Punjab, India-born Swraj Paul overcame personal tragedy to become one of Britain's wealthiest businessmen. Having toiled in his father's small foundry in India in his early years, he went on to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before emigrating to the United Kingdom to found Capparo Group — a steel-to-hotels conglomerate that today has an annual turnover of nearly 1 billion euro, where he continues to be chairman.
Though based in the U.K. since the 1960s, he's most widely remembered in his home country for what many believe was a turning point in corporate governance in India in the 1980s. As what could be called the country's first "corporate raider," he challenged the traditions of India Inc. and bought stakes in two local corporate giants, beginning a new era of transparency and financial reporting standards.
Back in the U.K., Lord Paul made history by being the first Asian to be appointed deputy speaker of the House of Lords, the upper house of Parliament, in 2008 after receiving a life peerage in the House of Lords as the Right Honourable Lord Paul of Marylebone. An active supporter of the Labour Party, he has, however, found himself embroiled in recent political turmoil, including investigations into allegations of politicians inappropriately claiming expenses. His name was cleared earlier this year.
Lord Paul met with Arabic Knowledge at Wharton to discuss a range of topics, from how business and politics have a lot more in common than many people think to why he doesn't like to give advice to fledgling entrepreneurs.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You were born in Jalandhar, India, in 1931…
Lord Swraj Paul: That's right.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: … and your father ran a small steel foundry there. Could you tell us about your early days and your introduction to the steel business?
Lord Paul: As you said, I was almost born into this, [in] the factory, because a typical family business in India in those days was a very small business. You had offices on the ground floor, you lived on the first floor and the factory was in the backyard. That was all that I saw while growing up. Then, of course, I studied in India, went to MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], where I did mechanical engineering and metallurgy. I came back to the family business, but in Calcutta because by that time [it] was there. Calcutta was the hub of the steel sector in those days. In 1966, I ended up coming to the United Kingdom.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What brought about that decision?
Lord Paul: It was about one of those very unfortunate things. My daughter was ill so I brought her there for treatment. Unfortunately, we lost her after about 22 months in and out of the hospital…
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Sorry to hear that.
Lord Paul: Living with somebody whom you know is going to die — she was suffering from leukemia — was a very shattering experience for both my wife and me. I took what you call in India the sannyasa [a state of detachment from materialism] and went into meditation and reading philosophy, biographies, etc. I stayed in London was not because I wanted to work, but because I wanted to stay for the rest of my life where our daughter died. That's how I ended up in Britain.
After getting over [her death] — perhaps partly the meditation helped and being inspired by other people — I thought, "Let me start a little something to keep myself busy," because it was becoming difficult to keep myself occupied. I started a little business. Since then, God has been kind.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Could you describe the kind of Indian businesses that were in the U.K. at that time? How typical was your venture among them?
Lord Paul: Mine was a little bit different. Right from birth, I have been looking at industry, getting involved in industry. My training as an engineer was in industry. In those days, most Indian communities [comprised] workers from India, and then some East African Asians started coming, and they were mostly in the corner shops. There was nobody really in industry. I didn't know anything else but industry. I started a little plant that needed very little money because I didn't have the money. I leased the plant, so it was exploring a completely new field for an Indian, and right in the heart of the manufacturing industry. People felt that was strange — "How on earth is he going to make anything out this thing?" But we worked through it and managed.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Could you describe some of the barriers that you faced and how you overcame them? And what lessons can one learn from your entrepreneurial experience?
Lord Paul: First, I never came across a barrier, or if I did, I did not worry about it. I just said, "My job is to get on with what I want to do." Maybe that was because of my training at MIT, which taught me a couple of things: One is never compromise on excellence, [the other is] never give up. There was no way I was going to give up just because there were barriers. Once you've determined that you are not going to let any barrier get [in your way], you stop seeing them. If they come, you steamroll over them.
I'm sure people felt strange that here in the heart of British industry, which wasn't doing well at that time, somebody comes from India, of all people, and wants to set up a company. They looked [at me] with skepticism. But I found [what] was lacking in Britain in industry at that time: A consistency in quality and on-time delivery. I saw the gap and said, "I am going to make sure that I deliver something that is consistent with what I promised. I don't want to build a Rolls Royce, but whatever I want to build, it must be consistent." Second, on-time delivery was rare.
[Because] it was a very small plant, it encouraged me to build something bigger. It looked like a dream, but while running from pillar to post, I was able to raise money and we built the plant. Then one thing just led to another. In the end, it was in the hand of God, which had a lot to do with it. If you can combine hard work and integrity and hope for luck, it works.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: There also may be an element of ingenuity in figuring out what was preventing on-time delivery at other plants, but you were able to find the solution. Could you describe how?
Lord Paul: Part of it was that from the 1960s onward, there were a lot of industrial problems in Britain. The attitude of managements was, "Them and us." There was such a gap between the workers and management that the industrial relations were awful. I wanted to carry the workers with me. I didn't have many workers, but we tried to develop a culture in which you became part of them. That was partly the reason perhaps why I joined the Labour Party.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: But it's also probably the case that in Britain, perhaps even more than other countries, business tends to be an "old boys" network. How difficult was it for you, almost like a pioneer in this area, to thrive in that environment?
Lord Paul: You're absolutely right. Britain was always an old boys network, whether in business, civil service, politics, etc. But they recognized the perseverance and determination to succeed of another person. And who would not like to get his material on time and be competitive? I always told the customer, "Don't buy from me as your main source. Try me as a second source." I never went to a customer and said, "Hey, you're buying this and this from this big company. I would like to replace it." I said, "You want to make sure that this company is supplying you, but they could [run into] problems. Why don't you try me as a second source? You give them 90% of your order; all I am looking for is 10%.
Once you are able to step in, performance matters. The most interesting case I had was when I built a plant. I chased one company for two years for an order. Every year, they promised me [business]. Even then, I used to sit on the bench, not even a comfortable chair, waiting for an appointment, and they purposely made me wait. As luck would have it, two years later, I ended up acquiring the group that owned that company. When I went to visit the [managing director], he said to me, "I know we thoroughly misbehaved. If you want me to resign, I'll do so." I said, "No, you stay right there…. [But] as long as you're working in my group, don't be so ridiculous to anybody." He turned out to be a very good manager.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Another story I remember, perhaps from about 30 years or so ago, was when you decided to invest in some Indian companies — DCM Limited and Escorts Limited [DCM was a goods conglomerate and Escorts a transportation parts manufacturer]. What were your objectives and what lessons can be learned?
Lord Paul: You are a very young man. It was long time ago, in 1982.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: I had just entered journalism at that time and I remember it being front-page news.
Lord Paul: That's right. In 1982. In India, people forget. It was the late Indira Gandhi who wanted to open the economy, not anybody else. She did start in a much more cautious way, because she was a cautious person, a person who was very pro-India and very Indian. In my view, she was the greatest prime minister India has had up until today. The credit of opening the economy or planting the seed for that goes to the late Mrs. Gandhi. Then she had another idea in mind. She wanted to [get] non-resident Indians more interested in India. Up until that time, Indians and the Indian government treated non-resident Indians as if they came from the moon. They didn't want to have anything to do with them.
Both Mr. Rajan Nanda of Escorts and Mr. Bharat Ram of DCM were going around the world asking people to invest in their companies. Nobody knew in India, including me, that these people owned nothing of their companies. Nanda had less than 5% of Escorts. Ram had DCM Escorts had less than 10%.
When I saw that gap, I said, "What on earth are they are talking about? I am DCM, I am Escorts. Let me buy the shares." I ended up buying 7.5% of Escorts and 13% of DCM, so I held more shares than them. If you studied their balance sheets, there was so much of abuse, such as jewelry for women. They felt threatened and they tried to stop [me]. They went to Rajiv Gandhi, they went to [other] politicians, etc., and I ended up losing money.
Nobody should get the credit for forcing India's economy to change except Swraj Paul. But Indians are very poor at giving credit. They only know how to praise the government in power irrespective of the power, irrespective of the government. They will only give credit to them. But I do think I [helped show] the ordinary shareholder that there was abuse taking place…. India is still not as transparent as one would like it to be, but it is certainly far more transparent now and I do think I deserve some credit for that.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You're absolutely right. Nobody gives you credit. That was also the first time that corporate governance became front-page news on the business pages.
Lord Paul: No, I mean my reward is really [with respect to] the ordinary person of India. That was 1982 … but even today, if I go to any village, people come to me and say, "Lord Paul, can I have your autograph? Lord Paul, it's nice to meet you." What better reward can you get? I don't need a reward from the Indian government. I don't need a reward from the village. The poor man is my constituency and that is what my life mission is.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How at the different stages of the business did you need different leadership skills? How did you acquire those skills, which might have helped you succeed in a previous stage, but did not become a barrier to succeeding at the next stage?
Lord Paul: One thing I learned a long time ago is that you should never do the same job for more than five years, irrespective of what job you're doing. Whether in business or politics, [after] more than five years, you become useless because you can't come up with new ideas. Business and politics all need new ideas. Even when I was running the business, I always concentrated on a different aspect of it. That's why in 1996, when I turned 65, I told my son [Angad Paul], "Now you look after the business." I wanted to devote time to several passions. One is education….
I was in China one-and-a-half years ago [and left] impressed. In India, we need to pick up speed. In 1996, I told [my three] boys, "Now you run the business." They said, "Papa, why don't you remain chairman? We won't bother you." And they haven't. I let them get on with life. I don't interfere with them. They rarely talk to me. But they are driving the business. I don't. I am not necessarily going to like all what they do. But I know they are certainly better trained than I was. They have much more knowledge available to them than I had [at their age]. They are doing a marvelous job. My two grandsons just joined the business.
A long time ago, I was at MIT and I was speaking to students and one young student asked me, "What advice do you have for students who are graduating?" I told her, 'I'll give you one bit of advice. Never ask an old man for his advice because his frustrations come with it. Make your own mistakes because you will learn far more from your mistakes than [by asking me for advice]." I have followed that principle. I've made lot of mistakes in my life. But every time, those mistakes made me a better man.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Can you tell me about the biggest leadership challenge you ever faced? How did you deal with it, and what did you learn from it?
Lord Paul: … I have never been a big leader, nor do I aspire to be a leader. I am a worker … I enjoy what I do and I even tell my children now, "You can't choose what you have to do necessarily, but you can certainly learn to enjoy what you do, and unless you enjoy what you do, life is very boring…."
First, I want to like whatever I have to do.