Monday, June 20, 2011

Prahlad Chhabria | Long journey home

From selling electrical supplies to establishing the now Rs3,000 crore Finolex Group, it’s been a long and eventful journey for Prahlad Chhabria

In the year India gained independence, 17-year-old Prahlad P. Chhabria was a domestic servant working 14-hour days for a Pune moneylender, sending Rs30 a month to his widowed mother and nine siblings in Karachi, Pakistan. Back then, he could barely read or write; today, he’s chairman of Finolex Group and sits on the management council of the University of Pune. For years, he rode a rented bike; he now travels on his own private plane between his 15 state-of-the art plants in Pune, Ratnagiri and Goa.

From a door-to-door pedlar of electrical supplies to the founder of Rs3,000 crore Finolex—India’s leading cable maker and second largest PVC resin manufacturer—what made this giant leap possible? In a word: entrepreneurship. His well-to-do father was from the traditional Shikarpuri Sindhi moneylenders’ community, but his untimely death and rash speculation by family members saw the son go from prince to pauper, overnight.

So, at 13, Chhabria served sherbet to customers in a cloth store, living off leftovers from the sethji’s kitchen. Then, an epiphany: he bumped into his old family cook, now a thriving canteen owner. He says, “If Somnath, once a servant in our home, could become the master of his own establishment, I felt I too had the power to change my lot.”

Prahlad Chhabria.

Prahlad Chhabria.

A year later, as a bill collector in Amritsar, while keeping accounts, he taught himself to read and write. Armed with his year-long savings—a crisp Rs10 note—he took the train back to Sindh, but was robbed by a Pathan. The ticket collector asked the young lad, “How will we know that the money is yours?” Chhabria had spent so much time admiring the precious note that he had memorized its number, and the money was retrieved from the culprit! His skill with figures got honed over time: Nanik Rupani, co-chairman, Ficci, western region, and a fellow board member of IndusInd Enterprises and Finance, says, “His grip on the balance sheet is amazing. He can pick up things that even accountants will miss.”

Equally interesting is the way Chhabria and his younger brother and business partner, Kishan—who had also moved to Pune—learnt their engineering ropes. Between jobs, they began selling electrical supplies all over Pune, soon opening a retail shop. The differentiator was their ability to provide electrical services. By taking appliances apart, Kishan learnt to repair them, moving on to laying electrical cables, even making his own line of irons.

It was this knowledge of fabrication that propelled them into the next league, and they began to supply to the army. While Kishan became an expert on manufacturing processes, Chhabria became well-versed in applying for licences in Delhi. The brothers clinched their first big contract for copper-braided cables, for Rs3 lakh, and bought a copper braiding machine from Japan. Says Chhabria, “Today, without planning and proper technology and processes, nobody could bumble along and set up a new industry from scratch as we did.” The new machine was installed in a cowshed. Undaunted by the instruction manual in Kanji characters, they relied on Kishan’s reverse engineering ingenuity, and made a whopping Rs1 lakh profit from the order.

Next came PVC-insulated cable. Reminisces Chhabria, “Our beautiful new cable was best described as “fine” and “flexible”, which became “Finolex”. It describes us as well today as it did in 1958.” Finolex is currently a family and professionally managed conglomerate with more than 3,000 employees, with interests in telecom, power, petrochemicals, agriculture and education.

Prahlad Chhabria
Chairman, Finolex Group
Belying his age, Chhabria still packs in a full day at work. But as a graduate from the school of hard knocks, his single-minded pursuit these days is to give to society what he couldn’t afford earlier: a decent education. Inspired by a lecture by Vijay Bhatkar, architect of India’s first supercomputer series, Chhabria set up the non-profit, IIT, campus at Hinjewadi, Pune, in 2003. With international tie-ups under its belt, it offers masters and PhD courses in IT engineering to students, more than 40% of whom are from the rural India. Transforming them into well-placed software engineers gives him great satisfaction, says Chhabria. But, he adds wryly: “Licence Raj reigns. Our non-profit, world-class engineering Ratnagiri college has room for 500 students, but the AICTE limits it to 60! Why must we foster an artificial short supply, when the demand is so great?”

To date, Chhabria and the Finolex Group have invested around Rs100 crore in their non-profit educational institutes. Over the next five years, at the behest of the Andhra Pradesh government, Chhabria will set up a non-profit school and engineering college on 50 acres near Tirupati; the Maharashtra government has allocated him two vocational training colleges to modernize. Meanwhile, he’s building a non-profit Central Board English-medium school in Ratnagiri, where 75% of the seats will be free.

On 8 March, a few days before his 78th birthday, the man who never went to school released his autobiography, There’s No Such Thing As a Self-Made Man. The title, says Pratap Pawar, managing editor of Sakal Papers, is typical of the author’s humility. At the end, Chhabria muses: “So many industries work hard and struggle as we did. So many wind up... Our success is due to special blessings, which I am not able to understand or explain.”

Scientist R.A. Mashelkar, president of Global Research Alliance, opines that formal education and achievement have little correlation. The two great innovators, scientists Michael Faraday and Thomas Edison, had no education. He says, “P.P. Chhabria similarly belongs to a different class of people, who were unadulterated by formal education! His investments in this sector come from his fundamental belief that their returns will not be to the Chhabria family but to the nation.”

When Chhabria is not pursuing his dream for Indian education, he savours time with his grandchildren and his Sunday Indian vocal music lessons. Fittingly, his favourite lyric is jago mohan pyare, from the Hindi movie, Jagte Raho. Its lines could well have been written for him:

Jisne man ka deep jalaaya

Duniya ko usne hi ujlaa paaya

Mat rehna akhiyon ke sahaare

Jaago mohan pyaare, jaago

(Those who are enlightened,

find the world illuminated…)

Name: Prahlad P. Chhabria

Title: Chairman, Finolex Group

Age: 78

Education: No formal education

Pursuits: Championing education, listening to Indian classical music and reading

Claim to fame: Under his leadership, Finolex is the No. 1 manufacturer of all cables in India, second only to Reliance in the manufacture of PVC resin. He has championed non-profit, high-quality education for the masses by building multiple schools and colleges.



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