Gagan Sahni Interview on Chapter Transitions
So the main reason to interview you is that our chapter transitions are happening in April. And you were Chapter President in the previous term. During your tenure as a President, you lead from the top, you gave inspiration to all the members, you inspired a lot of visitors to join the chapter, a lot of applications you had in the pipeline got converted. So, a lot of admin work which was there at the top at that time was done with great tenacity and enthusiasm, that many director consultants and ambassadors and of course your members still talk about.
So, tell me more about your business first?
We, at SAFCO, are into the business of food distribution. We cater to restaurants, hotels, and F&B in general. It could be a hotel, restaurant, catering company, airline, in short wherever there’s a commercial kitchen,we could supply products which go into that kitchen. Our bread and butter are mainly hotels and restaurants. The company was set up by my father in 1994 from Sharjah and I joined in 2005. It’s been 14 years since I graduated and this has been my first job and now I run the company and the subsidiary of all the companies. It’s a big group, about 12 companies are linked with it locally and globally, so I handle most of them.
How long have you been in BNI?
This is my seventh year.
How has it been as for you as a member in terms of giving and receiving? Have you received enough business to be able to say, yes, I’m doing good and have you given in return in terms of your connections and referrals?
Yes, I think my numbers both ways match quite evenly with a 10-20% variation. I have given, over my full length of membership about AED 12 million worth of business and I have also gained around AED 11 or 12 million so it’s quite positive both this. I’m quite happy with it it’s more about the quality, the connections, and the learning. Since the very beginning, because I came from a business that was already set up in and as the second generation, for me, it was just about, you know, making sure the tools are correct, the relationships, the vendor base is correct, the friendships are there, so when the need of an hour comes through I have enough people who will back me up. Coming from a family business, you get restricted with a lot of known vendors or long-term partners, and you are reluctant to tryout new people, so for me, that was a big change when I joined BNI. I started doing business with a lot of chapter members, doing a lot of business through the chapter. So, that’s great.
What made you join BNI in the first place?
Change is important and learning is an ongoing process, even if it’s my first year or 7th year in BNI. You always need to refresh your resources, and you cannot just say that I’m happy with a particular vendor and I’m going to live and die with that because not just in Dubai but in any country, in a progressive business, you need to be experimental, and you need to give people an opportunity to come and bring in solutions rather than show them the door and saying I already have a set standard and I’m not being flexible. The market is ever-changing,the trends, the tastes and the kind of business we are and if you do not live up to the market trends and the changes, it wouldn’t work out for us. F&B is a fast-growing segment in the region. And so we need to have resources also fine-tuned on a very regular basis. So, at BNI, that option came to me as very positive and refreshing.
Are there certain members in the chapter you would say that you work very closely within terms of power team or referral partners?
Yes, there are a lot of members who are currently there in the chapter and there are a lot of members who were there when I am joined so I’m still in touch with them, we do a lot of good business. So, you cannot judge the value of the membership just by the people who are active in the chapter.I look at the people who are also once active in the chapter so today we are at a 65 number, my relationships are up to 150 only from this chapter. And also, at least 20 to 25 people who are ex-members still have my point of contact.Unfortunately, their numbers don’t show on the portal, but for me, that is also business that I have received. I do a lot of business for my company with the chapter members with people who have products or services to offer and if it suits us, we give them the opportunity.
Any particular tool or resources that you found very helpful within the BNI network which you find very helpful?
For me, the meeting structure itself is the most feasible, and the best tool I’ve ever learned.So, in my company, I remember before I joined BNI, we never had a structured or disciplined set system of you having meetings and, having recorded transactional numbers with all your KPIs with every kind of performance that you’re doing. I think that was the biggest tool just to learn how to have a structure, how to have proper professional meetings being conducted and follow the discipline. Besides, that power teams work very well, the BNI Connect, BNI University, all these are useful tools. BNI Socials are a good medium of connection and cross chapter meetings are good, so to have that opportunity is also quite powerful.
Have you tried any networking events in the past?
Before BNI, not much. BNI just came to me at the right time and I’ve been quite satisfied with the way it has turned out to be.
What makes you renew your membership year after year?
For me, learning has not stopped. As much as the market is changing, we are changing and we are learning. So for me, since day one, it was about relationship base and a learning platform. And I think that’s ongoing and my learning has not saturated here and I think every week that I’m here, pick up a couple of keynotes, and also it refreshes you of your daily routine, this just refreshes you and gives you a new thought process, which for me, in my business is very important. For example, if I get low on my ideas, such meetings give me a couple of key important things and there’s so much to learn. There are so many new members who have joined us, their way of thinking, their thought process is always good,especially given the fact that many of the times you notice in all of the chapters, are the owners or someone at a senior level, and they get to share the experience, which again as the owner yourself you kind of feel that something different, you’re looking.
People reach out without much expectation to help you out. If you go down to any othervendor base, the formality of a particular transaction and the cost effect is sometimes nottoo encouraging for you to make a relationship but this does not come atany major costjust because of the relationships you build. Today when I look at a lot of people who arethere within the fraternity and look back at me for a lot of ideas and solutions, I think it’sonly because of my resources that are connected with BNI. I have that advantage which Ican probably tackle a lot of unknown territories with a lot of comfort.
So, share with your experience that you had a Chapter President and what do you see as a difference in a successful chapter, and something which is not too successful?
I think, with all credit to all the past presidents, and the members, I think they all deserve alot of respect and appreciation for the work that they do. So, without any comparison, I think we try to do our best. We kept the meetings very disciplined, the structure very progressive, the attitude very positive. We give the members who have been long enough, a couple of key roles to be done so they were quite engaged. And I think the visitor numbers was a key element that we were always very keen on to induct as many members as we can,we had a number in our head when we started our term. We had a lot of brain storming sessions on how to make it through, a lot of roles were delegated so it was not down to one person or one board member who made it happen. The whole energy was positive during the term so that goes out not only to the team members who are active as part of the leadership team but also down to the members you are contributing quite well. Any ideas that we put through, we discussed it with the members, what was their take on that. We also took a lot of suggestions from our past LTs.
I remember I had a session about two weeks before we started our term in October. I called everybody over; a lot of experienced people, a lot of members who have been here long enough and I asked them what would they like to see us doing, rather than tell us that this is what I’m working on. It was a very feedback oriented term that we had and I think from day one, everybody was on the same page. The energy was shared through, the numbers came in naturally, we didn’t go crazy after numbers. We did just not induct members, purely on the numbers. It was comfort and the tone of the meeting, and having no politics, so having a clean term was the thing we had, we had no controversies we had no problems, I did not receive a single table from any member concerning any issue that anybody wanted to solve with regarding the membership or any conflict. I think everybody was quite positive and very supportive so that made it much easier than what it was in numbers, absolutely when the visitors were there, the numbers, flew in quite well.
Our visitor orientation was quite positive. I was involved in the visitor orientation, post our meetings as well and then there were periodic checks on the progress of the applications,and we made the application process also, as comfortable for the visitors. And I think they saw the value in the chapter and they wanted to join. A lot of young members have joined in, which will tomorrow be the future of this chapter, and the value and the quality of the people that come in have also been great.
For me, I have come to your chapter after a long time and I could see the enthusiasm, not just with the members I know but also with the newer members that I was not familiar with. They came up and introduced themselves to me.
So, a lot of new members have also been keen and started taking roles in the chapter and from day one, or the third or fourth or fifth month of membership, they’re already quite engaged. The sooner you fit in, the longer you survive.
How do you think the mentorship program was taken in your chapter?
The mentorship was good and the passport program that started during our time was a very, very important tool. I think that gave them the road map, not only to them but also to the LT. So, in the past, the feedback that we had received was a lot of members during the last couple of months of joining felt lost and there was a lack of interaction with the key members are with the mentors. So, in that journey of their signing on the passports and having one to ones or training conducted. I think that gave a structure to the new members and that made them more engaged.
It is a brilliant program. I think that the passport it self is a very strong tool. The new members start building relationships, so it’s not an uncomfortable meeting; you’re getting trained and you’re also learning about their business so actually, you get a few steps ahead of the game, hats off to BNI for launching this passport program I think they should continue and they should recommend it to other chapters or other regions if they’re not doing.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned as a member of these last so many years?
The biggest lessons I have learned as a member are that leadership roles are very important.If you want to extract good value and a good understanding of BNI and if you get some time in your tenure, take up a leadership role. I think it’s very good as an experience, it’s very positive. It’s not that long. But it gives you quite a lot and it leaves you with your mark in the chapter in some and also makes you much closer to the members. You understand a lot of things which are being done and how they were managed and how important and disciplined the structure is, so you feel much more responsible towards the chapter once you have taken up some leadership roles.
Any key partnerships, or any relationships that you have made and continued, any thing that you want to name in particular that you are thankful to BNI?
The number of business or connections I have made through BNI has been good, the hotel connections, the catering companies with the Four Seasons or the client base has been gifted to me through BNI. I am very grateful for that. But besides that, also I think the biggest contribution has been for me to set up a lot of companies. You know, when an opportunity comes in, you know a couple of years back, it came through to buy a certain setup when somebody was struggling and he wanted to sell-off. I never knew what due diligence is, how to set up companies, what kind of transfers have to be done. So I think, it was a very quick decision for me to call up Rakesh and Ashraf. And I had both of them on my right and my left side and we saw that project through. It’s been five years, the company is doing amazing business and that company now today has four more subsidiaries. So I think,had it not been through that I could have very easily, skipped that opportunity because of lack of confidence or lack of people who had that experience around me. So I think if having your resources and your network allows you also make you take a lot of challenging decisions with a much more comfortable base. So, yes, today I feel that, through Ashraf, I have set up more than seven companies in the last seven years. Well, I think a big contributor to where the group today is through connections and referrals.
What have you achieved so far in terms of numbers and revenue in BNI?
I would not be able to put the right number to this because of the value of the intangibles that I have got. I have made a lot of connections, I have set up so many companies, the contracts I have done, so many AMCs I have set up, so many vendors I have taken on board,so many savings I have done, I cannot quantify or put a number to that. It’s much more than what is on paper right now. On paper itself, I close to half a million dirhams a month which in itself is big enough and good enough.