Thursday, April 16, 2009

Leading from the front

After a 52-year career, Xavier Sebastian recently retired as the MD of the Indo-American hospital at Vaikom. Earlier, he was MD of Kerala Chemicals and Proteins Limited and executive director of Lisie Hospital

By Shevlin Sebastian

A 50-year old man, Varghese Chacko (name changed), met with an accident in Aluva and was rushed to the Indo-American Hospital at Vaikom. While he was being treated, Chacko suffered from a massive heart attack and died.

Within hours, his relatives and the local people came to the hospital and staged a protest. “They were about to assault the doctor when I stepped forward,” says Xavier Sebastian, 79, who was the managing director.

The protestors demanded compensation. Sebastian said that if the post-mortem proved that the patient did not die of a heart attack, the hospital would pay damages. “Till then I cannot release the body,” he said.

Eventually, the relatives decided to avoid the post mortem and wrote a ‘no claim’ letter. “This was one of the many emergencies I had to face during my seven-year stint,” says Sebastian, with a smile.

Last month, Sebastian retired after a 52-year-long distinguished career in the public, private, joint and healthcare sectors. Earlier, he was the executive director of Lisie Hospital, the managing director of the Kerala Chemicals and Proteins Limited, and the general manager (marketing) of the Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL).

It has been a long journey for him. In 1951, Sebastian went to Kolkata in search of a job. ”Kolkata was a beautiful city in those days,” he says. “Seeing Howrah station, with its numerous platforms for the first time was an extraordinary experience. At that time, Ernakulam had only one platform.”

As he was searching for a job, he had a stroke of luck. He met a Malayali, Ramachandran, from Kollam, who knew Sebastian’s father, the political leader, P.J. Sebastian. Ramachandran recommended Sebastian’s name to his boss, Brij Mohan Lal, an agent for Binny and Co. “I started as an assistant,” he says. And Sebastian was much impressed by Lal.

“He looked like an European, in his suit and tie,” he says. “He was very punctual. You could correct your watch when he came in. I inculcated that from Mr. Lal.”

Sebastian worked there for a few years and moved on to other jobs. Then, in 1962, Sebastian befriended the late K.J. Cleetus, a Malayali, who was the first commercial director of SAIL. “Cleetus hired me as a sales officer,” says Sebastian. After that, his career took off.

He went to Chennai in 1963 and started the first stockyard of the company. For the next few years, Sebastian opened several stockyards all over the country. In 1968, Sebastian returned to Kolkata and was made in charge of all the branches nationwide. Today, more than 8 million tons of steel are sold through these outlets.

Later, as head of the steel import division Sebastian went to the US and numerous countries in Asia and Europe. He was also a member of the Indian trade delegation, under Commerce Secretary P.C. Alexander, that went to Moscow in 1975.

Through regular promotions, Sebastian reached the post of General Manager (Marketing) in 1978. During this time, the chairman of SAIL, K.T. Chandy had resigned to join the Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation (KSIDC).

At the farewell party given to Chandy he said, “Sebastian, would you be interested in coming to Kerala?’” (The KSIDC was setting up the first Indo-Japanese joint venture: Kerala Chemicals and Proteins Limited [KCPL]). Sebastian replied, “I would be happy to do so.”

Following approval from Japanese shareholders, Sebastian was appointed as the managing director. However, he was apprehensive because at that time labour militancy was at its peak in Kerala.

His fears proved correct. “One day the Japanese director and I were held in a room by workers till 3 a.m.,” says Sebastian. “Finally, the police rescued us. I was in two minds on whether to stay or go back.”

But family considerations played a role. “My wife, Thankamma, felt that our three daughters, Alphy, Anne and Anju, should be educated in Kerala,” he says.

So Sebastian stayed on and won over the union. Eventually, he worked for 14 years in KCPL, a record for a public sector company.

Following a stint as managing director in Sijmak Oils Limited, he became the executive director of Lisie Hospital. He was also on the boards of Travancore-Cochin Chemicals and Travancore Rayons, among many others, as a government nominee.

Says Indo-American hospital founder Kumaran Bahuleyan: “Sebastian is one of the most honest persons I have ever met. What impressed me was his ability to face political, social and financial problems with courage and determination. At the same time he was a friend of the employees and safeguarded their interests.” Adds Medical Director Ajay Kumar Kalipurayath: “Sebastian is a gentleman and a good team leader.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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