Focus and gusto is what describes this 65-year old chairman of The Sanmar Group.
He is N Sankar, the recent recipient of the Lifetime Achievement award at the TiE Chennai Entrepreneur Awards 2010. Adding to his list of credits is the fact that Sankar leads the group that has manufacturing entities in Germany, USA, Mexico and Egypt operates in the areas of chemicals, engineering, metals and shipping. Today, the turnover of the group is estimated to be around Rs 4,500 crore (Rs 45 billion), and all this because Sankar believed in his dream.
Growing up in an entrepreneurial family
I was born in an entrepreneurial family of 3-4 generations, so automatically I also became an entrepreneur. My grandfather, S N N Sankaralinga Iyer, was the first industrialist in the family. He started the Indo-CommercialBank and also India Cements Ltd which made the largest public issue in 1949. He was a visionary who did many things like corporate farming, chemicals, shipping, rubber products, etc. He, along with my father started the first cement plant in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu. Growing up in such an atmosphere, it was taken for granted that I also became an entrepreneur one day. After my engineering here in Chennai, I went to the US to do my Masters in Chemical Engineering. In hindsight, it would have been better if I had done an MBA. After I came back, I gotadmission at IIM-Ahmedabad but I didn’t take it up. I think it was the second or the third batch.
Joining the family business
When my father’s partner passed away, my father needed my assistance. So, I joined Chemplast in 1967. I had no funds of my own to start an enterprise at that time. From 1967 to 1972, I worked with Chemplast. I worked under S Ramaswamy, the chief executive of the company.
I learnt a lot from him in those five years. He was the only boss I ever had in my life. He taught me simple things from how to draft a letter to how to manage people. Those were the most difficult times for Chemplast. But I learnt to cope with it.
Starting the entrepreneurial career
As I didn’t want to work for anyone for long, in 1972, I left Chemplast to start my entrepreneurial career. I borrowed Rs 16-20 lakh (Rs 1.6-2 million) from friends and investors and bought the majority ownership in a company that made industrial chemicals. From then on, I have never worked for anybody else.
I also wanted to build it as a company, that is, a technology based company, with foreign collaborators. It was very difficult to go for collaborators in those days.
I will give you an example. Even the seal which was used in pumps to block leaks, had to be imported at that time. The seal was only worth Rs 3,000-4,000 but if it was not there, sometimes, we had to close the plant down. So, we decided to make it in India and tried various collaborators. I, a 26 year old, was writing letters to foreign companies that I wanted to collaborate with them. Finally, we chose a company from Michigan, USA and it required a lot of approvals at that time to have collaboration with foreign companies. The goodwill that my father had built over the years helped me in good stead in getting approvals. I started it (Durametallic India Ltd ) in 1976 and it has been 34 years.
Buying new companies
In 1997, I bought Chemplast and took over the management. From then on, I am running Chemplast and we have expanded it tremendously. In the late 80s, I acquired Mettur chemicals. In 2001-02, I acquired the caustic soda plant of Kothari sugars and Chemicals at Karaikal, Puducherry. Last year, we expanded in a huge way by starting a PVC (Polyvinyl chloride) plant in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu. Chemplast alone is a Rs 2,000 crore (Rs 20 billion) company this year.
Sanmar group started in 1991
Before liberalisation, we could not have any group. After liberalisation, we decided to have a group, and we had many fancy names first but finally we joined my name with my brother’s (N Kumar) name and called the entire group Sanmar group. The Sanmar Group includes 15 major companies — Chemplast Sanmar Ltd, TCI Sanmar, Sanmar Speciality Chemicals LLC (Egypt), Cabot Sanmar Ltd, Flowserve Sanmar Ltd, BS&B Safety Systems (India) Ltd, Sanmar Engineering Services, Fisher Sanmar Ltd, Xomox Sanmar Ltd, Tyco Sanmar Ltd, Sanmar Foundries Limited, Matrix Metals LLC, Sanmar Ferrotech Ltd, Eisenwerk Erla, Sanmar Shipping Ltd. We are into chemicals, engineering, shipping and metals. We have six ships operating internationally and have done pretty well in the shipping business.
For the environment
We are ahead of others in environment protection. Our Mettur plant has not discharged a single drop of treated effluent since September 2009 while in Cuddalore and Karaikkal there has been no discharge since inception. At the 7th National Award for Excellence in Water Management organised by the Confederation on Indian Industry in Hyderabad recently, Chemplast Sanmar Limited, the flagship company of The Sanmar Group won the “Innovative Case Study” and “Excellent Water Efficient Unit” awards for the successful case study of zero liquid discharge at Mettur.
Cricket, an integral part of Sanmar group
I used to play tennis and it was total relaxation for me. But for the last 5-6 years, I was forced to stop playing because of a knee problem. Cricket is a passion for me. For the last 45 years, we have been managing a cricket team and I am sure very few can say that they own one such team. Top national level cricketers like Balaji, Badrinath, Murali Vijay, Ashwin, are products of our team. We have been lucky to have the former wicket keeper Bharat Reddy as the person in charge of our team for the last 35 years and he spots talent. I feel happy that we have spotted so much good talent.
Satisfying moments in the 38 years of journey
There are many satisfying moments in the long journey that I undertook. The most satisfying is that the company I started in 1972 is still with us and it is doing and growing so well. Our group’s motto combines integrity with excellence. We run the companies excellently and we have also been able to inculcate integrity and ethics in our people.