The Nationalist is a good read, but could have been a better one had the author been a little less in awe of his subject. The boringly adulatory tone of a major part of the book was unnecessary because the story of a remarkable company like Larsen & Toubro (L&T) and its chairman Anil Manibhai Naik does not need rosy adjectives to hold readers’ attentions.
For example, repeated references to Naik’s “beatific smile,” his “intimidating presence but a soft core,” and his “inexhaustible reservoir of energy” and so on make it daunting to move beyond the first few pages. The author doesn’t stop at that — we are also told that Naik and Dhirubhai Ambani have a lot of things in common, “hard won ascent” being one of them. And in case you didn’t know, Naik also apparently shares “some key traits” with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Both “endured hardships in childhood” and while Modi’s rise in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh through the 1970s and 1980s was slow but steady, Naik too rose at a glacial pace through the ranks at L&T. The first chapter goes on to offer a lot of irrelevant details about a man whose “work and life have been bedrocked [sic] on a deeply felt sense of nationalism”.
Readers, however, would be well advised to shed their intolerance of such purple prose in this 258-page book, because the author, Minhaz Merchant, does manage to give glimpses of the extraordinary journey of L&T and its chairman who has served the company for 53 years and led it for the last 18. To be fair, Merchant had a tough job on hand because he had to write about somebody whose life has been widely chronicled and who has scarcely been found wanting in speaking about himself.
Even so, some of the anecdotes strewn across chapters are fascinating. The L&T chief has often spoken about his village upbringing — at the ancestral hamlet Endhal and nearby Kharel, where his father Manibhai Naik moved back, to head a newly established school. The book goes further and talks about how Naik was essentially a Mumbai boy, uprooted from the city at the age of 10 and dislocated from an upscale Mumbai school to a village school with gobar-laden walls when his father responded to Mahatma Gandhi’s clarion call — “India lives in its villages”.
There is also this interesting episode where Naik, as a 15-year-old student leader, confronted his father, who was the founder-principal of the school, during a student strike. His father tried to confine his son at home, but the young Anil escaped through a window and jumped over a ledge to reach school via a short cut before Naik senior.
The book indeed comes alive when it talks about the outstanding work put in by the L&T chairman and his team to build what Merchant calls, the company’s “jewel in the crown.” In 1983, Hazira was marshland and half the land that L&T bought there used to flood with sea water during high tide. Naik, then joint general manager, and his team had to wear gumboots to wade through the seawater containing sea snakes and all kinds of muck. It was Naik’s biggest challenge because he had shortlisted the land and convinced the board to put in large sums of money to make nuclear reactors and nuclear power submarines. At that time (India was under the licence raj then), L&T did not have a licence for offshore platforms, but Naik fought for it. When the government rejected the application (offshore platforms were a protected sector), he came up with an interesting strategy by calling the proposal a helicopter-landing platform. By the mid-1990s, the licence raj was gone.
The astounding hard work Naik put in is well chronicled in the book. Within a few years, Naik single-handedly transformed Hazira from a swamp covering several hundred acres into one of the world’s most technologically advanced giant manufacturing complexes.
No story of Naik and L&T would be complete without a mention of how he ring-fenced the company from hostile takeovers by creating the L&T Employees Welfare Foundation, which was set up by him to acquire a 15 per cent shareholding in the company. Much of this story is well-documented already, but Merchant has skilfully woven in anecdotes to make it eminently readable.
Author: Minhaz Merchant | Publisher: Harper Business | Pages: 258 | Price: Rs 799A couple of them are worth recounting here. In November 2001, in a surprise move, Reliance sold its shareholding in L&T to the Aditya Birla Group, and Naik, who was in Chicago on business, got a call from Kumar Mangalam Birla who said, “Naikji, you did not come to us, so we are coming to you.” His father, Aditya Birla, had tried from 1976 till 1993 to persuade him to join the Birlas.
Naik recounts the tension between a “village boy” and one of India’s most respected and gilded business houses and how he defused it by offering to sell the cement business while keeping L&T’s independence intact. At the end of it all, Naik recalls how Birla, after signing the cement deal, extended his hand and said “History should never, never forget you. You know what you have achieved: employee ownership of the company.”
Merchant quotes the L&T chairman as saying that if anybody tries to attack L&T again, then he “would be the guard at the gate” to stop that from happening. The Nationalist does well to chronicle the story of L&T’s permanent defender, but falls short of critical analysis of some of his business decisions. That would have made it an unputdownable book about a remarkable industry leader.