The Road Ahead for Virendra Mhaiskar and IRB India
Image: Manoj Patil for Forbes India
Name: Virendra Mhaiskar
Profile: Chairman and managing director, IRB Infrastructure
Rank in Rich List 2012: 96
Net Worth: $560 mln
The Big Hairy Challenge faced in the last one year: Slowdown in the infrastructure business, public protests against toll payments, and allegations of political links
The Way Forward: Focusing on project execution, particularly on the Ahmedabad-Vadodara BOT project
Virendra Mhaiskar must be incredibly crazy. There is nothing else that explains the kind of risks the 41-year-old chairman and managing director of IRB Infrastructure takes, and his rise as India’s largest and most profitable toll-road operator. He deals with problems of the kind that could drive most people around the bend.
Consider, for instance, the episode this July when the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), one of Maharashtra’s most raucous political parties, thought up an idea: Galvanise supporters to go past toll booths across the state without paying to use the roads. Egged on by exhortations made by their leader Raj Thackeray, they complied, and men tolling the booths could do nothing. Thackeray claimed it was to protest against the obscene profits the “toll mafia” was raking in from the dense traffic that used these roads.
Toll booth staff manning the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, the crown jewel in IRB Infrastructure’s portfolio, came in for special treatment. (The company is responsible for its upkeep until 2019.) Ironically, Mhaiskar says, “Raj is a friend at a personal level.” But that said, he argues, “To those who say traffic has grown more than projected, I ask, what if it had been otherwise? Would we get our money back?”
I ask if he has tried explaining this to Mr Thackeray and how they continue to be friends. “Enforcing agreements signed with developers, and explaining the rationale to stakeholders is the government’s job,’’ he says, as a matter of fact. I can’t help but think it ironical. But I guess there is a method to the irony. How else could he have grown the company into India’s largest in the sector, and manage 12 roads across west and south India? So, I probe him a bit deeper. “The government’s policy on road construction and toll through the build-operate-transfer (BOT) model has been the most successful and transparent of all public-private partnerships in the country. But it is also the most poorly understood,” he says.
The problem, Mhaiskar says, is no politician or bureaucrat has bothered to explain to the public how it works. By way of explanation, he offers an analogy. “If you borrow Rs 70 lakh to buy a home, and agree to repay it over 15 years, you return several times the amount to the bank by the end of the tenure, and nobody complains. Going by that same logic, how can you argue if a road developer has invested Rs 1,500 crore [over 20 years], returns ought to be limited to the original investment? What about our borrowing cost, maintenance costs and our returns?”
That is why, he says, public anger manufactured against toll-road operators by politicians have badly impacted investors in the business. Caught between policy changes and the unwillingness (or inability) of users to pay, they are stuck with millions of dollars in debt.
For instance, he’s still trying to extricate himself from a situation in Kolhapur, where IRB won a 30-year contract in 2008 to maintain all of the city’s inner roads. Back then, it was hailed as a pilot project that would lead the way for municipalities across the country to liberate themselves from the responsibility of maintaining roads. People in the city, though, simply refused to pay, and earlier, in January, they organised rallies to protest against the tolls. Collections had to be stopped after the state government thought the protests impossible to ignore. All attempts to find a solution continue to hang in abeyance.
Problems like these find participants in the Indian infrastructure business under huge amounts of debt, and are compelling many to get out of the projects they had bid for. Mhaiskar, though, seems the rare animal with enough cash on hand. His revenues almost doubled from Rs 1,753 crore in 2009-10 to Rs 3,255 crore in 2011-12. His profit margins are a little over 15 percent. And, early in October, he signed on to buy out MVR Infra’s road project in Andhra Pradesh for an undisclosed amount. “A lot of such projects are now on sale, mostly by promoters under stress. We are looking at those that can give us an internal rate of return [IRR] of at least 20 percent,” Mhaiskar says.
You must be wondering if Mhaiskar is counting his chickens before they hatch, but Parikshit Kandpal, a senior analyst at Karvy Insitutional Equities, shares his optimism and is putting a ‘buy’ rating on the stock.
Most of the projects IRB is involved with are either in the west or south of India, he says. These are parts of the country that have demonstrated most growth. Of these, projects in Maharashtra and Gujarat account for 74 percent of IRB’s portfolio. “Understanding risks in traffic growth is a big part of our project evaluation,” says Mhaiskar.
When the government opened up projects for private participation in the late 1990s, many businessmen bid aggressively. They followed up later by raising equity from the public at super-normal valuations. Mhaiskar, too, capitalised on the market’s appetite for infrastructure companies. He raised Rs 944 crore through an initial public offering (IPO) in 2008.
For many, fat order books were a measure of success, irrespective of the cost at which they were acquired. But soon the regulatory environment changed, and returns from ventures dropped below expectations. As banks cut down on lending, larger companies like GMR declared they were taking ‘investment holidays’.