Book Review: Nrupender Rao, man of mettle

The hearty laugh, the distinct American accent and a willingness to explain points to journalists: that’s the image that I carry of JV Nrupender Rao, founder of the diversified Pennar Group and among a rare breed of industrialists.

It was the mid-1980s and Nrupender Rao was emerging as the articulate face of the growing private industry in Hyderabad, which KVK Raju, founder of the Nagarjuna Group, had set the ball rolling. Rao founded the AP chapter of the Indo-American Chambers of Commerce (IACC ) and NT Rama Rao, then Chief Minister, made him the MD of the APIIC to catalyse industrial growth.

Therefore, I was quite curious to read the book on Nrupender Rao and the Pennar Story titled Forging Mettle by Mumbai-based author, Pavan C Lall. The book does live up to expectations. It has lucidly brought out the distinct qualities of Rao during the best and the worst phase of Pennar Group as well as its revival.

The story of Rao is not the typical ‘rags to riches or a triumph from disaster. It is a victory of the human spirit against the most difficult of odds and the will to do it without compromising on values and principles that too while coping with a debilitating health condition.

Rao’s father, JV Narsing Rao, was Dy CM under K Brahmananda Reddy in the late 1960s but he did not want the children to get into politics. Nor did Rao himself ever use the clout. His parents always wanted Rao to return to Hyderabad after the IIT Kharagpur and MS from Purdue University stints.

In the US, his Japanese roommate, Yoshihiro Goto’s poser — how many people do you have in India, in a way defined his goal to generate lakh jobs. All these aspects of the young and enterprising Rao have been captured well in this increasing genre of biographies of business leaders.

Turning point

The book rightly connects the chance meeting with Raju in 1969 at the Union Carbide plant in Chennai, where he was the Head of Industrial Engineering, to be the turning point in the life of Nrupender Rao. They shared several commonalities — agri, rural background, education in top US universities and stints in large corporations before taking to entrepreneurship.

It was natural, therefore, that when Raju started Nagarjuna Steels in 1973 he leaned heavily on Rao. Raju was a huge influence on Rao’s journey from an entrepreneur to an industry captain.

The diversified Nagarjuna Group which was in steel, chemicals and fertilisers, oil & gas, and financial services was the ‘template and benchmark’ for Rao to follow in his Pennar Group starting in 1987. Rao started his entrepreneurship with Nagarjuna Signode as Co-founder, along with Raju and Signode of the US.

Three defining developments that left a long dent in the strong metals-derived story of Rao are the huge failure of Pennar Aluminum set up in Nagpur in 1992-93. In seven years, it went bust. The second was that Pennar Patterson, headed for liquidation in 1999 due to default by borrowers. The third was the disastrous road accident in 2004 in which Rao and wife Rajyalakshmi suffered injuries and went through surgeries to recover.

Rao’s inability to say no, to fire employees and his helpful nature hit him and the group hard. He had to let go of nearly 200 employees with compensation. It was the ‘worst nightmare’ for Rao. Many of his long-term friends and colleagues like Vijay Puljal, Avula Bharat Bhushan and Sunil Kuram, Suresh Kulkarni are quoted in the book to illustrate the struggle and humane nature of Rao.

Despite all these setbacks and their consequences playing out, Rao managed to put in place a succession plan. His son, Aditya Rao, gradually took over the reins. From being referred to the BIFR with a ₹76 crore turnover in 1998, the Pennar story revived as Pennar Industries. It was back on its feet and kicking at ₹730 crore in 2007. Its revival and growth after 2000 were triggered in a way by an out-of-the-blue call from Ravi Chachra and Eight Capital, an investment firm.

Pennar’s recovery

Lall writes that in 2006, Rao got a call from Ravi. The Chachras were running a moped manufacturing unit in Jamshedpur. Rao happened to be on its board and also a batchmate of Ravi Chachra’s uncle at the IITK.

Thus began a decade-long association that saw Eight Capital supporting the efforts of Aditya Rao, who, under the guidance of the ailing patriarch steered Pennar Industries into value-added steel and metal products. During this time the PEBS (Pennar Engineered Building Systems) was also established. This company, led by PV Rao, grew fast and by the 2021 fiscal, Pennar Industries was doing a total turnover of over ₹1,500 crore.

There are quite a few interesting incidents that relate to Rao: meeting Dhirubhai Ambani to Swami Ranganathananda, head of the Ramakrishna Mutt in Hyderabad influencing him, to Rao’s elation when Manish Sabharwal (whom he mentored) of Team Lease achieving over lakh employees in his company, which are brought out well.

But what is perhaps missing in the book is that after the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh and the formation of Telangana State in 2014, Rao was perceived as among the most prominent industry leaders in the new State. It’s no secret that the industrial landscape in Hyderabad was dominated by people of Andhra origin. However, true to his high professionalism and commitment to industrial growth, he did not espouse any partisanship.

Seventy-five-year-old Nrupender Rao has in his own way played a significant role in fostering a better industrial climate in both the combined AP and to an extent in the new State, though in the last decade his movement and speech were greatly impacted by a neurological condition called corticobasal degeneration.

(The reviewer is a senior journalist)

About the Author

Pavan C. Lall was born in Calcutta, West Bengal and sent to board at St Paul’s School, Darjeeling at an early age, after which he pursued writing in the United States. Graduating from West Texas A&M University, he gained his first exposure to captains of industry while working with Dallas Business Journal. With the passing of his father, P. C. Lall of Nazargunj, an erstwhile princely state in Bihar, he returned to India. That started a new chapter where he blended his experience of dealing with both Eastern and Western egos and sharpened his skills at wresting the truth out of the increasing number of billionaires India had produced. His first book, Flawed: The Rise and Fall of Diamond Mogul Nirav Modi, was written when he discovered that such stories did not always add up. Lall has also written for Fortune IndiaBusiness Standard and the Telegraph, among others.

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