A businesman’s true calling


Sanjay Kapoor/Hardnews/Delhi

David Landes took more than 1,000 pages of his seminal work Wealth and Poverty of Nations to explain why some countries or societies are richer than others. Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs and Steel, tried to explain in his paper "How to get rich," what it takes to make money. He mentioned about what fragmentation of societies, disorder and instability do to private enterprise. If only Diamond had come to the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, he would have got some interesting food for thought. He would have seen the footprints of wealth creators who left their ornate havelis to make their fortunes in the port towns of the country and abroad.

Marwaris, fired by entrepreneurial rush, proved that they could succeed under most circumstances. Long before they left their homeland, they were bailing out local kings and providing funds to them for budgetary support. Later, when they left their traditional homes and moved to places like Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, they became natural partners of the British colonialists who were earning windfall profits from the lucrative opium trade.

Subsequently, they diversified and became some of the biggest industrialists in the country, giving even the south Indian Chettiars a run for their money. What makes the Marwaris tick? For the answer, Hardnews spoke to this year's Padma Bhushan awardee, connoisseur of art, philanthropist and Chairman of Gujarat Ambuja Cement, and Director of the Reserve Bank of India, Suresh Neotia, at his residence in Delhi. Contrary to popular perception, Neotia denies that Marwaris were forced out of Shekhawati due to social disorder. He claims it was better opportunities that took them to different parts of the country. And the Marwaris were in Kolkata, he said, long before any social turmoil drove them out.

Neotia, no longer involved in the-day to day functioning of his company, credits his success to a number of happy coincidences and makes light of the passion and drive that he was able to bring to his business.

Although he belonged to a business family, Neotia wanted to be a lawyer till he saw their plight in city courts. He was gradually drawn into the family business and started travelling to different parts of the country to explore new business opportunities. In those days, he owned a company called RKBK, successor to Dadachand Ghanshyamdas.

There were a few setbacks as some of his businesses in Kolkata collapsed. Then he was advised by a friend, MP Jain, to get into the cement business. He was joined by a close relative Narottam Seksari. Cement was being de-controlled and they decided to set up their first factory in Uttar Pradesh. Later, bureaucrat HK Khan took him to Gujarat and asked him to set up a joint sector cement plant in the state. Later, the Gujarat Government shares were bought up and Neotia became the chairman. Gujarat Ambuja started to benchmark their product and ploughing back their profits. "We did not milk the company," asserts Neotia. While more plants came up all over the country, his company kept on doing well.

Neotia has great respect for the political class. He mentions the case of Chimanbhai Patel, who came all the way to Kolkata to ask him to invest in Gujarat and sign an MOU with his company. Eventually, Neotia decided to give up his ownership of Gujarat Ambuja to Holcin as they did not have a succession plan.  Although his nephew Harsh had leadership qualities, he did not want to relocate himself from Kolkata to Mumbai.

Neotia seems to have some regret about giving up control of the company, even though he remains its Chairman.

For a while he did not know what to do, till he plunged himself into philanthropy. He also found the Public Interest Foundation (PIF) that is funding the audit of the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. His art collection remains one of the best in the county. He is troubled by the economy and feels that the country is in a difficult period. He regrets the manner in which the stock market has been converted into a ‘casino'. As Director of RBI, he feels he could do a lot more.

Despite all that he is doing, Neotia, like all Marwaris as described by Wikipedia, remains "soft spoken, mild-mannered and peaceful."