that were making a foray into the US markets amidst the auto industry recession, which was prominent in Detroit. According to Ron this competition "gave me knowledge about the strategies the US automotive companies adopted to stay ahead which included cutting back on high-paid employee costs.”
In 1982, companies were totally oblivious to concepts such as contract engineering services. There were very few companies offering such services and as a result, Shahani left Ford to provide what automotive companies were lacking. And thus, began Ron's fairy tale endeavor.
"I always wanted to start my own business. I wanted to be independent and build something that will be appreciated. My initial days in Bombay molded me as a businessman. Bombay is a very interesting place, the commercial capital of India where business families worked hard, had a broader outlook on life, were better traveled. They had their own independence. I had decided that it also meant - one being in charge of one's own destiny. That’s not true but I believed it then", Ron added.
On the objective behind building Acro, "I immediately perceived an opportunity as initiatives for outsourcing engineering and design projects became the key concept to eliminate high-end costs and yet remain competitive", he said. According to Ron, deciding on a "name for my dream was very crucial. In alphabetical listings, A is always listed first so I looked at Acro - derived from the Greek word Acropolis – meaning “on the top”. They had never used contract labor in engineering or IT prior to 1980’s. There were only temporary Secretaries – called popularly as Kelly girls."
Ron's Acro has come a long way since it started out of his home. After a while, Acro moved to a basement of a law firm. Owing the majority of his success to his wife, "My wife was very supportive. She always believed in my concepts, above all she placed her trust in me. I did not have any children then. My in-laws who had lived here were very supportive as well", declared Ron.
He further elaborated, "There is a difference between a workaholic and a hard working person. – A workaholic works so much that he/she forgets his/her responsibilities. It all boils down to prioritizing. I personally feel that that one should prioritize family first because kids grow very fast and before you know it- they are gone…"
Ron believed that half the battle to succeed in your profession is won if you have a good support system at home, including a supportive spouse and trusted people to care for your children. According to him, "a strong support system at home is a very essential part of success in the office and in business. It helps you generate revenue and recognition in your profession".
Ron spent difficult but valuable time convincing experienced automotive engineers who were looking for permanent assignments to take jobs as consultants for temporary projects by offering more money than they were actually making. End-1983, Acro Services had already employed 18 engineers. A year later, the number grew to 50. Their first client: General Motors. And so, Acro became associated as the leading engineering staffing firm.
By then it was evident that Ron's formula was on its way to success. Every life stage has its own hurdles, "In business we face hurdles everyday. It’s all about creativity. Initially client is reluctant to do business, so one has to go back again and again. Persistence is the key to any hurdle in life", he said.
Ron believed that there was a huge difference between being successful in India and in the United States. "In India, you may only go so far because of connections. United States offers a fair playing ground. It provides you the determination to work hard and succeed."
A straight A student throughout his academic years, Ron had decided to earn recognition and exactly knew that business was the solution to his goals. He strongly felt that reward and recognition will follow hard work, focus and perseverance. "I was always willing to put an effort to procure good results in school. I apply the same concept to business as well. As the business has now grown, I am absolutely convinced that focus on continual improvement and result driven commitment should persist always. In good times and in bad times", he emphatically stated.
Speaking about budding entrepreneurs, Ron related the value of a success formula to a product or service that boasts of a strong written business plan. "One should do a fair amount of business planning. I saw the value of doing that. In the case of Acro, the research involved in the planning process helped define our services, markets, customers, pricing models, and key differentiators. More importantly, this process helped remove some of the fears". To have a successful business, one should have a clear definition of what the service will provide, the size of the market - who the customers are and their needs, the level of competition (who is providing what in the limited space), stressed Ron who visited his competitors to check them out.
However, questioned if there was anything in his business concept that he would change, Ron eluded that his dream has come true, but "if I have to do it all over again, I would have invested more on my sales personnel. Not coming from a business family, I had no mentors. I learned from the school of hard knocks".
Acro Service Corp. also has a Software Development Center in New Delhi under the Acro Technologies banner.
Ron did not want to place all the eggs in one basket. In a recent quote for Crains, he stated "that the smartest decision he ever made was a strategy he put in place in 1985 to diversify his business by seeking out non-automotive customers. "Initially, when I started, 100 percent of our business was the auto industry, and that was very scary for me," he said. Today, just 30 percent of Acro's sales are from automotive customers."
According to Ron, the Indian community has grown in multiple ways. Since the late 1960’s there has been a steady increase year after year with professionals coming in. Almost without exception, most of them came for further study or training, following which they secured jobs and continued to stay here. There is a growth in generation. There was an influx of a different kind in the late 1990’s. A large number of IT-related professionals came to fulfill job requirements during the Y2K boom, as US didn’t have supply of labor.
Asked if Acro is planning to expand, Ron quickly retorted, "We are always planning to expand, but we like to stay close with what we know. We have many challenges in our own industry, consolidations etc. We are developing strategies to thrive and survive. I love what I do."
Ron strongly values creativity and persistence as essential factors in business. "Business is not easy. There will be success and failure at every step. You need to be a risk taker to implement your creativity. You don’t need a MBA but you got to have a MPA (Masters in Persistence Administration)". To him, everything grows out of creativity. He observed, "creativity is important to maintain the status-quo - to maintain the 1000 employees, and it is important for growth - Acro has 22 years of continuous growth". He disagrees with the belief that one is born creative. Instead, by acquiring and studying the vital business planning information, he believes we all can be creative in devising winning strategies.
Ron admires Mahatma Gandhi. "He has been my hero since childhood. He is a man of action. On standing strategies and theories, he put them into action", he opined. For Ron, business is a place of action. Best business practice involves good values and beliefs, best quality service for an affordable price. He further remarked, "In business, taking shortcuts might only solve short term issues. Success comes to those who do the right action for the right reasons".
Ron is an active member of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce Board and has also been recently elected to the board of the Michigan Covenant House – a non-profit organization that provides a hope for abandoned and runaway kids.
Ron maintained that in order to set up a successful business venture, you should learn the service/product you are offering from all angles. Understand the product strengths and features-what you have and what the client wants. Build a persistent personality style, have the Michael Jordan spirit of getting up and fighting. You need not go to an Ivy League school – you need to have passion. Some basic understanding of finance and cost (don’t overprice or under price yourself) and be strong in collections. Have a basic understanding of how collections affect your business. Poor collections constitutes one of the chief causes of failure and therefore, you should pay significant attention to this element. And lastly, know your market and understand your competition.
He emphatically stated "above all, have a structured business plan that organizes all the business research you have done and tests if you have all the knowledge. The plan doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should be written and functional with action oriented items. Invariably, the plan will allow you to see your weaknesses before its too late. It helps maximize the chances of success and minimize the risk of failure.” .