16 October 2011 Edition
Will Kumar Mangalam Birla's constellation be in alignment with his goal?
It was February 1996, and India was in the grip of the cricket World Cup fever. Two young men sat facing each other at the Industry House headquarters of the Aditya Birla Group at Churchgate in Mumbai, each trying to assess the other. The younger man was Kumar Mangalam Birla, 28, who was then trying to build his own team following the untimely death of his father Aditya Vikram Birla just four months earlier.
The older of the two, Santrupt Misra, 30 at the time, was trying to figure out whether he should bet on Birla's vision, giving up a promising career at what was then Hindustan Lever. Birla was planning to break up his group into two, and wanted Misra to head one division's human resources, or HR, function.
Misra asked for time to think it over. When Birla called later, Misra told him: "You can have a team at the top, but cannot have a team as the top," quoting from the biography of a former Nestle chairman to decline the one half of a job. Misra got to head the entire group's HR.
Birla did not ultimately break up the group into two parts, but over the years he has tinkered with the business model, while growing the group about 20 times. He keeps restructuring and fine tuning, all the while monitoring the strategy closely.
Birla's obsession with models and strategy becomes clear when flagship Hindalco Industries' Managing Director Debu Bhattacharya explains how the February 2007 acquisition of Novelis, the world's leading producer of aluminium rolled products - based in the United States, and four times the size of Hindalco then - was aimed at de-risking the metals business. Or when Birla talks of his creation of Aditya Birla Nuvo in 2005 to put cash generating businesses with cash guzzlers under one roof.
Birla has had a tough time selling this concept of an incubator and conglomerate combined within the group to investors, and accepts that many of his companies are undervalued. His focus on cash is perhaps a legacy of the legendary Parta system (Read Not a Penny Less) that his forefathers, canny businessmen from Rajasthan who spread to Kolkata, Mumbai and other cities, used to track daily cash flows. He thinks Parta is a "timeless concept" that can be applied even 20 years hence.
In 2010/11, the group clocked revenues of $35 billion with operating profits at $5.1 billion. But Birla had been almost written off in the early years, mostly because his style was so different from that of his late father. K.K. Maheshwari, today a director of Grasim Industries who also heads the viscose staple fibre business of the parent group, had worked closely with Aditya Vikram Birla as chief financial officer of Indian Rayon between 1985 and 1988. "Management style is often a function of the size and the state of a business group. Kumar Birla took over the group in rough circumstances and turned it into a global group. Aditya Birla would monitor the operations of the group companies and would be hands on. Kumar has institutionalised systems," he says.
Misra, the newcomer, witnessed at close quarters the attitudes towards Aditya Birla's son. "People admired his father and they found him different," Misra recalls about Birla's first years. "Anything new he tried to do was seen as a departure from the past. People also expected him to work at the same speed and with the same decision-making agility as his father. But having been given the role so suddenly, he needed time to make up his mind." Aditya Birla died unexpectedly in October 1995, aged 51.
Maheshwari adds, "Where they are very similar is in their ambition. Aditya Birla had written a letter to his grandfather stating that he wanted to do something very big. And if you see Kumar Birla, he is very focused on his stated philosophy - that he wants to be among the top three in most of the businesses he is in on a global basis. Their personalities are quite different... their drive and determination to be at the cutting edge and be the leaders is quite similar. It is more a question of style."
Misra feels Birla's ability to "carry and marry" both worlds helped him win the day. It was a group where outsiders would be appalled to see one manager touching another's feet. "The outsider would not know that such a duo would usually be uncle and nephew," says Misra, who saw nothing strange in such traditions being still prevalent at the workplace. Today, Misra has several courses that teach his Indian managers the proper use of tableware at sit-down dinners, and his western managers the basics of the Indian way of life.
"There might still be parts of the group where the chairman is referred to as 'babu'. It is a term of respect and affection," Misra says, pointing out that no one would object if a Chinese or a Japanese company had such a custom. "When I go to B-schools for hiring, students ask me if we have a lot of elderly people from Rajasthan working with us. In a Japanese company, no one would question if they have lots of Japanese or if people do not retire; it would be lauded as life-long employment," he says.
The group did introduce a retirement policy, explaining it in detail and making sure that it was not sprung as a surprise, with those close to retirement getting a two-year grace period and some extra cash. Misra has heard stories of how senior employees would bring their nephews or sons to meet Ghanshyam Das Birla, Aditya Vikram's grandfather, when they completed their higher education, and usually the Birla patriarch would try and place the young man in one of his companies. The Aditya Birla Group still allows such appointments, but only if the candidates are well qualified, and after following processes that any modern company would have on relatives joining the same company.
In the end, while he infused fresh blood into the group, Birla also retained many seniors such as Askaran Agarwala and Dwarka Das Rathi, who continued to lead group companies. "He inherited a great team, and was able to attract top professionals," says Brijesh Koshal, head of investment banking at Daiwa Capital, who has discussed transactions with the group several times and has friends working there.
One of the roles Birla created was that of people who would determine strategy. Birla says, "Very often people get so caught up in running the businesses that they have no time left for spotting opportunities."
Dev Bhattacharya, who heads strategy today, started in the group much like Misra, but later in 1996. He had started his career at Tata Motors (Telco at the time), taught competitive advantage in Australia, produced TV serials such as Udaan and the Surf Lalitaji TV advertisement campaign, and also worked for the International Labour Organization. Dev was Birla's hire Number 5 - he was working at Bankers Trust in London at the time. "We would come from our office in Andheri and then spend a lot of time in the parking lots of Industry House, waiting for our meetings to begin," he says of his early days with the group. From strategy, Dev moved to HR and then other businesses, including two years in Canada running Aditya Birla Minacs Worldwide, the group's business process outsourcing firm, before coming back to India in 2008 as head of strategy. His job: scout for acquisitions.
The group is looking at investment opportunities in Africa, South America, east Europe and Central Asia. "These are not focus areas for the existing businesses. So we do that at the strategic group. We are also looking at acquisitions in these areas," says Dev. Acquisitions will be guided by supply chain issues, product developments, size of target and geography of the region.
With the group aiming to grow from $35 billion currently to $65 billion in five years, acquisitions or inorganic growth have to play a large role. Dev says organic growth will account for at least $20 billion of additional revenues, while the metals business, Hindalco-Novelis, will lead the inorganic growth and account for 40 per cent of revenues within five years.
Today, Hindalco-Novelis has revenues of $16 billion, or close to half the group's total. Hindalco's Managing Director, Debu Bhattacharya (his name is uncannily similar to that of the strategy head), had quit his fast-track job at Unilever in London to join Hindalco when he sensed that the Europeans were shunning risk.
The biggest risk Debu took at Hindalco Industries was the acquisition of Novelis, four times Hindalco's size then. "It is like Sensodyne and Colgate. You might make a better product, but can you earn the brand equity of a Colgate overnight," asks Debu. Hindalco had bought sick companies such as Pennar Aluminium in India and some bankrupt copper mines in Australia, and also Indian Aluminium, a unit of Canadian major Alcan (now Rio Tinto Alcan Canada) in 2000, in what was then India's largest cash deal, for Rs 1,008 crore.
These acquisitions had one goal: to make the high-risk aluminium business less vulnerable to price fluctuations on the London Metal Exchange. It was a balancing act between high-margin and volatile businesses like copper mines and bauxite operations, and low-margin and stable businesses such as downstream copper and downstream aluminium.
Novelis, the Colgate of the metals world, brought with it stable markets, cash flows and technology. "It was outrageous. Novelis was four times our size and was not up for sale," says Debu. "When I went to Novelis with the proposal, they first thought I had come to seek some favours." Once the deal was done (Read Nalanda for Novelis) Debu told the top Executives of Novelis: "You are suffering from satisfactory underperformance." He nudged Novelis into shape, getting rid of regional fiefdoms and contracts that did not allow it to raise prices even when raw material became costlier.
Today, Novelis is at three million tonnes and plans to go up to four million tonnes. Alumina production will go up four times from the current capacity of 1.5 million tonnes to six million tonnes. Aluminium metal will go up from the current level of 0.6 million tonnes to 1.8 million tonnes. "So we will be long on alumina and play the merchant market, and over time as funding can support we will put up more aluminium plants using the same alumina," says Debu. "If we have to be long, we have to be long on alumina. If we are long on metal again we would become captive to the alumina suppliers."
In India, Hindalco has built excess capacity in alumina, more than its smelters can consume. So, aluminium price fluctuations do not hurt so much. (Aluminium prices are set on the London Metal Exchange, and a flight of capital from commodities in general can bring its price down without any relation to the fundamentals). Hindalco does not start any new project without ensuring linkages to coal and bauxite mines, even though this has not gone down well with the markets.
Morgan Stanley downgraded Hindalco in early September, cutting its price target by half. Debu brushes aside such analyses. "...Today Hindalco is present in 13 countries and 46 locations... 61 per cent of its assets are outside India. The revenues are at $16 billion... 76 per cent of sales happen in foreign currency... People say I left a multinational to work here, but how is Hindalco not a multinational," he asks.
As Birla says: "Our projections fortunately turned out to be accurate and there was a steep jump in performance. At the end of the day, that's what matters. Financing is a lot about structuring and balance sheets and it has to be driven by a conviction that you are doing it for the right cause."
There are the businesses that Birla inherited and those that he started. But he wants every business to fit into his model: balance the cash cows against the value creators. Aditya Birla Nuvo is a microcosm of the group in that sense. It gets the cash-generating businesses such as insulators and fertilisers to fund the new ventures of the group - financial services, telecom and parts of the retail ventures. This experiment ran into serious trouble two years ago. Aditya Birla Nuvo had been formed by merging Indian Rayon, Indo Gulf Fertilisers and Birla Global Finance in 2005. In 2008/09, net profit shrank to half the previous year's level. On a consolidated basis, it reported a loss of Rs 625 crore.
Rakesh Jain, a former General Electric hand, had headed the Aditya Birla Group's carbon black business and was joint managing director of Aditya Birla Nuvo before taking over the reins in 2009. Jain went looking for synergies. The telecom, financial services and lifestyle retail businesses had separate teams for leasing retail space. Jain brought them together, giving the team huge bargaining power to drive down costs. Being also the group head for information technology, Jain ensured standardised systems across Aditya Birla Nuvo constituents.
Jain turned it around, and today the new businesses that are its subsidiaries account for almost 70 per cent of revenues. Net profit has increased by 10 to 15 per cent every quarter for the past 10 quarters. Idea Cellular, in which Aditya Birla Nuvo holds a 25 per cent stake and the group 46 per cent, is now the largest company in the fold by market capitalisation (Rs 32,400 crore) followed by UltraTech Cement (Rs 30,300 crore) and Hindalco (Rs 27,800 crore). There is also a bank on the drawing board. Today, the 10-year-old Birla Sun Life Insurance, a 74:26 venture with Canada's Sun Life, is among India's top six in terms of first premium income. It reported its first ever profit recently. "We will not require further capital," says Ajay Srinivasan, Chief Executive of financial services at the group.
Birla is keen to add to his ensemble, and the next logical business is infrastructure. "There are always one or two businesses one would want to examine. And I think one of them clearly is infrastructure. Because again there's a huge need for infrastructure," he says. Dev, the strategy head, says the group is looking at everything in the sector, from power to ports to road building. "We are continuously looking at infrastructure for opportunities. We have already made an investment in renewable energy," he says.
However, Birla feels he has all the large pieces in place. All businesses will grow - almost on autopilot but with a dash of acquisitive fervour (the group has made almost 20 acquisitions in 16 years Read Acquisitions in the last 15 years). And there is enough support for him if he wants to acquire.
"Tomorrow if he wants to raise a large amount of money for another acquisition, he will find bankers ready to take a bet on him," says Sanjay Sakhuja, Head, Corporate Finance at Ambit Capital. Sakhuja, who was with Citibank in the early 1990s, had worked with Aditya Birla at the time of the listing of the Grasim global depositary receipts in 1992. "I had met Kumar briefly in London with his father, but he was studying then and was not involved in the business at all," Sakhuja recollects.
Daiwa's Koshal says, "The way he fought for Indal with Anil Agarwal [of Vedanta] showed his competitive spirit." But Birla's style is not that of an overtly aggressive corporate chieftain. Himanshu Kapania, the managing director of Idea Cellular, who came back to the Birla fold after a stint with Reliance Communications, says Birla's soft nudge is often more effective than a "hard-push" - an obvious comparison with Reliance Communications' promoter Anil Ambani.
What does Birla demand of his companies and their managers? Jain of Aditya Birla Nuvo sums it up when he talks about Idea Cellular, "As long as you are the last man standing and are adding value to your customers, you would continue to grow."
Last man standing? We had heard that term at Hindalco, when Debu explained how new projects were being created with low operating expenditure. Power is a major cost in producing aluminium and the company is keen to have its own source of coal. It also wants rights to mine bauxite and to set up its alumina operation at the pithead to save on logistics. "Once the capex (investments in plants and mines) is up and running, we can have the lowest-cost production process. In Hindalco we call it 'last man standing'. Even Mr Birla likes the term," Debu told BT.
It may mean different things in different industries - but clearly the group motto is to be the last man standing in every industry. And Birla is prepared to stand and wait, when that is what he has to do. The Mahan Aluminium project in Madhya Pradesh is ready to be commissioned, and yet the coal block at Singrauli allotted to it was designated a no-go area when Jairam Ramesh was the minister of environment and forests.
Essar and Hindalco were to have mined this block jointly. Birla says, "There is a Rs 10,000 crore plant, it is an aluminium smelter that we are ready to commission in a couple of months. But the coal that we were allocated has been classified as a no-go area." He says they had "completely complied with the spirit and letter of the law", but does not expect to get the coal until the issue is resolved.
"I can't use imported coal because Madhya Pradesh is a landlocked area. The ministry is going back on its commitment. So I hope the new minister will correct the situation. It is very disturbing," says Birla.
Actually, it is rare to find him feeling disturbed. Birla is very different from, say, a Mukesh Ambani or even other Birlas. His grandfather, Basant Kumar Birla, still runs his own companies at 90. Kumar prefers to put the right people in the right places. Talent management is a priority for him and his leaders. He involves himself largely in strategy, fine-tuning the business model. He gives his people a long rope and his strategy adequate time to play out.
Birla says he looks forward to his work when he wakes up each day: "I am fascinated by it." And he works through the week, on Saturdays and even Sundays: "My work-life balance is completely messed up." He is actually showing the way to Indian businessmen in many ways: how to be an owner of a company and not want to actively manage it; how to be a serious and ambitious acquirer and yet focus on the big picture. Birla has, in fact, never directly run a business, unlike a Ratan Tata or some of the other Birlas. This is a new Birla, Version 2.0.
Additional reporting by Anand Adhikari