Book Review: The Man Behind The Wheel


The Man Behind the Wheel by Tim Bouquet is a remarkable book-it traces the journey of the tyre company Apollo Tyres from the lens of three generations.

In narrating the story of Apollo Tyres, the author not only manages to tell the story of the Company but also about India and what it took to succeed in different generations.

The first generation belonged to Raunaq Singh. Raunaq was the rags to riches entrepreneur. He stared his career as a salesman for a steel pipe merchant in Lahore at just 8 rupees a month. His natural entrepeneurship and hustling skills saw him succeed and in a few years he would start his own steel pipe business.

Partition saw the family come to India with the proverbial “only the shirt on their backs”.

Raunaq Singh sold his wife’s jewellery to get into business and did so well that he eventually set up Bharat Steel Tubes Ltd which rode the Green Revoltion Wave and became a money gusher.

Raunaq was a great networker and became the head of all the business associations of that time-an unique feat not accomplished by any other person after that.

His aim was to become like the Tatas and the Birlas-enter various businesses,completely unrelated to each other, using bank funds for financing and political connections to get the license.

Since India was a shortage economy,anything you started did well

He used his political connections to get the license for Apollo Tyres for its first factory in Kerala

He asked his eldest son, Onkar Singh, to run it.

While Raunaq Singh was the “Know Who” generation, Onkar Singh was the “Know How” generation.

A technocrat and a professional,Onkar worked hard to make the business a success and despite union problems, political interference, poor technology etc was able to do a great job.

Eventually, as in most Indian business families, the “Aurangzeb Syndrome” happened.

Both father and son had a falling out- with each wanting to oust the other from the Company.

Things reached to a level that the father suspected that the son will try to drown him while the son suspected the father of wanting to poison his food !

Onkar prevailed and took sole charge of the company before handing over the baton to his son Neeraj Kanwar

Neeraj, the third generation to run the family business, belonged to the “Every Where” generation for whom the world is their playground.

He took Apollo global with international acquisitions etc and is known primarily for his failed bid to acquire Cooper International

That acquisition failed because the Chinese subsidiary in no event wanted to be owned by Indians.

I found the Kanwar family’s experience with Chairman Che, the CEO of the Chinese subsidiary quite instructive:

First Meeting:

Chairman Che: “I have been a good son and the father is good.Now the father is divorcing me and the step father is coming in”

Second Meeting:

Chairman Che: “I don’t care who the step father is; someone needs to tell me who is looking after me”

Third Meeting:

Chairman Che: “I don’t like the step father”

Fourth Meeting:

Chairman Che: “I want to you to buy me out for $550 Million”

As I write this, there are newspaper reports that Apollo continues its global journey (without the Chinese !) by building a greenfield tyre factory in Hungary.

If I have one complaint about this book, it is that the Harshad Mehta involvement in Apollo Tyres is glossed over.

Do read this book to understand Indian family businesses better.

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