Requiem For A Visionary
Three who knew the late Dr Parvinder 'Pammi' Singh--a competitor, a bureaucrat, and an employee--pay tribute to one of the best CEOs in the history of India Inc..
My Contemporary, Parvinder
I was in a New York hotel that night (July 3, 1999) when I heard about Parvinder Singh's death. It disturbed me greatly as we were contemporaries, and were both in the business of manufacturing life-saving medicines.
Very few know that Parvinder had assumed the role of leader of our pharma industry in the last 6 months. He organised all our meetings, often rescheduling them to accommodate me. The last one I attended was the first pharma committee meeting on June 3, 1999. Habil Khorakhiwala and Amar Lulla were on the same flight to Delhi. Our Jet Airways aircraft was diverted to Lucknow because of bad weather, and, by the time we reached Delhi, we were 2 hours late. But Parvinder was still there, waiting patiently for us. He had kept the chair next to him vacant for me. He contributed so much that we had, virtually, nothing to say. When he did not attend the second meeting the next day, I had an ominous feeling. But I still did not realise that, within a month, he would be gone.
In at least one respect, Parvinder did something for our industry which I could not. In 1992, when P.V. Narasimha Rao became the prime minister, I got an appointment with him for us. All the industry stalwarts, including Parvinder, were there. Rao did not even spare us 5 minutes. We were very hurt by the shabby treatment meted out to us. We had brought the best of medicines to this country at a fraction of their international prices but, despite our achievements, we were not given any importance. All that changed last year when Parvinder was nominated to the Prime Minister's Advisory Committee. In that capacity, he did a lot for our industry. Whenever there was a problem, he was there for us.
Our encounters were far between, but we had tremendous respect and admiration for each other. I remember one such encounter at the Delhi International Airport in, I think, 1993. He, and (Ranbaxy's CEO D.S.) Brar were travelling on the same KLM flight as I was to Amsterdam. Those were the days when we were growing at a fanatic pace, and had announced 3 bonus issues in 3 consecutive years. Parvinder asked me how I managed to produce such fascinating results. Then came Ranbaxy's scorching pace, with the enormous success of its Cefaclor, and I became a silent admirer of the company.
Very often, people from Merrill Lynch or Morgan Stanley would ask me: ''Which, according to you, is India's most respected pharma company?'' And I would unhesitatingly say: ''Ranbaxy.'' Then, they would tell me that when they asked Parvinder the same question, he would say ''Dr Reddy's.'' That is the kind of relationship we had in an industry that is full of intrigue, jealousy, and scant respect for achievement.
My Friend, Parvinder
Parvinder Singh was an outstanding achiever in his short life. But he has acquired a larger-than-life image after his sudden death-an image that might well have embarrassed him. That speaks volumes of both the man, and the impact he had.
He and I were close friends since July, 1985, although 12 years separated us, and, initially, our ideas about the role of MNCs, foreign investment, and patent laws were diametrically opposed to each other. But Parvinder's worldview changed once Ranbaxy became an international player in the late 1980s. As the company spread its wings across the world, he realised that he had to play by the global rules of the game. In the beginning, he was vociferously against product patents but, in the early 1990s, Parvinder became equally aggressive in his crusade for a world-class intellectual property rights protection system in our country.
It embarrassed him no end that many of the people and organisations whom he had nurtured in his earlier incarnation were now ranged against him! I recall one amusing incident, sometime in 1986. My minister had to face angry questions on the drug policy from MPs at a meeting of Parliament's Consultative Committee. After the meeting, the minister walked up to me, and, in Hindi, remarked: ''These are Ranbaxy's questions.'' I narrated this to Parvinder later that night, and he roared with laughter, and told me to tell the minister that, as long as the ministry retained controls, this would happen!
We often used to meet and talk-business, economics, science, religion, politics-but, sadly, not as often in the past year as he battled cancer. In 1991, we first talked about his vision of corporate governance, on which he was heavily influenced by C.K. Prahalad. Parvinder was clear about separating ownership from management, and, sometimes, when his young sons would be at home on vacation from Doon School, he would say to me that they would have to work their way up, and prove themselves. ''No core inheritance, only core competence,'' I jokingly suggested. He liked that.
Some years ago, I went to him, rather agitated, when the owners of a company on whose board he was a director awarded themselves an obscenely high commission at a time when the company itself was in dire straits. Parvinder immediately agreed with me, and asked me what he should do. I suggested that he resign. He said that it would be difficult since family and friends were involved. A few weeks later, he called me to say that he had, in fact, resigned, but he had officially given other reasons for doing so.
R&D was an obsession with Parvinder, partly because he himself had a doctorate from the University of Michigan. He set an example by setting up a world-class research centre in 1994, and by committing himself to spend 7 per cent of his sales on research in the next 4 years. If there was one CEO who networked with Indian universities and laboratories, it was Parvinder. His ideas about public support for R&D were most visible in P. Chidambaram's budgets of 1996 and 1997, which were among our most science-friendly budgets.
I recall asking him, sometime in 1993, why Ranbaxy could not become a catalyst for getting Indian scientists back to India from the US. I could see the engine of his hyperactive mind cranking up. Pretty soon, Ranbaxy was attracting 10 to 15 researchers, with doctorates in chemistry and biology, every year to work on its projects. The other area was women. I felt strongly that, given the enrolment of women in the life sciences, Ranbaxy was not doing enough to employ women in research positions. Parvinder denied any bias, but I could see the twinkle in his eye, and hear the filing-cabinet in his brain open.
In recent years, Ranbaxy has emerged as a full-blooded transnational, with $75 million invested in the US, Ireland, China, The Netherlands, Malaysia, and Thailand. As on r&d, Parvinder would bombard the Finance Ministry with notes on liberalising Indian investment abroad. Many of the changes that have been introduced in recent years owe their origin to these notes. Another area where his influence is traceable is Employee Stock Option Plans (ESOPs). It was sustained pressure from Infosys' N.R. Narayana Murthy and Parvinder that finally resulted in the government announcing schemes for ESOPs.
Parvinder was aggressive, often abrasive. He was pushy and demanding. He was single-minded and focussed. He was obsessed by pharma and Ranbaxy. Yet, he had this deep spiritual streak in him. He needed that faith; if it were not for it, I doubt if he could have withstood the trauma of the conflicts he had with his family as he sought to give Ranbaxy a whole new direction. I regret I never went with him to Beas, the home of the Radhasoamis, although Parvinder would constantly cajole me to do so.
Parvinder's last act was characteristic of the man. He by-passed his sons, despite the 35 per cent stake he had in Ranbaxy, and designated Brar as CEO. It was not easy for him since he had to contend with the family, but he stuck to his guns. I applauded him publicly. Just a week before his death, Parvinder called me up, and said: ''Thanks.'' That's all the energy he had. I promised to meet him very soon. Alas, that was not to be.
My Guide, Dr Singh
I first read about Parvinder Singh in the business press in the context of the boardroom battle that gave him chairmanship of Ranbaxy in 1993. I was then immersed in my work at the World Bank, absorbing the goings-on in the Indian private sector with only a passing interest. With the crisis of 1991 behind us, Manmohan Singh was driving the reforms as its architect, and many a Bank economist had his own views about the unmet promise of private enterprise in this country. Soon, I would discover that the practical dynamics of microeconomics in corporate India were beyond the grasp of the most articulate armchair theorists at the Bank. An opportunity to discover this would come from Singh.
I met him in late 1994, in what was to be the first of a series of exploratory discussions on a possible assignment with Ranbaxy. The organisation had recently articulated its mission to become an international, research-based, pharmaceuticals company, and was looking for a head of strategic planning. Dapper, courteous, and a picture of sartorial elegance, Singh led the conversation from contemporary Indian art to global healthcare reforms, probing here and there with the effortless ease of a seasoned raconteur. His precise diction, and careful choice of words belied a perfectionist whom I would grow to know and admire.
We spoke of the challenges of globalising from India, on which I shared animated academic views that were, in retrospect, mostly hot air; the importance of critical mass in terms of revenues; and the role of research in an Indian pharma company. Two hours, and many cups of coffee later, he left me to savour the aftermath of an almost impossible mix of intensely intellectual counterpoints, blended with self-effacing humility and conviction. I hardly noticed I had been speaking to perhaps a third of a billion dollars of personal wealth, and a burning ambition that few could match. Early in 1995, I joined Ranbaxy.
Singh's greatest strength was his ability to touch people. I learnt that he had made a transition in his style of leadership-from one that was command-driven and reliant on authority to a more people-centric, consensual one. His concern for people, and his faith in their ability to transform the destiny of a corporation was dominant. The owner of a limousine service in Princeton, who often chauffeured Singh, recalls his comment about the difficulties of running a 9-car limo service with 12 people, and wondering how he had built a complex pharma business with an international presence. ''It is simple,'' Singh said. ''I have got the right people in all those difficult jobs, and leave them alone to do it well. I do very little myself, really.''
Creating intellectual wealth through research and, thereby, increasing shareholder value was to him an article of faith. His work-ethics were unimpeachable, and he prided himself on the extent of work he clocked each day, and the fact that he was part of a team that thrived on challenge. Being punctilious, he was in his office at the stroke of 9 every day. I recall Singh half-jokingly chastise one of his sons, who was describing the ''10 o'clock traffic as I drove to work'' with a dry ''for some of us who have to work for a living, my friend, it is the 8.30 traffic we see.''
Singh's religiosity was as powerfully singular as his simplicity. Waiting for the company's jet to fuel at the Chandigarh airport once, we were wandering around, discussing the changing intellectual property regime. Singh suddenly stopped to pick a flower from the road, and looking up at the trees, he said: ''Just look at those flowers. There is an entire philosophy in them. And we prattle away about business!''
You may argue this is not quite a warts-and-all portrait of an individual with whom I had a boss-subordinate relationship. But I met Singh about 25 years into his journey with Ranbaxy. In keeping with the prowess of an intelligent mind to adapt to the varying challenges of a growing business, Singh adapted. And I had the good fortune of getting to know him at a time when he was self-assured, and had distanced himself from the operations of the company to give his people a sense of purpose.
Just over a month ago, Singh was home for dinner. His illness was taking its toll, but all I saw was animated joie de vivre, his eyes twinkling in anticipation over some paintings that he wanted us to get him. Singh went from room to room, showing me what he liked, the styles he wanted, the artists he liked, and the sizes he was looking for. There was a prescient sense of urgency about all this, and an enthusiastic, yet-child-like need of the aesthete. Yet, later, when we were discussing some business moves that we had to make over the next 2 years, Singh struck an almost Galilaeic posture, finger pointed heavenwards, saying ''He decides.'' He has decided.
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