27 Apr 2016 22:12 IST

What makes Great Lakes a great place to live and learn

In just over a decade, it has emerged as one of the top private B-schools in the country

We are cruising down the scenic East Coast Road, the azure expanse of the Bay of Bengal to our left in the distance. A quick turn to the right before the temple town of Mammallapuram, and we are speeding along towards Puducherry. A short distance down the road and the campus of the Great Lakes Institute of Management looms to the right. The crunch of gravel is loud as we swerve in and we are soon through the gates into the sprawling, 27-acre campus. Centred between the entry and exit gates, the statue of poet-philosopher Thiruvalluvar greets us in stoic silence. A little beyond, a large, heavy stone globe rotates slowly on its axis, symbolic perhaps of a Chennai-headquartered B-school’s global ambitions.

I am with Prof S Sriram, Founding Executive Director (now Emeritus) of Great Lakes, who was involved in building the fine campus literally from barren farmland. “It was just an expanse of farm and scrub land when we acquired 13.5 acres in 2007-08,” recalls Sriram. The campus is around 65 km from Chennai city, a commute of about an hour-and-a-half if one doesn’t have to battle traffic.

Over the next five years, Great Lakes acquired another 14 acres and expanded to its present 27.5-acre sprawl. My mind flashes back to the first press conference that Great Lakes held in a city hotel towards the end of year 2003, which I had attended. The project seemed ambitious, even though Prof Bala V Balachandran (or Uncle Bala, as all his students call him) had arrived with a splendid reputation as a top professor of accounting at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. As he says, he picked up the gauntlet of setting up a B-school from scratch when he was in his mid-sixties, when he should already have retired and been playing with his grandchildren. By then, he had already had a quadruple bypass surgery (‘You pay for one bypass, you get three free,’ he is wont to joke!).

Early days

The first batch of students started in a plush neighbourhood, Srinagar Colony, in a large, three-storied 12,000 sq ft building. But this area, located close to the banks of the Adyar river, bore the brunt of flooding during 2005 and the students, who were staying in apartments in the colony (many of them from other parts of the country), had to be evacuated by boats. Ironically, the area indeed became a Great Lake for several days, though not one in which the B-school would want to have been located! The flooding repeated itself last December, when Chennai experienced unprecedented flooding.

After five years, Great Lakes shifted to its present campus in May 2009 and the sixth batch of the one-year flagship programme (for which Great Lakes is known) started there. Sriram, who has now donned the role of an entrepreneur; V Sankaran, the CAO; K Sambasivam, the project head, and his team, spent days and nights on campus to get it going in time for the new batch.

It wasn’t without drama, Sriram recalls. As the project got delayed by more than a month, the students were accommodated in sea-facing resorts on the ECR for the first 45 days and bussed to the campus every day for classes (once the delay was predicted, the management smartly decided to prioritise the completion of classrooms, and get them ready in time, with bare minimum administration facilities and food outsourced.

The inspiration

We ascend the steps to enter the B-school and are greeted by a statue of a seated Buddha, peaceful and tranquil. Beyond is a large, open-air amphitheatre, around which the B-school’s main activities are arranged, the classrooms, the offices, a Café Coffee Day, the auditoriums. A steel tower dominates the centre of the amphitheatre. In the onslaught of the heavy rains last December, the amphitheatre itself became a mini lake with the flooding, I am told. It looks like the rain God follows Great Lakes everywhere since 2005.

The meeting halls are all named after lakes in India and the US, from Veeranam to Manasarovar, and from Michigan to Superior, even though the inspiration of calling the B-school Great Lakes came to Prof Bala from the many years he spent in Chicago, near the great lakes of America. One can see that plenty of corporate sponsors, such as India Cements and Bajaj, among others, whose names are on plaques put up on buildings, have chipped in to contribute to the success of the B-school.

I peek into the Manasarovar hall and see a large bunch of students receiving awards. It’s an event organised by the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship of the B-school. Prof Ranga Veeravalli, faculty coordinator of the CiE, explains that the award ceremony is a culmination of events held through the year to inculcate the spirit of entrepreneurship in students. (See story here)

Prof Sriram is teaching strategy to a class of senior executives who have enrolled for the Executive MBA programme. I slip in to listen on. The session is on what makes Wal-Mart tick as the world’s largest and most powerful retailer. Sriram engages the class on the various strategies the retailer has followed and asks the executives to explain the rationale for its actions. An interesting debate ensues, in which the executives, each from a different sector of industry, bring in different experiences to bear on the debate.

Green campus

I later go on a walkabout of the campus with Prof Sriram. With its well laid-out buildings, immaculate landscaping, power and water conservation efforts, the campus has got a platinum LEED (leadership in environmental design) rating, a green building certification. It’s the first and only platinum rating as a ‘full campus’ in the country. Thought it meant 15-20 per cent more cost and time, the management wanted to live their vision of being a responsible citizen, says Sriram.

The large, circular academic block leads through a passage of green, with creepers forming a natural canopy, both in the hostels and the other blocks that which also contain the executive housing. Some of the senior staff stay in tastefully done-up bungalows on campus, but most commute from the city.

A well-lit, well-laid road takes one right around the campus, if one is inclined for a walk. Many students are jogging on the road or are on a post-prandial stroll in small groups. Sriram points to the new additions made along the years: a small temple, a herbal garden, basketball courts, and a new academic block for the two-year programme launched few years back.

As Great Lakes expanded, so did its need for more land, which it acquired, for much more than the original piece of land. New hostels have sprung up to accommodate more students.

Range of courses

Great Lakes started with the one-year accelerated MBA programme with 123 students and in 2011 launched the two-year MBA programme as well. Today, the campus houses 640 students from both the courses. Students are from all over the country and indeed, a mini-India, a smorgasbord of language and culture.

The B-school has expanded its portfolio of courses according to industry needs. Offered today are courses on data analytics, retail management, among others. In an earlier interview to BLonCampus.com, Prof Bala said Great Lakes wants to create more world class courses at an affordable cost. Read interview here.

Later that night, over dinner that Prof Bala hosts Prof Sriram and me at a restaurant in Mammallapuram, he is reflective of the years spent in building Great Lakes. He was involved in the founding of ISB before he moved to Chennai to found another B-school. He was motivated too, he recalls, when one of his detractors said, how can you set up a B-school, you’re only a professor!

“That stung me and I said I will prove it to him and set up a fine B-school,” says Prof Bala, now in his late seventies but still bustling with energy. The only regret he has is, he wanted to give something back to Tamil Nadu, the State he was born in and which nurtured his early career, but the bulk of the students are from upcountry and very few from Tamil Nadu. He’s hoping that pattern, too, will change over the years.