By Rithika Siddhartha
LONDON is a popular destination for tourists and business people, but this summer was notable because it saw a rise in the arrival of visitors from the subcontinent, who followed their respective teams in the Cricket World Cup.
Gautam Singhania is no exception. The multi-millionaire Indian businessman, who is the chairman and managing director of the Raymond Group of companies, was in the capital combining his love of sport with his vacation and work meetings.
However, India crashed out at the semi-final stage, and Singhania, who had watched some of the team’s matches, quickly turned his attention to the Formula One at Silverstone.
Racing cars is a passion for the 54-year-old, who sits on the council of the Federation International Automobile (FIA) and has a collection of supercars at his home in Mumbai.
In an exclusive interview with Eastern Eye, the businessman and father of two explained his ambition for his family business and how – despite having stepped down from his company – he remains busier than ever.
“I’m very fortunate that at this age I have total ownership and control of the company,” he said.
“I owe it not only to myself, but the 40,000 people at Raymond and my family to create the correct structure for tomorrow.
“Each business has its own ambition. My big ambition for Raymond is to create a model company. And, really, what I believe, should be the best governance standards in the country and how we should let go a bit to become bigger.”
Singhania was appointed chairman and managing director in 2000. The son of Vijaypat Singhania, who is himself a businessman and flying enthusiast, he talked about his early years in the family.
“Obviously, when you are born in a family like that, you see the glamorous side of it, but it comes with a lot of responsibility, and one has to learn to deal with that. I think from a young age, I knew I was being groomed to run the business,” he recalled.
In recent years, Singhania’s falling out with his father has made headlines in India.
Raymond was founded in 1925 and is today best known in India for its suiting material and apparel lines. The group also has a presence in engineering and consumer goods sectors, and has recently forayed into real estate.
The Raymond brand is among the most respected in India. Its suits are worn by people from all walks of life – from celebrities to those from the working classes.
On the day of the interview, Singhania is wearing a printed, off-white, short-sleeved, opencollared shirt. As he walks through the lobby of a luxury hotel in central London – carrying only his mobile phone and free of any entourage – there is little hint of how wealthy and accomplished a businessman he is.
Singhania spoke candidly about his family, business ties and his management mantra.
Two decades prior to Singhania becoming chairman, his father held the post. Under him, Raymond ventured into polyester filament yarn, indigo denim, cold-rolled steel, prophylactics and charter air services. Vijaypat was also known for his passion for aviation and once set a record for the highest altitude gained while in a hot-air balloon.
He handed over his controlling stake of 37 per cent to his son in 2015, but the pair have not seen eye to eye in recent years.
Singhania was not reluctant to explain his point of view. He told Eastern Eye: “Obviously, I am sad about it. Who wants to see your old father go through what he is going through? He has been grossly misled by people who have vested interests and have something to gain from him.
“I have nothing to gain from him, because I had what I had, and I don’t want anything from him. I’m not going to do something wrong.
“He wants me to do things that go against my principles. He has his issues and we address the issues. Sometimes if we take a stand and are not willing to relent or respect what anybody tells you, then it is what it is.
“It’s painful, yes. I would like to see him happy, but [there is] a combination of not being able to understand what I can’t do – if you ask me to jump off a building and I say I can’t do it. His issues have been addressed, but there are vested interests who have zero understanding in the knowledge and reality of life, who keep pushing him and they have their own agenda. It’s unfortunate, but it is what it is.”
Raymond has a large presence in India with more than 1,000 shops across 380 cities, according to its corporate website. There are plans to expand further – in the domestic and foreign sectors – and also to diversify.
One of the group’s most recent projects was building homes in Thane, a suburb outside Mumbai. The land belonged to Raymond and where other companies in a similar position might have considered selling it, Singhania decided to build homes and strengthen the brand.
“It’s the right size, right location, right product, (gives a) good reputation to the company and it was a successful launch,” he said.
It is the sort of different mindset and strategy that Singhania employed across the business since he took charge nearly two decades ago. He restructured the group, including divestment of its non-core businesses of steel, cement and synthetics.
One of his boldest initiatives was the launch in India of Kama Sutra condoms in 1991, just as the country was on the threshold of economic liberalisation.
He said: “Really, the core of all of this is how you create shareholder value. That’s what the organisation is all about. Everybody benefits from it. I’m probably the only promoter in India who has, at this age, stepped down from all his companies as chairman except for one.”
“Raymond is a national asset today, and we are the custodians,” Singhania added. “When a country has a good brand, it’s the country’s asset.
Raymond is owned by the people of India. They are very possessive about it; our customers are deeply possessive about it. So that’s a real big power we’re sitting on. We are only custodians of the next generation.”
Raymond has a turnover of Rs 6,500 crores (approximately £705 million) and a market capitalisation of Rs3,800 crores (£413m).
Singhania outlined his approach to building good and efficient teams.
“First, I have not grown this business, the team has grown the business. For me, my job is to find people to do the job. My job is to get the right people. That comes with experience.
“I’ll always remember what Carlos Ghosn (formerly chief of Nissan) said to me. He said, ‘communicate, motivate, simplify’. It’s very, very simple and stuck in my mind. We have to communicate what you want them [the team] to do, you have got to motivate them to do the job and you have got to simplify it, if there’s a problem.”
Stepping down from the day-to-day running of the Raymond empire has given Singhania the flexibility to direct his attention to his other passions.
He loves racing cars and is actively involved in the Federation International Automobile (FIA), sitting on its world council as a member. Singhania is the owner of several supercars and reveals his love of driving, but without any music playing. In Mumbai, a city notorious for its congested traffic, he takes his cars out for a spin, usually after 11 pm.
“I am more busy today than when I was running Raymond,” he said.
Singhania also spoke about “seizing the moment” and enjoying life today because “you never know what is round the corner”.
“I have seen so many places where for lack of clarity, succession planning, and professionalising, it’s a loss of value.
“My job is to differentiate between ownership and management. At a philosophical level, I have two girls, they are seven and 13. If something happens to me, today, God forbid, what would happen to them, what will happen to my wife?
“Today, the way we have structured the organisation, it’s fully professional. I would reasonably put my hand on my heart and say that I can walk away to the distance and the companies will still go on. We’ve professionalised it to that level.”
He added: “But I am not walking away, I want to embrace life. Live in the moment.”
Like him, Singhania’s daughters have been exposed to the family business from a young age.
He is clear that should they show an interest in stepping into his shoes, he will certainly encourage them.
Recalling a conversation with his wife, Singhania said his elder daughter wanted to go to university. “She is 13 years old and if she is going to be 18, 19 or 20 when she goes to university, I’ll be 60 years old. I said (to my wife), ‘let her spend five years in India, I’ll teach her more than Harvard’s going to teach her.’
“I would like to train my kids under me if they want to get into business. If they want to become a musician, or a boxer or a doctor, it’s entirely up to them.”
“I’m not going to impose [my views] on them, but I do see early signs of them being very interested in business and they have the aptitude for it. But it’s their decision. I’m not even thinking (about it yet). If I look at my elder daughter, even if she doesn’t go to university, she will be 20 or 22, she can just come and start working with me. Eight years later, Raymond will be a very different organisation. I’m not here to second guess what it’s going to be like. I’m today creating the best governance standards and maybe there won’t be an entry for them [at that point]. I don’t know.”
As for his father, Singhania said: “Who wouldn’t want to see your father happy at this age? He is 81 years old. I’m really upset about the people who are pushing him in the wrong direction. For their vested gains, they are destroying his life.”
In July, a publishing house told a court in India that it would not release an autobiography of Vijaypat Singhania, which was tentatively titled The Incomplete Man (Raymond’s advertising line is that it is for the “complete man”).
Raymond had filed a suit in the Thane district court in September 2018, seeking to stop the publication of the book claiming that its contents were defamatory.
Singhania has filed a similar plea in a court in Mumbai.
The Bombay high court in February stayed the release of the book pending the civil suits.