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A patriarch in winter

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Samprada Singh of Alkem Laboratories believes in family values, and he treats his employees as one big family!

Samprada Singh, Chairman, Alkem Laboratories
Samprada Singh, Chairman, Alkem Laboratories
Ramesh Narayan

Alkem and its Chairman intrigued me. There was something about them that seemed to fly in the face of contemporary wisdom. Firstly, this company ranks in the top five in sales among pharmaceutical companies in India. Yet, as of now at least, there is nothing multinational about it. Its chairman, Samprada Singh, seemed to run what I could only describe as a very large Hindu Undivided Family. And it seemed to be working. So what happened to all the MNC influence that was still riding high in the pharma industry? And, what happened to all the talk of “professionalism” in managing today’s industries? These were some of the thoughts milling about in my mind when I met Samprada Singh.

His warm welcome and general demeanour made me think of him as a venerable patriarch. And this would really sum up what the gentleman is all about.

One has to understand that here was a person who grew up in North India when the freedom struggle was on. Like many youngsters who grew up in those surcharged times, Samprada Singh was engrossed in the struggle for Independence.

His uncle was a freedom fighter and obviously had a great influence and impact on the way the young Samprada thought. Inspired by stories about Bhagat Singh and the like, the young man believed that getting independence for the nation was of paramount importance. He wore khadi clothes from the age of 13 and the highlight of those impressionable years was a meeting with Mahatma Gandhi, who incidentally, learned naturopathy from a close relative of his. Yet all this interest in the “movement” meant that he could not give his total attention to his studies. “I wanted to become a doctor,” he says wistfully. Yet, friends consoled him by saying he could be of equal service to the nation and its people by becoming an honest businessman.

The honest streak was to be a guiding line in his life thereafter. His keen interest in the medical field manifested itself in the opening of a pharmacy. And that was the precursor to his entry into the pharmaceutical industry. His life was to be one devoted to his industry and the sector. A life that was to see him build up a Rs 1,000-crore pharmaceutical company with such market-leading brands such as Taxim. Incidentally, Taxim is a Rs 115-crore brand and 7.5 million vials of this antibiotic are manufactured every month. A company that is now concentrating equally on a health foods division, which the Chairman feels will be as big, if not bigger, than the parent company. In fact, the Health Foods Division is betting long on proprietary products like FOS which is apparently a 100 per cent natural sugar substitute. “Health foods is a bigger story than pharmaceuticals, and we have made large investments there,” says Singh as he talks proudly about products such as Jeevanprash which is a sugar-free version of the generic Chyavanprash. Sucralose and oils are the other health foods that form a part of the new stable at Alkem.

With all this growth, I wonder aloud why Alkem has not taken the popular “public issue” route and become a listed company. “We have sufficient funds to manage all our existing projects and plans, so we never thought of going public,” says Singh.

With all the talk about the freedom movement and Gandhi I enquire whether Alkem will continue to be a “Swadeshi” company or is it open to tie-ups with multinationals?

“We are open to tie-ups, especially with US-based companies,” replies Singh quickly. My next question is how Singh has managed to keep this large enterprise running so well even though it is essentially a family-run concern. “My father’s elder brother was treated by his brothers as God, being the eldest member of the family. Even if he fired the brothers, they took it as blessings. That is the culture we have emulated and that is why we have absolutely no problems. Even today, though I live separately from my cousins, we are very close.” “What about the next generation. Will they be able to continue with values like yours?” I ask. Singh is emphatic. “If we are selfish, our children will be like that. Personal care strengthens family ties. The entire extended family meets over lunch almost everyday. We enjoy it when the family is together.”

Samprada Singh has ensured that his company has made significant investments in R&D. In fact, its entire Taloja plant is now dedicated to research. Singh is passionate about Yoga. He rises at five every morning and spends about two hours doing his Yoga regimen. He also walks for about half-an-hour every evening before returning to some pranayam exercises.

While he is against orthodoxy, the grand old man is a great believer in God. “God is only one. People can have faith in any God, I respect that. Religion is something personal. At the end of the day, you have to be honest and help people without expecting anything in return.” Singh obviously practices what the Bhagwad Gita preaches. The quintessential family man also treats his employees as a part of one huge family, and still keeps in regular touch with senior managers to know what exactly is going on and also to motivate them. And that, I guess, is what makes him and his successful company really tick.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated February 7, 2008)
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