Naveen Jindal and the New Normal
Image: Dileep Prakash for Forbes India
aveen Jindal started taking risks early: More precisely, at the age of six, when his father OP Jindal gifted him a horse on his birthday. He would often fall off the animal, cutting and bruising himself. But the more he rode, the better he felt. “When I ride, nothing else enters my mind. I feel free,” Jindal would say years later.
And he has continued to pick himself up, even in adulthood. An accomplished polo player now, Jindal was captaining his Jindal Steel & Power (JSPL) team in the finals of the Ambassadors Cup in 2012 when his horse suddenly reared up. He fell on his back, suffering two fractures. The injuries didn’t deter him; in just a year, he is back in the saddle, as it were, with the polo season warming up for the 2013 season. Whenever he is in the capital, the 43-year-old clocks in at 6.30 am sharp at his farmhouse off the expressway in Noida and rides his favourite horse Sue for a couple of hours.
“Polo is inherently a hazardous and dangerous sport. Anything can happen while I am on the horse. It gives me courage as I am prepared for anything,” Jindal tells Forbes India in his office on the top floor of Jindal Centre at Delhi’s Bhikaji Cama Place. As an afterthought, the chairman of JSPL adds, “If I can do that in sport, then I can do it in life too.”
That fearlessness has shaped Jindal, who juggles two difficult roles: Chairman of the $3.5 billion JSPL and a two-time Member of Parliament (MP) from Kurukshetra in Haryana. Even as a 24-year-old, he fought government norms that barred citizens from flying the national flag round the year. [After a seven-year legal battle, Jindal won the case in the Supreme Court, allowing Indians to hoist the tiranga all 365 days.] A decade later, Jindal became the youngest industrialist to be elected to Lok Sabha, defeating the more favoured Abhay Singh Chautala, son of former Haryana chief minister OP Chautala.
In 2000, as the managing director of JSPL, Jindal spent Rs 1,000 crore to set up a factory in Raigarh to manufacture rails, pitting himself against Steel Authority of India Ltd that has a monopoly in the product category. He is yet to break the public sector behemoth’s stronghold in the segment. Jindal is now trying to use coal gasification technology to run his new steel plant in Angul, Odisha; this has not been attempted anywhere else in the world, he says.
These gambles pale in comparison to what Jindal has been preparing for over the last two years. “I spend almost 75 percent of my time on my public responsibilities today... I would like to be full-time in public life in the next two years,” says Jindal, whose aspiration for bigger “responsibilities” in public life is well known. In an interview to a television channel last year, Jindal revealed that if given a chance, he would want to become the chief minister of Haryana. While talking to Forbes India too, he gave enough hints about his wish to be a minister in the Central government.
It is unusual for an active industrialist to dive into the topsy-turvy world of Indian politics. The move is one laden with chance because separating the two worlds, as he has experienced of late, is almost impossible. Politically, his business has made Jindal an “easy target”, and the uncertainty has hurt JSPL’s stock that has nosedived in the past year.
But Jindal isn’t giving up on his attempts to make his political career immune from his responsibilities at JSPL. The steel and power empire is seeing unprecedented changes. Till two years ago, JSPL’s top officials belonged to the OP Jindal days. But, today, a new crop of leadership holds sway at the company. There is a new managing director and chief executive, Ravi Uppal, who joined in October 2012. A former veteran at the multinational, ABB, Uppal headed L&T Power in his last stint. He, in turn, brought in an ex-colleague from ABB, K Rajagopal, as chief financial officer. There have been several other appointments across business segments.
The transition has not been smooth: Some of the JSPL old-timers, including Deputy Managing Director Sushil Maroo and Vice-Chairman Vikrant Gujral, were unhappy with the changes and put in their papers. Jindal had asked Maroo, who was earlier tipped to be the next CEO, to stay on for two more years but he chose to move on to Essar Energy as CEO. Jindal, though, is not overly concerned. “For me to give away control, I needed to hire people who were smarter, more knowledgeable and experienced than me,” he says.
Jindal, at present, functions as chairman. “We want to be a professionally-run organisation, like an institution,” he says. The new management is establishing effective systems and processes and Jindal doesn’t rule out the possibility of becoming a non-executive chairman soon.