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BookReview

Book Review: Half a Century

The Book ‘Half a Century and Still at the Crease’ is written by Paint Industry Veteran Biji K Kurien

The Book is about 50+ years of professional and corporate experience of the author.

The author was trained as an Electrical Engineer from Mysore University and then did his MBA from IIM-Ahmedabad.

He explains the environment/facilities/placements etc at IIM-A in great detail and makes for interesting reading. He topped his batch at IIM-A and I was surprised to see that late PM Indira Gandhi attended the convocation.In that era, IITs & IIMs were considered the pride of India and PMs made it a point to attend the convocations.

The author then found a job with Asian Paints where he was the first MBA to be hired. He was posted as the Branch Manager of the Madras (now Chennai) branch. The author narrates about his experiences there which gives a good perspective about how Indian businesses functioned then.

Then the author moved on as the Marketing Manager to British Paints (now Berger Paints), Kolkata. He later became the MD of the Co.

Large sections of the Book are devoted to his stint there.It covers the paint industry in detail and I found it to be a tedious read. One aspect I found interesting aspect was how there was a lockout in their factory in Communist Bengal and how they managed that. It was truly a master class in crisis management.

The author helped Vijay Mallya take over the co from its British owners and then helped the Singh brothers take it over from Vijay Mallya.

The author was President of Indian Paint Industry and Bengal Chamber of Commerce & Industry. More sections of the book are devoted to this which are quite a bore to read.

Post retirement, the author started a business consultancy. I found these experiences to be quite illuminating. There is one instance of how he helped a tilemaker reduce his receivables & increase sales. I believe this experience has directly lead to creation of a startup Xuriti (where I am invested)

The author appears to be a very forthright person and this reflects in his writings.

I would recommend this Book only to those interested in Indian Paint Industry.

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BookReview

Book Review: The Rise of the BJP

The Book ‘ The Rise of the BJP’ is written by Bhupendra Yadav and Ila Patnaik. Bhupendra is a long time BJP politician and is currently a Minister in the Union Cabinet. Ila is a well known economist.

The Book traces the journey of BJP from its origins as Jan Sangh to the current behemoth it is now.

The Book makes for a fascinating read as it covers all the general elections from 1951 to 2019. As such, it is full of interesting details and trivia.

I was surprised to see the consistent high vote share that Socialist/Communist parties got in India till recently.

Another surprise for me was the fact that Indian National Congress till 1980s used to get more than 40% vote share which fell to less than 20% in 2014.

The Book traces the various elections and the main issues of those elections. The Book obviously has a very symphatetic bias to the BJP but does a good job in covering the vicissitudes of Indian politics.

After PM Modi & Amit Shah took charge of the BJP, the kind of focus they brought to the organisation & elections is truly breath taking.

In India, a typical voting booth is a physical location where about 1,000 voters cast their votes.There are about 1 Million polling booths in India. BJP had a person responsible for each booth. After each election , a post-mortem is done to understand reasons of success or failure.

Each booth has pages of voters called panna. Each panna has names of 20 to 30 voters.Since 40% vote share is enough to win elections, BJP targets to win around 12-15 voters of each panna. It tries to convert many of these voters to members of the party.

With this kind of focus, its no wonder that BJP is the largest political party in the world with a claimed membership of 180 million !

I would recommend this Book only to those interested in Indian politics.

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Book Review: Forging Mettle

The Book ‘Forging Mettle’ is written by Pavan C Lall and covers the story of Nrupender Rao, the Founder of Pennar Group.

Pennar Group, along with the Nagarjuna Group, were amonst the pioneering business groups from Hyderabad. The book explains the cultural, economic and political context in which these business groups evolved.

Nrupender Rao was brilliant at academics. He went to IIT Kharagpur and then to US for his Masters. At the insistence of his family, he returned to India to contribute to the Motherland.

He started his career with the Coromandel, then Union Carbide and later joined Mr. Raju who started the Nagarjuna Group.

After a few years in the Nagarjuna Group, Mr. Rao set up the Pennar Group which was into steel initially.

The author does a good job of explaining how the Group grew and then its financial woes due to diworseification and finally how the Group recovered.

One of the most interesting takeaway from the Book was how Eight Capital helped turned around Pennar Group and some of the things they check to ensure Promoters don’t siphon funds away.

Mr. Rao and other entrepreneurs of his generation were focussed on creating jobs & employment. Hence they rarely made detailed financial plans about new ventures etc. They considered themeselves as industrialists first and business people later. This lack of focus on profits ensured many of their diversifications were not successful. But there is no denying the stellar role they played in the industrialisation of India

I would recommend this Book to those interested in Indian business

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BookReview

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.

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BookReview

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