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Pizza to Dough with élan!
Meet one of Michigan's stylish entrepreneurs Harshavardhan V. Agadi


Anupama Gopalakrishnan caught up with Harsha recently, as he shared some particular insights for 'modern' entrepreneurs, as well as the wisdom of his own personal experience 
in successfully moving up the corporate ladder in America.

It was the end of the week and I was tired of breathing business 24/7, when my meeting with an enterprising entrepreneur changed the way I looked at ‘Desi’ corporate life. A quiet, unassuming and intelligent Harsha recounted his childhood, which in its own way was unique but typical immigrant story. Harsha completed his high school education in an ICSE medium from Arya Vidya Mandir, Mumbai which according to him was “a rare Hindu oriented school in a sense that it taught a student to perform the homam*, had them recite the Vedas and speak Sanskrit.” Harsha casually remarked that Arya Vidya Mandir was also the home of internationally renowned ex Miss World Aishwarya Rai. (*Homam is a ritual conducted with an altar of fire as a part of worship, or any special occasion. The goal of all homams is the prosperity of the people at large by energizing and protecting the environment).

Harshavardhan V. Agadi
Chairman - GHS Holdings, L.L.C
Industrial Partner - Ripplewood Holdings, LLC
- Crescent Capital, Inc
President & CEO - Church's Chicken Worldwide, Inc
Former Positions:
President & COO- Little Caesar Enterprises, Inc.
Sr. Vice President - Worldwide ForEx Services, AMEX
VP Field Operations - Domino's Pizza, Inc.
Also Held Key Positions:
PepsiCo Inc.
Kraft General Foods


To most of us, a student life is usually protected and sheltered but Harsha’s harsh encounters with real life began while in school as he was taught various subjects - starting with weeks of environmental studies, community service, observing the workforce at the Air Traffic Control at Bombay Airport and being part of the Esso Gas Station workforce.  

Harsha fondly recounts that this excellent mix, or rather this unique blend of Indian tradition and western education has provided him tremendous amount of confidence and knowledge to carry on conversations ranging from Indian architecture, temples, historically significant events to business enterprises, Indian work models et al.

Talking highly of the esteemed Duke of Edinburgh award during his school days, Harsha stated, “it was all about trying something new, choosing, planning and achieving personal goals using existing skills”. The award scheme made him much tougher as he tried to work on environmental projects went on expeditions where he hiked for 80 kms in rural India without food and also worked in a team on conservation. Harsha took up the challenge and won the gold award. According to him, winning this award made him a well-rounded personality with key emphasis on “teamwork and leadership”, which he thinks are the necessary ingredients for a successful entrepreneur. “Participating in such programs raised awareness about what my limitations are. Growing up in a city, one is conditioned to urban softness”, he explained.

Though Harsha excelled in physical fitness programs, sports and public speaking, he never stood first in class nor did he raise his hand in classroom discussions. He mentioned that the best education a person can receive is what we learn from the street (or from what others have learned from the streets), as you get to build a stronger personality, a stronger background and stronger intelligence”.

Harshavardhan Agadi graduated from Sydenham College of Commerce, Mumbai - The first and one of the finest commerce colleges in India and completed his Masters in Business Administration majoring in Finance from Duke University, North Carolina. The friendly sparkle in his eyes paved way to the fact that he still keeps in touch with all the 19 high school graduates (from 1978), who are at present across the globe.

Indians who have entered United States have always packed their bags with aspiration to achieve and make it big. Every second Indian in this country has thought about business, about entrepreneurship. Harsha’s perspective is slightly different. He thoughtfully exclaimed, “Indians are academically brilliant and technically accurate. But Corporate America cannot survive with just brilliance and accuracy. For an entrepreneur to be successful and visible, ‘style’ is of prime importance. Style and content are like two sides of the same coin.”

Indians typically score in content and are brilliant engineers and brilliant computer experts. But are these individuals directly responsible for sales and profits – do they have a say in the business? How else can they find true success? Harsha retorted “engineers typically assume that getting an evening MBA can change things for them. But in order for you to get to the #1 slot, you have to be ready to get fired”. Indians are naturally perceived to be intelligent. “Generally speaking, we are not risk takers. We need to know, how to influence and to lead – the Dale Carnegie way. Ultimately, it all comes down to managing people and building relationships”, he elaborated.

After graduating from Duke University in 1987, Harsha joined Kraft Foods as a Sr. Financial Analyst. In a span of three years, Harsha has held several positions as Project Manager, Manager-Financial Planning and Development, Director of Finance, National Director of Finance and Senior Director of Strategic Planning for PepsiCo, prior to moving as Head- Field Operations, Domino’s Intl where he got control of 1800 stores in 55 countries.  He also worked with American Express in New York City where he headed the Foreign Exchange services worldwide.

After his tenure with Domino’s, Harsha became the President/COO of Little Caesar Enterprises Inc. responsible for restructuring and turning the company around. For the past 12 years, the magnetic entrepreneur was on his feet controlling and running stores while simultaneously gaining knowledge on how to manage money and how to look at the future. Domino’s was one of his most valuable and significant contributions to the food industry.

When questioned about the relative importance of academic education as opposed to experiential learning, Harsha mentioned how academic education was required to a certain extent. “Real experiential learning does not involve step by step planning but it is more gifted after one gains control to direct the learning to areas of personal interests, desires and goals.” In other words, he expressed the equal importance of both though he thought that experiential learning has more long-term depth.

Harsha found that emerging entrepreneurs need a "safe place" to test their ideas, find out what works and what doesn't, and develop a belief in themselves and their ideas. He emphatically stated that there are several attributes that make a successful entrepreneur: “Ability to flow with changes, focus on what the market wants or what the market will want based on hard data or intuition, hard work, focus on task and the willingness to listen to outside influences.” He believed that titles are great but means nothing when the job needs to get done. “I always select four employees to interact with and get views on how to run the business. A successful entrepreneur will always have his ear to the ground with an open style management where employees are treated as stakeholders. Suggestions and good ideas can come from anywhere”, he stressed.

At Church’s – Harsha reduced the overhead and created a success formula. He explained how crucial employee suggestions were and commended his employees for providing valuable feedback that “saved the company a lot of money”. He pointed that one “should take such comments very seriously. When people see a product, they also see an issue with the product - they have ideas. My company uses those ideas as talent. You don’t need a big advertising firm to sell your product.“

What is Harsha’s advice for all the young entrepreneurs waiting for that one big opportunity? Harsha’s calm face translated into excitement - “get a great coach that has experience in your industry, then get a great coach that has no experience in your industry, and listen to them both”. He succinctly puts forth three valuable relationships that have made him successful:

  • Encouraging parents – “who knew my weakness and made it strong”.

  • Intelligent wife – “who married me 16 years ago. She is value conscious and I am brand conscious. It is very important to find a smart partner who maintains and understands your nature and your work and strikes the right balance”.

  • Incredible bosses throughout my career – Harsha explained, “there are lots of entrepreneurs who have all worked hard but haven’t climbed the corporate rank though they are academically qualified. It’s not about what company you are working for, but “whom” you are working for that becomes crucial in your career”.

“The best experience in my life was working with Steve Reinemund, Chairman of PepsiCo Inc., Mark Werner, Treasurer of Phillip Morris Inc., and Tom Monaghan – Founder of Domino’s. With this experience came the exposure about the way entrepreneurs think, act and decide”, he said.

Harsha opined that young aspiring entrepreneurs should have the marketing and sales experience in their respective industry – or get a partner who does. “Pick your partner based on the experience, values and complementary skills – not based on friendship or money”.

The visibly thrilled Harsha considered himself a living example of average academic records that could still be successful with good bosses. “You don’t need to stand first or get a first class to run US companies. Second class students can make it big. However, parents need to mold the kids after school”, he said.His chief hurdles were mostly as a student when he considered every exam as a nightmare. He found some children being naturally adept in Math, Science, Art or History. He said, “I struggled hard but I couldn’t really make a mark beyond a second class”.  

Harsha was 34 years when he became the president of Little Caesars Inc. For four years in Caesars, he saw the opportunity to be an entrepreneur. He always believed that “Indian analysts are the most disciplined and the best in the world”. “Indian intelligence”, according to him is the best brand that can be marketed in the corporate world. At 38 years, he founded GHS Holdings – a company that offers an array of client services that include Financial and Tax Planning, Mortgage Processing, Accounting services, Consultancy Practices for small, medium and large companies. The company does complex modeling and his resources provide advice on large acquisitions-complicated returns and partnerships. “Through GHS Holdings, we have partnered with Crescent Capital, Inc.– controlling 1,700 stores”, he said.

A confident Harsha has nothing to complain about. Church’s Chicken that sells spicy products has 35,000 employees, 5,000 on direct payroll and 30,000 as employees of franchisees. The company is also the # 1 seller of Jalapeño Peppers in the world. As Domino’s made its presence in India, Church’s Chicken will be launched in India very soon.

Speaking about the success ratio of IT professionals in corporate America, Harsha clarified that the entire IT industry from an Indian perspective looks very low-risk and conservative that it becomes difficult for senior IT consultants to compete with senior executives in the same company. “This is where the public speaking skills become significant as networking and communication become the essential factors,” he stressed.

On the importance of networking and the art of building contacts, without batting an eyelid, Harsha quipped that “networking and building contacts are absolutely crucial whether entrepreneurial or not. Success depends on whom you know and how easily you can access your network when the need arises. You cannot wait until you need something to build your network, yet until you need something, your network seems relatively unimportant. I guess it's just about discipline”, he wisely mentioned.

He was of the view that when an individual is exposed to leadership positions, there is a balance between business and technical accuracy. Harsha is motivated and inspired by Chennai born Indira Nooyi, President and Chief Financial Officer of PepsiCo Intl. who is also the highest-ranking Indian born woman in corporate America. He calls Indira the 21st century Indian phenomena whose theory “be yourself” has become the corporate mantra for success.

Harsha who is a tireless channel of business information was among the first Indian entrepreneurs in Michigan to step forward when Tsunami hit the areas in Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka. Harsha expressed that his intentions are always good – but his wife was responsible for turning them into real actions. “For Tsunami- the President himself was sitting at the White House trying to make a difference. What amazed me was that a short email sent out to employees of all 100 stores of Church’s Chicken brought out $75k aid for Indonesia. Church’s matched dollar for dollar. I used the same concept with GHS to help raise money for India as well”, he mentioned.

According to Geetha Agadi (Harsha’s enterprising wife), “Harsha has always been there for us. He has always put work aside for the family. He is just black and white. It could be his weakness too. But what I like about him is his direct approach to solving things in corporate life”.

As a balanced CEO, Harsha has traveled a lot that he has accumulated 6 - 7 million air miles. “It’s a huge test on the spouse and on family”, he maintained.  He believed that weekend family time was very precious. Surprisingly, the effervescent CEO does not carry his cell phone into his house during the weekends unless it is absolutely necessary. In this age of technology where every business man/entrepreneur cannot live without a computer, Harsha does not use email for communication. He remarked that it “takes away the personal feeling. If I need to talk to someone, be it at home or family, I would rather walk to that person and express what I feel. Emails pave way for misunderstanding”,

Questioned about the growing phase of the Michigan Indian community, he pointed out that the one significant factor that has grown over a period of time is – “that of people (non-Indians) recognizing our culture and accepting it so openly which includes eating Indian food and accepting an Indian without any hesitation”. He further added that, today, Indian kids are quite Indian. I personally think that Indian doctors need to give more back to India. Education is highly subsidized in India.

His school principal – Late Shobha Shirodhkar – Arya Vidya Mandir remains his inspiration for having challenged him repeatedly. His favorite CEO is none other than Steve Reinemund of PepsiCo who according to Harsha “despite running a very large organization, returns calls within a day. He puts out the garbage like anybody else. Steve has been a constant in the business world and has also been in the cover of Fortune”.

Born in Karnataka, Harsha was raised in Mumbai. He loves watching old movies from the 1950’s. He loves watching Bollywood movies, and is quite up to date. He listens to a wide range of ghazals and is also a linguist. He has traveled to over 35 countries and has launched American brands in all continents.

”Speed has always been my motto in life”. According to Harshavardhan Agadi, “there is nothing wrong in making quick and fast decisions in life" because according to him, "if you make a mistake - you can come back and catch up fast. Intelligence does not guarantee success”. Blend style and presentation with your content and you will see a difference. These are Harsha’s words of wisdom for the new and growing fleet of entrepreneurs.

As Tsunami struck the coastal areas of Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, Harshavardhan Agadi worked quietly behind the scenes and raised over $ 80,000 for the tsunami victims. A true inspirational Michigan Indian, Harshavardhan Agadi lives with his wife Geetha and seven year old son Samir at Novi, Michigan. 

If you would like to recommend a truly inspiring individual of Asian Indian origin living in Michigan, please email anupama@miindia.com



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