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Vol. XXXII No. 3, May 16-31, 2022

Sanmar, what Sankar built

-- The Way We Were by Sushila Ravindranath

I met Sankar in 1985 to do a feature on Chemplast. He was not reluctant to talk but was surprised that anyone would want to do a story on the Chemplast Group. Halfway through our conversation, he said with an air of surprise, “We do have a story to tell.”

He had just put his head down and was working hard to take his Group places. He had never thought about projecting himself or the Group in the media. The Group did not even have a name. It was called Sanmar few years down the line.

Sankar was the Managing Director of Chemplast which had been set up by his father K.S. Narayanan and his close associate T.S. Narayanaswamy (father of N. Srinivasan, MD, India Cements). The company was manufacturing PVC resins and pipes using industrial alcohol.

A chemical engineer from Illinois Institute of Technology, Sankar joined Chemplast as an Assistant General Manager after his return from the US in 1967. He told me that the period between 1967 and 72 was the worst for the company. “The price of PVC had collapsed and there was a lot of unnecessary and unhealthy competition.” It was a learning period and he was exposed to every problem a company could face.

By 1972, the PVC market had picked up and Chemplast became steady on its feet. Sankar decided to strike out on his own. During the 40s, Sankar’s family had set up a small unit, Industrial Chemicals Limited, to manufacture calcium carbide for the first time in the country. Sankar acquired the control of the company, buying the shares on his own.

He turned around this sleepy little company into a profitable one. “I was 26 and brash. By increasing the price and implementing some technical improvements, I put the company on a sounder financial footing,” he said. However, Sankar did not see any great growth in industrial chemicals in the then power starved Tamil Nadu.

The surplus generated by this company was used to put up ­other projects, Durametallic being one of them. This was the first among the many of the joint ventures Sankar would sign up over the years. The company was the world leader in the manufacture of mechanical seals.

Persuading Durametallic to come to India was an adventure. He had to go to Kalamazoo which was really in the boondocks and meet its 75 year old chairman whose knowledge of India was hazy to put it mildly.

He managed to pull it off and an enduring relationship with Durametallic began. He started putting up a group of engineering companies manufacturing products for the process industries.

Sankar became an expert in setting up joint ventures, that too with American companies. At that time most Indian companies had British collaborators and Americans were considered difficult. Said Sankar, “Once you are able to convince the Americans of your bona fides, and communicate everything properly, the Americans are excellent collaborators.” He also believed in going only with market leaders or those who were at the top. He was also clear that the management had to be with one of the partners and that both could not run the company together.

At the time of my meeting Sankar, the Group was on a roll. Sankar was in expansion mode. His younger brother Kumar was setting up the electronic division of the group. He was introducing products which were way ahead of their time. He was a pioneer in many ways.

The group entered into financial services, acquired ships, real estate and so on. Sankar, at that point, did not want to make any long term predictions about the Group. “We are not interested in growth for growth’s sake. We will consolidate as we move up,” he said.

Sankar was always clear about which way to go. He was unsentimental about business. He was quick to correct mistakes and was willing to get out of businesses which did not work.

The Sanmar Group has certainly moved up. After decades of non stop activity, Sankar has left behind a billion dollar conglomerate with multinational operations. 

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