#21 Simran Samtani - Life Had Other Plans

Simran Samtani, now a senior partner at Xcel Accounting and Bookkeeping, spent 9 years at Citibank before quitting. She has about 27 years of experience in the financial world and is passionate about strategy and marketing. Oh, by the way, she is a pharmacist by education.

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Transcript

I would have never quit. It took my husband one year to convince me to take that call. But that call came not because of anything that happened in the bank. That call came because my father had a heart attack. 

 

That was Simran Samtani, cofounder and senior partner at Excel Accounting and Bookkeeping. Her qualification, however, had nothing to do with accounting or finance. She is a pharmacist by education. Did that stop her from spending nine years at Citibank, eventually co founding an accounting firm with her husband that is currently in its 18th year? Absolutely not. This is her story.

 

Hello there. I'm Aamer Khan and this is a Zed Medium Podcast. A podcast that talks to people and about them, too. We take out the most significant experiences of an individual and package it in the form of a story, sharing those with you. We narrate people's journeys in the simplest way we can. There's a new person every episode, so do check out the previous ones. I'm sure you'll find someone to relate to. Let's start with this one, shall we? 

 

We'll get this out of the way. No one knows what they're eventually going to do when they grow up. Yes, there are plans and roadmaps, step by step guides to where you will eventually reach. But it really doesn't take a lot for one to deviate from the plan. It's either because of a change of heart or a change of situation. And while you should plan, there is a need for flexibility in the way you go about achieving whatever it is that you want to achieve. And for the theory above, we shall give an example. 

 

Did Simran imagine co founding a company with her husband that didn't relate to her qualification at all? Not at all. 

 

Simran: If you would have asked me as a kid, I would be doing something, what I'm doing today. No, not at all. My path was completely different. Yes, my journey was completely different. It was always education focused. My childhood was always education focused. Studies and study hard. My journey around my college was also I chose science, and I graduated as a pharmacist, I think somewhere pharmacy I got attracted to because my dad used to work with a pharmaceutical company called Emerk. As soon as I completed my pharmaceuticals, I was on an apprenticeship with a good firm called German Remedies. 

 

And in the one year apprenticeship, what we had to do was go through various departments. So we had about ten to twelve departments to go, one month per department, to see what would appeal to us. And I wanted to do my MBA as well. So that one year I took in that journey. I realized that the opportunities for ladies were quite limited, because we would not do shift duties with workers. Where the production of the medicines was happening, the production department was happening. It would not give us the career path we wanted. And it was different and research was happening more or less abroad, not in India. 

 

So your research department was one person. Your quality control department was reasonably small, but it was just checking if things were right. It was not what you would want to evolve to be. And again, wanting to be with my family and not leaving my family. While a lot of pharmaceutical students would go abroad, I had decided not to go abroad. I chosen to live in India at that point of time. I had chosen not to give my GRE or whatever. 

 

There you go. That is but one example to confirm the hypothesis we laid out. Hypotheses Hypothesis simran always wanted to do her MBA, and after a year of the apprenticeship at German Remedies, she did her MBA in marketing, eventually hoping to get back to her field, pharmaceuticals. She wanted to pursue pharma marketing, but as stated in the theory above, she moved her goal post ever so slightly, and I thought I'll go into farmer marketing. 

 

But life had a different choice for me. I got picked up in a consulting firm, and while I was doing my MBA, strategy appealed to me. So I chose a consulting firm called Business Consulting Group, which was based in Mumbai. And again, because I had a pharma background, I did get a lot of chemical projects, but simultaneously I got projects in architecture and other things. And when you joined BCG, what was the reaction from the people around you? I had an opportunity to join a former firm that paid me half of what the consultant would pay me, because in MBA you get picked up six months before you complete your MBA. 

 

Secondly, Strategy appealed to me, and I thought consulting would give me a great foundation even if I would come back to former marketing later on. It was giving me a strong foundation. And consulting is broad based. You get to know different stuff, and you can all pull it together. If I were to join a pharmaceutical firm even a few years down the line, so that was never an option I had ruled out. It was not a detour. It was basically just another step towards it was a small firm, but a growing firm. 

 

And what I could get to learn there, rather than being a part of a glaxo or a big pharma firm, I would just be a tiny person in that whole gamut of things. I thought this would give me a stronger foundation. Strategy appealed to her when she took on projects for BCG. Job was to basically research a lot of what consulting entails is getting into the depths of a business, asking the right questions, traveling to where the business is located, speaking to a lot of people, knowing the industry, if there is a merger, then to see whether both firms are compatible, more importantly, will they complement each other's style and culture and so on. 

 

Aamer: She was there for two years before she made another switch, a switch into a USbased firm launching in India. US based firm. 

 

Simran: And then I joined another firm for nine months. I mean, I joined it not thinking it would be nine months. I joined another firm that was a US based firm launching in India. It was completely different from what I'd done. They were doing water tanks and fiberglass water tanks. But the thing is, the guy was sitting up here in India, and my travel in BCG was going to go to remote places, which as an unmarried girl, my parents were not very comfortable. And I didn't want to do that. So I chose another firm. And because it was purely marketing strategy, I was the first person the MB Iron, and they were setting up a whole plant in Goa. It was right up my alley to where I wanted to go in terms of my content. So I prepared the business plan for them, I prepared the strategy for them. 

 

And again, having that kind of background help. But life, again, it takes another turn. I got engaged to be married, and my husband was based in Dubai. He was a chartered accountant working for Price Water housekeepers in Dubai. And when we got married, my husband told me, that the kind of experience I have in India. I may not get job satisfaction here, but you have to take that call. 

 

My MD was very reluctant to let me go, but I was changing countries, so I quit everything and landed on Dubai. 

 

Aamer: Did you want to quit, though? 

 

Simran: No. 

 

Aamer: Unfortunately, when her husband said she wouldn't get any job satisfaction, he was right, but only in the short term. She was very fortunate in her journey in Mumbai. The kind of salary she received, the job satisfaction she had, was unparalleled. 

 

But there were some realizations when she went to the buy. That's when I didn't realize it. 

 

Simran: But when I came to Dubai, when I got married and I came to the buy, I kind of realized that this is a sales driven place. Marketing did not have the essence that it has in India. So the kind of jobs I was searching for a I did not have a driving license that had a lot more ratio than any of my Indian qualifications. Had no meaning. Honestly, had no meaning. Right. So I did join a small little firm, an advertising firm, because as a sales executive, and I hated it. And it was a very small organization. I hated the management. I left in three months. 

 

And that's when I realized that I would rather over here be a part of a name of a big firm than be the small mom and pop shops, because I'd always worked with very professional organizations. And then I interviewed at Citibank for the NRA department. I got picked up again as salesperson, but they didn't have the quota to approve. And then I was sitting at home for two, three, two months and you know how frustrating it feels where I never started, home. 

 

And so I took up a job as a credit card sales executive. Institute person who interviewed me recognized what I was, what my qualifications were, and he said, again, marketing. We only had a few people. And he said, in marketing we only take people that grow from within. We don't hire people from outside. I don't know who needs to hear this, but marketing and sales are pulled apart. Simran was interested in the marketing side of things, but the country she was in was still new to the concept of marketing. Concept? Concept. 

 

Aamer: This was UAE 25 years back. It was only sales and she was starting two or three levels below what she had done in Mumbai anyway. It was as if she was starting from scratch. She had clearly mentioned that she was going to give the credit card sales executive job only one year. It wasn't what she wanted to do, but it was better than sitting at home, something Simran clearly couldn't do for a very long time. That journey was a roller coaster ride in itself. Within that year, she had got her driving license, something considered a priced possession in the UAE. It is true, having a license really affects whether you get a job or whether you're able to maintain it. 

 

But as much as that helped Simran, she wasn't the right fit for sales. And one incident got her so frustrated, she eventually decided to put in her resignation. And certain things didn't go my way. 

 

Simran: So I put in my resignation and I put in my resignation because also there are target pressures and at that time used to take checks from people after the guards get approved. And we were spending our own money going around collecting. So there was a nurse, a male nurse in Dubai Hospital that had a duty at 11:00 at night. I dragged my husband at 11:00 at night, pick up that check, because that was the last check that would give me my incentive for the whole month. And he refused to give me the check at night. And I'm like, you should have just told me on the phone that you're not giving me the check. I wouldn't have relied on that. I would have like, whatever. 

 

But I got so upset and my husband had to cool me down and he's like, Just let it go. And I said, this is not worth it. So something hits me that night and saying, this is not what I want to do. This is not the kind of pressure I want to take. I just felt that people should have been clear. You want, you don't want to let me know well in advance. 

 

We had a week to think about it. So he made the check also last minute. He decided not to give it to me for whatever reason. He didn't want the car, whatever they were. But there was enough time. So that's when I went and put my resignation. What I didn't know that they didn't accept it at that point. They didn't continue me for the month. But after five days, the boss who had interviewed me and had moved to another department and he called me and he said I don't want to lose you. I didn't give you why you gave me the check. I was very busy with other things. I'm putting you on a project with me till I find you something that is more suited to you. 

 

But the new manager and we had both decided that they didn't want to lose me. They understood why I didn't want to do what I wanted to do. Long story short, I stayed in City Bank for nine years. That particular vacancy came about because the person managing that project went on leave and Symbol was brought on to manage the team. During that period of time, they saw the department doing well and she was asked to head the 14 member team for the time to come. 

 

Aamer: That's how someone with the pharmaceutical background landed a job in finance for the foreseeable future. Her time at Citibank taught her a lot, primarily because of the change in the management. Every so often, the time in Citibank from 14 member before I left, it was 120 members. And not just cross sell the whole of outbound marketing. And I even got called to Berlin. In my nine years with Citizen, I had eleven bosses in one year. I had four different bosses. Everybody would come and change. 

 

Simran: So one year I doubled the revenue through Telemarketing and I was invited to Berlin to share my success story with the Europe, Middle East and Africa. To share how we did it. Of course, I would say that there were changes we wanted, which our boss has accepted. They said, All I will accept is I will not allow you more space. So we did two shifts. We moved from seven to ten and we moved to shifts in the same area. Space hired. They gave us permission to hire more people. They gave us permission to change some of the criteria on what we wanted for our product sales to happen. But they put you in deep waters and you learn to swim yourselves. And I think a lot of preparation prepared me for entrepreneurship, right? 

 

I am what I am today because of my experiences in Citibank. Now I know a lot of people who are going through the same problem of different bosses, like four different five different bosses within two years. Within three years. When you used to be comfortable with someone and then you can focus on doing your job perfectly, not worrying about your boss when the boss has changed again and again, how do you cope up with that? 

 

Initially, it was difficult. I would not say that it wasn't difficult, because everybody who comes in and it's human psychology, right? Every new person who comes and wants to bring their approach to things and want to prove that what the other person had done was not good enough. So initially, yes. Would it take us time to convince them as to what has been tried, what has not been tried, what has worked, what is not worked. 

 

But later on, what happened? I think the most difficult was when I didn't even have four different bosses in a year. And sometimes it was department changes. Sometimes it was changed at the top. When one boss changes at the top, all of a sudden, I was handling a team of 30 people, and I was given 70 people to handle overnight. 

 

But later on, I started to document everything. So when somebody else would come and I would put it forth and I said, this is not work. You want to experiment? We'll experiment again. But this is the proof. Initially, when I would go, it would be yours. So then people would want to see it. Right? People would want to see it. So once you have your journey, be good enough to listen. So first you start also getting defensive. 

 

But then you have to realize that that is not a strategy that will work. You have to find middle ground. They don't know you, you don't know them. Right? So you come to a conclusion, understand where the eventual eventually what you realize is both of us want growth. 

 

Aamer: A lot of the change in management was handled with the availability of data that Simran had put together. And it served her well over the years. Nine years and eleven bosses. After the first few, even she caught on with the trend. But here a question that always arises is, okay if everything was going so well, what prompts someone to quit their job? Nine years is a long time, and was definitely not because of a change in management. She had already gotten used to that. 

 

So what was it that led to her leaving Citibank after such a long time? 

 

Simran: I would have never quit. It took my husband one year to convince me to take that call. But that call came not because of anything that happened in the bank. That call came because my father had a heart attack. Only three years before I quit, my father had a heart attack where his heart was only pumping 15%. And he would go into the hospitals on and off. So I would take these short, short breaks whenever my dad would be hospitalized and I would come back. So two years were very difficult for me. 

 

Simran: Every time a phone call would come, I would keep all my holidays till the end of the year, thinking, I don't know when I would need them. But what happened is, when I lost him and he was only 64, I started questioning life that whole phase. I started questioning life, thinking, what is life? I mean, those were kind of questions that I never approached me. What would another promotion give me? 

 

What would another award? I had won a lot of awards. In fact, these accolades, these awards, these highs that your career gives you. After he passed away, I couldn't cope up with things. I actually started working more, harder. I would give more time to my work. And my husband had started the business two or three years before, so he had just started the business. We were expanding. We were thinking of different strategies. So while I would help him with all of that at the background, I was never in the forefront of any of it, and he kind of wanted me to join Simran. 

 

Aamer: Working harder was a form of escapism from what she had been through. Her husband wanted her to join the business so that she could realize that she was working way too hard for her own good. She needed a break from it all, but she wouldn't listen to him. It was only when she attended a seminar one weekend where the speaker asked the audience, on your deathbed, what would you have wanted more? The accolades that you've won, the progress you've made, or the time that you spent with your family? That's when things started changing for her. 

 

She decided to take the plunge and join Excel Accounting and Bookkeeping. 

 

Simran: I decided to take this. But again, initially, I didn't give it my full thing because I always thought, it's my husband's firm. It's not something that it's not something that is my subject matter. It is not something I'm not an accountant. 

 

And I would keep telling everybody, I'm not an accountant. I'm not an accountant. And my husband said, you don't own it. It is your home. So a couple working together has its own pluses and its own challenges for me and with two different personalities. So for me, I always stopped myself because I didn't want my personal relationship to get affected with this. 

 

Today, I can call ourselves dynamic door because we know what our strengths are. We can draw the line. We can work together, which is what brought me to build, to sell, and profit first as a concept, and coaching and training, that is who I am. It's my field of interest, and it's another stream of revenue, and that differentiates from others in our market as well. 

 

So today, I'm in a very different space, talking about today, people would not even know I'm not an accountant, number one. And I find not being an accountant as my strength running an accounting firm, it's because I can speak to the other entrepreneurs in a language which has no jogging. So it's not that I hated numbers or I didn't like numbers, and I was with a bank. I am a banker understanding. I've done balance sheet analysis in marketing strategy. 

 

So while I've taken it up a strategy. It was not something I would not physically do the account. Yeah. Simran joined and brought in another perspective to the organization. While her husband is a genius in maintaining attention to detail in the more technical side of things, simran has been able to break down the technicalities into simpler words to be able to get people on board. 

 

The past 14 years have served them well, even when covert hit. They are a small but efficient team of six, working coherently to make the business what it is today and for anyone looking to reach out to them. Here is a glimpse of what Xcel Accounting is all about. Mind you, this is not all of it. You can check the company out on their website, www dot xcel accounting.com. Okay. A majority of our business so far has come to us through referrals because accounting in the UAE is not mandatory.

 

 In other countries, it's mandatory if I would say that only 20% of the people actually do proper accounting or would outsource the accounting to someone to do right because it's not mandatory. Maybe if people do audits, they generally do it when they want a loan or some authority needs it. They're not really doing it to check. So if people have a lot of money coming into their account, they're not really bothered as long as the money is coming in. What has shifted slightly was that and what will shift in June 2023 is taxes. 

 

That's when I think proper accounting will happen. So people come to us only, generally speaking, our organizations that have to submit reports internationally, the offices of international businesses, or they're coming to us at a time with shoe box of receipts saying, I want a loan, and the audit companies will not sit and do the accounting. 

 

So now do it or people are more prudent. And wanting to do it would be partnership firms that there are two different partners and they would rather outsource it to third party. And a small portion of that are people who believe that they need proper accounting right from the beginning. That's a very small percentage. Our firm is a boutique firm. I choose to say that our firm would be a lifestyle business. 

 

And again, there are statistics in books that read that ideally this team size shouldn't grow beyond ten, because as soon as your size increases, which happened, right? So when we moved from just a CFO kind of a business, we had two or three people. Revenues were very high, but we didn't need more than a very small office. Right? Today, COVID has taught me that we can work remotely with cloud based systems. I would still not need ten people, 20 people to do it right. We can have gig economy. 

 

We can use people from different parts of the world for different small things. So the whole philosophy shifted. You have to work on a business model that is profitable for you? Like the question I ask a lot of people, right? I said, do you want to be a $10 million firm with a $3 million loss? Or do you want to be a million dollars form with a $300,000 profit? 

 

Aamer: If you like that episode, share it with others. You never know how you sharing. It could impact someone in the most difficult of times. And you actually never know. You might just share something life changing for someone else. And yes, the common drill. Follow us for the latest updates on LinkedIn and Instagram. We're here to stay and we're bringing a whole lot more for you. Stay tuned and goodbye for now. Bye