Rajendra Kumar Somany, octogenarian with a razor-sharp memory, loves to explain why he chose to pen down his memoirs. In the process he gives the listener a close up view of a shrewd yet warm Marwari businessman and family man. This article is a mix of his recounting and excerpts from the highly readable book.
By Gyanendra Kumar Kashyap
“The younger generation including my grandchildren insisted upon me to share my experiences in the form of a memoir,” begins Somany, as the chairman settles down in his chamber of HSIL’s Gurugram corporate office for the interaction, “and I used to say, but who will read my book?” He recalls that their insistence, and his counters, continued for many a month, but the younger lot prevailed. “I agreed to pen down my experiences, learnings, and all that I think made a difference to my life.”
‘Bringing the Rainbow–The Hindware Story’ (Rupa, 201 pgs) chronicles the life of Somany, the ups and downs in the personal as well as professional sphere, and takes the reader from time of setting up India’s first ceramic sanitaryware plant in (then) Punjab of the 1960s to the business conglomerate that it is today. ‘Rainbow’ is replete with personal anecdotes that would not only inspire present day leaders and management students, but would also serve as advice for budding entrepreneurs. In essence the book, part memoir and part business guide, is a firsthand account of the changing face of India’s industrialisation – the license raj, liberalisation of the economy in early 90s, etc – from the perspective of an entrepreneur who dreamt big and evolved into a giant.
“It was in December 1959 when bhaiji (my elder brother Hiralall) asked me to go to Bahadurgarh and find a way out of the stalemate arising out of compensation to be paid to farmers for the land that we had purchased. The next morning I set off from Delhi in an old Morris Minor and drove myself along rutted mud roads, with my bones shaking with every rotation of the cars wheel,” he reminisces about the conditions of the then physical infrastructure. “As I was fretting, a rainbow appeared on the horizon and the drive suddenly turned beautiful; the chore became exciting. That was my moment of epiphany. The rainbow became my guiding mantra,” he exclaims, adding that ever since, whatever he has done as a businessperson, a father, husband, friend and a family man, he has asked himself, “Am I bringing the rainbow to this situation?” Any guesses why the book is so named?
“My father died when I was barely seven years old,” shared Somany. The eldest of the Somany siblings, Hiralall, was for all practical purposes Somany’s foster father, guardian, mentor, guide and best friend, all rolled into one.
“I had a comfortable carefree childhood playing carom, cards, table tennis and flying kites. I remember my cousins coming over and playing with me on our huge terrace. The children of the Poddar family, our neighbours, would also come over regularly to play with us. As the second youngest among a large brood of children, I often had to wait, and fight, for a chance to play. This instilled in me a fierce determination and fighting spirit that has become a part of my character.”
Recollecting memories of his three week association with Loreto House – Kolkata’s premier girl’s school, before he joined St Xavier’s Collegiate School, Somany points to a small scar on his right cheek. “The three week association with Loreto has left a lifelong mark on me,” he chuckles. “Two of my classmates were throwing pebbles at each other; their aim wasn’t good and one pebble hit me and left a deep gash on my cheek.”
The intense but friendly competition at school, St Xaviers, instilled in him a fierce desire to win and taught him the value of hard work. It was when Somany was pursuing his intermediate course I.Com that he started going to the family office and learnt the basics of accounting. “I became the first member of the Somany clan to enroll for college degree, and three years later the first one to graduate with a university degree,” he recollects, adding that even in those days he had a packed schedule – college in the morning, a full day office, French classes, etc. “Even now, nearing eighty, I work on an average of sixteen to eighteen hours a day, juggling my time between business, my commitment to various committees of which I am a member, my doctors, physiotherapist, yoga, and my family.”
Initiation into Business
Somany’s initiation into the world of commerce happened as soon as he finished schooling, and much before he started attending I.Com classes. “I would report for work every morning at the office of our jute-trading firm Ram Prasad Murlidhar & Co, and patiently fill out pages after page of transactions, trying to understand the nuances of cash flow, receivables and profit.” In retrospect, Somany says he was unable to develop a liking for the jute-trading business.
It was in 1957 that Somany, under the guidance of his elder brothers, started considering various options for entering into the manufacturing sector and zeroed in on sanitaryware. “We decided to foray into vitreous china, a new technology at that time,” he recollects, and settled for Twyfords Ltd, an English firm, as their partner. The necessity of a family member to visit England and train with Twyfords, for a few months, led to his entry into the ceramics industry.
“I began training at Twyfords within a day or two of arriving at Stoke-on-Trent. The training was rigourous, thorough and often physically taxing,” he says. The first step was to learn how to make Plaster-of-Paris moulds for the saniatryware that was to be created. “It took me two months to learn this art.” This was followed by learning the art and science of glazing, working in the kilns, spending time in laboratories, and training in the slip and mill houses. The entire training lasted five-and-a-half months. “The experience gained and the lessons learnt were invaluable,” says Somany, adding that soon he was involved with the setting up and running of the newly incorporated Hindusthan Twyfords Ltd (later Hindustan Sanitaryware, and now HSIL).
Concern for Society
Having been associated with PHDCCI, Rotary, Luncheon Club, Jaycees, etc, Somany is of the opinion that even small institutional interventions can bring about a big change in the lives of individuals. “I noticed a group of women colleagues leaving the HSIL office after dusk,” he says, stressing upon the fact that this was around the same time as the infamous Nirbhaya case. While safety of employees outside office was not the company’s responsibility, Somany says that as a responsible corporate citizen he felt he must take a lead and do something about it. “I called the head-HR at HSIL and asked how many women worked at HSIL”. It later turned out that 57 of 180 staff members at the Gurgaon corporate office were women. Somany ensured that the company organised self defence training by hiring certified self-defence trainers to conduct such courses for HSIL’s women employees at the corporate office as well as at the plant in Bahadurgarh.
As for giving back to society, Somany, in his own way tried to continue the tradition of sharing his family’s fortune with those sections of society that need support. “I set up the Krishna Somany Charitable Trust and built an orphanage in Bahadurgarh in 2015. I used my personal money for the purpose.” The R K Somany Foundation supports underprivileged girls providing them with life skills to enable them to lead a dignified life. “I am also involved actively with the Chirawa Collge,” he says, adding that he started the Laxmi Devi Somany Girls Wing at the college in 2007-08 with a target to enroll hundred girls in the first year. “I intend to increase my involvement with the affairs of my trusts and the college after I pass on the baton at HSIL.”
Also, HSIL’s CSR corpus has been used to build many check dams in Rajasthan’s Alwar district to facilitate storage of rain water. Making its contributions towards the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, HSIL has taken upon itself to build fifty toilets in Bhiwandi, Rajasthan.
Even now Somany maintains a very intensive work schedule that stretches to eighteen hours a day. “I like to delve into every issue and listen to and understand everyone’s point of view before I arrive at a decision,” he says. “I like to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty.” Somany says he doesn’t mind if people call him a ‘control freak’, for that is what has served him so well and he sees no reason to change his work style. “I like to delegate responsibilities, but set milestones that I can track to ensure that individuals work in unison towards realising the corporate goal.”
“J R D Tata and G D Birla have been my idols from an early age. I have closely followed their careers and tried, in my own humble way, to emulate many of their habits and management techniques.” Amongst the contemporaries, Somanay holds Ratan N Tata and N R Narayanmurthy in very high esteem. Mahatma Gandhi is the first name, amongst many, from the non-business world that Somany considers his idol.
The Way Forward
Competition has really picked up in this segment; domestic rivals now produce world-class products and global brands occupy the top-end of the market. “HSIL has been more than able to hold its own against global heavyweights,” says Somany, adding that he doesn’t mind facing up to fair competition. “What really gets my goat is the unrestricted import of cheap Chinese sanitaryware by several competitors for the lower and middle end of the market.”
On a philosophical note Somany says that many people often question him as to when will he retire. “My straight answer is – when God retires me!” Health permitting, he says, he would like to carry on working for as long has is able to. “I have been a workaholic all my life; I remain curious by nature and try to learn something new every few days. I enjoy meeting people and getting different points of view on topical issues. I feel restless unless I am doing something constructive,” he shares, as he concludes in a poetic fashion, “I have just started my journey.”