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My way, the highway

Rrishi Raote  |  New Delhi 

Viresh Oberoi, MD and CEO of mJunction, likes to take the open road.

Active calm: it sounds like a state, but Viresh Oberoi, who is no monk, has it in quantity. Such relaxed wakefulness is typically hard-earned, the product of experience. Oberoi is MD and CEO of mJunction, an online commodities exchange company, and has over 30 years experience in frontline sales and in management and strategy. At our meeting there is none of the usual status friction. One doesn’t get a crick in the neck from looking up at him.

As a corporate chieftain he has less time off than he did at the start of his career, but Oberoi still indulges in his favourite habit:

“Our first trip was in 1981,” he says. He and his wife spent two months backpacking in Europe. The couple were on a tight budget. Preparations started three years in advance, when they began to save up cash and office leave. Also: “My wife selected a job which would give us free or discounted tickets at the end of every year — she joined Mercury Travels.”

PLATFORM TICKET TO VENICE
“Backpacking” is meant literally. In Venice, says Oberoi, “We never stayed in any hotel. The entire railway station shuts down by 9 o’clock in the evening, so what people do is they line up their sleeping bags and police go around to see that it’s secure and safe. You’ve got washrooms inside, and lockers. We paid nothing for it, and we got the canal in front and the gondolas and all the romantic part of Venice.”

They tried the same trick at Münich’s station, only to be shooed out. “We ended up spending the night on a park bench, and we had some hobos there who were quite drunk, so it was an eventful night. We had the cops coming and chasing away the hobos and finding us and taking us to the police station...”

SPEAKING HINDI TO THE FRENCH
They also stayed with hospitable locals. Entering France near Lille one evening, they couldn’t hitch a ride onward, so they walked into a local bar. “As far as the French are concerned,” Oberoi says, “if you start talking to them in English they’re not going to be happy. So we learnt the trick of starting to speak to them in Hindi. Then they would find a language that maybe you would know, and which would happen to be English, and you would speak to them in broken English, making sure that theirs was better than yours — and you would get your work done.”

At the bar, this tactic found them a tipsy old lady who spoke no English but offered them her garage. So they followed her home, where she and her husband invited them into the house. “We were scared,” says Oberoi with a chuckle, wondering “What sort of plans do they have for us? Really one should have been worried for them — an old couple getting these youngsters into their home!” But by gestures the hosts indicated that the Oberois were like their own children. They stayed, and were sent off in the morning by a now-sober and sheepish old lady.

COMFORT, AT $2-3 A NIGHT

“The highlight,” says Oberoi, “when we thought we were doing very well, was to stay in a Youth Hostel. Those were the days we wanted to splurge, and spend maybe $2-3 a night.” There was a fellowship of travellers, he says. In a hostel in Istanbul they met an Australian-English couple who “were just completing Turkey — they had this Lonely Planet guide and they ripped that portion out and gave it to us”. Travel advice from that couple turned the Oberois’ plans upside down — to their benefit.

Weren’t Oberoi’s parents and parents-in-law worried about their children wandering a different continent with little money and few contacts? No, he explains, his own parents’ fears had been cauterised by an early travel experience.

DOWN AND OUT IN ROME
“The first time I went abroad I was 16,” he recounts. “My parents were based in Libya — my mother was a doctor posted there. I'd just passed my Class 11 and I was going to meet them. In those days Indians got visas on arrival in Libya. I took Alitalia, Delhi-Rome-Tripoli. When I got to Rome, they said sorry, you don’t have a visa, we're not going to let you through.

“This was a weekend and the Indian embassy in Rome was closed. I had $8 in my pocket. I checked into a hotel, Hotel Atlas. I did some sightseeing, walking everywhere. It was very beautiful, but this was the height of winter and I had just one set of clothes, I was sleeping in it, walking in it. I had no toiletries, a little bit of food which I was ordering from the hotel...

“Monday I went to the Indian embassy and they said we can give you money but we will send you back to India. Then a security guard lent me money, with which I got my photo taken for the [Libyan] visa. It took two [more] days. I had no money so I walked out of the hotel without paying.

“I got onto the flight four days late. Later we sent back the money to the hotel and the security guard. After that particular incident my parents were quite cool about me travelling. I guess I learnt some confidence from this story.”

ANNUAL GIFT
After Europe and the USA, Turkey and Greece were the next trip. Travel became the Oberois’ annual gift to themselves. In the years since, they have also done Morocco, Egypt and Israel; South Africa and Kenya; South-east Asia, including Myanmar (“a fantastic place”); and, recently, Peru.

Times changed, their travel became more genteel, and Oberoi’s first wife died. Oberoi still travels with his second wife. “I would, yes, go back and see some more wildlife,” he says now, “in Botswana, Namibia... The spirit of adventure continues.” He describes, however, a luxury safari holiday in South Africa’s private Kruger National Park, an experience which culminated with Champagne served on the savannah.

“LITTLE SHARKS”
The company Oberoi has headed for eight years since its birth, mJunction, is jointly owned by Tata Steel and SAIL. It is the leading site worldwide (by transaction value) for business-to-business deals in commodities, especially metals and coal. Part of its success in a space where so many other startups failed is, perhaps, to be found in the life experience its chief gained as a grassroots-level traveller.

“Travel has made me far more open to different ideas,” he says — an innocuous statement, but one he supports with examples. He also says, “Travel has encouraged me to look for different perspectives to the same issue,” surely a boon in a manager. In the light of recent travels, he adds, “In my speeches, for examples and analogies I draw a lot from nature.” Thus, for example, he reconciles his employees to the benefits of bringing in “little sharks” to energise their work lives. And his demeanour of active calm, attained over a lifetime of semi-impromptu travel, must help him convince new clients to work with his young company.

First Published: Sun, January 17 2010. 00:16 IST
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