Sales in the military aviation sector is not just challenging in terms of deliverables and timelines, but also an opportunity to contribute to national security !

Varun Vijay Singh, our next pathbreaker, Aerospace and Defense global lead at Accenture Global, works with clients in the aviation sector, to address various challenges in the industry.

Varun talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his vast experience in Hi-Tech sales at SAAB AB, a Swedish Defense company, where he was involved in selling missiles, fighter jets and other military/defense technologies !

For students, though there is a lot of competition in this field, there are a lot of OEMs and a lot of Indian companies coming into this sector. So, opportunities will increase !

Varun, tell us about your background?

I grew up in Delhi. My father is retired as an IAS officer. He retired as a Secretary in the Government of Water Resources. He also had a background in chemistry, and I always looked up to him in terms of what I wanted to do when I grew up. I was always fascinated with the stars and how things work, especially in cars. I grew up in Delhi and went to school there. I played basketball & tennis for my school, Delhi. I did physics, chemistry, maths, and economics at school.

After that, I did my engineering, and though it was interesting, but honestly, school didn’t add much in terms of my professional knowledge as much as social contacts did. At school, we took exams under pressure because that is what life is and how you figure it all out. But, I didn’t want to study in India, I wanted to get an education abroad to increase my exposure

What did you study?

I did my graduation at Purdue University in Indiana where I did my industrial engineering, which had a little bit of everything – chemical engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering. So it was a good way to understand what the whole engineering field was about. My post graduation was a part-time Executive MBA at a university in Spain while I was working because I didn’t think it made sense to step out of a job to do an MBA. While I was in a job, and with everything going well, I was going to, again, expand my network and have that degree, if ever needed to move up in the corporate world.

What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

I was always interested in how things work, like, how can an aircraft fly so high. I wanted to understand things. My father had a big influence on me. He was a chemical engineer and he always asked me a lot of questions. I always wanted to know about things and how they work. I used to open up all the VCRs and Clocks in the house just to see how they worked. And, my career in aerospace and defense has a lot to do with luck. We all agree that we can do a lot of things, but being there in the right place at the right time really helps. I mean, it is what it is. But of course you have to be on the right path. And that’s where people discover you and you have to push yourself a lot.

Tell us about your career path

I’ve always wanted to do something related to cars or planes or machines in general. However, it was not easy to get into such a career. So my plan was always to make it to a level where I can influence where I work, who I work with, and how I work. So I realized that the least I could do is get into a technical field so I’m always on the right path and then take it from there. So I started building my technical background in physics, chemistry and maths from my school and engineering days.

I went to Purdue University in Indiana in the United States, where I did my industrial engineering. I spent four years there. I didn’t stay in the US because I wanted to come back home. After engineering, I got a job in Maruti Suzuki in India, in their supply chain department.

I didn’t really like that kind of work which was happening, and so I moved into consulting. 

I explored different jobs and tried to learn the process. I made contacts to understand how the corporate world works. So I did a lot of diverse things. I did an internship with JWT, which is an advertising company.

I was in HR consulting and Business Development at Hewitt Associates. At the same time, I used to keep on reaching out to people in their sector and asking, “how do I get in? Can you please help me? I would love to talk to you.” And things happened over the years, it was never overnight. I think it took me five to six years when somebody finally responded saying, “Why don’t you come and meet us? We want to see how passionate you are about this and how you can help us and what other soft skills you have that you could help at least going forward”. So yeah, that was my approach.

I worked with Hewitt where I was transitioning work from US to India, and managing a team where we worked on a project called Salary Increase Survey. I founded my own company, “Tresor”. It was an online furnishing business, like Pepperfry, but way ahead of its time, which bombed. So, I was thinking of doing my MBA. When I was studying for my GMAT, I reached out to many defense/ car companies requesting a meeting. Finally, I got lucky with Saab. 

After working in consulting, I got a break in SAAB AB, a Swedish Defense company. At SAAB, I was selling missiles, fighter jets, etc. I did everything there, and grew from a nobody to a director. So yeah, doing what I loved is what made me good at my job.

How did you get your first break?

I got my first major break in SAAB AB, a Swedish Defense company. I used to email them almost every month saying I know they were setting up a presence in India and they might need some help. I also mentioned that I had been following the company for a very long time. I requested them, “Please give me a chance. I would love to talk to you about aerospace”. I was very passionate about aerospace and defense, and I had ideas on how to push “make in India” and how to build in India and how I see the defense forces. So yeah, it’s a lot about passion and making it happen. Well, it’s also about knowing people. So over the years, I just collected contacts and then did just about everything I could by getting help from these contacts and from one contact, I got another contact. Without context it is very difficult to get into these roles. So yeah, luck, as well as figuring out how to be where you want to be helped a lot. The role wasn’t a typical sales role. You can advertise or cold call people to sell. There is a process with long gestation periods to sell. Projects take 5-10 years to go through, so its all about patience. Being a small company with a few people, you are expected to do everything. From marketing, PR, Internal and external sales, BD, etc. In such a industry you are first selling within your company to make sure they will invest in the country and then you’re trying to convince the customer that your product is the best, and if they don’t have this technology, then its about convincing them why they need such technology. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Well, my challenges were many fold. One was I wanted to go abroad to study. How do I afford that? So I had to figure out ways to be able to pay my way through college, which meant taking loans, working in college, doing different jobs there to be able to pay my tuition fee. So yeah, it was hard work and perseverance. That’s the only way if you need to get somewhere. 

Secondly, It was difficult getting into the defense industry because it’s a very small niche market. So as I mentioned earlier, it is all about determination and knowing that you want to do this. Unlike before, we now have a platform like LinkedIn where you can reach out to people in a specific profession, ask them for help, ask them for connections. Only a few will reply, but that’s how it is and you need to keep on doing it. Ask for contacts, ask for help, ask for advice, ask for ways to get into the industry. Ask for internships and ask for research opportunities. There’s a lot of ways to do it. But yeah, that was my biggest challenge in getting into the industry. Yeah, there are so many challenges.

Can you tell us about your current role?

At the moment, I’m working with Accenture Global. I am the Aerospace and Defense global lead. I work on addressing a lot of problems in this sector. A lot of these companies across the globe are going through a lot of transformation. They have a lot of things they want to accomplish. Some of these companies, let’s take any aerospace defense company, say Boeing, wants to enter a market. They don’t know what the market is, they don’t know what the laws and regulations are, they don’t know who they should be talking to, who the tier one partners are, or who they can partner with.

They do not know If there are local state rules, which they should be following. There are many things these aerospace and defense companies need to be aware of. So I advise them on each and every one of these topics, because that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 17 years, which is being involved in this industry.

And I got here by working at an aerospace and defense company by understanding and helping that company get to where it has to be.

What are the skills needed for your role? How did you acquire them?

A technical background is always helpful, because even though it is a sales,PR, marketing role, a technical background is always helpful in such industries, especially in such a niche area.

My skills have been accrued from college as well as previous experiences. I think the most important skill set, apart from the hard skills, is the soft skills of communication, that is, talking to people as well as socialising and networking, which is very important. One should be able to talk to a government official or talk to the leaders in the industry about what the company is doing, what you’re selling, why you are selling it, how you should sell it, why they should be buying the product. You should be able to convince a colonel in the army that they should be using your missile. This is not easy, but that is something you build over time.

What do you love about your work?

What I do is continuously changing and evolving. It’s so interesting to see the kinds of technologies which are coming out in the defense field. If you just go and research the new technologies that are evolving in this industry, you will be amazed. So in terms of technology, we are (defense) in the forefront, because the military adopts new technology before it goes commercial. So all these companies like Apple, Google, Samsung’s, whatever hardware they come out with, it is always first used by the military before it’s commercialised. So it’s just amazing to see those things. 

How does your work benefit society?

The defense sector benefits society greatly. For example, flying from New Delhi to Mumbai would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the technological advances of the industry and the engineers working on these machines. So, this industry not only carries passengers safely and securely, but also connects people and advances our society in a big way. 

There are several smaller countries which are threatened by bigger countries or through acts of terrorism. So, the defense  companies provide a way for such countries to protect themselves and keep society safe.

Can you tell us about your most memorable work? 

Well, when I was with Saab, we were trying to sell a surface to Air missiles in India. So when we were selling them in India, we used to have trials and these trials used to happen everywhere, from Leh (bone chilling temperatures), desert locations in Rajasthan in 60 degrees scorching heat, to ships where we fired the missiles.

I think my most memorable experience, which I will never forget, is sitting in the desert and sand dunes at 60 degrees, sweating and there’s really nothing you can do to protect yourself from that heat. We (SAAB) were there with the Russians and the French, with the Swedes. And everybody is looking up where drones are being launched and our missiles are fired against them, just to show the army that how good or bad we could be, and to basically conduct a trial. I cannot forget that moment of just sitting there and being in the moment and showing the army that these are the equipment they should be using. There were times when one of the competitor’s missiles went all over the place, and we were running for cover because we did not understand where it was going to detonate. It is it was very memorable. 

And it’s not just one moment, there have been so many moments like these.

It’s either sitting at minus 20 degrees above the Arctic Circle, where we call the Indian Army to test some equipment, as well as watching Northern Lights while the missiles are flying in the sky. So yeah, some memorable moments there.

Your advice to students?

My advice for getting into such an industry is that it’s tough. It is not easy. A lot of people want to get into it, but there is a lot of competition. The good thing is, there are a lot of OEMs entering India and a lot of Indian companies coming into this sector. So, opportunities will increase, but of course, the competition will as well.

If you really are interested, there are many ways to develop your knowledge. Read a lot, see what is lacking in the industry, develop an interest. There is nothing to stop you if you have the interest and the inclination and the drive to be in it. As I said before, this is a lot about networking. This does not mean applying on LinkedIn or a job portal for such roles, because they’re very few in number. So it’s better to connect with people and connect with their contacts and understand how you could help, how you could start or how you could add value. It is a difficult industry to get into. But once you’re in, I think if you are really passionate, you’ll enjoy it.

Future Plans?

My future plans are to be within this industry. I will definitely be moving across different companies to gain more knowledge in order to understand what is happening out there to be the best in my field.

You never know how life is and how the future is and where things take you.But at the moment, I’m very happy with the industry I am in and hope to make a bigger dent going forward.