Driven by consensus

PREETI MEHRA | Updated on August 18, 2011

Mr Harshpati Singhania , Managing Director of JK Paper . - Kamal Narang   -  Business Line

Meet the man behind JK Paper. Impeccably dressed in shirt, trouser and tie, but he would still like to put on a formal coat for the photographs.

*Impeccably dressed in shirt, trouser and tie, but he would still like to put on a formal coat for the photographs.

*Though he is an employer, his wish is to see more and more people self-employed in the country.

*With the choice to sit back and allow professionals to run the show, he's proud to be counted as a professional in his own right.

That is Harshpati Singhania, Managing Director, JK Paper, and fourth-generation scion of the well-known Singhania family. Though articulate, with a finger on the economic pulse, he is equally reticent when it comes to talking about himself.

Just a few minutes into conversation with him, it is obvious that the 48-year-old industrialist has fire in his belly not only for the family businesses he handles — JK Paper and Umang Dairies — but much beyond… for nation building.

It is this desire to make a difference, as well as take forward Indian industry, that has seen him over the years holding coveted posts such as President of FICCI, member of the executive committee of the International Chamber of Commerce (India), member of the Government's National Integration Council, and a host of positions in the paper and pulp sector.

Tall, lean and full of verve, Singhania is a well-rounded personality who can hold his own on a large number of subjects — policy, industry, management, development, succession, philanthropy, art and golf. But it's the business climate that we choose to begin with, especially as his family has seen it all — from pre-Independence to the licence raj, the opening up of the economy and, now, the trend of domestic companies acquiring assets and firms overseas. Was it easier for companies then, when there was not much worry about competition or a level playing field?


Even his grandfather's days saw a host of challenges, says the scion. Though he was still young then, he recalls from stories told to him, and from conversations overheard, that the ability to get a permit or licence was as, if not more, challenging as the work itself. Where a factory would be set up was decided on the requirement of the government, and not according to where it would be easier and cheaper for the company.

“It's just that the nature of the challenges have changed,” he says, describing the transformation over time. Many more avenues of financing have opened up. Plants are being set up closer to raw material assets and transport linkages. Retail investors are becoming minority shareholders. Competition is at its highest level, with new milestones to keep up with.

And it is these challenges that the family seems to have managed deftly. Though originally from Rajasthan, the Singhania family initially chose Kolkata to set up its businesses. However, in the 1960s and 1970s when the family found the economic environment in West Bengal not so conducive, it shifted headquarters to the Capital. While Hari Shankar Singhania, the eldest in the family, is the Chairman of the JK Organisation, sector interests such as the group's tyre, paper, dairy, cement, seeds, sugar and engineering goods businesses are managed by family members Raghupati, Vikrampati, Bharat Hari, Harshpati and Vinita Singhania. All the companies, except one, under the group are listed entities.


Although the family business has passed into the hands of successive generations, the companies have always been helmed by professionals, right from the early days. Putting in place sound systems and avoiding ad-hocism have been at the core of the group's stability and success. “For any organisation to last or transition over a large period of time, you have to put systems in place… then it is easier for anyone to operate,” the MD explains, emphasising that the family members too are active professionals. “It's not family versus professionals. We are all there for the same purpose. It's our style of operating — we work on consensus.”

Consensus is also one of the key family values that Singhania seems to have imbibed. In his formative years, he did not rebel or look around for other career choices. “Partly because I was expected to, partly asked to do so and partly because I wanted to,” he says.

When he finished school and started college in Kolkata, he would attend classes from 6 to 9.40 a.m. and then go to work.


He is driven by a desire to give back to society. Though the Singhania family, just like the Birlas and the Tatas, has several trusts and foundations to its name, and is running schools, colleges and hospitals, he makes the pertinent distinction between philanthropy and sustainable institutions. The group's hospitals, schools, colleges and now a university, he points out, are run as a surplus, not on a charity model. “I am making a difference between a business venture and the need to create a surplus for such organisations. Our institutions are self-sustaining. We fund them, govern them and help them to run,” he explains.

If you have the means you can give materially, and others can give their time. The company has adopted six government Industrial Training Institutes across India, where the curriculum has been tweaked to make it more relevant. “Our managers teach there, and we also get students to the plants for shop-floor training... We also work with self-help groups. We have worked with NGOs, and today we work with women who are making phenol and brooms… there are others who have trained in tailoring. We have given them uniforms to stitch for the company, but the challenge is in marketing these products. What I really want to do is create employability, make people self-reliant and self-employed… At the end of the day, being a part of society, you will also benefit from it.”

Singhania speaks with a conviction that is infectious and a sincerity that is refreshing. He is also very fond of both art and the performing arts. Even though his wife is a ceramic artist and ran an art gallery, the couple's love for art is more than that of art collectors. Singhania enjoys meeting with artists, getting to know them and “relating to them as people, not for their work of art alone”. He loves dance, vocal and instrumental music, and plays as well, and enjoys watching the latest film in town. “While the kids watched Harry Potter, we saw Delhi Belly,” he says with a smile.

Though his three sons are still young, would he expect them to join the family business when they grow up, as he did? Of course, he would like that but he would let them decide for themselves. The situation is different now. “I'll leave it to them. When I was growing up I didn't think of anything else. When you are part of a business family, you get into it naturally, though as a family we have always kept business away from the dining table. But some of it, obviously, rubs off,” he quips.

Published on August 18, 2011

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