Emerging Entrepreneurs

Age is no barrier for this entrepreneur

M Somasekhar | Updated on October 28, 2019 Published on October 28, 2019

Tipirneni Seshagiri Rao, Founder & Chairman, Sentini Group

In a span of 18 years, Seshagiri Rao’s venture has grown into a ₹2,000-crore conglomerate

At the age of 58, when most have retirement plans on their mind, Tipirneni Seshagiri Rao was nursing other ideas. He wanted to turn an entrepreneur.

“My burning desire was to set up ventures and provide jobs to people. I was toying with ideas throughout my career in public sector units (1968-2001),” he recalls.

The time finally came in 2001. With his children settled, Seshagiri Rao decided to take the plunge. The first step was to form a joint venture company with Johnson Tiles, a leader in the sector. It was an equal joint venture with an investment of ₹6 crore each. Johnson played a major role in technology transfer, marketing and financial support, which really gave a boost to the venture.

Did he face resistance in taking such a bold step? No, being the eldest and financially sound, “I did not face resistance from the family this time.” The situation was exactly opposite three decades earlier, with parents and completely different circumstances. In fact, “I got good support from the children, too,” he adds.

 

Getting into the tiles business was a calculated gamble. Johnson was a leader and there was a demand for the product with the boom in the construction sector during the early 2000s. Though software and IT services were the flavour and lure for many in Andhra Pradesh, Seshagiri Rao’s intention of providing jobs to the people drove him to the labour-intensive manufacturing sector. Another factor in favour of manufacturing was the last job he did with Regency Ceramics. It was during that tenure he came in close contact with Johnson.

The technical support from Johnson was important and it was a winning combination. The only challenge was to handle the government and related issues. In this area, the long stint with the public sector and experience across different markets came in handy. Even Johnson knew this well, therefore it invested in the JV.

In a way Sentini Ceramics was the first JV for Johnson in India. Thereafter it formed six more. In the first year itself, the joint venture made profits. Breakeven was achieved in three years. It was an encouraging start, says Seshagiri Rao.

Early career

Hailing from an agriculture family of Angaluru in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh, Seshagiri Rao was awarded the University Gold Medal in Bachelor of Commerce & Master of Business Administration from Andhra University, Visakhapatnam.

His professional career began in 1968, when he joined the Sindhri Unit of the Fertilisers Corporation of India (FCI) as management trainee in Dhanbad, Bihar. He opted for a marketing job, which took him to Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab, selling fertilisers and spreading awareness about the new developments across various agri-climatic zones.

During these travels, Seshagiri Rao was exposed to the miseries of the poor, the lack of industry and huge joblessness in rural India, which was to ‘ haunt and challenge’ him in the years to come.

In 1983-84, he moved to the Cement Corporation of India (CCI) and was posted in Delhi, after which he was based in Kolkata to take care of the East and North-east markets. Backed with this all-India experience in marketing, when an opportunity came to head back to Andhra Pradesh he lapped it up.

Seshagiri Rao moved into the private sector in 1991, on an offer from GN Naidu of Regency Ceramics. “The tenure of about a decade in a private enterprise, preceded by the long innings in the Government, gave a complete learning of business cycles and the environment, and this came in handy as I embarked on the new journey as an entrepreneur,” he recollects.

The growth story

In a span of 18 years, Sentini Group has grown into a diversified conglomerate of ₹2,000 crore in revenue. The group is into tiles, extra neutral alcohol, transportation (trucks, fire tenders and tippers) with a body building unit in Hyderabad, sanitaryware, a flow pipes unit to make CPVC and UPVC, a 200-bed hospital and a mall. In between, a software firm was started and sold. More than 50 per cent of the energy and time of an entrepreneur is invested in handling government and land acquisition issues.

Even today, despite claims of single-window clearances and ease of setting up industries, the truth remains that at least 50 clearances are required in the two Telugu States. In the case of land for setting up manufacturing units, the troubles are innumerable. From buying materials to tacking local politicians, compensation and records. The government remains not a friend here.

The biggest learning and advice he can share is that “progress with will power is the key. The will to work hard can overcome all hurdles in the end”.

At the end of 2018-19, the Sentini Group had 5,200 employees.

Retirement is not on the mind of this 76-year-old as he sets his target on growing his group to 10,000 strong employees by 2025. His mission has been to provide livelihoods to as many as possible. The biggest driver will be the diversification into retail that it has embarked on. The six malls in the southern State capitals will absorb 2,500, he said. Even today, he does a 12-hour schedule overseeing his companies.

Published on October 28, 2019
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