Not one to run from challenges

Mr Sivanandan, who is now with fintech start-up LucaNet, credits his go-getter spirit to his first job with confectionery giant Mars. There, if you wanted something to happen, you made it happen, he said.
Mr Sivanandan, who is now with fintech start-up LucaNet, credits his go-getter spirit to his first job with confectionery giant Mars. There, if you wanted something to happen, you made it happen, he said.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Mr Sanjay Sivanandan loved to eat Snickers chocolate bars but scarcely believed he had any chance at all to score a prized job with their maker, the confectionery giant Mars.

As an undergraduate, he was sitting in a lecture theatre full of his peers, all vying for that same spot.

"I was studying business administration at the National University of Singapore. I didn't even get the invite. My friends told me they were giving free candy and I love Snickers and peanut M&M's. I went there and it was a room of 5,000 people.

"Suddenly Mars showed me two things that made me wake up - they talked about multifunctional and multicultural experiences. They said, in Mars, they wanted their people to be as global as their customers," he added.

"I was excited. Someone asked how many people would be selected. When they said 'one, or maybe, two', everyone rolled their eyes," said Mr Sivanandan, 50, now regional managing director of German financial technology start-up LucaNet's Asia-Pacific office except China.


My friends asked, what if I failed? But, I said, what if I succeed and, even if I didn't, I would get experience that I would have never gotten in any other way.

MR SANJAY SIVANANDAN, on the daunting trainee programme at the Mars company.

Mr Sivanandan joined the software firm - which offers financial corporate solutions that are aimed at helping rapidly growing smaller firms with IT automation and digital transformation, among other things - in October last year, after an illustrious career in multinational corporations.

Undeterred, the young Mr Sivanandan sent his resume to Mars, being someone who "sees the glass half-full".

As the selection process went on for months, his peers would get rejection letters one after another while he was still waiting.

"It was the longest and most thorough selection process I've ever been through, and I became the only one who was still in the running.

"The final 16 went through a three- to four-day process. During a dinner, they asked each of us to talk about ourselves for five to seven minutes.

"The 15 other people who went before me were graduates and postgraduates and much older. I was the youngest. I almost wanted to sneak out with my pride intact. But, I never run away from a challenge."

The then undergraduate spoke about his experiences in the police force during his national service days, including working during the Hotel New World building collapse disaster in 1986 as he managed four teams of police officers.

The Mars executives must have been impressed, as he was selected and taken to England for a week in November 1989, flying on a British Airways business-class ticket before his final exams in March.

"I was stunned. They wanted me to check the firm out before I signed the contract. I was still a student. I went there, the chauffeur picked me up with my surname spelt wrongly. They took me to the Midlands, and an old-style cottage hotel.

"I was sitting there eating my breakfast with a long bath next to my bed, pinching myself. I felt like James Bond."

Mr Sivanandan joined Mars in June 1990 as a fast-track senior management trainee, and soon learnt that only a few out of the eight people - the rest came from top institutions such as Eton and Oxford - would be selected to stay in the company after two years.

He said: "My friends asked, what if I failed? But, I said, what if I succeed and, even if I didn't, I would get experience that I would have never gotten in any other way."

So, Mr Sivanandan went the process with everyone else, going through reviews every six months on projects they each worked on.

"They grilled you like crazy because they look at what you're made of, and they'll put you in a function in your next attachment for whatever you were weak in. Everybody dreaded the reviews and got crushed.They weren't used to getting knocked down. Mars was tough because the owners were."

Mr Sivanandan, who said he is the sort who bounces back quickly, did so well at these reviews that, after one year, Mars took him out of the programme and promoted him.

"I moved up fast, maybe too fast, in Mars. But, what I liked was the experience. It was exactly how Mars described it - all these functional experiences and I was put in Britain and travelled a lot."

Over the years, he had roles such as European buying manager and marketing manager in Britain, and was sent back to South-east Asia as regional marketing head, after coincidentally meeting owner John Mars in the bathroom one day, talking about the region's prospects.

It was in Asean that Mr Sivanandan became the right-hand man of Mr Michael Mars, Mr John Mars' son.

"They wanted to create a headquarters in Thailand and we built a factory to support aggressive, profitable business growth. His father John and Forrest Mars (Michael's uncle) would visit us all the time. They were billionaires, (but) their shirts were torn, they were tight with their money, and they were very flat in the company's hierarchy. They had a worldview I had never seen anywhere else.

"Mars was a big business but there was an entrepreneurial flair. They hate layers and like flat structures. Mars' rooms were open plan, as they believed it removed barriers to communication.

"And there, if you want something to happen, make it happen. Take responsibility for it and the outcome. I learnt the go-getter spirit from Mars, 100 per cent. They rewarded you well when you had success, and when things went wrong, they always went after the senior people. Nobody had perks over others and I liked it."

At Goodyear, which he was persuaded to join in 2002 when the firm was in dire straits, he recalled having to pull off the "biggest relaunch in Goodyear's 140-year history" in 2004 to save its loss-making North American business.

"We also had to create a new product, and it normally takes three to four years, but we had six months. Besides that turnaround, my other big lesson here was about people."

He recalls meeting "the worst research and development director I'd ever seen, an American called Wayne Coeburn" who was very negative.

"But, he turned out to be the most innovative person. He said, instead of making tyres manually, let's use computers to model them.

"We're now the best of friends. I said he was so brilliant, and asked why was he so negative before? He said that he'd been working there for 20 years and was put in the dark for so long and that I gave him hope that things could change."

Mr Sivanandan, who has two daughters with his British wife, learnt several lessons, about restructuring, how to manage things and how to identify who could shine.

"As Mars said, it's not about good ideas in our head, but how many you make happen. When failure is not an option, you'd be amazed at what you can do."

Over the years, he has also learnt the importance of starting a company right. "Keep the culture, and anything you do, good. When it goes down, the momentum is too great to even stop it from rolling."

Of his approach to life and his career, the go-getter who always seeks experiences said: "There's an old Chinese saying that if you want to see the beauty of the mountain you're on, you've to climb another mountain and look back.

"Sometimes in life, you have to climb different mountains to appreciate the scenery of the one you were on."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 13, 2017, with the headline 'Not one to run from challenges'. Print Edition | Subscribe