Book Review: The Ambuja Story

The Book ‘ The Ambuja Story’ is written by Narotam Sekhsaria, the founder/promoter of Gujarat Ambuja and currently the Chairman of Ambuja Cements Ltd & ACC Ltd

The Ambuja story is actually the story of the author who is one of the most extra-ordinary entrepreneurs our country has produced.

The author begins the book by explaining his family background, upbringing , education etc.For those unfamiliar with Marwari traditions, its a great peep into their cultures & norms.

The author went to UDCT and after graduating, he joined his family’s cotton trading business .The legendary Prof MM Sharma of UDCT chastised him for “wasting a seat” for not joining the chemical industry !

The author then narrates his rise as the top cotton trader of India.I found this chapter to be simply marvelous.Lots of lessons here for entrepreneurs just starting out.

Like successful Marwari business families, the author wanted to move from trading to manufacturing.He explained his rationale as follows: “I had been a successful cotton trader for over a decade.By the early 1980s, I had made more money than I had ever imagined. But something was missing in my life, a void that I felt quite often. I wanted the recognition and respect that was accorded to industrialists in our community, but denied to traders like me.”

Unlike today’s IPOs which are mostly OFS, IPOs in the 1980s were for growth capital. In 1985,Guj Ambuja got listed to an enthusiastic response.The author’s speech in Ahmedabad at the road show there played a key role in getting investor interest.I loved the ending of the speech where the author declared: “You may be putting in a small amount of money as your investment, but I have put my reputation and a large personal fortune on the line.If this company is not successful, then I have no future.”

The author then narrates how he went out building Gujarat Ambuja.There are many anecdotes related to the bureaucracy, politicians, bankers, stock market brokers, employees, financing, competition , brand building, land acquisition, truck mafia,coal mafia etc which bring to stark relief the multi-faceted challenges of doing business in India.

Guj Ambuja was the first company to have private ports both in Gujarat and Maharashtra and that gave it an unbeatable logistics advantage.The story of how they set up these ports is super interesting.

The author doesn’t pull any punches and narrates the unethical dealings of some of the biggest business groups in India.He mentions how his cement competitiors esp India Cements blocked him in different markets, how the Murugappa Group reneged on their committment, how the Tata Group manipulated the share price of ACC etc

In the course of his career, he acquired 2 companies-Modi Cements & DLF Cements.

Regarding Modi Cements, he had this to say: “Our team examined the books and found rampant corruption across the company.The atmosphere at Modi Cement, we discovered, was tailor-made for corruption from top to bottom”

His comments on DLF Cements, he was equally scathing: “There were no systems,productivity was low and pollution-control measures were weak.A bigger shock was the fact the employees, including the CEO, were paid in cash every month”

The Book covers in detail how the author bought the shares of ACC, the subsequent controversies and finally the sale to Holcim.

One of the main reasons why the author had to sell out was his battle with mouth cancer.He had undergone multiple surgeries and sold when his body couldn’t handle the stress anymore.The cancer was caused by his two decade long habit of chewing tobacco in the form of pan masala and zarda.I found the author’s account of his battle with cancer very frank and instructive.

I would strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in Indian business.


Book Review: Lhasa The Holy City

I came across the Book ‘Lhasa The Holy City’ during my trek in Nepal.

The book was written way back in 1938 by an adventurer F Spencer Chapman

The author was part of the Political Mission sent by the British Govt of India to Tibet to establish relations with the Tibetan Govt.

The author does a marvelous job of describing Tibet, Lhasa, the Tibetan people, their cultures, traditions etc. Some of the comments can be termed as racist but can be forgiven given the prejudices of the times the author lived in.

There is a chapter called “Historical Interlude” which makes for fascinating reading-it describes in detail the ebbs & flows of the relationships between Tibet, China & India. I was suprised to know that the earlier Dalai Lama had also fled the Chinese to India and stayed in Darjeeling between 1905-1912.

The author was an accomplished mountaineer and one of his passages resonated with me : “It is curious what vicarious pleasure one derives from physical exhaustion and discomfort. It is a strange paradox that the more intolerable a journey is at the time, the more satisfactory does it become in retrospect. Our sensibilities and characters were made to be sharpened against the hard forces of Nature.But how few people nowadays get any chance to test their physical endurance to the breaking-point, to feel cold fear gnawing at their hearts, or to have to make decisions that hold life or death in the balance?That is why men flock so easily to war; to test a manhood that is perverted by the present state of civilization. Rugby football, mountaineering, skiing, even motoring, are but makeshifts for this vanished birthright; narcotics to alleviate the monotony of existence that has become too safe and easy.”

I would recommend this book only to those who love history & Tibet


Book Review: The Making of Hero

The Book ‘ The Making of Hero’ is written by Sunil Kant Munjal

The author is part of the well respected Munjal family and the book is a very honest attempt to tell the story of Hero from an unique insider’s perspective.

The Munjals hailed from Kamalia, a small town in Lyallpur district of Punjab (now in Pakistan).

Owing to difficult economic circumstances, the Munjal brothers didn’t wait for matriculation and went to work straightaway. Its an interesting trivia to know that the first job of Brij Mohan Munjal (at the age of fifteen) was to count the number of sugarcane bundles at the fields before they were transported to the market !

Later, the Munjal brothers worked at the British ordinance factory in Quetta,Balochistan where they got training in machinery realated to arms and bicycles.

Subsequntly, they shifted to Ludhiana and started a small bicycle parts shop.This continued on a small scale till the birth of Hero Cycles in 1956.

Cycles was the growth industry of the time.As Brij Mohan Munjal said : “On the road, there were nothing other than bicycles.And nothing to repair them with”

The Book details how the Munjals went about manufacturing different parts of the bicycle-handlebars. mudguards, frames etc.

The design philosophy was simple – Aesthics was not important. What was important was cost, durability, simple maintenance and easy availability of spare parts. This same design philosophy ensured the huge success of Hero Motorcyles.

The Book then narrates how the biz grew from making a first year production of 639 bicycles a year to lakhs of bicycles in later years.

The author talks about how Honda partnered with Hero to establish Hero Honda.It makes for fascinating reading.

All family businesses end up eventually in splits and partitioning of assets.The Munjals went about it in a very professional and mature manner and is certainly worth emulating by other business families.

One of the greatest legacies of the Hero group is how they encouraged and built an entire eco-system of auto ancilliaries around Ludhiana.In a low trust society like India, its truly remarkable how so many people wanted to associate with the Munjals either as vendors,suppliers, dealers etc

I would strongly recommend this book for those interested in Indian family businesses.


Book Review: An Airman’s Saga

It’s been ages since I read a book, let alone write a Book Review.

Mainly because “Hell hath no fury like a wife doing housework when the hubby is chillaxing”

But now the house help is back and they have gifted me the luxury of time to read.

The Book ‘An Airman’s Saga’ is written by the Late Capt. V Sundaram

The Captain was one of the earliest pilots in India and the book describes his journey from a student at the Madras Flying Club in the 1920’s to one of India’s most experienced Instructors and Pilots

The Book brings to life the Madras (now Chennai) of the pre-Independence years and many facets of our history that I was unaware of.

For instance, I didn’t know that British had so feared the Japanese invasion of India that they had dynamited all of Madras’s bridges,railway stations etc

Another facet was that our Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) was set up entirely with American assistance and Americans ran the plant till it got nationalised.

Capt. Sundaram’s life was super interesting.In his long career, he taught Indian Airforce pilots, worked with Tata Airlines,ran the plane of the Mysore Maharjah and then settled down with Indian Airlines.He loved animals and founded the Blue Cross of India.

Some anecdotes from the Book that left a lasting impression on me were:

  1. During Partition, Capt. Sundaram piloted planes from Multan to Jodhpur (a 2 hour flight).People begged to come on the plane else they would be massacred.To accomodate more passengers, people had to leave all their luggage behind.As such, people left all their life’s savings, gold, jewelry etc on the runway and entered India with just their clothes on their backs.
  2. Capt. Sundaram flew all of India’s political leaders .When Sardar Patel went about his mission to integrate India, Capt. Sundaram flew him in the Mysore Maharajah’s plane.What stuck me was the courtesy offered by Sardar Patel, Nehru etc to the pilot.Once Sardar Patel had dinner at the Captain’s home and Nehru invited the Sundarams for tea.I wonder if today’s Netas extend such courtesies
  3. When Sardar Patel came to Hyderabad after the Police Action, the Nizam himself came to greet him as he got off the plane.There is an iconic photo of this scene.What I didn’t know was the Nizam had never done this for anyone, not even the Viceroy of India !
  4. One trait which I find super annoying finds its mention in the Book.Indians have this tendency for the “White Man’s Approval”. Even Swami Vivekananda refers to this.Capt. Sundaram was in charge of the Mysore Maharajah’s plane but to his consternation, noone from the Maharaja’s Durbar was willing to travel in it.So he approached the British Resident of Mysore who agreed to travel in the plane.Only after the Britisher had travelled, the Indians started to travel in the plane !

Capt. Sundaram’s wife was the late Usha Sundaram who was the first woman commercial pilot of India.As such, both the husband-wife duo would have made a dashing couple in their time.

This book is a very light and breezy read…the kind you find neglected in a corner of a used bookstore and yet I am glad I read it.


Book Review: Deng Xiaoping & The Transformation of China

The Book ‘ Deng Xiapong & the Transformation of China’ is written by Ezra Vogel, who is a Professor at Havard University.

The Book traces the career of Deng Xiaoping as he started off as a young communist to the Paramount Leader of China.

The China we know now – rich, powerful, confident- is because of Deng Xiaoping-his guts, his vision and above all, his indomitable will.

The Book traces out the ups & downs of Deng’s career in the brutal politics of Mao’s China. The political skills required to survive and thrive in such a regime is just incredible.

When Deng took power, China was in a terrible shape.Millions had died due to famine etc and the country was desperately poor.

Deng set out and implemented the four modernizations comprising industry, agriculture, national defence and science & technology.

Deng was a true patriot and was focussed on reforms that will make China rich and powerful.He would brook no opposition in his way.Once the Party gave the order, all branches of the Govt including judiciary acted on it.

Deng was also extra-ordinarily wise. He knew that without technology China couldn’t prosper.So he repaired relations with Japan, Europe and the United States so that Chinese could learn from them.He invited them to invest in China and sent Chinese students there.

I was astounded to know that since 1980s, the Chinese Communist Govt had sent millions of students to study in the US.Unlike the Soviet Union which was afraid of people defecting, Deng didn’t care if people didn’t come back.He felt Chinese people would be an asset to China even outside China

Deng was intensely focussed on quadrupling China’s GDP. He used to remark that this was not a economic issue, but a political one. He knew that without economic growth, the people of China would throw the Communist Party out.

Deng is also known as the person who orchestrated the Tianneman massacre.The Book describes the events/incidents leading up to the massacre in great detail. The bottom line was that in the end it was the people of Beijing Vs Deng Xiaoping. Deng won.

India is mentioned in the Book only with reference to the 1962 war. Amongst Chinese policy makers, the 1962 war a textbook example of how a sucessful war should be fought by China-short, sharp and decisive.

Deng cited the example of the 1962 war when he invaded Vietnam in 1979.He wanted to teach Vietnam a lesson and the way he did it was by instigating border conflicts (sounds familiar?) .There were thousands of border conflicts on the China-Vietnam border which culminated in the invasion of Vietnam.

The Book also highlights the keen sensitivity of the Chinese Govt to Taiwan & Hong Kong.

Deng was fairly clear that UK would have to hand over Hong Kong to China. It was non-negotiable and the Chinese were prepared to go to war with UK if HK was not handed over peacefully to it.

Regarding Taiwan,it was an article of faith for Deng to reunify it with the mainland.It was one of his key goals but he was not able to do it owing to the determination of the Taiwanese people & US arms and support to Taiwan.

Deng’s following comment regarding Taiwan shows clearly the long term, ruthless and impacable nature of the Chinese Govt : ” If the problem cannot be solved peacefully, then it will be solved by force.This would do neither side any good.Reunification of the country is the aspiration of the whole nation.If it cannot be reunified in one hundred years, then it will be reunified in one thousand years.”

The Book is a very scholarly book , painstakingly researched and plainly written.As such, it can be a difficult read at times.

I would recommend this book only to serious history buffs interested in China.