Along with finalizing the route, sourcing the car and other preparatory work the search for sponsors to partner the drive began in right earnest in December 2013. In the meeting held in November we identified Corporates that we could approach in Banking and Finance, Automobile Manufacturers, Jewelry and Textiles, Leisure, Retail, Construction & Building, Tyre Manufacturers and Accessories makers besides the Kerala Tourism Department. The essential idea was to source funds from companies in Kerala for it was a drive from Kerala by Keralites and more specifically, from Kochi by Kochiites.
Lal Jose suggested that we meet up with the Kerala Tourism Minister and present the case to him. In the preliminary discussions that Lal Jose had with him, Shri Anil Kumar sounded enthusiastic and positive about a partnership. Lal could open doors that would have otherwise remained firmly shut if the rest of us had approached them. This was a crucial and inalienable part of the planning process – leveraging the strengths of each of the partners. While Lal and Baiju identified possible sponsors I prepared the appeals and presentations. They were numerous and often times frustrating. The frustration is not so much in being turned down; it is that people even refuse to respond to mails, messages and phone calls. In this trait all Indians are equal – there is no segmentation or stratification; professionals right across the spectrum display total insensitivity. Even long standing friends were no exception, and that hurt very deep. Professionalism, I believe, is also about saying ‘No’ with a smile. Often times I wondered how such professionals engage their customers and mentor their subordinates. These one cannot do unless one walks the talk.
The Tourism Minister asked us to meet him in Munnar on 30 Dec 2013 to discuss the journey and our proposal to the government. Accordingly we set out early morning in Lal’s car. We reached the appointed place and learnt that the Minister had cancelled his programme! However, we spent invaluable time together in an impromptu bonding event, which masked the disappointment of having missed the crucial meeting. After repeated attempts to get through to the Minister we finally got the missive to meet him at the Cochin International Airport at 8.30 pm. We reached in time and met the Minister in the VIP lounge. The plans were outlined and what we could do to further the cause of Kerala Tourism was detailed. The Minister expressed full support for the proposal and asked us to meet with the department officials and present the proposal. We did all that was asked and repeatedly followed up the proposal. Nothing fructified except renewed promises. At some point I gave up on the proposal even though Lal remained steadfast in the belief that the Tourism Department would extend their support.
The Joint Managing Partner of a leading Kochi based construction company, who has been a friend for years, warmly welcomed me and even asked if INR 75 lakhs was all that was needed for the trip. He promised to receive the team in London and requested me to give him a proposal, which I readily did. He insisted on sharing his lunch with me in his office café and gave me a branded umbrella and tissue boxes when he saw me off. What should one gather from such solicitous behaviour – sponsorship is just a click away? Farthest from that. Phone calls and messages went unanswered. Eventually I gave up wasting my time. Almost the same happened with Ford. I was asked to be in touch with two senior executives of Ford India in Chennai. Despite consistent follow up over 6 weeks they did not even have the courtesy to respond to a phone call, message or mail! A top executive of a finance company even jousted by saying, “So you want me to pay for your fun?” Trauma of rejection continued one after the other; we went through company after company. At times the levels of desperation were difficult to manage. During such times, I suspect, I passed on the stress to Lal and Baiju. I feel terrible about that; but I could not manage it without an external vent. Cash flow was needed and there was no source to manage that from. We started pitching in with personal funds, but it could not continue in that manner. It would, then, only be a matter of time before when we called it quits. However, the equanimity of Lal and Baiju and their cool heads saw me, more than them, through crises.
Sunil Sreedhar of Coral was the first to challenge the above mentioned prototype. In the very first meeting itself he committed to sponsoring the adventure partly. He met all the timelines for funding that we had decided upon in the meeting. Had it not been for that early support the journey would have been stillborn. Similar was the case with Johnson Mathew of Trans Asian Shipping Services. Not a second question was asked – the first was, “How can we pitch in?” The onerous task of liaising with the Bank and putting in place the documentation, etc was handled in supremely efficient fashion by the finance team. Alex K. Babu of Hedge Equities was another who was upfront with his support. Despite business challenges he wanted to be ‘part of the drive’. Thomas Cherukara of Kairali Ford agreed to get the car ready for an arduous journey ahead. The Kairali Ford team also supplied essential spares that could be required for the car. Kiran of Tyrex, the sole agent for Hankook in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, gave me valuable ‘lessons’ on tyre maintenance and suggested maintenance spares that could come in handy during the trip. He replaced all 5 tyres with brand new ones – his contribution to the adventure. Mary and Philip of UPM Advertising insisted that they would brand the car. They and their fabulously creative team turned out a beauty on 7 June – I could not take my eyes off the car when I went to pick her up. M100 contributed to the drive by giving us a compressor, automatic jack and few other essentials. Pete’s did a competent job with fine tuning the engine.
Despite all this support, at a point when we are ready to roll, we are woefully short of funds for the trip. However, the three of us decided, in a crucial meeting one evening mid-May on the set of Lal’s film, that come what may, money or no money, beg or borrow, we shall travel. That is when the passion for the journey reached criticality. It gave us confidence that the passion will lead on to success. We had to scale down our plans. The first was regarding accommodation and food. I had planned for single room accommodation at all overnight locations. The logic was that it was necessary to afford each other some private space during such a long journey. We compromised and decided on shared accommodation, and in some places, without even private toilet. As for food, it will have to be ‘dhabas’ and wayside eateries. The only precaution would be to ensure hygiene and clean water.
Looking back, I feel that I made a strategic mistake in just targetting the Kerala based companies. Since the journey was to be an international event I should have targeted multinationals with interests all over the globe. That would have built global interest in the drive and sustained its long term mission. Certain hard facts are driven home through mistakes, I console myself.
The Press Meet at the Ernakulam Press Club on 9 June and the coverage on Asianet the subsequent day dramatically changed the landscape. Offers of hospitality started pouring in from UK, Ireland, Austria, Holland, Switzerland, Germany and even from Kazakhstan. Those who made the offers were huge Lal Jose fans and acquaintances. We decided to ‘shamelessly’ leverage any assistance and hospitality, for such was the financial situation. Zulfi of DGL, Dubai offered to ship the car back to India at his cost. With a little persuasion he also agreed to foot the bill for our transfer from London to Kochi. At the close of my address of the family get together at the Grand Hotel the Builders’ Association of India, Cochin Chapter and Cherian Varkey Construction pledged financial support to the drive. And finally the Tourism Department of Kerala confirmed their participation in the epic journey. Thus, with all these we have been able to get about half of the budgeted amount in financial sponsorship and about 10 per cent in physical support. The gap we look to bridge from en route hospitality.