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'I had an insulated childhood, but it kept our feet on the ground'

By Shyamal Majumdar and Kausik Datta
Last updated on: September 13, 2005 11:00 IST
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Within days of taking over as the managing director of Ceat, Harsh Goenka visited Tokyo for a meeting with the top brass of Yokohama Rubber Company.

Throughout the meeting, the Yokohama chief kept looking at him with a quizzical smile. Harsh, then 24, found it slightly odd and asked the elderly Japanese the reason for his puzzled expression.

"You look so young, it's hard to believe you are an MD," came the answer.

On his way back home, the young man took what he calls a momentous decision: he started sporting a beard to look mature enough for the MD's post.

Harsh Goenka, RPG Group ChairmanThe beard and the famous lineage (R P Goenka's son) were perhaps his only qualifications at that time to take charge of a company like Ceat, and Goenka, 47, is refreshingly candid about it.

He got the top slot soon after graduating in Humanities from St Xavier's Kolkata, and the only experience he had was a brief stint under his uncle Jagdish Prasad who owned a jute mill in Mumbai.

The urge to keep up with the changing time, however, prompted him to do an 'MBA from Switzerland' later.

The same urge also made him ensure that his son, Anand, takes the stairs, and not the elevator, to go up the corporate ladder.

Anand, an MBA from a premier school in the US, has done rigorous stints in Merrill Lynch in Hong Kong and Hindustan Lever in Mumbai before joining Ceat in an 'insignificant' position.

"He is learning the ropes and has a long way to go. Lineage alone can no longer propel you to the top slot," Goenka says, adding all family-owned businesses will have to give a lot of space to professional CEOs.

We are at Oh! Calcutta in central Mumbai - a favourite of our guest - as the ambience and the food remind him of the good old days in a city he grew up in.

"Where else in Mumbai would you get to listen to Rabindra Sangeet while having your lunch?" Goenka asks.

The waiter suggests phulkopir (cauliflower) cutlet for starters, which he declines, saying he has had too many of them in the recent past and orders a Diet Coke.

Goenka says he misses Kolkata for its old world charm, the warmth of its people and the city's passion for art and culture.

"My heart says otherwise, but the head says I have to be in Mumbai where the pace of work is fascinating," he says.

Not everything about his childhood days in Kolkata was that romantic though. His parents gave him a fantastic childhood but he wishes the 'protective ring' were a bit relaxed.

He wasn't allowed to bring home any friends-- something that can make somebody a loner and insulate you from the harsh realities outside.

The chairman of the Rs 8,500-crore (Rs 85 billion) RPG Group says he was allowed a 'generous' pocket money of 50 paise a month during his school days, which went up to a princely sum of Rs 5 when he moved to college.

Things were obviously tough and like any other young kid, he used to resent it.

"But it helped us to keep our feet on the ground and taught us budgeting and the value of money," Goenka says, and orders rice, alu posto and potoler dorma -- typical vegetarian dishes from Bengal.

The food does enough to cheer him up and Goenka starts talking passionately about his love for art.

He refuses to put a price tag on his collections ("love is priceless") and says his tryst with art began when his father asked him to catalogue the family's miniature collection, a task he hated initially.

But the love affair blossomed and he believes strongly that art is meant for walls and not for vaults. "Unlike gold or stocks, my collection is up there (on the walls of his offices and homes) for all to see," he says.

The heart may say otherwise but the love for art and passion for the city of his childhood have not detracted Goenka from matters of business.

The focus of the two brothers (younger brother Sanjiv lives in Kolkata and is the vice chairman of the group) now is to consolidate on its core operations - power, tyre, entertainment, technology, life sciences and, of course, retail.

The last one is clearly a key area and the group is in a hurry to revamp its Rs 400-crore (Rs 4 billion) retail enterprise and by 2006-07, the aim is to raise the number of Giants in India to 21; FoodWorlds to over 175 outlets; Health and Glows to 75; MusicWorlds to 18 large and 300 small format stores.

Giant's turnover then will likely account for Rs 2,500 crore (Rs 25 billion) of an estimated Rs 3,500 crore (RsĀ 30 billion) annually.

We steer the conversation towards the future of family-owned businesses and whether there is any immediate possibility of a clear demarcation of roles between the two brothers.

Goenka orders a sweet dish and says the thought has never crossed his and Sanjiv's mind. "The group is ours, not mine or his. So where's the problem?" Goenka says.

Besides, he says jokingly, in most cases, the bahus are responsible for separation of business empires.

"In our case, that is not an issue as I and my younger brother stay separately -- he in Kolkata and me in Mumbai," he adds in a lighter vein.

As we walk out of Oh! Calcutta to the dingy lane outside where his deep blue Mercedes looks out of place, Goenka shares some interesting gossip he picked up from the ubiquitous party circuit in Mumbai.

The man, who wasn't allowed to have too many friends during his school and college days and hence was in danger of becoming a loner, seems to be compensating for everything with a vengeance.

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