The photograph behind Adventz Group Chairman Saroj Poddar shows him with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Other pictures in the room, located in Hong Kong House at Dalhousie in downtown Kolkata, show Poddar with world leaders like APJ Abdul Kalam, George Bush and Hamid Karzai. The message to the visitor is: Poddar may be reticent, but he has friends in the right places. It takes some prodding for Poddar to open up. "I knew (Finance Minister P) Chidambaram much before he entered politics. He is a part of our extended family now," he says. Their association goes back 40 years when Poddar's father bought a textile mill from Chidambaram's father. "Both of us travelled in the same coupe to reach Chennai where he handed over the mill. Since then we have been close friends," he adds. On his part, Chidambaram has made it a point to attend all social events organised by Poddar, like the marriage of his son and daughter.
Poddar's political connections should not come as a surprise. He is, after all, KK Birla's son-in-law, married to his second daughter, Jyotsna. The Birla family was close to many politicians and leaders; the list is headed by none other than Mahatma Gandhi. Devdas Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi's youngest son, was the editor of The Hindustan Times, the newspaper owned by Ghanshyam Das Birla, KK Birla's older brother. Jayaprakash Narayan, the firebrand socialist for long drew a monthly salary from Birla as his personal secretary. However, Jawaharlal Nehru had serious differences with Birla. The story goes that Mahatma Gandhi mentioned to Birla, sometime in 1924, that Nehru was short of money. Almost overnight, Birla turned up at Nehru's home at Allahabad and offered to help him out of the situation. Nehru was incensed, but managed to conceal his anger from his visitor. Their differences became serious in the days to come.
Even if you discount the Birla connection, Poddar comes from an old, well-off Marwari family of Kolkata. The Poddars were the country's biggest coal miners before nationalisation in 1971, owned jute mills, textile mills, spinning mills, mini-steel plants and tea gardens. They were dealers of Premier Automobiles and owned large tracts of land in the city. His father, Badri Prasad Poddar, was on the board of Shaw Wallace in its heydays. Still, Poddar always chose to keep a low profile. Till he inherited a large chunk of his $3-billion business (fertilisers, sugar, seeds, heavy engineering, real estate, furniture and investments) after his father-in-law died in 2008, he was known as the man who brought Gillette to India. Now, all of a sudden, he is engaged in a takeover battle (over Mangalore Chemicals & Fertilizers, or MCF, with Deepak Fertilisers), is acting as a white knight for a company (Kalindee Rail Nirman) that fears it will be forcibly acquired soon, and is locked in a battle of wits with a multinational corporation (Procter & Gamble).
Poddar owns 12.9 per cent in Gillette India, while Procter & Gamble owns 75.9 per cent. According to rules laid down by the Securities & Exchange Board of India, promoters cannot own more than 75 per cent of an Indian company. Each of the two partners wants the other to shed more to meet the norm. Nobody is ready to blink first. And Kalindee called Poddar for help after little-known Om Kothari group (its claim to fame is that it recently bought a haveli in Jaipur for Rs 210 crore) announced its intention to acquire control of the company and Larsen & Toubro, a minority shareholder, refused to help. It's not just about philanthropy. Poddar admits he sees great synergies between Kalindee and his company Texmaco Rail & Engineering.
Meanwhile, the fight over MCF has become intense. Poddar had bought 10 per cent in MCF, a company owned by Vijay Mallya, in April. Deepak Fertilisers threw a spanner in the works when it acquired 24.46 per cent earlier this month. Instead of being cowed down, Poddar has bought another 6 per cent or so in the company. His trump card is that he has the first right of refusal over Mallya's 21 per cent stake. Poddar says his relationship with Vijay (he's amongst the handful who call him that) goes back to the days when his father, Vittal Mallya, was the chairman of Singer India and he was the vice-chairman. "I took over the chairmanship after he passed away more than 30 years ago," exhales Poddar. It is that strong bond that has probably resulted in the flamboyant Mallya giving the right of first refusal to the not-so-colourful Poddar.
Poddar may be taciturn, even dour, but he is known to be sharp. A person who used to frequent his office recalls that BSE quotes were always up and live on his screen. "He is an astute investor, always keeps track of the stock market. He has made a neat pile from Gillette as well," this person adds. Poddar agrees that Gillette remains his biggest achievement. "Since school days it was my passion to bring Gillette in India, and it took me 14 years to get it here," he says with evident satisfaction. But critics say that the smart investor has been a conservative industrialist, in terms of diversifying a portfolio that he inherited, even though he could be credited for growing the turnover of his business from $1.5-2 billion in 2008 (when KK Birla died and Poddar became the chairman) to $3 billion now.
Those who work for him insist he is an astute businessman. In fertilisers, which is the mainstay of Poddar's Adventz Group (companies include Zuari Agro-chemicals and Paradeep Phosphate), control over the raw material, rock phosphate, is crucial. To secure rock phosphate from Morocco, Poddar has given Moroccan company OCP 50 per cent in Paradeep Phosphate. He has acquired phosphate mines in faraway Peru with Mitsubishi of Japan. To hedge his risks, Poddar is also setting up a fertiliser plant in Ras Al Khaimah with an investment of Rs 4,000 crore. "I want to remain focused and be a leader in the businesses that we are operating in. I am not looking at any other diversification now," Poddar says.
Poddar works five days a week. Weekends, he says, are for playing cards with friends and indulging his grandchildren. Poddar is an avid art collector. Those who have visited his home, Poddar Niket at Gurusaday Road in south Kolkata, marvel at the beautiful S H Raza in the drawing room. His New Delhi house, in New Friends Colony, too is well stocked with artworks and sculptures. People in the art world say he has an enviable collection of the great moderns - M F Husain, Raza, Ram Kumar et al. He is also known to own masterpieces by Jamini Roy, Anjolie Ela Menon, Gopal Ghosh, Thota Vaikuntam and Bikash Bhattacharjee. Poddar says modestly of his private fortune: "I was not into art but I have got drawn to it because of my family." Understated, as usual.