Thursday, September 02, 2010

From the diary of a Sales Manager - II

The year was 1989. I was a rather ‘junior’ Sales Manager – recently ‘covenanted’ which meant having joined the ranks of the management cadre after successful completion of the training program.

One day, news came around that two truck loads of biscuit, manufactured in our sister Branch – Calcutta, and being transferred to our Branch – Delhi, were held up at a Sales Tax check post on the Bihar UP border, at Balia. The officials suspected something was wrong with the documentation accompanying the stock on the trucks, and this practically amounted to violation of sales tax rules. The official threatened to formally seize the stock, and this would mean a complete loss because biscuits being food products, were perishable.

My Boss – a seasoned sales professional of twenty years, and normally a very confident and dynamic decision maker, faced a predicament this time – a rare occasion. And my counterpart - the Sales Manager for UP, who should have, in the normal course of things taken the responsibility and the initiative upon himself, chose to keep a low profile. Getting out of this problem was going to be tough – there was no doubt about that. And who wanted to face a tough situation ?

I felt bad for my Boss. I felt like helping out for the sake of the team and the Branch. And then I made that one big mistake. I lent words to my thoughts, and spoke up offering to help. My boss was actually looking for such an opportunity, and he grabbed it. Within moments, it was decided that I along with a clerical assistant specialising in sales tax matters, would go all the way to Varanasi to meet the Assistant Collector of Sales Tax, and plead our case to him. We were confident that this would work, as we were on the right side of the law. More importantly this seemed a one day job.

Seemed easy. But what started then, was to become one of the most tough and challenging assignment that I undertook, in the early years of my career.

I rushed home, and after packing a bag in fifteen minutes, reached the railway station. Those were the days when tickets for long distance travel on trains could never be available at short notice. And this was asking for for a bit too much.
When I hit the ticket queue, there were fifteen minutes for the train to leave.
Due to some Divine intervention, two chair car seats were available. We barely managed to board the train coach when it moved. Destination was Mughalsarai twin city to Varanasi. We would drive from Mughalsarai to Varanasi and check into a hotel.

At 4.30 am next day, we landed at Mughalsarai. And the moment we landed, we got the first shock. The entire city of Varanasi was under curfew due to communal disturbances.

A few hours into the day were enough for me to conclude that it was going to be impossible to meet the Sales Tax commissioner. He was deputed on special judicial duty in the riot hit town. Then began the longest three days of my life – days full of trial of patience, frustration disappointment, sometimes hope, but no positive result. We just waited and waited in our hotel, doing nothing except making occasional calls to the commissioner’s office to check on his availability. One morning I kept vigil outside the District Magistrate’s office hoping to meet him, so he could issue a curfew pass to me, so that I could move around in a car and meet the one official that eluded me.

On the afternoon of the fourth day, we decided that we had to change our strategy. We decided that we would reach the Sales Tax check post in Balia, and tackle the issue ‘on the ground’

The UP Roadways bus took something like 5 hours for a 150 km journey, on a rather cold, misty afternoon, that December. When we reached, we were tired, cold but still anxious to solve the problem as quickly as possible.

We reached the only contact we knew in this old sleepy town of UP. And that contact was the Company’s distributor. We introduced ourselves, and naturally he didn’t know me. There was no question though, that after gaining proper references from the Office, he would help us in any way possible – physically, with money etc.

We checked in, into the best rooms of the only decent hotel…and the owner of the hotel? Surprises of all surprises – it was our distributor. We then decided to waste no further time, and reach the check post.

The Sales Tax check post was on the Bihar UP border, about 20 kms from the city of Balia. The road was dark, obviously without any lights, with dense forest on both sides. It was in the middle of this forest that we found the check post. A small round cemented cabin on the road side, and a barrier on the road. A few trucks were parked along the sides, and we wondered which ones were laden with our biscuits.

It didn’t take long to identify the trucks, and almost as soon as we did that, the drivers came to meet us. They had been parked there for ten days now, had run out of money, and were completely nearing the limits of their sanity. For a moment I thought they would attack us. But I guess in a sense they were relieved to see us, for now there was hope for them.

Then came the bad news. The check post officials had initially held up the trucks but when no one landed up in time to clarify their doubts, they had gone ahead and formally seized the material. The only way now, was to pay the fine at the check post and have the trucks released.

The fine to be paid was 1 lac rupees in cash for each truck, and there were two. That was a huge amount of money those days. One lac rupees was the value of one full truck load of biscuits !

So now the question was, where to arrange for two lac rupees, and that too, in cash.

The distributor after having completed his check of our antecedents was ever willing to help, by making the payment on the Company’s behalf. But like I mentioned before, the amount was huge, and the distributor would need almost the whole of the next day, to arrange for the money. We left the check post that night, promising the officials as well and the crew of the truck, to return the following evening.

It was 5 pm the next day, and already dark, by the time the distributor returned to our hotel and announced that the money had been arranged for. I sensed a certain air of anxiety and nervousness about him. This was a very very dangerous area he explained, infested with criminal who wouldn’t hesitate to kill for even a hundred rupees! Therefore carrying two lac rupees in cash in the dark, through a jungle would be suicidal. I began to feel nervous too.

The half hour drive to the check post seemed like ages. We all sat on literally on the edge of our seats.. At nigh, the scenario around the check post was even scarier. The check post had only one kerosene lamp. And that one lamp seemed to be the only light around for miles. A perfect setting to invite trouble !

Even after depositing the cash with the check post, we remained nervous, anxious to get ourselves and our trucks away from this scene. The clerk commenced a long rigorous paper work procedure to complete the formalities of releasing the material. Everything was hand written. And if two copies were needed – well, they had to be hand written twice over. There was no question of a computer or a photo copier!

We finished the formalities at 3 am. The trucks on their way, we returned to our hotel.

Next morning, we commenced our return journey to Delhi. We landed at Buxor Station by car. We had just about bought tickets when we saw a train waiting, about to pull out and head towards Mughalsarai. With our suitcases on our head, we jumped on the tracks, crossed four of them to get to the train, and just about made it.
At Mughalsarai, we enquired about tickets on the Rajdhani express which was to arrive at 930 pm to reach us to Delhi the next morning. Divine intervention again ! We got two seats for Delhi.

Now – all we had to do was to wait. From noon till 930, for the train to come. But we had got used to waiting, going by the experiences of the past week.

The next afternoon, we met the Boss. “So – what happened” he asked, anxious to know about the outcome.

So much had happened in the last one week. So many experiences, so many events. All I could say in reply was “It’s done. Problem solved”

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