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Meet the boss of India's most profitable cement co
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July 26, 2006
Anil Singhvi, managing director, Gujarat Ambuja Cements [Get Quote], loves to eat chana bhaturas at Cream Centre on Chowpatty. But we settle for Cafe Sidewok at the National Centre for Performing Arts compound at Nariman Point for our lunch since it is close to Singhvi's office at Maker Chamber III, writes Tamal Bandyopadhyay.

Twenty-one years ago, newly married and without a job, Singhvi met Narotam S Sekhsaria, then managing director of Gujarat Ambuja Cements, in this office. Sekhsaria was impressed with Singhvi's academic background but before making up his mind, he wanted to know how long the young chartered accountant would stick around with Gujarat Ambuja. "As long as you want me, Sir," was Singhvi's answer.

An assistant manager in December 1985, Singhvi was given Sekhsaria's chair in January this year. "I am a home-grown CEO. It does not always happen in a family-run business. My colleagues can also look forward to head this company one day," says Singhvi as we order the soup. He goes for saffron and mint clear soup while I decide to try vegetable, chili and coriander soup.

Has life changed after he became the, I ask him, "Not really, since I have always been part of the company's business strategy.

The only difference is now the buck stops with me," he says. As we look for some starters, I ask him about the new challenges. "The challenges are on the resource front. We do not have any mining policy, no coal policy. The government takes one step forward and two steps backwards. Coal India is doing a pathetic job. It's so inefficient... For seven years we have been talking about privatisation of coal mines but nothing has happened. Then, laws say lime stone mining lease can be given for just 20 years while the life of a cement plant is 50-60 years. I hope L N Mittal's home-coming changes things in India," a slightly agitated Singhvi says.

Sensing that the assortment of panipuri and sevpuri as starters cannot cool him down, I change the topic and ask him whether he was playing the tabla during the Mumbai rains.

He has been learning tabla from Guru Vinayak for six years now. This tactic doesn't work as it appears he missed the rains in Mumbai as he was away in Zurich meeting the top brass of Holcim, which will hold close to 25 per cent stake in Gujarat Ambuja after Ambuja Cement [Get Quote] Eastern Ltd gets formally merged with Gujarat Ambuja later this year.

Singhvi goes to Switzerland once every three months, interacting with the Holcim brass on internal audit, HR and best practices that have been introduced in Gujarat Ambuja. I ask him whether he has developed a taste for the famous Swiss dish Fondue, made from melted cheese. He laughs but I see the Swiss influence on him when he orders a pizza with a lavish cheese topping for the main course.

I ask him the obvious question: When will Gujarat Ambuja and ACC merge? Holcim holds over 35 per cent in ACC and it is only logical that the two outfits merge. "Why should the two companies merge?" Singhvi asks me.

"If you're talking of merger of minds, it's a separate thing. We are dating; the courtship is on but there is no plan for marriage. There is no merger plan on the radar screen," he says. Gujarat Ambuja has a capacity of about 17 million tonnes and ACC about 20 million tonnes. Between them, the two companies account for about one fourth of the 150 million tonne Indian cement industry.

The 210-million tonne global giant Holcim's largest single-country exposure is to India (about 18 per cent of its total exposure), and this according to Singhvi, will grow by about 10 per cent annually.

"There is not much scope to increase production through de-bottlenecking. It will be done through brownfield and greenfield expansions and acquisitions," says Singhvi. My reporter's antenna is up and I promptly ask him how fast the acquisition can happen. "We will possibly be ready for acquisitions next year," Singhvi says with matter-of-fact candidness.

He also feels the cement industry will see consolidation as it is too fragmented. Over 45 players share the cement space and each one of them, on an average, accounts for 3.5 million tonne capacity.

Among the foreign players, Holcim, Lafarge, Italcementi and Heidelberg are already there. I ask him whether he expects any new foreign firm to set foot in India.

Singhvi takes a bite of  paneer pita and says, "Cemex of Mexico, the world's third-largest cement player, is sure to come to India. It does not have any presence yet and I'd think that it would come very soon."

A commerce graduate from Jodhpur, Singhvi started his career in Blowplast but left after three years, when he failed to convince the promoters that its foray into the toy business was not in sync with its mainline activities.

He worked for six months with Century Enka [Get Quote] but did not see any future there as the most profitable Indian company in early 1980s did not have any growth plans. He joined Gujarat Ambuja when cement was a dirty word and for a Rs 20 crore (Rs 200 million) working capital loan, the company had to chase a consortium of 11 banks.

Singhvi was instrumental in taking over DLF Cement and Modi Cement and finally forging the relationship with Holcim through a complex and novel deal. What is the key to his success? Is it his acumen for finance or knowledge of the cement industry?

The 46-year-old CEO offers an unusual answer. "My eye for detail. I always plan things meticulously, even when I am taking a flight or boarding a train. I am sincere and always at the right place at the right time. But the most important thing is that I do not leave any thing to chance. I plan every small thing."

For dessert, his preference is chocolate mousse. I ask him about his pastime and passion, playing tabla. Is he ready to put up a public performance? "I don't want appreciation from the public.

If my guru is happy with my performance, I am happy. Ekalvya did not fight any battle. He just wanted to make Dronacharya happy," Singhvi says. He is the Ekalvya and he has two Dronacharyas to please - his tabla guru Nayak and mentor at Gujarat Ambuja, Sekhsaria. We don't know about Nayak yet but Sekhsaria, certainly, is happy with this Ekalvya.

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