Autobiographies by founders and entrepreneurs are usually steeped with business learnings, life lessons and stories that give an insight into how individuals overcome challenges and failures to become successful.
Narotam Sekhsaria, the Chairman of ACC Ltd, Ambuja Cements Ltd, and Ambuja Cements Foundation, in his book The Ambuja Story: How a Group of Ordinary Men Created an Extraordinary Company follows the same path to tell a story of grit, determination and how dreams to make it big can become a reality even if is not fully equipped with all the knowledge required to succeed.
Sekhsaria writes that he set up a cement company in pre-liberalisation India with no idea of how cement was produced. In his own words, “My knowledge about cement was next to nothing. I had never seen a cement plant in my life. And I had never negotiated an industrial agreement.” A business associate had suggested setting up a cement plant in Uttar Pradesh. While on a visit to Lucknow to explore this opportunity, a chance meeting with NN Pai, then chairman and managing director of IDBI, in a hotel lobby, veered his decision towards Gujarat. This was destiny as Gujarat welcomed Sekhsaria’s project with open arms. HK Khan, chairman of Gujarat Industrial Investment Corporation, hand-held the project and saw it to fruition. Khan was also the first chairman of Ambuja Cement. According to the author, he was a rare development-minded bureaucrat, who changed Gujarat from an agrarian state with few textile mills to a powerhouse in chemicals and fertilisers. He is credited with supporting another Gujarat success story - Karsanbhai Patel, the founder of Nirma.
Sekhsaria was adopted by his paternal grand uncle, who had no sons of his own. In Marwari families, adopting a male child to secure the family line and fortune has been common practice for hundreds of years. Prominent industrialists, including Jamnalal Bajaj, Lakshmi Narain Birla and Naval Tata, were all adoptees.
Dreaming of growth
Sekhsaria grew up in a building in Mumbai that also housed the illustrious Bajaj family. Looking up to “Rahul bhaiyya”, (Rahul Bajaj), Sekhsaria also dreamed of being a successful industrialist one day. After studying chemical engineering at the University Department of Chemical Technology, he got involved in the family’s cotton trading business and was successful enough to live a comfortable lifestyle. He was able to expand the family business to start supplying cotton to the biggest textile mills of Bombay in the 1970s - the Mafatlals, Finlay and Goenkas.
In the late 1970s, textile mills all over the country were facing severe challenges from the prolonged economic slowdown, cheaper textiles churned out by the power loom sector, frequent labour strikes and cheap imports. This forced Sekhsaria to diversify. Given his chemical engineering training, he set up Sekhsaria Chemicals and invested in two other pharmaceutical companies. However, these companies saw only modest success.
Destiny steered Sekhsaria towards HK Khan and Gujarat where he set up Gujarat Ambuja, buying an existing company called Ambuja Cement because it already held the license to set up a cement plant.
Narrated in very simple language in the first person, the book recounts the author’s path to success. Chance meetings and friendships established during the course of business were used as stepping stones to success. One of the key messages coming through the book is the importance of teamwork. Sekhsaria gives credit for the success of Ambuja to “a group of men”, in the title of the book itself, unlike some other business leaders who tend to take all credit for themselves.
The book provides many valuable lessons and examples in business networking that will be helpful to entrepreneurs everywhere. It is also an ode to the Marwari community’s baniya buddhi that has served the author very well in his business ventures. The book goes into details about how the cement company was set up, the bureaucratic hoops that Sekhsaria had to jump through, how the first employees were hired, how the financing was put in place and the land acquired.
Gujarat Ambuja also went through a Singur-like situation that forced it to change its original location to an alternate site close to the sea that proved fortuitous. The sea route from Gujarat to Mumbai, its largest market, is more cost-effective to transport cement than road.
Setting up a cement plant in a remote area in the 1980s was quite a challenge. Since rural telecom connectivity was poor, employees had to travel more than 15 kms to reach the nearest phone to make a call to the Bombay head office.
Over the years, overcoming diverse challenges, Gujarat Ambuja grew to be a successful business. It was one of the first cement companies to use branding and advertising campaigns - its giant man and “I Can” slogan were visible symbols of its quality and established brand.
The Ambuja group grew to acquire some of the biggest names in the cement business, including ACC, Modi Cement and DLF Cement. Sekhsaria has provided detailed accounts of how the group came to acquire and assimilate these brands into the Ambuja fold. As such, the book is a compelling narrative about a man who built a successful company, offering concise management lessons in taking bold decisions and navigating through an era of Licence Raj.