Rekha Vedagiri: Fuelling growth from startup to multinational

The 10 Most Influential HR Executives to Watch in 2023

During one of the most challenging periods in history for the acquisition, engagement and retention of talent, Abreco Group of Companies has bucked the trend. The organisation’s HR team, headed by Chief People Officer, Rekha Vedagiri, has overseen extreme growth, from ten staff to over 2700, all in less than a decade.

She has learned numerous powerful lessons about HR along the way.

“The turnover when I joined in 2013, as the 11th staff member, was a few million dollars,” Vedagiri says. “Now it is over US$300 million, and 2700 staff are based in three countries across 15 branches.”

A global conglomerate of over 25 companies, Abreco Group of Companies is involved in 14 sectors including freight, retail, distribution, fintech, foreign exchange, hospitality, banking, construction and agriculture. With offices in Dubai, India and Australia, its momentous growth – which shows no sign of slowing – has been fuelled by people and driven by passion.

Vedagiri is leading the company’s new projects in Australia, including their fintech acquisition Flywallet, and the opening of Australia’s first Islamic bank, the Islamic Bank of Australia.

“Abreco was a start-up company when I joined,” Vedagiri, a member of the Australian Human Resources Institute and the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists, says. “It was at that stage where it had little in the way of revenue, processes, policies or infrastructure.”

“And it ran like a start-up. Sometimes staff were paid late. We’d get to work at any time but work very hard and stay late when a job had to be done. I joined as lower-level staff, but my work was never based on my title.”

After analysing the business’s day-to-day activity, Vedagiri began instilling order amongst the chaos. She created policies and procedures that brought greater certainty to the people management process.

Having graduated from Anna University in India with a Master of Business Administration just a few years earlier, Vedagiri had the knowledge and confidence to build from the ground up an HR environment that would ensure good people would be attracted to a great, growing organisation and once employed, would have an excellent working experience.

All she required was the support of the business’s leadership.

“They absolutely believed in me from the start,” Vedagiri, who is currently completing a PhD on the topic of the impact of employer branding on employee loyalty, says. “My biggest support throughout the years has been our CEO Mohammed Shaji Madathil. He has been a pillar of support and actually, much of the work I’ve done around developing and maintaining the organisation’s culture has been based on his character traits.”

What are those traits? Shaji, as the staff refer to him, is friendly to all staff whilst remaining professional. He is approachable and always consistent and respectful in his behaviour. He constantly seeks ideas for the organisation’s development, and for innovative processes and products, from staff at all levels. Opportunity across the organisation is seen to be equitable and fair.

“We have always wanted the company to develop into that kind of character,” Vedagiri says. “We want it to grow as a disciplined, well managed, people-oriented business that is always listening to new ideas, keeping its finger on the pulse and flexible to new situations.”

“We’re very particular about culture of the company. It must be a friendly atmosphere that is not hierarchy based or dictatorship based. The culture is all about having a family feel inside the company. Everyone helps each other and is very supportive in all circumstances. I think we have succeeded in achieving this, and that culture has very much fuelled our growth.”

It’s a long way to the top

Just as interesting as the Abreco Group of Companies growth story is Vedagiri’s personal transformation, having worked her way out of a societal expectation that many in India consider overwhelmingly repressive.

Her life before Abreco, she says, was “very basic”. She was born into a lower middle-class family and had three sisters. As they did not have a brother, the young ladies were regularly teased, told they were a burden on society. Fortunately, their parents didn’t share this point of view. They were determined to ensure their daughters benefited from an excellent education.

“We didn’t have enough money to study in a private school,” Vedagiri says. “We instead studied in a government school and that was all we needed. We were inspired, from our life experience, to prove that girls are not a burden. We knew we had to make the most of the opportunities that education would open up.”

Vedagiri was successful in her studies, but also excelled in numerous extracurricular activities such as athletics, acting, dancing, playing instruments, writing, public speaking, and participating in science events and the National Service Scheme, an Indian government community service program.

Having graduated as one of the school’s brightest students, she went on to study an MBA. The ability to shape and grow a business was the clearest path out of the restrictive binds of the class system that had characterised her life so far.

It was this life experience that also led her to pursuing a specialisation in HR. In this field, she could ensure equal opportunity and fair treatment of all who worked within the organisation.

Her career began in recruitment, first with a small consultancy and then with a UAE-based company, as a Junior HR executive. After 12 months, she was approached about a role with Abreco.

A growth success story

What was it that gave a relatively young HR professional the confidence to take on the challenge of managing the massive people challenge involved in growing a business from start-up to multinational conglomerate?

It was all about belief, Vedagiri says. In some ways it had to do with self-belief, but actually a lot of her motivation to succeed and her faith in her own abilities came from the belief of others.

“Once I realised the business trusted me to go ahead and build the HR function the way I thought it should be built, I was completely inspired to do so,” she says.

“As Shaji observed the growth in my management skills, he gave me a free hand to make changes according to the organisation’s needs. His faith gave me more confidence and inspired me to feel more responsible for the success of the business. I felt completely engaged, and now much of my work is aimed at making other people feel the same way.”

Much of the HR role and function, Vedagiri says, cannot be learnt from books. It comes from experience, from adjusting your way of thinking in fast-changing environments, from developing innovative plans and from keeping staff and strategy equally in mind to ensure policies benefit both employer and employee.

At Abreco Group of Companies, dealing with every part of the business as it quickly grew from a small set of professionals into a global enterprise, Vedagiri was in the perfect environment to experience everything she would ever need to know.

“The entire experience has made me realise HR is extremely complex,” she says. “That’s good, because humans are also extremely complex. But in HR, whatever we initiate ends up changing the entire system. So, we need to be very cautious.”

As the quality of the work carried out by the organisation improves, so must its policies and procedures, Vedagiri says.

“When our business volume began to increase as a result of good sales strategies, strong policies were required to ensure there were excellent standards supporting our growth. That meant, as we reached corporate status, we had good internal infrastructure and frameworks, including benefits and compensation,” she says.

“Those strong frameworks are part of our success in attracting great talent. The company is very attractive today and I am very proud of the work done by my team to bring it to the current level. Joining the business at its current stage is a simple and smooth experience. But joining at the early stages, almost ten years ago, was a fantastic challenge.”

The other ingredient to success, Vedagiri says, realising a long-term strategic plan is not so much about achieving a particular target or goal, but instead about sustaining a level of constant improvement. That’s what keeps a business competitive, she says. As soon as an organisation relaxes, having achieved a specific goal, the danger is that it stops improving.

“You will reach the goal if you put in consistent effort and are focused on the target. But that is not an indication to relax,” she says. “It is a milestone to motivate you to be more active than before, to keep the success factor going.”

“The market is very competitive, and you need to keep increasing your calibre to sustain your growth. Success is not just about achieving the target, but about sustaining your position in a competitive world.”

Personal improvement is just as important

Just as an organisation must constantly improve, so should its people, Vedagiri says.

“Learning never stops,” she says. “You have to constantly upgrade yourself, and an organisation has to constantly upgrade its people, through experience, mentoring and formal education.”

“If management doesn’t pay attention to me in terms of providing development and educational opportunities, I will feel I am being ignored. I will feel I’m no longer important to the organisation. That’s not good for me and it’s not good for the business.”

It’s most important for individuals to take responsibility for their learning, she says. The organisation should help develop its individuals, but it’s their responsibility to make sure they’re being developed in the areas they desire.

“You should work for your own satisfaction, to always make sure you’re happy with the direction in which your career is heading, rather than for validation from your employer,” Vedagiri says.

“If you’re satisfied with what you’re doing, you’re on the right track. And if you’re doing your job well, the recognition will come, whether you want it or not. If you shine in your work, the organisation and much of your industry will sit up and take notice.”

Success in HR is everyone’s business

Vedagiri only really began to feel like a leader once she started working at Abreco, and that’s one of the benefits of entering a business at the early stage.

“At Abreco, I got the recognition to showcase my skills to build the company,” she says. “Naturally, it is more difficult to showcase your skills in a large company. So, I could not prove much with my previous employer.”

Confident that she could do innovative work at Abreco, she started by analysing other companies, as she had learnt to do during her MBA. The best way to achieve success, of course, is to utilise ingredients of success that already exist elsewhere.

As the organisation grew, so did her knowledge and skills. At each step, she created changes to the organisation’s people frameworks, resulting in timely changes.

“I knew I had the support of the CEO,” she says. “I also had a responsibility to myself, to prove I was not the burden on society I had once been accused of being. I began to think like a leader, to think of the company as mine to take care of, and what would I not do for my own company?”

A powerful realisation during this process was that in every organisation, the HR platform should be completely unique. It should be custom built for the business, to match its plans, hopes, vision and culture.

“The policies and procedures, work style, culture, the way of treating staff and handling problems, are all different from company to company,” Vedagiri says. “And so, buying off-the-shelf HR software, for example, is not advisable. Instead, it should be customised according to the policy and practice of the specific company, to ensure it can be constantly customised and moulded to the organisation’s changes.”

She also realised that employees generally don’t place much importance on using the organisation’s HR portal during their everyday work. Hence, an HR technological package should be user-friendly and self-explanatory for their needs.

Of course, technology has played a massive role in shaping the current and future shape of the HR function. That influence has arrived in three forms:

  • Digitisation – Collecting as data what was previously written on paper
  • Digitalisation – moving existing manual operations and processes into digital technologies
  • Digital transformation – business transformation involving the use of a full HR portal

“I have noticed many companies have already attained the first two changes,” she says. “But if you ask me whether they are using the HR package for all work, my firm answer is no. They still work in Excel, do manual work and make partial use of software. What is the point of investing so much money to develop an HR package?”

HR departments must be more flexible in using technology to upgrade, she says, as it will reduce manpower requirements. She and her team of 10 HR professionals are currently able to manage the needs of the global Abreco workforce of over 2700 because of such technology. They no longer carry out repetitive, low-value tasks and instead focus on high-value projects.

If an HR department has an increased workload and requests more staff, it’s a sign that they are not utilising technology effectively.

However, technology alone will not do all of the work of the HR industry, she says. A digital system cannot understand people’s problems. While technology can reduce workload, it cannot do what is perhaps the ultimate people-focussed job in an organisation.

“Caring about health and mental wellbeing are my major goals every day,” Vedagiri says. “Technology frees me up to do this.”

“It gives me the time and bandwidth to respect everyone as individuals, to put myself in their shoes to see the situation through their eyes, with the belief that I can help them find a solution. As an HR leader, I feel that is our profession’s greatest responsibility.”

What’s in the future?

Vedagiri’s vision is for the Abreco group to become a trusted company worldwide, with a branch in every country.

“People should know Abreco by name,” she says. “We are not in a hurry, but we will ensure that we’re growing consistently. Hopefully, my skill and calibre as an HR professional will continue to grow and support the company at each new level.”

What’s her advice for aspiring HR professionals?

Rather than considering themselves a strong, bold or career-focussed HR professional, they should always be a people person first.

“An HR professional must then learn to balance being a management person with being a people person,” she says. “It requires broader wisdom to know when to prioritise management and when to prioritise staff.”

“That is the maturity and experience we bring to our profession. Always consider both sides. Earning the trust and respect of people and management is the single most important ingredient in the recipe for success.”