An Interaction with G M Rao

Following its theme – Live, Laugh and Learn, Eo New Delhi held an enlightening event with Mr. Grandhi Mallikarjuna Rao, Founder and Chairman of GMR group, who shared his life story from humble beginnings to private jets! An introductory video was played to showcase the journey of GMR group, which evolved from a jute company to a well-diversified group.

When Mr. Rao took the podium and addressed EO members, he said that his daughter and son-in-law were a part of EO as well, and he found EO to be a great forum to learn.

He then shared his own and GMR’s growth story. Mr. Rao shares a common goal with EO: a Thirst for Learning. In every role he played, be it a student leader, trader, manufacturer, banker, and infrastructure developer he learnt valuable lessons and desired to learn more.

Mr. Rao was born in Rajam, a small village in Andhra Pradesh. In his early days he helped his father in handling the family Jute business, which gave him an insight into managing diverse stakeholders. Later he graduated in mechanical engineering from Andhra University, where he was a student leader. The leadership and teamwork skills he learnt in that role helped him highly in his whole career. His father insisted upon him to get a job and thus he worked briefly for A P Paper Mills where he recalls observing closely how a businessman runs a company. Then he joined as an Executive Engineer with the state’s PWD and it was here he was introduced to infrastructure projects.

When his father passed away, Mr. Rao left the job and joined his family business. Though the Jute business was yielding profits, he had a burning desire to step out of his comfort zone and achieve more. It was this desire that made him foray into manufacturing operations in 1978 and over the License Raj years set up 28 units in steel rolling, ferro alloys, sugar, alcohol and banking, amongst others. As a manufacturer he learnt two things, 1) how to manage workers and 2) God is in the details.

The other valuable lesson he learnt was 3) not to be emotionally attached with his businesses which is evident by the fact that he has sold off many of his businesses. A brewery he started in partnership with Shaw Wallace, was sold off to Vijay Mallya. There was a sugar mill, which was sold to EID Parry. From agro-business, GMR moved into finance, buying shares in the Vysya Bank, of which he then became chairman. At Vysya Bank, his network widened to Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. “Every business I diversified into was new to me”, said Mr. Rao.

The economic liberalization of India in 90s proved to be a great opportunity for Mr. Rao. By then his sons were MBA graduates and helped him in the business, suggesting strategies and charting a vision statement for the GMR group. They decided to focus on the two main sectors Agriculture and Infrastructure. GMR group was already into Agro business so they tried their hands at infrastructure and put up power plants in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

By the time there was a bid to built the Hyderabad airport, GMR group was already into building roads and power plants. He won the bid beating L&T, even though he wasn’t sure how to go about it. He spent a lot of time, energy and money; and hired the best consultants and visited airports all over the world to learn the complex system of airport construction and management. As an infrastructure developer he learnt that whatever you do make it world class.

“When given the option to build an airport, I chose New Delhi rather than Mumbai because Mumbai has a lot of constraints. There were challenges in Delhi too. It was my first business in Delhi and coordinating with 58 departments was difficult, but there was a passion for the life time opportunity”. GMR group completed IGI Terminal 3 New Delhi Airport project on time. The airport that even EO New Delhi members are proud of.

Mr. Rao gives a great importance to family and has implemented the best practices of European business families. He proudly shared his idea of family constitution, with EO New Delhi. Each of his family members is allotted a mentor. The family council meets regularly to sort out even the smallest of issues and also encourages the participation from female members. All his family members are involved in the business – son-in-law Srinivas Bommidala runs the group’s highways and urban infrastructure business, while his sons Kiran K. Grandhi and G.B.S Raju run the airport and international business.

Mr. Rao is a humble man and dreams of a small fiat car and small apartment in Visakhapatnam. He is a stickler for details and gave innumerable examples of how he always keeps a close eye on quality control, technical processes, and the nitty-gritty; be it in the sugar mill he runs in his home district, or the power plant in Mangalore, or the runway at T3. He places a great importance on values, beliefs, and social responsibility.

Excerpt from the Q&A session with Mr. GM Rao

EO: You’ve evolved as a student leader; do you think your closeness with the political leaders helped you in anyway?

GMR: It is true that Venkaiah Naidu is my classmate. But there was no political support at any time. Whatever we have achieved it is created by me, my family, employees, values and attitude. We have policies and we follow it.

EO: You talk of business life in two parts, Pre & Post economic reforms. For the pre-economic reforms part, how you diversified into 28 sectors in just span of 15 years?

GMR: My belief is if you empower people they’ll be successful, you just need to review and check them.  I used to do everything by myself in the Jute business and it was a great learning. For every new project I went into minute details at first. The project started slowly and then came momentum. Challenges were always there.

EO: How many hours in a day were you working?

GMR: Those days there were no mobiles or digitalization so I worked for around 14 to 16 hours per day.

EO: What are your core values in life?

GMR: Humility and Teamwork.

EO: What is your view on starting early vs starting late as an entrepreneur?

GMR: I started early, as an entrepreneur but there was an imbalance in my life. There were times when I wasn’t able to spend time with my family and I got stressed. But luckily I moved towards spirituality and yoga and it helped me a lot. Now I spend time with my family and myself. A happy family is a necessity. So whenever you start there must be work life balance. And I personally believe the Universe helps you to achieve your dreams.

“I thought an airport was nothing more than a runway and a building! I had built roads and factories, so I told Chandra Babu I can build an airport!” But we finally built a world-class airport.

EO: I feel proud that we have IGI T3 but as an entrepreneur is it a good idea to get into something that gets you into the limelight? What if something goes wrong and there is a media leak?

GMR: Initially when something went wrong I was depressed. But then I focus my energy on how to prevent it. If there are any gaps I review it. There are 32 service parameters, processes and strong review mechanisms. I spend the whole day focusing on quality control; I feel reviews are very important for a complex project. If something still goes wrong and there is a media leakage, we immediately react and try to not repeat it.

EO: You are a serial entrepreneur. What are the top 3 qualities you look for in a partner?

GMR: If I choose a partner I look for qualities like Humility, Liaising and values. If partner comes to me I look for their capacity to train our people, liaising skills and values.

EO: In last 10 years there has been much growth in  the infrastructure business. How do you see Infrastructure companies in the next 10 years?

GMR: There are many challenges in this sector. The market is unpredictable; there are bottlenecks in the power sector. The only solution is Liquidity and flexible strategy. Therefore I always have a different strategy for each business. I sold most of my businesses without any emotional attachment.