Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXXII No. 2, May 1-15, 2022

Mentor par Excellence

-- by Ramnarayan V.

N. Sankar was an unusual combination of business acumen and ethical conviction – upright, farsighted, innovative. He was responsible for some of the most original choices made in the field of PVC manufacture, including the highly integrated manufacturing processes at the numerous facilities of the chemicals division of The Sanmar Group, which he helmed for decades. His concern for the environment led to the concept and implementation of ZLD or zero liquid discharge in all of them, amidst a whole slew of steps taken to ensure sustainable growth.

This is not the first time I have written on Mr. Sankar, but I have so far refrained from striking a personal note while doing so. This time around, I have, with the permission of the editor, freed myself of such restraints. I shall begin by openly acknowledging the lump in my throat as I refer to him in the past tense. In this, I know I am not alone. Besides family and friends, the sizable community of Sanmar employees is shell-shocked, dazed, while trying to come to terms with his passing. In his own quiet, undemonstrative way, he was the godfather of that large family that always felt safe and looked after under his scrupulously honest leadership. It ensured that every one of us learnt to do the right thing – not the most convenient alternative – in the most trying circumstances that tend to bedevil professional careers every now and then.

The son and grandson of trailblazers in the history of south Indian industry and commerce, Sankar became one, too. After he obtained his B.Sc. (Tech) in Chemical Engineering from the AC College of Technology, Madras, graduating with distinction, and a Masters degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, he worked with Chemplast promoted by his family, for five years during a difficult time, before he started his entrepreneurial career in 1972. And he was proud to call himself an entrepreneur.

Determined to bring in technology to India to manufacture products of excellence, Sankar, all of 26 years old, was writing letters to foreign companies seeking collaboration with them. Durametallic India at Karapakkam, Madras, resulted, growing into what is now Sanmar Engineering Technologies Private Limited, catering to a wide range of process industries – even India’s space missions. Several successful joint ventures have followed. Over the decades Sankar ensured that these joint ventures with global corporations were models for emulation, enunciating a philosophy regarded as the ultimate paradigm for ­international collaboration, winning him respect and lifelong friendships amidst technology leaders in many countries.

Ethics and corporate governance were an article of faith with Sankar. “Strictly follow the law of the land, so that we can all sleep well at night” could well be defined as his paramount mantra to them.

Though cold logic was the basis of Sankar’s business decisions, they were often tempered by the human touch. Sometimes his perfectionism could be nerve wracking for those reporting to him, but at the end of a hard job well executed, he had a unique way of appreciating good work. I personally noticed that he would revert to Tamil at such moments, rather than the more official English that we spoke at work.

Sankar was a master of follow-up. His attention to detail and meticulous planning did rub off on his managers who were empowered to discharge their responsibilities fearlessly. So long as they did all that was required of them sincerely, failure would not be punished. He could be impatient with you if he felt you were trying to ‘BS’, in fact brusque even, but he was patience personified when your mistakes were despite sincere effort. On one occasion, I was expecting a severe reprimand if not worse, when he did not even mention the gaffe, perhaps because our whole team had been slogging it out for weeks on end.

How can I fail to mention that he gave me the most important break of my life when in the mid-1990s he opened Sanmar’s doors to me based on the merit he saw in my freelance journalistic work? I started as a part-time resource with Kalamkriya, a creative agency associated with Sanmar, and joined the group as a mainstream employee five years later. “Sankar is waiting for you. After William Shakespeare and R.K. Narayan, you are the next big thing for him,” said a senior colleague to me. Of course, he was being sarcastic, yet his words acted as a great morale booster.

One of my main responsibilities as Advisor-Corporate Communications was to bring out the quarterly house magazine MATRIX. It was 100% NS’s baby. Published without a break since 1988, it is a high-quality publication with excellent production values. Some fine editors have been involved in it, but it always bore the unmistakable Sankar stamp. The group’s website, and its annual and sustainability reports are likewise classy products, thanks to the chairman’s total insistence on their excellence. Publications on the group’s more-than-fifty-year-long association with genuine cricket promotion were other unique NS initiatives. My involvement with these gave me great satisfaction.

Sankar was one of the finest patrons of cricket in India. The golden jubilee of the Sanmar family-Jolly Rovers Cricket Club association was made memorable by an emotional gathering at Chennai of all living members of that first champion side in July 2015. A year later the great all-rounder Kapil Dev released a book to commemorate this association. The inaugural K.S. Narayanan ­Memorial Oration was delivered on January 30, 2016 by former England cricket captain David Gower. Every year since then, the Oration has maintained its high standards, peaking with the K.S. Narayanan Centenary Oration by former British Prime Minister David Cameron on January 30, 2019.

Books on Tamil Nadu cricket and the Madras Cricket Club were the result of Sankar’s passion for chronicling the histories of institutions. His leadership of such bodies as Chennai Heritage and the Chennai Willingdon Corporate Foundation are further examples of his vision that extended far beyond business. He gave more than generously to a variety of charities, and made extraordinary contributions to education. The Sankara Schools and the cricket facilities at IIT Madras stand testimony to this facet of his many-splendoured vision.

“Gone too soon,” say many of N. Sankar’s admirers. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, however, NS’s life was “a kind of splendid torch,” and he made it “burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

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