When a country is split into two, millions of lives are thrown completely out of gear. We know it wasn't any different with ours. We can barely imagine the plight of the peoples ravaged by the savagery that accompanied, and lasted even after, the tumultuous occurring. Such an event would have been enough to break down the resolve of many who were faced with innumerable and, often, insurmountable difficulties in life, and out of which very few have come out unscathed. Especially, if one happens to be a young man on the threshold of a blossoming career. But, even in the face of such impossible circumstances, there have been some who have risen like a phoenix and created a world of their own, literally out of nothing. Raunaq Singh, the founding Chairman of the Rs. 4,270 crore (Turnover) Raunaq Group, is one of them. The partition of India forced him to move - almost flee- from Lahore to Delhi, and was, in the process, left almost a pauper.
This write-up here is an attempt to capture some of the significant happenings in the amazing journey of the thorough-bred Raunaq Singh who, with a blunt and down-to-earth manner, propelled his group to the heights where it is presently at. One can be pardoned if after reading this one gets a feeling bordering between reality and stuff of the make-believe world.
Mr. Singh was born on August 16, 1922 in Daska in the Punjab Province of present-day Pakistan. It is said that Mr. Singh had very modest beginnings; what with neither any pedigree nor formal higher education to rely on, it was incumbent on the young Mr. Singh to take up a job with a local steel trading shop for a salary of Rs.8 per month. Even as this went on for some time, the struggles of the freedom movement were on the verge of fruition, aided by events elsewhere in the world as also the political ramblings within the country, leading to a period of intense turmoil culminating in the partition of the country into two. Hundreds of thousands of families were displaced. So too was Mr. Singh's which was forced to move to Delhi where he took up a job with another steel merchant Munilal and Sons, located in the Gole Market. He had to put up his family in a small rented portion in the vicinity of his new work place, where his frugality helped him sustain and see through the difficult period with relative ease.
That Mr. Singh had all the makings of an entrepreneur was quite evident very early in his youth when he was able to very easily sell a steel tube for a price much higher than it would cost; that too without investing a penny! The sale itself is not unusual but what it led the young man to afterwards is noteworthy. The event turned out to be a sort of turning point in Mr. Singh's life. His job stint and this transaction in particular, was what set him thinking, and laid the foundations for the development of the astute businessman he would eventually turn out to be. While recalling this apparently insignificant event to his friends much later, Mr. Singh would revel in emphasizing the effect it had on him and his thinking that would guide him in all his pursuits thereafter. For it is from this point on that he started to think of starting up a business where he was slated to excel in everything - well almost- he did.
As we have learnt, displacement of the family from Lahore to Delhi as refugees owing to the partition of the country, had adverse effects on Mr. Singh's financial plight and forced him to take up a job, which was barely enough for subsistence. But, as things would have it, the aspiring businessman in him would not give in to the circumstances so easily. His background, early tryst with destiny, and his make-up were such that he had to get himself out of this predicament, and do what he was destined to do.
So in such trying times when survival revolved around a 1-paisa (hundredth of a rupee) meal a day, he had both the courage to pawn the jewellery of his wife -the only conceivable assets they had at that point in time- as well as the conviction and foresight that his aspirations will, sooner than later, fructify. With the capital thus raised (Rs.8000) not long after he arrived into Delhi, he moved to Kolkata to kick-start his journey as one of independent India's first generation entrepreneurs. He started it off with a shop dealing in the trade of steel tubes, aptly naming it as 'Bharat Steel Tubes' after the name of his motherland.
It was only logical that with such a man as Mr. Singh at the helm, what started as a business activity involving sale of steel tubes, something that he had considerable success with, grew appreciably and branched-out over the next couple of decades. Having honed his skills and learnt the tricks of the trade in turbulent and uncertain times, it was now time for Mr. Singh to see his company venture into manufacturing, where also he succeeded like very few had before. Along the way, his company also bought and sold quite a few small companies in its effort to further strengthen and consolidate its position in the market.
Now we come to the most remarkable part of this saga. Showing great business acumen for which, along with his wit and humor, he would be known for during the rest of his life, Mr. Singh seized up the situation of independent India as well as its new-found quest for industrial growth. He was quick to realize that domestic consumption and demand were miniscule and that alternatives had to be relied upon to further the cause of local businesses. Towards this end, he left no stone unturned and, to a great degree, it is his efforts that Indian businesses got international exposure, an aspect which also helped create an export-oriented products segment in the country. He was to remain devoted to this cause ever after, up until his last breath. It may sound a touch clichéd to recount here that he was often branded as "Mr. Exporter," which he indeed was in every sense of the word, as exporting our produce was one of his primary business agenda all along. But, beyond the tag, he was one of the leading lights or shall we say the torch-bearer of the Indian Industry in the international market. He was the one who heralded the concept of market-economy during his time as the first President of the FICCI in the early nineties which set the ball of international trade of Indian companies rolling.
As the wheels of the country's economy trudged along, emphasis on road connectivity was going to become one of the imperatives. Mr. Singh saw that the situation was ripe enough to set-up an ambitious venture - Apollo Tyres - India's first tyre manufacturing company. Work on Apollo Tyres was started in 1972 (incorporated in 1976) and established its first plant in Perambra, Kerala (India). This proved to be a master-stoke from Mr. Singh and the stable of the Raunaq Group, as it not only helped boost its domestic as well as international business, but also brought India on to the world stage vis-à-vis manufacture of tyres.
While it took another decade-and-a-half, 1991, to establish its second plant that came up in Limda, Gujarat, the other four (two outside India) came up relatively quickly. This can be attributed to the fact that up until 1990-91, India was largely a closed economy which meant that businesses could not gather pace at the rate they desired for. But liberalization and globalization opened up the flood-gates, and Apollo Tyres went on to taste success after success; there was steady growth as a result of the growing dependence of businesses, as indeed of life in general, on transportation in the era of globalization. The company has established itself as one of the leading tyre manufacturers in the world with its current production capacity of around 1600 metric tonnes a day from its 6 plants, and employing around 16,000 employees. As of March 31, 2012, the company recorded a turnover of $ US 2.5 billion with a market presence in more than 100 countries encompassing Europe, Africa and Asia. This is definitely straight out of the rags-to-riches story books, but one that has happened in reality and on our very own soil.
That is not all. The Raunaq Group, under Mr. Singh went on to establish a handful of other entities namely, Bharat Gears Ltd, Bharat Steel Tubes Ltd, Raunaq International Ltd, Menarini Raunaq Pharma Ltd, and Raunaq Automotive Components Ltd. Transition was due and by the turn of the millennium, Mr. Singh had his sons ready to assume the mantle of leadership and carry forward the rich legacy of the group, more so of its jewel, Apollo Tyres. His eldest son Onkar S Kanwar took over as Chairman of Apollo Tyres in 2002 and has been able to keep the growth story intact.
Mr. Singh's advocacy of liberalization of the Indian market and his efforts towards this end were well acknowledged. Not only that, Mr. Singh's immense talents and his ability to steer forward the ship even in times of trouble also prompted many governments and institutions to seek his services. The Government of India appointed him as the first chairman of the state-owned Maruti-Suzuki Limited. He also held senior positions in the Exim Bank, Export Credit Guarantee Corporation and the Indo-German Consultative Group.
He held several key leadership positions in Industry & Trade Associations successfully overseeing the functioning of many national and international bodies. The capacities in which Mr. Singh served the entities and their names are:
1. President of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI)
2. President of Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM)
3. Chairman, Engineering Export Promotion Council (EEPC)
4. Chairman, Automotive Tyre Manufacturers Association
5. President, Federation of Indian Export Organization
6. Mr. Singh also won international recognition for his entrepreneurial skills. He was elected as a member of the Executive Board of the International Chamber of Commerce, Paris, for a three-year term
The persona of Mr. Raunaq Singh caught the imagination of many contemporaries and adversaries alike. His contemporaries thought of him as someone who was very amiable, full of wit and humour and, who would put many a serious matter into simple earthy language, sorting out differences with his penchant for humour, besides his great business acumen. Another one recollects that he was a true entrepreneur and an example of how one can grow with hard work and commitment. While it may not have been expressly manifest in his early days as an entrepreneur but later on Mr. Singh did demonstrate a strong commitment to serving the larger common good and devoted time to enlightened business pursuits. This, perhaps, stemmed from the fact that he was a strong believer in God, and because he believed that since God had bestowed upon him whatever he had desired for, it was his turn to pay back from the position he was in, by helping people through creation / generation of as many jobs as possible.
Apart from setting up multiple business ventures that helped create thousands of jobs, Apollo Tyres has a very well organized and active CSR wing. Many socially critical issues such as environment friendly practices and HIV-AIDS prevention have been taken up through quality initiatives that have had a reasonable impact on the community. What's more, it is also involved in undertaking training and skill-building initiatives (as part of CSR) that have helped create awareness amongst the youth, providing them with the required industrial exposure and the technical know-how that will make them job-ready and self-reliant.
* Delhi University had conferred a Doctoral Degree "D.Litt (Honoris Causa)" on Mr. Raunaq Singh in 1998.
* Mr. Singh was also honoured with the "Order of the Khalsa" at Anandpur Sahib on the occasion of Tercentenary Birth of Khalsa Panth in 1999.
"The desire to do something good has kept me so active way past the age a normal man would have retired."
Raunaq Singh died on September 30, 2002. Mr. Singh is definitely one more reason for us to be proud of being Indians.