A. Gary Anderson
Graduate School of Management

‘People Are the Core of My Business’

Arun Surendra ’99, ’01 MBA approaches leadership — and life — with ‘entrepreneurial zeal’

When Arun Surendra ’99, ’01 MBA arrived at the UCR School of Business to complete a four-year undergraduate degree, he soon found himself in an educational environment starkly different from what he had experienced in India.

“One was expected to challenge the professor if you disagreed — put your hand up and give a counterargument. I had never experienced learning like that,” Surendra said.

Something else that caught his attention was the open-door accessibility of the faculty and campus leadership – the ability to walk into a professor’s office to have an open discussion about help needed.

It clearly left an impression. As the managing director of the 113-year-old VST Group of companies founded in India by his great-grandfather, he has cultivated an open-door culture at the heart of his company’s operations.

Arun Surendra ’99, ’01 MBA is managing director of the 113-year-old VST Group of companies founded in India by his great-grandfather, and chairman of the group’s tractor division.

“It’s important for me to foster an environment where my office and I are accessible to all within the organization,” Surendra said. “I find that the team is more focused, driven, and growth- oriented when I keep my doors open. I am available for a quick chat no matter how trivial it is. And I can feel the difference that the small change on my part has made to the overall working environment at VST.”

It’s an impressive commitment considering the size of the company and the scope of responsibilities Surendra has recently taken on. In addition to serving as managing director of the group, in February he was appointed as chairman of the agricultural equipment manufacturing division, VST Tillers Tractors Ltd.

VST Group serves more than 5,000 customers every day, with sales of 40 billion rupees ($500 million) annually. The group employs 3,500 with a distribution network spread across 21 states in India, with over 700 sales touch points. With India’s population crossing 1.4 billion, the group is on an ambitious growth and expansion trajectory to reach into the smaller towns across the subcontinent.

One of the two largest verticals is its automotive franchises. It has 11 dealerships across South India. Half the auto vertical revenue is from the luxury segment — Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Land Rover, Porsche and Ducati — where the market is growing over 20% a year.

The other key vertical is the tractor division, with annual sales of 10 billion rupees ($125 million), and where Surendra sees a great deal of potential.

“There’s a lot we can do because we make the tractors and small farm equipment machinery and we market them,” he said. “I believe we also have that all-important entrepreneurial zeal and the ability to take and learn from risks. So, it’s only exciting opportunities and experiences that await us. Our recent foray into the e-tractor manufacturing with our partners is nothing short of exhilarating.”

This kind of enthusiasm is a natural fit for the entrepreneurial history of the company — but it also is important for someone who believes “enjoying your work and a passion for innovation are the key ingredients for growth.”

“People ask me, ‘Arun, what do you do?’ And I tell them, ‘I don’t sell cars. I don’t make tractors. I sell and create experiences for my customers. People are the core of my business – I value them, I nurture them, and I learn from them every day. My goal is to ensure my teams and, more importantly, my customers associate nothing but excellence and trust with VST the brand,’” he said.

He would recommend that kind of enthusiastic approach to anyone starting out in business: Find your niche and get to work to achieve it. Based on his own experience as an international student at UCR, he also recommends getting involved with activities to boost confidence and broaden horizons.

Getting involved, being a team player
Porsche is one of the luxury brands leading growth in the automobile franchise vertical of VST Group, where Arun Surendra ’99, ’01 MBA is managing director.

Surendra made the most of his time at UCR, joining study groups and participating in the interactive approach to learning. He appreciated that the school provided the opportunity to learn from industry leaders, connecting the theoretical to the real world.

His experience completing his undergraduate degree in international finance convinced him to continue his studies at the A. Gary Anderson Graduate School of Management.

While working toward his MBA in entrepreneurial management, he was a founding member of the graduate school’s investment association, a precursor to the Hylander Student Investment Fund. Surendra also worked part-time for the alumni association and was involved with an international student association.

Getting involved in a wide range of activities is something Surendra recommends to students — or anyone who wants to succeed in life. When he is hiring for his own organization, he looks for life experiences and the capacity to work as part of a team.

“If I’m interviewing someone for a general manager position, I want to know how that person has contributed to their previous organization besides being a general manager. What did this person do to impact change in the working culture?” he said. “That’s how I evaluate whether or not someone is a team player.”

For Surendra, the value of a wide range of experiences extends beyond the office. He has always been active in a variety of sports, such as Formula One racing, squash, tennis, golf, running, high-altitude hiking in the Himalayas, playing soccer — including as a member of the UCR soccer team as an undergraduate.

“Sports is more than just a good stress-buster — it’s a teacher,” he said. “Sure, it can help widen your networking circle, but I also think it’s a great way to learn more about the kind of leader you want to be at work. Sport teaches you many things – tenacity, patience, precision, to name a few. And having that like-minded circle, beyond your colleagues, is also a great way to expand your knowledge.”

That perspective is similar to the lesson he learned when he first arrived at UCR.

“Growing up, I was a bit of an introvert. I wouldn’t speak up. But when I got to UCR, I was organically able to change that. I participated more in class and was vocal in my peer groups as well. So, I think it’s really a matter of taking the opportunities given to you and seriously and actively participating in them — the value add is tremendous.”