Chai with Manju talks with entrepreneur and banker Sushil Tuli about his life, philosophy and success

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Sushil Tuli
Chai with Manju host Manju Sheth recently met with Sushil Tuli, CEO of Leader Bank

In this edition of Chai with Manju, we present the story of a man whose life is a living proof of making the American dream a reality. Sushil Tuli lost his parents at a young age and started working when he was only a 12-year-old at his brother’s shop in a small town in Punjab. After moving to Boston, he joined a bank as a teller. A few years later, he launched his successful mortgage company and then in 2002, he founded Leader Bank, a nationally chartered bank which is headquartered in Boston and now employs over 180 people with over $650 million in assets and $440 million in deposits. Tuli credits his success to his work ethics, hard work and his determination to succeed in spite of all the setbacks and tragedies and to his unwavering optimism and vision.

Tuli’s mantra of success is based on trust and credibility, which has led to his astounding success. Leader Bank’s robust lending platform has made it one of the top ten home mortgage lenders in Massachusetts, and one of the top five home purchase lenders. The Boston Globe ranked Leader Bank as one of the Top 100 Places to Work in Massachusetts and The Boston Business Journal recognized Tuli as one of Massachusetts’ most admired CEOs, proving once again the old saying that to be successful you have to have your heart in your business and business in your heart.

TuliQuestion: You have truly lived the American dream. Tell us about your childhood journey in India, and what prepared you there for your success in the United States—the land of opportunities?

A: The work ethic that I learned in India, while helping my older brother with his book shop, has been crucial to my success. Growing up, I learned how to manage my time by getting an education in school in the morning and then working nights with my brother. That sense of purpose and drive carried over when I moved to America, and it still is a major part of my successes even today.

Q: What made you come to the United States? If you did not come here, what you would have done in India? What were your dreams in India while growing up there?

A: Like many immigrants to this country, I came to the United States seeking out new opportunities and chances to succeed. If I had not come to the United States, then I would have likely followed my childhood dreams in India to become a politician. Growing up, I thought that politics was the best way to make my mark and become successful, and I worked to get my Masters in Public Administration to accomplish this. I planned to start in state government and then would try to work my way up. However, I came to Boston shortly after that, became involved with banking, and started on the path I still walk today.

Q: Initially, you started as a teller in a bank in Boston, then founded a successful mortgage company and later launched your own bank—Leader Bank. What made you start a bank?

A: When I started out in Banking, I worked first as a teller, meeting new customers and giving 110% to my job and my employers. I was able to rise through the ranks to become an investment officer and I truly enjoyed the business of banking. However, I began noticing that many recent immigrants to this country were not being served by existing banks. I believed I could help them given my unique experiences and perspectives, and the best way to do that was start a bank. From there, my dream of opening Leader Bank was born.

Q: There are not many immigrant bankers in the country. What are some of the challenges you have faced as an immigrant banker?

A: I think your state of mind in how you approach your career is critical to your success. There will be challenges no matter who you are, but if you dwell on those challenges and their difficulties, the harder it will be for you to overcome them. If you instead focus on what you can control and do the best job that you can, then I find that the challenges are much easier to overcome. For example, early in my career I had applied to a new position at my employer and although I thought I was the best candidate for the job, I was passed over for someone else. While I did not believe that my race placed a role in that decision, it was initially very frustrating. But rather than focus on that frustration, I focused on my job even harder and proving my worth. This dedication paid off when the person promoted left after three short months, and I was promoted in his place. If I had let the first decision affect my performance, I would have missed that second chance.

Q: You did your MPA from the Punjab University in 1975 and already have had a successful run as an entrepreneur and a businessman. What made you do the OPM program at the Harvard Business School in 2010?

A: I strongly believe that you can never stop learning if you want to become and remain successful. You can never simply rest on your laurels and past successes — you must always be willing to push forward and try something different. Even though I had been very fortunate in my career, I felt the OPM program was a chance to expand my horizons even further and find new ways to help Leader Bank and Leader Mortgage change and grow. Several years later, I still find myself drawing from the lessons I learned at Harvard Business School, and I encourage my fellow entrepreneurs to take advantage of such programs whenever possible.

Q: Tell us something about your family—your parents, siblings and the overall family environment. How did you try to bring up your children?

A: Unfortunately, I lost both of my parents in India at a young age, and was raised primarily by my older brother. He too was an entrepreneur who owned a book shop, and I learned a great deal about how to sell yourself and your business from him. Without the lessons he taught me, I would not be where I am today.

My wife and I worked to instill these same lessons in our three sons, and preached the importance of strong work ethic and solid values. We taught that respect for other people, particularly their elders, is crucial, and I am grateful that all three have learned that lesson well. I am proud that my wife and I were able to help each of our sons gained the best education possible, and that we encouraged each of them to follow in their own path to find their individual success.

Q: How did you meet your wife Rita? What was the first thing that you noticed and liked about her?

A: Like many of our generation, Rita and I met through an arranged marriage. I lived in the United States at the time, and she lived in India — my sister met with Rita’s parents and asked me to come to India to meet Rita. When I first met Rita, I was immediately smitten with her — particularly her beautiful eyes. We met, and four days later, we were married. I like to say that while we may have married first, we fell in love very soon thereafter, and I could not have asked for a better partner in life.

We were married for thirty-four beautiful years, but to my great sorrow, I lost Rita last year. Although my family and I still mourn her loss, her passing has brought us closer together as a family, and we celebrate her strength, grace and wisdom every day. Even though she is not with us in person, her spirit and warmth continue to guide our family.

Q: We all have our own weaknesses and strengths. What do you think is your biggest strength and also your biggest weakness?

A: I believe my biggest strength is my persistence and attitude. When I started Leader Mortgage Company, many colleagues advised me I should not do so given that the industry was extremely crowded. I was not only able to survive in this field but thrive due to several important traits that helped me succeed. In particular, I was extremely persistent in seeking out new business and relationships, but even when such efforts were not successful, I was always able to take a “no” answer with a smile. People remember that positive attitude more than the fact that they said “no” in the first place.

My biggest weakness is one facing many entrepreneurs and business owners — it is difficult to learn how to delegate responsibility. Leader Bank is an extremely personal endeavor for me, and it can be difficult to let go of details and allow others to take responsibility for things. One of the things I learned at the OPM program, however, is the importance of surrounding yourself with people who are smarter and more talented than you are, and trusting them to do the best thing for your business. I continue to work on this even today, but I think I have taken great strides to delegate authority and trust the outstanding team who works with me to ensure that Leader Bank remains one of the top community banks in the country.

Q: Is there anything that you would do differently today if you are given another chance and why?

A: No there is not — I am very happy with what I have done in business and in my personal life, and I honestly cannot think of anything that I would do differently.

Q: Did you have any mentors? What is the best advice that you have received and given to anyone?

A: I have had various mentors in my life — you never have just one mentor, and I have been lucky to have several people help shape and guide my career over the years. The best advice I have received is to always take “no” with a smile, which has become my greatest strength in business. One of my key mentors in my life always told me to “be a leader, not a follower — there is less competition.” I have taken that advice to heart and believe it has served me well.

The best advice I have given — and can give — is that the single most important commodity you can have in business is your credibility. Without that, you cannot succeed. Credibility is something takes years to build and a lifetime to maintain, but only one bad decision to lose. I have worked extremely hard to build my reputation, and I make a point of stressing credibility to all of my employees. If I make a promise, I will stand by it even if I later wish I had not or think I could have made a better deal.

Q” What is your favorite hobby? How do you relax? You once ‘walked the ramp’ for charity. How did you decide to do that?

A: My hobbies have changed over the years, but when my sons were younger they were very active in basketball. I greatly enjoyed watching their games and taking them to watch teams like the Celtics play — and I still do today. But the most important way I relax is by spending time at the gym. Working out is very important to me and is a great stress reliever — I spent couple of hours at the gym several times a week. I also place great faith in prayer, and spend time every morning praying for peace and the wisdom to ensure I can best lead those who depend on me. I have over 250 employees in two different companies, and my prayers ask for the strength to make the best possible decisions for those employees.

I was privileged to participate in “Walk the Ramp,” which raised money to help new immigrants to this country learn English and the job skills they would need to enter to the American labor market. I remember my own experiences coming to the United States, and I think it is very important for me to help those in the same situation get the same opportunities to succeed that I did.

Q: You have done a lot work for the community, have supported a number of charity events and also have been involved in leadership roles and mentorship programs. Which charity or organization is closest to your heart?

A: It is difficult for me to focus on just one organization, as there are so many that are important to me. I have been active in groups both in the United States and India, and Leader Bank has supported more than thirty-five non-profit organizations each year at home and abroad in addition to my own personal contributions. However, there are a few groups that I am particularly proud to support. I have supported a sewing school in India for the past fifteen years that teach skills to women living in poverty so they can find jobs and earn a living wage to help their families succeed. I have been extremely active with Vision Aid in helping those in need obtain eye care and necessary glasses. As a child in India, an accident severely impacted my vision forcing me to wear very thick glasses. I was lucky enough to get superior medical care in America to fix my vision, and I want to help those who cannot afford such help obtain it. I have been active in supporting cardiologists in the Boston area who travel to impoverished nations of the world to install pacemakers for those suffering from heart conditions — I am proud to have paid for many such pacemakers and hope that my contribution has helped the lives of those who might not have otherwise survived. Finally, I have sponsored Akshya Patra, an organization that provides a lunch program for schools in India. Thanks to this group, many parents are able to send their children to school to obtain a hot meal, and ensure that they are well educated in the process. Rita and I established “Tuli Family Foundation” at Harvard Business School to support education for two students for the next two years, and I hope to continue this support in the years to come.

Q: What have been the happiest and saddest moments in your life?

A: The happiest moment in my professional life was the day that the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency granted my application to open Leader Bank, and I was able to realize the greatest dream of my career. I cannot think of a saddest moment — I am generally happy and positive person and I don’t dwell on negative.

Q: What is your biggest regret in life?

A: I honestly can say I have no regrets. I am a firm believer that you cannot be afraid to try and take chances. It doesn’t truly matter whether you fail, but it does matter if you don’t continue to try even if you fail. You only have regrets if you do not try or you give up too soon if you fail, and I make a point of not opening myself up to such regrets in my life.

Q: What does Sushil Tuli want to do in next 10 years?

A: I am having a lot of fun doing exactly what I am now, and I cannot wait to see what the next decade holds for Leader Bank and Leader Mortgage. Both companies have grown beyond my wildest dreams, and I hope I can continue to be a strong leader for years to come. However, I also want to ensure that I leave a strong legacy and I look forward to continuing to work with non-profits and charities in the coming years. I also hope I can put both of my companies in the best position to succeed when I eventually move on.

Q: You said that if you did not become a banker then you would have become a politician. Is that something that you would still consider, especially as Indians are under-represented in some ways in politics?

A: At this stage of my life, I have no interest in working in politics. I am extremely happy doing what I do now, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Q: Do you have any messages or lessons to pass on to the younger generation?

A: The best message I can give is to create your own opportunities. You have to work hard to carve out your place in the world, and you cannot expect that things will be handed to you. No one will give you the opportunity to succeed — you must work for it and take it yourself. I would also tell younger people to not be afraid of failure. You cannot learn and grow unless you take chances and make mistakes. The key is to learn from them, work hard, and turn those failures into your greatest strengths.

Here are Tuli’s response to our “rapid response” questions:

FAVORITES:

MOVIE: Koyla

ACTRESS: Madhuri Dixit

TRAVEL DESTINATION: Monte Carlo

FOOD: Fish/seafood

BOOK: Passion for Excellence

SONGS: (1) Chanda hai tum era suraj hai tu, which my wife Rita used to sing to our sons, and (2) Pal pal dil ke paas tum rahti ho.
SINGER: Mohammad Rafi

SPORT: Favorite team Celtics

QUOTE: “There is nothing impossible to him who will try.” –Alexander the Great

MY BEST QUALITIES: Trustworthy and dependable.

BIGGEST WEAKNESS: (sometimes) looking for perfection.

FINISH THE SENTENCE :

LOVE IS: Two sides of a coin.

MARRIAGE IS: Opportunity to grow.

FAME IS: Looking at life through a magnifying glass.

MONEY IS: An amazing motivator.

SECRET OF BEING A GOOD BOSS IS: Respect and listen to your employees.

BEST QUALITY AS A DAD IS: Giving values that I believe in.

MOST IMPORTANT QUALITY IN ANY RELATIONSHIP IS: Trust.

MOST IMPORTANT QUALITY IN ANY FRIENDSHIP IS: Caring.

MOST IMPORTANT LESSON LEARNED FROM FAMILY IS: Acceptance.

MOST IMPORTANT LESSON FROM BUSINESS: Keep growing. Business is a rat race with a lot of competition. Keep improving yourself with new ideas.

MOST IMPORTANT LESSON LEARNT FROM FRIENDS: Keep your friends and clear any misunderstandings before they become too big.

MOST IMPORTANT LESSON LEARNT FROM LIFE: Enjoy every moment. Do it now.

INTERESTING THING THAT YOUR WIFE SAID ABOUT YOU: You are a smart businessman but cannot run a household.

LAST WORD WITH CHAI WITH MANJU IS: I start my day with masala chai.

Every life has a story, share it with INDIA New England over “Chai with Manju,” an exciting, innovative and riveting series featuring interviews with some of the most interesting, active, accomplished, amusing and entertaining men and women. Conducting the interviews is Dr. Manju Sheth, a well-known physician at Lahey Health, INDIA New England’s 2011 Woman of the Year and President of Indian Medical Association of New England, 2013. Dr. Sheth leads and is involved with numerous professional groups, charities and advocacy organizations, in the Chai with Manju series, she profiles people who have compelling stories to tell.

If you or someone you know has a compelling story to tell, you may contact Dr. Sheth at chaiwithmanju@gmail.com or INDIA New England news desk at Editorial@MishraGroup.com.

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