THE BEST A MAN CAN GET

A low-profile Kolkata businessman is helping build one of Israel’s largest railway projects

Quartz india
Quartz india

For nearly four decades, Saroj Kumar Poddar had made a habit of introducing some of the world’s best-known brands to Indians.

From Gillette, the men’s shaving brand, to the French furniture maker Gautier, to Duracell batteries, the reticent businessman from Kolkata has remained an astute strategist.

On July 4, Poddar added another first to his name. Adventz, his $3 billion conglomerate comprising 26 companies, signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Israel’s Lesico to collaborate on a light-rail transit project.

“The MoU between Lesico with Adventz Group will be a first for an Indian conglomerate with group company Texmaco Rail & Engineering Limited, which will lend its expertise in building the Tel Aviv Metropolitan Area Mass-Transit System,” Adventz said in a statement. The Tel Aviv Metropolitan Area Mass-Transit System is one of the largest infrastructure projects in the country.

The deal was announced during Narendra Modi’s ongoing visit to Israel, the first ever by an Indian prime minister to the west Asian nation. Texmaco makes railway freight cars, hydro-mechanical equipment, and steel castings, among other infrastructure products. In Israel, it will work with Lesico to lay tracks and install signals for a railway project worth $2 billion.

Gold medal to Gillette

Saroj Poddar was born in Calcutta, now Kolkata, in 1945.

His father, Badri Prasad Poddar, was among the country’s biggest coal miners before India nationalised the sector in 1971. The family also owned jute mills, textile mills, mini steel plants, and tea gardens.

But the academically brilliant Saroj—he won a gold medal in his bachelors in commerce—wanted to chart his own path. “I certainly recall my early days with Gillette because I started talking to them while I was still in college in Kolkata,” Poddar recalled in an interview in 2014. “I would write to them and I would receive a polite letter stating, ‘Mr Poddar, India is a difficult country; we are not interested.'”

But, his perseverance paid off when the then chairman of the razor-making company told him: “I can fill a room with people from India who have approached us but we have not seen anybody else with so much of commitment, and that is what excites us about working with you.”

In 1977, Gillette submitted a letter of intent to the government of India. The approval came seven years later and Gillette India was finally set up in 1984 as a partnership between the House of Poddar Enterprises, Saroj’s family business group, and Gillette USA. The idea was to make stainless steel razor blades. Gillette India today controls 34% of the Indian men’s razor market and is worth nearly Rs17,000 crore ($2.62 billion)

Poddar was also associated with the launch of Duracell batteries in India in 1995. Duracell, which then belonged to Gillette, went on to hold a 70% share in the Indian alkaline battery market. Poddar’s other endeavours include bringing in Gautier and taking control of the Indian subsidiary of US-based Singer, which made sewing machines popular in India in the 1970s and 1980s. He also signed a joint venture with Germany-based Hettich, one of the world’s largest furniture makers, to set up Hettich India.

Yet, it wasn’t an entirely easy ride. In 2005, Duracell and Gillette were acquired by Procter & Gamble in a $57 billion deal. Then, as per a 2013 Indian law, promoters of Indian companies were required to bring down their stake to 75% in a company. Back then, the promoter group, which included P&G and the Poddars, held an over 88% stake. Poddar decided to make an exit. The deal with Gautier wasn’t renewed either. In 2015, P&G stopped selling Duracell in India.

However, a turning point came in 2008 when his father-in-law, KK Birla, bequeathed his business to Poddar and his wife Jyotsna. Part of one of India’s oldest business families, Birla’s other children include media magnate Shobhana Bhartia and sugar baroness Nandini Nopany.

Turnaround

Among the companies that Birla transferred to his son-in-law were fertiliser conglomerate Zuari Agro and Texmaco, then a sick engineering and infrastructure firm that he had founded in 1939.

In 2011, Poddar revamped his businesses, bringing varied companies under the Adventz Group. The next year, its flagship, Zuari, was listed on the bourses.

Since then, Poddar has overseen Zuari’s dramatic acquisition of Mangalore Chemicals from Vijay Mallya, the former United Breweries chairman. Zuari also co-invested with Japan’s Mitsubishi in a Peruvian mine for rock phosphate to ensure a steady supply of di-ammonium phosphate, a key farm nutrient in India. Today, Zuari has annual revenues of nearly Rs4,000 crore from nearly Rs1,800 crore (pdf) in 2011.

Texmaco, too, has scripted a turnaround. It set up a separate export firm and has been investing in manufacturing facilities and robotic machinery. It acquired Gurgaon-based Kalindee Rail Nirman (Engineers), which specialises in railway signalling, telecom, and track laying. Today, Texmaco has an order book of over Rs3,700 crore, including contracts from Alstom, CLW, and DLW. The company is also India’s largest freight-car maker, producing one out of every five wagons for Indian Railways.

And that’s what has got Israel’s attention now.

To Israel and beyond

Adventz’s partnership with Lesico will see it laying tracks, helping in electrification, powering sub-stations, and managing command, control, and communication equipment in Israel. “The Texmaco-Lesico partnership is a milestone and has widespread ramifications for the future,” Poddar said in a statement.

Texmaco is also looking to foray into India’s defence sector in partnership with Russia-based Rosoboronexport, a state-owned firm. “Our Russian partner is huge and (the) sky is the limit. But we are looking at engineering products like combat vehicles, infantry, and even guns,” Poddar said last year. Since coming to power, the Modi government has focused on domestic manufacturing of defence products, and homegrown firms have made a beeline for such projects.

Meanwhile, the next generation has stepped in. Poddar’s son, London School of Economics-educated Akshay, is developing residential projects across the country. But 70-year-old Poddar is a long way from calling it day.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search