What makes a 150-year corporate farming company a Great Place to Work – a rich cultural heritage, employee-friendly policies, trust and camaraderie at work or the ability to weather hardship through sheer resilience?
At Harrisons Malayalam Limited (HML), it is all of these, and more. It isn’t surprising then that the company was ranked as the fourth best place to work in India, by the Great Place to Work® survey for 2020.
This recognition didn’t come easy, given the nature of HML’s operations and challenges. Running a plantation business can be tricky in many aspects; a fact that most plantation owners will allude to. Frequent epidemic outbreaks, fluctuating prices, labour issues, and a culture far removed from the trappings of a corporate environment make the world of plantations quite unlike the modern workplaces we know of. Yet, everyone at HML wears this complexity as a badge of honour. After all, nothing beats the satisfaction they get from putting a smile on millions of faces every morning with a freshly brewed pot of tea that came from one of HML’s sprawling estates.
Spread across a lush 13,400 ha area in the southern state of Kerala, HML is RPG’s crown jewel, and with good reason. This Great Place to Work® company ranks as south India’s second-largest tea producer and its largest rubber and pineapple producer. It is also the second-largest employer in the state, after the Government of Kerala.
HML’s enduring legacy continues to be a matter of pride not just for its owners but for all employees, and has bolstered the spirit of fortitude within the company to keep it going through both good and difficult times.
Owing to its location in one of the most difficult geographies in the country, HML has braved several hardships such as landslides, floods, labour issues and now, the pandemic. No wonder, resilience is deeply ingrained in the culture of the organisation. Cherian M George, Chief Executive and Whole Time Director at HML has an interesting explanation for this. He believes that physical resilience or an affinity for the outdoors is an important criterion to work in the plantations business, and this automatically translates to high business resilience and adaptability.
The company has also been ranked among India’s 100 Best Workplaces for Women 2020 by GPTW. Women make up over 50% of HML’s large and vibrant workforce, which consists of several families employed together across its plants, working as skilled or unskilled labour at its facilities.
"We are excited about both these new ventures, and have the flexibility to move into and grow it further. Together, we have built a vibrant, transparent, and an agile organisation at HML, and the future is here."
CHERIAN M GEORGE, Chief Executive and Whole Time Director, HML
Cherian believes that the key to creating a great workplace lies not in a prescriptive set of employee benefits, programmes, or practices, but through investments in building high-quality relationships that are characterised by trust, pride, and camaraderie.
HML is testament to the fact that transparency and open communication, especially in times of crisis, further bolsters relationships, and reinforces accountability and collaboration. Since it began its GPTW journey, the company has seen a marked decline in employee attrition, which vindicates its commitment to ethical and fair management practices.
In fact, it is the amalgamation of all these work practices that lends HML a distinct edge, when it comes to being a workplace of choice.
Over the past six years, the company has strengthened its engagement across the organisation, which includes maintaining a healthy and regular two-way communication with the union. Every month, an activity or event is conducted at all locations to celebrate a special occasion or a festival such as Onam, Ramzan and Christmas. More recently, the highlight was HML’s Surianalle tea factory near Munnar, which was ranked No 1 among all factories in South India. These events have greatly contributed to bringing people closer, both in times of joy and distress.
Cherian recounts how HML has been able to overcome insurmountable challenges owing to the camaraderie built over the years, and the staff’s deep involvement and commitment during crises. For example, in the initial months of the pandemic-induced lockdowns, all HML workers and staff volunteered to contribute one day’s salary each to ensure that underprivileged students living in the vicinity of its estates could continue their studies online. The pooled funds helped procure 20 Smart TVs with internet connectivity required to run online ‘Smart Classes’ for these school-going children.
During the devastating floods of 2018 and the landslides in 2019, the HML team provided rehabilitation kits to those who had been rendered homeless or had suffered heavy losses, so that they could restart their lives with dignity. Apart from receiving contribution from the Group, everyone at HML, including daily wage earners, came forward to contribute to this cause. The company continues to live by and exercise the RPG group’s tenets of touching lives and spreading happiness.
The Covid-19 pandemic has fortunately had little effect on HML’s business and operating methods. This is because plantations, by design, ensure more than adequate distancing between the field workers. At the same time, all mandated safety protocols are being carefully observed at HML’s facilities, including the plantation estates. Factories, too, have been ensuring that social distancing norms are being followed strictly by operating at a reduced capacity of 65-70%.
HML is now looking to diversify into the lucrative fruit crops business, for which it is conducting trials and market research in various locations. This multi-crop strategy is expected to bring greater flexibility in terms of pricing, and better insulate the business from market volatility.
Three years ago, HML also forayed into the tourism industry, in line with the Kerala government’s push for tourism in the state. It has begun to convert some of its old heritage bungalows into resorts, in addition to starting a tea museum and offering adventure activities like ziplining and go-karting to travellers. Currently, this business is focused on two tourist hotspots – Munnar and Wayanad – and expects several weekend visitors from nearby metropolitan cities. While there has been a slowdown due to COVID-19, enquiries are beginning to pick up once again and the company expects several lucrative opportunities in this area.
“We are excited about both these new ventures, and we have the flexibility to move into and grow them further. Together, we have built a vibrant, transparent, and an agile organisation at HML, and the future looks bright for us,” says Cherian.