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S i2i CEO's goodwill gesture pays off

Maneesh Tripathi volunteers to take home S$1 until the watch-list firm turns the corner

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Those were dark, gloomy days . . . We had a plan on paper for the company that looked so arduous, Mr Tripathi recalls.

Singapore

THERE may be many things that shareholders of S i2i Ltd, a watch-list firm on the Singapore Exchange (SGX) may need to worry about, but whether the interest of the chief executive is tightly aligned with theirs ought not to be one of them. That one thing is present - in spades.

The mainboard-listed distributor of mobile prepaid cards and handsets and IT-related products and services provider is helmed by chief executive Maneesh Tripathi who for almost all of last year (except for January when he earned some S$24,800), volunteered to take home S$1 until the firm turned the corner. "It was tough . . . such a big decision, which I made voluntarily, impacted not only one person but the whole ecosystem of my family. We dug into our savings," Mr Tripathi told The Business Times in an interview.

This is no gimmick or symbolic gesture unlike instances abroad where CEOs chose the one-dollar salary package, but earned so much more in bonuses and other perks or had large stock holdings. "No other perks, no other fees," he clarified when asked; except for a one per cent stock option that was not exercised and later forfeited.

Indeed, this is a rarity in corporate Singapore where the big divide between executive pay and a firm's health is oft-times a bugbear for governance hawks.

Mr Tripathi's deed was unwittingly instigated by a couple of retired S i2i shareholders who had bemoaned the top executives' "big salaries" despite the firm's consecutive years of losses.

"It felt like they trusted us and we didn't deliver. I realised that the best way to understand their pain is to have the same pain. I got the support of the board who also followed and did the same," he added. Similarly, some others in the management team also opted for pay adjustments.

"It was just one dollar and one person doing it, but it's a strange feeling when colleagues started to chip in. It was like the positive energy started aligning itself," he recalled.

The radical gesture is not lost on a 17-year-old body that champions investor rights in Singapore and espouses performance-based remuneration for top executives. "It is amazing that for a one-dollar salary per month, he (Mr Tripathi) was still prepared to work hard to turn the company around," said David Gerald, president of the Securities Investors Association of Singapore, adding that it's a "fine example" that should be emulated.

Lucky for Mr Tripathi - and also in no small part, thanks to him - the firm, once known as Spice i2i and before that Media Ring, turned in a profit of S$960,000 in the year to December 2015 from a loss of S$56 million previously. As a result, the board restored his daily bread in January this year.

"Those were dark, gloomy days in the first three months. We had a plan on paper for the company that looked so arduous," he recalled.

The gloom has since lifted after S i2i posted its third straight quarter of profits for the three months to March 2016. It took a lot of "blood on the street" - cost cutting that led to some 30 per cent of savings, layoffs and offloading of legacy and loss-making businesses in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Post divestments and armed with more capital than it immediately needed, S i2i - which counts Indian-born Singapore citizen Bhupendra Kumar Modi, its founder and chairman, as the largest owner - opted for a cash payout of S$10 million or 72.9 Singapore cents a share to shareholders via a capital reduction exercise that got shareholders' blessings in April.

In progress is S i2i's efforts to fortify its large distribution network in Indonesia - a key market, where it is an authorised distributor of mobile prepaid cards for big telecom operators - by holding onto its existing clusters, winning more bids and cluster renewals. That's no walk in the park, even for a market the size of Indonesia, given slowing growth and fierce competition. "Business is tough . . . it's very competitive. (But) the shakeout has already happened and those who have dug in deep and realigned and are nimble will see good days ahead," said Mr Tripathi.

By "nimble" he meant S i2i, which is now scouring markets where it has a presence for "cutting edge, futuristic technology" with "exponential growth potential".

Yet, with all the upbeat news, exiting the watch-list group may still be elusive for at least another year as the firm still has one (of three) rule box unchecked; at some S$25 million right now, S i2i's market capitalisation needs to rise above S$40 million (average daily) over a six-month period to claw its way out of the bad spot.

That would take more work - and time - although the stock price seems to have perked up. On Friday, it closed at a high of S$1.90 - up 40 Singapore cents or 27 per cent from S$1.50 two weeks ago.

Is this the market's payback for the goodwill generated by S i2i's one-dollar gesture? Possibly not but if it were, it would be a persuasive factor to galvanise other corporates here to do the same.

Based on SGX filings, Dr Modi, through his vehicle Spice Bulls Pte Ltd has scooped up 17,700 shares for S$30,838 or an average of S$1.74 per share from the open market between May 31 and June 8, raising his stake from 31.4 per cent to 31.5 per cent.

"It has all worked out well. We can bask in that feeling," said Mr Tripathi.