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Newsmaker: Harsh Vardhan Lodha

In the footsteps of his mentor

Ishita Ayan Dutt 

Birla Corporation Chairman Harsh Vardhan Lodha was in the headlines for some dramatic reasons last time round.

Shortly after Priyamvada Birla, Madhav Prasad Birla's widow, died in 2004, a will bequeathing her estate, believed to be worth around Rs 5,000 crore, to well-known Kolkata-based chartered accountant Rajendra Singh Lodha surfaced. The "purported will of 1999", a popular title that it soon came to acquire, said his younger son, Lodha, would assume charge of the estate once his father reached the age of 65. That was his first tryst with limelight.

As different members of the Birla family waged legal battles to challenge the will of 1999, Lodha became a familiar face in the Calcutta High Court; the total number of cases reached 110 at one point of time, while the main case, the probate of Priyamvada's alleged will of 1999, is still pending trial.

In the ensuing years, Lodha was inundated with court cases. The big blow, however, came in 2008 when his father died of cardiac arrest, ironically at the London residence of Basant Kumar Birla, one of the challengers to the 1999 will.

As wished by Priyamvada, or so said the purported will of 1999, the baton was to pass on to Lodha. The transition was anything but smooth. A group of shareholders filed a petition in the Company Law Board (CLB) restraining Birla Corporation from appointing Lodha as its chairman. It was only a year later that a favourable CLB judgement finally paved the way for the coronation.

Lodha has moved on from doing the rounds of courts since then. The impact is for everyone to see. Birla Corporation has grown from a Rs 1,763-crore company to Rs 3,200 crore; profitability, however, has suffered due to the slowdown.

Earlier this week, Birla Corporation announced that it had agreed to a transaction with Lafarge India whereby it would acquire its Jojobera and Sonadih units for an enterprise value of Rs 5,000 crore. In volume terms, it would give Birla Corporation annual cement capacity of 14 million tonnes.

Though the acquisition doesn't pitchfork it amongst the top five cement of the country, once approved by the Competition Commission of India, it would bring it close to the installed capacity of cement businesses under the Basant Kumar Birla group. The eponymous group has capacity of 18 million tonnes across three companies: Kesoram Industries, Mangalam Cement and Century Textiles & Industries.

But that could well be just incidental. Last month, at the Birla Corporation AGM, Lodha had said that the company would achieve a capacity of 15 million tonnes in the next four years. As things stand, it could happen sooner than that.

Lodha, for his part, insists that his goal is to become the most profitable cement company. Size doesn't matter here.

The purported will of 1999 mentioned that Lodha would be the ultimate successor because Priyamvada had personally groomed him for some time. But did she also prepare him to steer Birla Corporation from a historically conservative group to the sixth largest cement producer in the country? Lodha says he has inherited her sense of judgement and ability to make quick decisions.

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First Published: Thu, August 20 2015. 22:29 IST
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