Dinesh Dhamija's top 10 Indian business leaders

Dinesh Dhamija's top 10 Indian business leaders

1               Narayana Murthy – Infosys

Narayana Murthy stands head and shoulders above other Indian businesspeople in my view. He pioneered the current generation of Indian software companies, taking Infosys to global leadership – it was the first Indian company listed on the Nasdaq – and introducing the Global Delivery Model of software development. Basically, he popularised tech outsourcing from Western economies to India, where he recruited thousands of highly qualified software engineers to work on the problems of American banks and multinational corporations. This has worked very well for 20 years, but is now under threat as America becomes more nationalistic and other countries like Vietnam and Indonesia are starting to compete with India in this field.

What I most admire about Murthy is that he combines commercial genius with a human regard for employees and a strong customer focus. Infosys isn’t just about making money, but making the world a better place. These qualities have won him many friends, along with the Legion d’Honneur from France, the Padma Vibhushan from India and countless other awards and honours.

In the UK, we’re often reminded of Murthy because his son-in-law Rushi Sunak is Chancellor of the Exchequer and is growing famous for showering the country with money, as if he was as wealthy as Murthy himself.

2           Lakshmi Mittal - ArcelorMittal

Born just two months after me in 1950, Lakshmi Mittal proved that Indian business leaders could dominate a global industry. He developed a way of turning loss-making, government-owned steel factories into hugely profitable private businesses. First in Indonesia, then in the Caribbean and subsequently in the United States, Romania and elsewhere. He’s a captain of free enterprise who became the third-richest man in the world, worth $45 billion in 2008.

I admire his ambition, his imagination and how he’s invigorated the companies he bought. It’s also good that he’s donated so much to educational and medical charities, including Rs100 crores ($13 million) to a fund helping people in India affected by Covid-19. As someone who loves sport, I’m also impressed with how he inspired and funded Indian athletes, including Abhinav Bindra, who won the country’s first ever individual Olympic Gold Medal, for shooting. It’s this kind of recognition on the world stage that the country needs.

Mittal is a man of grand gestures and expensive tastes: he paid $128 million for a house in Kensington Palace Gardens in London, decorated with the same marble used in the Taj Mahal, and hired the Palace of Versailles for his daughter’s wedding. Even if it’s a bit over the top, you have to admire Mittal’s ambition and confidence.

3                Ratan Tata – Tata Group

Ratan Tata has for years been at the very top of the Indian business tree. He’s considered very honest, very credible, a generous donor to charitable causes and someone who took the Tata Group from its Indian roots onto the world stage. In his 21 years in charge, Tata’s revenues grew by 40 times and its profits by 50 times, giving the $113 billion conglomerate a leading role in the global auto industry, steel, real estate, technology and plenty more.

It’s a giant company with 722,000 employees, so its success is down to a lot more than just Ratan. Even so, he’s made Indian businesses into reliable partners. For example, through buying Jaguar and Land Rover in 2008 and successfully investing in the joint brand, he improved India’s international business reputation.

In his philanthropic work, Ratan reminds me of Bill Gates. He really studies what will make people’s lives better. Rather than simply feeding the poor, he figured out that inadequate hygiene and sanitation caused a lot of hunger, so his trusts invested in water purification and education. In fact, the Tata Foundation struck up a unique partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to tackle diarrhea in India, with great results.     

4              Surinder Arora – Arora Group

A Punjabi like me, Surinder came to England as a teenager and (again like me) spent time as an insurance salesman, where he learnt the art of persuasion. Spotting an opportunity to develop hotels for airline staff at Heathrow, he won a contract with British Airways to accommodate crews in nearby houses in 1999 – making his way once again in a similar industry to me.

He worked night and day to build his business, holding down multiple jobs including shifts as a hotel waiter, while raising a family. Surinder’s big break was to win the franchise for the Accord Sofitel brand in 2004. Soon he had both the Sofitel London Gatwick and Sofitel London Heathrow hotels, with 1100 beds between them, including the Renaissance London Heathrow hotel in 2012. Since then he’s added another 4000-plus rooms in Hiltons and Holiday Inns, plus the Savill Court Hotel and Spa in Windsor and share in Wentworth golf course. His net worth topped £1 billion in 2019.

He hit a rough patch between 2008 and 2010, after the credit crunch, when US hedge fund Davidson Kempner demanded repayment of an Allied Irish Bank loan and, when he couldn’t pay it immediately, took over two of his Heathrow hotels. This was a lesson in how merciless international financiers can be: he wasn’t struggling to make interest payments and his business was healthy, but they forced him out of these hotels anyway.

Besides his amazing work ethic and talent for managing people – his employees are famously loyal and stay with him for years – Surinder is a model corporate citizen. His charitable foundation has donated millions of pounds to medical, education and disaster relief causes. As a human being, he is modest, warm and engaging. You couldn’t wish to meet a nicer man.

5             Arjun Waney - Restaurateur

As someone who loves good food and great restaurants, I’m in awe of Arjun Waney. He revived the Arts Club in Mayfair and made it one of London’s best places to eat; he’s founded stellar restaurants everywhere from New York to Dubai to Bangkok. And he’s a thoroughly decent man who has saved countless people from blindness in India through his charitable foundation.

Arjun is like an Indian version of Richard Caring: he made his money in home furnishings (Caring was in fashion), then transferred his energies and talents into food and entertaining by creating amazing places to eat and socialise. He really understands food culture: his restaurants are world class, whether they serve Japanese, Italian, French or even Peruvian food.

He managed the exceptional feat of serving Michelin-starred quality food at scale: more than 500 people a day ate at his Japanese restaurant Zuma in Knightsbridge, with 170 more failing to get a booking. I’ve always enjoyed the atmosphere, company and food at the Arts Club and I’m sure that Arjun’s personality and talent are the reason.

In 2013, Arjun sold 50 per cent of his restaurant business to Turkish conglomerate Dogus, that had money to invest from selling its telecom shares. I think he got $400 million for his shares, while keeping control of the company. I was really impressed: that was one heck of a deal.

6    Nat Puri - Purico

Cricket-loving Puri, who once paid £50,000 to Virender Sehwag for becoming the first Indian batsman to hit 300 runs in a test match, is a fixture of the English Midlands business scene. Since arriving in the country from India in 1967, aged 27, he rose through the ranks at an engineering company, formed his own consultancy Purico in 1975, bought his old employer in 1983 followed by a string of UK and German auto component manufacturers, and now distributes hundreds of thousands of pounds to schools in India and Nepal.

He grew up on what became the border between India and Pakistan, like my parents, and learnt the value of maths at an early age. “If you can’t read and write, it’s ok,” his uncle told him. “But if you cannot add, subtract and multiply, you are an idiot.” At the University of the Punjab he added psychology to his study of maths: “In negotiations, if I understand what they want, and can satisfy them, then I can get a better deal,” he worked out. Everyone says he’s a very good businessman.

7         Yusuf Hamied - Cipla

In India, most people lack the money to pay for expensive foreign medicines, so the government allows drugs companies to develop generic versions and sell them at low cost. Yusuf Hamied and his company Cipla took this concept and extended it far beyond its Indian roots, developing life-saving treatments for AIDS, tuberculosis and many others. Up until 1995, his company did 90 per cent of its business in India, 10 per cent overseas. Now it’s 60 per cent international, 40 per cent India, as Cipla’s antiretroviral therapy for HIV sells for 20 cents per day, treating 6 million people.

Hamied learnt his chemistry at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and funded the Yusuf Hamied Centre at the college in 2009. His mission to break the stranglehold of the multinational pharmaceutical companies on vital drug treatments is one of the most inspiring Indian business stories in recent times. He placed the well-being of his fellow human beings over profits, while running a hugely successful business.

8           Anshu Jain – Cantor Fitzgerald

While there are now many Indians in high-powered business positions in the United States, it’s rare to find the same thing in Europe. Anshu Jain is an exception: from his roots in northern India he went to study in the United States in 1983 then joined Merill Lynch and, in 1995, Deutsche Bank.

Basically, he was hired by Deutsche Bank from Merill Lynch to add financial market muscle to the bank as it tried to compete with Barclays, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase. This worked for a decade until the credit crisis of 2008, when Deutsche Bank and Jain came under fire for selling toxic mortgages and manipulating the Libor rate in London. In 2011 he was appointed joint chief executive of the bank and stayed until 2015, enduring a turbulent couple of years when the bank was in trouble with the US Department of Justice.

Since then, Jain has been president of Cantor Fitzgerald and I think he’s doing an excellent job there. We play golf together from time to time, when he’s not in the Caribbean directing his teams via Zoom calls.

9            Mukesh Ambani – Reliance Industries

If this was a list of the richest Indians, Mukesh would be number one. His worth is currently around $72 billion, placing him sixth in the global rich list and first in Asia. But since we’re talking about all-round qualities, he makes it on to the list through his extraordinary financial success rather than his personality or good works (although he does donate generously to philanthropic causes).

Mukesh’s story is that he works with Indian conditions: he deals with whatever is necessary. We can’t say that “This isn’t the way the world should be,” it’s just how things are in India. Standards of corporate behaviour are not as high as in the West.

What’s remarkable about his history is how he fell out with his brother Anil over the inheritance from their father. Today, while Mukesh is worth $72 billion, his brother is worth something like $500 million – he’s almost bankrupt by comparison. Mukesh built Reliance Industries, which is the largest retailer in India and has a giant telecoms business. He’s a flamboyant businessman: he owns sports franchises like the Mumbai Indians cricket team, and built a 67-storey tower called the Antilia Building in Mumbai, worth $1 billion, with three helicopter pads and parking for 160 cars.

The point is that Mukesh really knows how to do business in India. You really don’t want to come up against him. Compared with someone like Ratan Tata, they’re poles apart.    

10              Anil Agarwal – Vedanta Resources

The original rags to riches story, Anil Agarwal started out trading scrap metal in Mumbai, then progressed on to manufacturing cables, followed by copper and aluminium. After listing on the London Stock Exchange in 2003 – the first Indian firm to do so – he had the finances to invest in mining. So he bought copper mines in Zambia, then Anglo American’s zinc mines in South Africa, Namibia and Ireland. Finally, he went into oil production, buying India’s largest private oil company, Cairn India.

Anil is a tough operator who showed great courage and imagination to list in London. He admits that he barely spoke a word of English at the time. “Everyone would say, I am from Bihar, I eat paan,” he told the Indian business paper The Economic Times. “I ran and went to London. There I wore a suit and tie and was able to get something by just saying yes and no.”

What he got was £100 million to spend on acquisitions, which he nurtured for the following 17 years, so that – via his Vedanta Resources business – he’s worth $3 billion and is regarded as a kind of folk hero back in India, partly because of the $36 million  a year that his foundation donates to education and health projects. “Though I live in London, I have not come out of Bihar,” he said. “I eat with my hands, I sing local countryside music, and no matter how much I am trying to improve my English, the same accent comes out.”