Handling Business With Clinical Precision

Dr Sumitha Nandan, the newly-appointed Executive Director of Manappuram Finance, brings to the table oodles of energy and a fresh worldview – By Sujit Chandra Kumar

Dr Sumitha Nandan’s earliest memories about her growing-up years in Valapad revolve around her grandfather, the late Mr V.C. Padmanabhan. Says Dr Sumitha, the newly-appointed Executive Director of Manappuram Finance, which has its headquarters in Valapad: “I was his favourite grandchild, perhaps because I was the eldest. Whenever I took a fancy for something, I would run to him rather than my dad.”

The most poignant and painful of all the memories surrounds the passing away of her granddad who founded the Manappuram group of companies. “It was all so sudden. None of us among kids could figure out what was happening. We saw the ambulance arrive and all our favourite people in mourning. Then, I had to take leave from school for the ceremonies,” she reminisces.

The year was 1986 and Sumitha was then in the third standard. It was the same year when her dad Mr V.P. Nandakumar took over his father’s single-room business at Valapad. The rest, as they say, is corporate history. Says Dr Sumitha: “Manappuram has always been dad’s first child. He eats, drinks and breathes Manappuram.”

In those days, life was a lot different in the sleepy hamlet tucked away in Thrissur, she observes. “On Sundays, we would go to the beach and have a running race for which dad would join too. We would then run from one part of the beach to another where a stream joins the ocean. On our way back on late evenings, we would meet all the members of our extended family. Dad is very emotionally connected to his extended family and our neighbours and so he would make us interact with all of them.”

After her seventh standard, she moved to Bangalore to join the Bishop Cotton Girl’s School. “Every time I returned, I would be struck by the greenery, the pristine village environs and the close connectivity of the people, as opposed to the city’s hustle and bustle,” she says. Today, Valapad has blossomed into a self-contained township thanks to the ‘Manappuram effect’, a far cry from the days when Dr Sumitha, her brothers and cousins would play in the open fields, pluck cashew fruits and have their mouth full of almonds.

After Bangalore, she moved to Kodaikanal for her Plus Two and then made the biggest career choice of her life when she joined the Sidhartha Medical College in Tumkur. “This may come as a surprise to many but medicine was not at all in my list of choices. I grew up watching my dad lead Manappuram from strength to strength and did not want to pursue any career other than business. But then, the prevailing trend was for parents to push their kids to do either medicine or engineering after the twelfth. My parents were no different and I had to go by their wish,” she says. “In fact, it was during my house surgency at the Jubilee Mission Medical College and Research Institute in Thrissur that I really became interested in the medical field and woke up to its myriad possibilities.” Subsequently, she worked at the Vijaya Hospital in Chennai for a year before enrolling for her postgraduation in gynecology at the Ramachandra Medical College in Chennai.

Meanwhile, she got married and moved to Kochi where she had stints with leading hospitals such as the Thrikkakkara Cooperative Hospital, the Indira Gandhi Cooperative Hospital and KIMS. But the desire to be an entrepreneur pulled her back and made her join Manappuram Finance as Senior Vice President first and then as Executive Assistant to MD & CEO. During her three-and-a-half-year stint, she handled many key assignments including the one as the CEO of Online Gold Loan division. “It was a new concept then and I had a young team and we were able to make a lot of headway,” she recalls.

In 2018, she felt that she hadn’t done full justice to her training and talent as a medical professional. “I did miss my profession and I am someone who likes to listen to people’s problems and solve them,” says Dr Sumitha, who went back to being a doctor. Initially, she taught at the Amritha Institute of Medical Sciences in Kochi but was determined to do something unique and specialised in Cosmetic Gynecology, a new sub branch that was little-known in Kerala. “I practised it at the CIMAR hospital in Kochi and I am still the only one to handle this discipline in the state,” she says. “To give an example, for a problem like stress urinary incontinence, there was only the option of invasive surgery where you put a sling or a mesh. But if detected early, you can now tackle it with a couple of sittings of laser and I have over 95 per cent rate of success in this line of treatment. There are also solutions to many other conditions which women hesitate to open up about.”

Life came full circle for Dr Sumitha when she rejoined Manappuram Finance as Executive Director in January this year. She has her task cut out as the head honcho of an NBFC with a network of 5,200 branches that crisscross the country and a workforce of 45,000 employees. She realises that the challenge is to take the company to the next level and she has no doubt that her exposure to other fields would be a distinct advantage. “Whether you are in the healthcare sector or finance sector, business is all about people management. When you are a doctor, you tend to be a little more compassionate and this would be a plus when it comes to managing people and managing change,” she says. “There is already a well-established system in place at Manappuram. The task is to bring a certain cohesion so that it runs like a well-oiled machine. One cannot achieve anything all by oneself but only through team building and the right kind of leadership. In my view, success comes to those companies that manage to do things a little better than their competitors.”

She goes on to add that without innovation and readiness to change, no business or industry can hope to succeed. “Going digital is no longer an innovation but an absolute necessity. Post Covid, everything has become digital because people have tasted convenience. Shopping is the best example. Even in the medical field, people turned to online consultation in an industry that always believed in one-on-one consultation. But Covid has proved to be the biggest disruptor. Even people who were resistant to change were forced to embrace the online mode,” she says.

She cites the example of how in her previous stint at Manappuram, a lot of time and effort was spent on making the office go paperless. “We even hired a senior official to facilitate the process but it did not help much. But Covid ensured what humans couldn’t and the office is now paperless. Unless there is an adversity, people are not willing to imbibe change because change is always painful,” she explains.

Even as she maintains a hectic schedule at work, Dr Sumitha takes care to spend quality time with her two daughters, Anushka and Aashirya, whenever she can. “Ours is the only generation that had to listen to our parents as well as our kids,” jokes Dr Sumitha, who radiates an effervescent nature. “Today’s generation will not simply accept whatever you tell them but will have a million questions. But I am fortunate to have kids who are very adjusting, perhaps because I have always been a working woman. My Sundays are mostly devoted to them. I feel it is important to have open conversations with your children. You need to be a friend and inspire confidence in them so that they share their joys as well as disappointments with you,” she says. “Yes, you have to monitor them but at the same time give them the space that they require. You have to allow them to have their privacy, the freedom to take their own decisions and the chance to fail and learn from mistakes.”

A trained Bharatnatyam dancer, Dr Sumitha unwinds by listening to melodies, enjoying classical art forms and watching videos on self-improvement. Her day starts with an hour of chanting and meditation. “It is important to differentiate between religion and spirituality. While religion is restrictive, spirituality is liberating,” she signs off.

Picture Courtesy: Pegasus Photography/Images are subject to copyright