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How Ajay Shriram built an empire
Bhupesh Bhandari | October 05, 2006
Finally, the sage counsel of our resident food expert prevailed. I wanted to take Ajay Shriram, the chairman and senior managing director of DCM Shriram Consolidated Ltd, to some place out of the ordinary, but couldn't think of one in the whole of Delhi. Till the grey-haired one told me of Baci, the new Italian restaurant in Sunder Nagar: "It even has a bar licence now." I booked a table for two before you could say gin and tonic.
Neither gin, nor tonic. Shriram poured cold water on my plans when he announced that he doesn't like to drink. "Can't work after a drink; makes me feel very heavy," Shriram said and ordered a Limonta. "Makes me feel light as air," a small voice from within said as I heard myself order a lite cola.
But he doesn't let me down on food. The great-grandson of Sir Shri Ram (his father was the kotwal of Delhi; for long, they were called the kotwal family) is a pucca non-vegetarian and loves his beef steak whenever he is abroad. Practical man. We settled for Ceasar's salad and pasta. Baci was stylish but noisy at lunch hour. "I wish, these people had carpets on the floor; it would have absorbed the sound," Shriram said.
In the entire Shriram clan, nobody has a bigger and more profitable business today than my guest. Underdog at the time of the 1990 family split, Shriram now leads the pack.
While the rest of the family has sold several key jewels like DCM Daewoo, DCM Benetton, Honda Shriram Power and the Rath vanaspati brand, Shriram has spread his wings steadily. "Our turnover has grown 13.8 per cent annually and our profit 22 per cent annually since the family split in 1990," said Shriram with pride.
Shriram's Haryali Kisaan Bazaar is the largest rural retail initiative in the country (the Australian Wheat Board wanted to take a stake in it some time back but Shriram declined). He has built a sugar business from scratch in the last few years and now counts himself amongst the top half a dozen sugar producers of India.
He has had his share of setbacks too. Not once but twice, Shriram tried to venture into insurance, first with Royal Sun and then with Zurich. On both occasions, the venture had to be aborted before take-off. His shrimp farm project at Pondicherry too, never took off. The 400 acres of land there cannot be developed into a resort as the beach is very steep.
Shriram's plans to induct a US partner in his speciality compounds (Shriram Polymers) business earlier in the decade fell through weeks after Business Standard broke the story. "What role did we play in the break up," I asked. "Actually, that company itself got acquired by somebody else. And the new management lost interest," he said.
This hasn't kept Shriram's stock from being in demand. As we start picking the salad, Shriram said that some years ago, he was approached by Harshad Mehta who wanted to have a go at the DSCL stock. "We told him we were not in this business and never met him again," he said.
But Shriram, along with his brothers Vikram and Ajit, has steadily upped his stake in the company to 55 per cent now from 18 per cent at the time of the 1990 split. While ramping up their stake, the brothers Shriram also bought out stock broker Harish Bhasin who had acquired shares in the undivided DCM on behalf of takeover artist Swraj Paul in the mid-1980s.
"How will you ensure," I asked Shriram before starting on my delicious pasta (penne in white sauce), "that there are no fissures between you three brothers once your next generation is ready to join business."
Shriram says that there are enough strategic business units within DSCL (fertilisers, cement, chemicals, PVC, retail, real estate, sugar, energy services, building systems and so on) to accommodate the entire next generation. The brothers have also engaged the services of a behavioural scientist, Sushanto Bannerjee, who routinely advises them on the issue. "We have retreats with him on and off. Our last meeting was in Dubai," Shriram says, adding, the brothers have decided that the family will provide each member with a house and will pay for the children's education, whatever it takes.
As we move from pasta to cappuccino (regular for him, large for me), Shriram starts unravelling his rural retail initiative. From 35-odd outlets in the north, he is planning a chain of over 700 all over the country in the next few years. Each can take up to a crore-and-a-half rupees to set up, while the annual turnover could range from Rs 3 crore (Rs 30 million) to Rs 8 crore (Rs 80 million).
Starting out with farm implements, Shriram has now started stocking FMCG products, fuel as well as apparel. Some of these are now being sourced from China. "From 10,000 SKUs, we want to move to 20,000 SKUs," he says. Obviously, once he upscales his operations, he will be able to drive a hard bargain with his suppliers and bring down the price tags.
"What insights have you gained into the rural consumer's mind," I enquire. "If you offer them stuff of good quality, they are prepared to pay you the price," he answers. More was coming. In Punjab, for instance, Shriram found out that large packs of a leading brand of black hair dye was in huge demand. Some enquires revealed that farmers were using it to paint their buffaloes jet black before taking them to the local haat for sale.Towards the end, the pieces of Shriram's gameplan started falling into place. Between his sugar, fertilisers, hybrid seeds and rural retail businesses, he is networked into a large community of agricultural households. He doesn't remember the number but says it could run into millions. And these could be the building blocks for his future business. Fortune, it does seem, lies at the bottom of the pyramid.