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The constant developer

Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

43 years with L&T, 33 years in the same house and 15 in his first boss' room - constance defines the man who's building much of India's infrastructure

A M NaikA M Naik, I was told, did not like to eat out so could lunch with him? As it turned out, lunched and breakfasted with the chairman and managing director of Larsen & Toubro to catch the story of a man imbued with a strong sense of his own legend, writes Kanika Datta.

We are lunching in the unlived-in opulence of one of four company guesthouses in Delhi which Naik is visiting to attend, among other things, the inauguration of the airport runway that L&T has constructed.

The table is set with classic ghar ka khana — lady’s finger, dal, paneer, rice, roti and salad. Naik doesn’t stand on ceremony. Having seated me at the head of the table, he helps himself liberally and eats quickly and with a concentration that makes conversation stilted.

I venture to joke that work is allegedly his only hobby since he’s spent 43 years in L&T. “L&T is my hobby, the rest is work,” he says and addresses himself to the food again.

I notice he’s wearing the Indian flag on his lapel. He admits he’s started wearing it after a court order allowed the flag to be flown over homes and office. “Now I’m going to fly the flag over all our offices because, you see, L&T is a platform to serve the country.”

Given that the Rs 25,500-crore engineering giant plays such a big role in many of India’s largest projects, he sees himself as “half a public servant”, a statement he modifies the next day to “more than half a public servant”.

Naik eats with appetite and his only dissatisfaction is with the dessert, a delicious kheer. Being diabetic (“induced, not hereditary, because I love sweets” he confesses gloomily), he demands sugar-free ice-cream.

Having genially pressed on me rabri and some very good paan — “specially from Kulkutta” — he’s decided that Lunch with BS will be a post-prandial chat. Alternately imperious and engaging, Naik exudes a shrewd and earthy sensibility suited to the scion of a successful homegrown family-run empire than to a CEO of a widely-held conglomerate and exemplar of professional management.

At any rate, no one can accuse him of false modesty. In the course of the conversation, he recalls, quite matter-of-factly, how he was “a very good student”, a “super-rising star” in his first job and how he did a “fantastic job” at his first challenge at L&T.

Yet his sole role model remains his father, a freedom fighter and dedicated math and science teacher. Having taught in one of Mumbai’s leading schools, his father later opted to return to his village in Kharel in Surat district in 1952 as founder-principal of a local school promoted by a barrister.

Then in Class VI, Naik recalls how he left “a beautiful school with a large playground” for classrooms with gobar floors and the nearest centre for the school final exam in a town 15 km away.

His workaholism is clearly inherited since his father routinely put in 12-hour days, much of it devoted to extra classes for students plus coaching promising rankers — all for free.

As Naik breezily tells it, he was an excellent all-rounder (“except in English because we weren’t taught it much beyond some grammar”) and even took extra classes in Hindi and drawing. An artist? “Yes, I can draw your face, if I had the time,” he grins.

But the point about his wide interests is that, “even today when I recruit someone I give 50 per cent weight to non-academics”. 

This trend of academic brilliance appears to have continued when he attended university at Vallabh Vidyanagar, a university town near Anand and home to H M Patel, finance minister under Morarji Desai’s Janata Party. “Now I will tell you a story,” he begins, but a colleague walks in to say Naik must be elsewhere. We’ve some way to go, so a breakfast meeting is fixed at the ungodly hour of 7.45 am.

The next morning Naik erupts from his room with alarming vigour — he’s been up since 5.30 and has “made calls around the world” — and demolishes a breakfast of paratha and pickle and masala omelette (oatmeal and curd being the sole cursory attempt at healthy eating) while deploring the state of Indian politics and praising China.

He decides our chat must continue after breakfast, so we repair to an ante-room where two 2.5 kg weights are placed prominently on a coffee table.  Did he do weights? He looks sheepish, admitting he’s supposed to but doesn’t get the time.

Continuing from the day before, Naik talks of a salutary experience after graduation. His father gave him a letter of introduction to Viren Shah of Mukand (later governor of West Bengal) to apply for its (then) premier engineering programme. He filled out a form but his poor English let him down. “I made six or seven mistakes and the manager told me, ‘Don’t you think you should improve your English?’.”

Naik gamely did just that, buying language cassettes to improve his vocabulary and practising delivery and speech in front of a mirror.

Meanwhile, Naik joined Nestler Boilers, a Parsi-owned firm, where he was first put in charge of 40 to 50 workers.  His meteoric rise — explained in meticulous detail — was halted by changes in ownership and a management style that did not suit him for its peremptoriness and arrogance.

So, in 1964, he found himself job-hunting again. This time, he got calls from Philips at 9 am and L&T at 10 am, and decided on the latter, since it suited his mechanical engineering degree.

His interviewer was a dynamic and hard-driving Scotsman named Baker, who offered him a job of assistant engineer at Rs 760 a month.

Baker, however, took him for a final interview with “the Old Man” and general manager, Hansen, who, apparently, never smiled and spoke in a “rhythmic Danish accent” (which Naik tries to imitate, quite unsuccessfully).

Hansen, though, is unimpressed. Naik recounts (this time in a “Scots” accent),” Baker said, ‘Sonny boy, Old Man thinks you’re over-smart’.”

Hansen scales back the offer to junior engineer at Rs 670 a month with the proviso that the original offer would stand in six months depending on his performance.

Naik’s routine 12-hour stints on the shop-floor and the application of a “love and stick” policy on a workforce known for its violence against management served him well. By 1969, after four years and eight months he became L&T’s youngest-ever manager at age 33.

This meteoric rise slowed considerably after 1975 when Holck Larsen stepped down and a management shakeout saw Baker leave as well. Now, Naik says, the “Indian mentality” asserted itself.

“We went through a lot of pain because L&T became seniority-driven, like the IAS.” Deemed too young for his rank Naik only made it to general manager in 1986, one of the slowest promotions, though by April 1999, he became CEO and managing director and chairman a few years later.  

Naik’s stint as chairman and managing director runs till September 2012.  By then, some 200 senior managers would have retired so he’s focusing urgently on “bringing up the next generation”.

The other point is what life after L&T holds for Naik. It turns out, that he does have a non-L&T obsession, working energetically towards reviving and expanding his old school in Kharel and adding a hospital and other amenities. Much of this has been financed by personal trusts he has set up by selling some Rs 12 crore worth of L&T stock options over the years.

For all that, his father’s credo of simplicity remains. He owns “eight shirts, three suits and four ties”, an economy grounded in pure practicality. “See this tie,” he proffers a bright red silk tie, “I wore it yesterday but no one will know because I will meet different people today.”

Naik has lived in the same bungalow (“where Baker gave me my first beer”) for 33 years and for the last 15 has occupied the same room in which Hansen interviewed him.

As he heads out for a conference call, he says he’ll move to an apartment at the Hiranandani complex near L&T’s Powai factory once he retires so that “when I die, I’ll be facing L&T”.

First Published: Tue, September 02 2008. 00:00 IST