Remembering Qimat Rai Gupta, the gutsy visionary behind Havells

The Indian media was late in discovering Qimat Rai Gupta and discovered him only after he acquired Sylvannia around five years back.

K Yatish Rajawat November 21, 2014 11:41:40 IST
Remembering Qimat Rai Gupta, the gutsy visionary behind Havells

Most people in Havells remember the last instructions given by QRG, as Qimat Rai Gupta was called in the company: The office must open and work tomorrow. This was just before he passed away, the instructions were conveyed to his son and followed in full. He passed away earlier this month on 7 November due to cardiac arrest.

In a way his last decision signifies what the man stood for all his life, he was so dedicated to his work that he continued working almost till his last day. People would talk about the fact that he would come to office for four hours after a session of dialysis and go back from work for the second one. He was the chairman of the company till his last day, and his son Anil Gupta took on the mantle only after his death.

The Indian media was late in discovering Qimat Rai Gupta and discovered him only after he acquired Sylvannia around five years back. Most dailies even missed his death, there was hardly a mention in any of the pink papers and certainly not in any of the general newspapers.

I have been told by several people who have worked with him over the last five decades that QRG was not an easy man to know. KL Malik, one of the first of the many multinational company professionals to leave Siemens and join Havells in the early nineties, said, "You must understand QRG to understand why so many professionals left and joined a so called lala company. He could woo people and put them on a pedestal once he knew that the person could add value to his company."

At the core he had an appetite to learn and grow and he appreciated those who helped him, he adds.

It wasn't just the appetite to learn that helped QRG, a former teacher, who also had a huge appetite for risk. He bought the Havells brand in 1971, perhaps realizing he needed a name for his company that sounded international. The company HPL that owned the brand still exists and still sells electrical equipment from its office on Asaf Ali Road in old Delhi. Folklore in the electrical equipment industry says that QRG bought the brand Havells from Haveli Ram Gupta who owned the company HPL.

Today, HPL is a mid-sized company struggling for margins. QRG went ahead and created an Rs 8,000 crore giant, buying several brands over the years. There is an anecdote one of his distributors recalls about his determination.

"He was buying a plot for Rs 50,000 and he did not have the money, but he still went ahead and bought it. He would say," jab than li toh than li." (loosely translated as When I have decided, I have decided)," the distributor recalled.

The story perhaps embodies the man, his obsession, and his sheer determination to achieve, which is something that everyone who knew him says about QRG.

Meet any old electrical engineers from Siemens or L&T from the 80's and 90's and they all have a QRG story to tell. Like how he started advertising and created a brand and a category now called Fast Moving Electrical Goods (FMEG).

"He would say, 'You tell me where I have to spend on my brand, forget the amount and don't worry on the return on investment, I know how to make money from it'," an old advertising agency CEO once told me.

He would look down on people who told him they wanted to do a course in marketing. "I am the marketing guru, learn from me," he would say.

In an industry that was driven by the retail network and marketing was more about selling to distributors, QRG treated his distributors like family. At a time when distributors would run for stock to big companies like Siemens, QRG would offer credit terms. Everyone has made money with the company, several distributors say.

"He had a gift that or a barkat (blessing) that everyone who worked in the company or with the company, has never been short of money,"a second generation distributor of the company's products said.

QRG did not look like a marketing genius; he talked, acted and functioned like old school bania businessman. We think that marketing mavens would talk of brands and psychographics. QRG did not talk about it, he practiced; once he decided what was important he went after it with single minded purpose. If Tata's acquisition of JLR can be considered as an iconic deal, QRG's acquisition of Sylvannia was even more audacious. Ratan Tata has global exposure and his family had been in business for generations, in comparison to QRG.

QRG was a self-made man who had little exposure to European markets, but went and acquired the company. He did not have cash on his balance sheet, so he leveraged the firm and used the debt to acquire a loss making European company. Some people say he was impressed by the European engineers. Others say he started with acquiring brands and realized the value itcould bring. Unfortunately, the reason forthis acquisition by the company is hidden in management speak. Nobody really asked QRG the question about his fascination for foreign sounding names.

If the acquisition took courage, turning it around needed far more effort. A profitable and listed Havells was pulled down by the loss making Sylvannia. It has now turned profit making but is not a driver for profits or revenues for the company yet.

People spoke of his morning darbar, where all senior professionals were called and everything was discussed openly. The morning darbar was not an easy thing for professionals from MNC companies to handle as they were not used to being questioned or admonished publicly. This culture of perform or perish for each professional has helped Havells. This was a culture that QRG propagated and created. And this is what has helped Havells thrive in the cut throat business of electrical equipment industry which is threatened by cheap Chinese products.

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