By Nupur Pavan Bang
Book: The Ambuja Story: How a Group of Ordinary Men Created an Extraordinary Company
Author: Narotam Sekhsaria
Publisher: Harper Business, India
Efficiency is the name of the game: Once upon a time, there was a boy, named Narotam. He was born in a Marwari family in Chirawa, Rajasthan. His family took him to Bombay (now Mumbai) when he was three. There, he was adopted by his grandfather’s younger brother who did not have a son of his own. This practice was a way to ensure the continuity of lineage in a patrilineal society. Destiny had plans for him. This is his story and the story of the company that he built.
Ordinary is relative
Narotam and his family were ordinary. Ordinary compared to the Bajaj’s who were their neighbors. But living in the same building as the Bajajs, who owned and managed one of the biggest business houses in the country then and now, cannot be ordinary for sure. Similarly, Narotam had an ordinary upbringing. A boy next door. He struggled at school yet finished at the top of the class. Was aimless and non-ambitious yet went on to study at some of the top colleges in Bombay.
Joining the civil services or getting a job in a bank or a multinational company was the dream career for those joining the workforce in the India of 1960s and 1970s. Not so for a lad growing up in a Marwari household. Working for someone else was unthinkable. So, he joined his family’s typical cotton trading business. He proved his mettle in various ways. Whether it was getting orders from Finlay, having the foresight to buy extra for his customer when prices started to rise and the customer was holidaying, being fair even when he could have made much more money, and making, maintaining, and tapping into social networks, were at display in the way he functioned. Nothing that he did was extraordinary. Just ordinary things done well to achieve extraordinary results.
Bigger shores beckoned
Narotam’s “dil” wanted more. Forty years back, entrepreneurship was not a buzz word. Nor was ease of doing business. The Ambuja Story is not the usual start-up story that we are used to reading in the twenty first century.
Narotam grew up in a family of traders. The DNA needed to manufacture is very different from that for trading. After spending a decade being a trader himself, to set up a manufacturing unit for a commodity product about which he knew nothing, could not have been easy. And it was not. The book brings out the vulnerabilities and the many uncertainties faced by the founder. It also shows how he adapted at each step of the way. He recruited the best, treated them with respect, and retained them. Did not compromise on quality of the plant, even though he placed his trust in newcomers, rather than well established players. Financial management, credit policy, and high ethical standards were all consciously made a part of setting up Ambuja. While there are many learnings from the story, the three that I would like to highlight here are efficiency, innovation, and brand building.
Efficiency: Cement is a commodity. There is little scope to differentiate the product itself. But there is ample scope to differentiate on efficiency. Efficiency in processes, tweaking the plants to enhance productivity, dust management systems, and each person doing their job well, are just a few examples. The company has efficiency written all over it.
Innovation: Innovation does not mean usage of artificial intelligence and machine learning to solve problems with digital solutions only. Innovating, doing things differently, to achieve better or cost-efficient solutions such as transporting cement through sea when no one else was doing it in India, and making small changes to the plants to achieve big impact, played a big role in making Ambuja profitable from the very beginning.
Branding: In a product where it was difficult to charge a premium, the investment in brand building from the very beginning, like it was a consumer product, helped Ambuja establish itself even in the presence of existing giants. Ambuja kept building and improvising on its branding as they grew. The results were all too visible.
Values and responsibility
Being born in a Marwari family, I have often heard about and witnessed philanthropy without anyone knowing about it. Left hand should not know if the right hand is giving. Such beliefs leave an indelible mark on everyone around. It was no different for Narotam. He writes of how the values and spirituality kept him “calm and centred even in the most turbulent of times. The values of ethics and compassion that he [his father] taught me steered me in everything that I did in my career” (Pg. 134). The Ambuja Cement Foundation has been way ahead of its times in adopting impactful corporate social responsibility projects and transforming the lives of communities around which they operate and going beyond those communities. Resilience
An entrepreneur starts when he spots an opportunity. But the time at which he/she should exit is also important. Exit does not only mean selling the business. It could also mean redefining the role of the founder to ensure continuity beyond him/her. The confidence that the company would survive beyond the founder is what makes them long-lasting. Even without planning for it, Narotam had built a company that did not need him on a day-to-day basis when he had cancer.
There are many books on industrialists and entrepreneurs. Not many of them go into so much detailing regarding the thought process on each aspect of setting up and running of the business. This book is focused on the building of Ambuja, easy to read, comprehensive, and depicts the trials, turbulations, and triumphs at each step.
Author is Associate Director, Thomas Schmidheiny Centre for Family Enterprise, Indian School of Business. Can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.