Sushil Mantri counts among those Marwaris whose ancestors were a part of the mass exodus that once took the community across the length and breadth of the country. But unlike the vast majority who made a beeline for Calcutta and Bombay (now Kolkata and Mumbai), his forefathers left their home in Parbatsar, in Nagore district, Rajasthan, to resettle in Usmanabad, Maharashtra, where they started dealing in textiles which gradually took them to other businesses and more prosperous days.
Generations later, when Sushil Mantri’s father stepped into the world of enterprise, he too left home to resettle in Gulbarga, in Karnataka, where he set up mills for processing oils and pulses. The going was good but Gulbarga not really being the place of choice when it came to children’s education, he decided to shift base once again—this time to Pune. It was here that Sushil Mantri spent his early years.
Unlike most Marwari young men whose induction into business takes place gradually over years and with parallel grooming, for Sushil Mantri it was rather abrupt. When just 16, an unforeseen indisposition had his father hospitalised which forced him out of the well-ensconced world of a teenager and into the world of enterprise. In a way, it was a rite of passage for him, as notwithstanding his little knowledge of textiles or enterprise, he is said to have done a commendable job of running the family’s semi wholesale textile business (as dealers of Mafatlal Fabrics). Reminiscing, Mantri says, “I had just completed my matriculation and due to a teachers’ strike, the exam results had got delayed. My father was hospitalised and somebody had to take care of the shop. I was like a clean slate, having little idea of the business, but I was able to manage the show much to my father’s delight and appreciation.”
Meanwhile, the exam results were out in which he had done exceptionally well. Inspired by his performance—he had scored 80% in aggregate and 96% in science and mathematics—Mantri fancied taking up civil engineering. But having tasted early success as an entrepreneur and in view of his grandfather’s predilection for chartered accountancy, he chose rather to study commerce. One of his brothers instead took up civil engineering. College timings were such that it provided him with ample time to sit in his father’s shop, which not just further honed his business skills but also whetted his appetite for it. But the Marwari way of life being the way it was in those days, marriage came soon after for the young graduate. A couple of years later, in 1987, while still undecided about what to really do in life, an old Bollywood construction industry related blockbuster, Trishul, which had once hugely inspired young Mantri and thereafter never ceased to appeal to him, tipped the balance in favour of construction, whereupon Mantri decided to get into the real estate business together with his brother, who incidentally had by now acquired his diploma in civil engineering. The duo set up their construction firm, Mantri Housing & Constructions Ltd in Pune the same year.
Soon after, Mantri’s daughter, Priyanka—whom the doting father regards as his “lucky charm”—was born. Success followed, the business flourished and within a couple of years the brothers started work on their head office, Mantri House, in Pune. More success followed and in less than a decade the Mantris were working on a prestigious project on Ferguson College Road that has since been adjudged one of the best buildings in Pune.
“Bangaloreans received us very well; they appreciated our products, our pricing, our service… we got
a great response from them.”
From construction to forging
But in spite of it all, a “restlessness” in Mantri, which he describes as both his “strength” and “weakness”, kept nagging at him to do something different—be an industrialist perhaps. This opportunity came by when one of his customers, U V Patel, who owned Ahmednagar Forgings Ltd (AFL), and whom Mantri had befriended and even partnered with briefly for his projects, made him a quid pro quo offer to run AFL. Recalling the incident, Mantri says, “Mr Patel was double my age. I would tell him, ‘I made you developer; now you make me industrialist.’ One day, he called me to his home and said, ‘You will not do something small, and at this age, I will not do something big. Why not join my company? In this way, I will get a young partner, and you will get an experienced partner, and we won’t need to set up a new activity.’” Mantri gladly accepted the offer.
It was not the best of times when Mantri took over. The Indonesian currency had just collapsed triggering the Asian Crisis, and this forced many Indian businesses to go into cost-cutting mode. Looking at the positive side of things, it, however, offered Mantri the opportunity to penetrate deep into the functioning of AFL, especially its loss-making Chakan plant, and use his innate skills. Making changes wherever necessary, even drastic ones, he was able to help the plant limp back to profitability.
But the ‘restlessness’ bug was to bite him again! Two years after joining AFL, he had had enough of it and was craving once again for change. “I was able to make a lot
of changes in Ahmednagar Forging, but it being an ancillary to Tata Motors, there was no creativity,” says Mantri. “It was like, whatever the principal says, you have to do… just follow instructions…. I was not getting satisfied, so one fine day I decided to exit from AFL and the forging business.”
Starting on his own
Now a free bird, the option to rejoin the family real estate business was there, but somehow Mantri felt that even if he chose to pursue the real estate business once again, it would be best to be on his own, preferably in another city. And so, taking the plunge, he bid farewell to Pune and headed for Bangalore (now Bengaluru) bag and baggage, with family in tow. That was in 1999.
Bangalore, an upcoming city, provided good opportunity for the real estate business, but with his family having expressed inability to help him with seed capital in view of an ongoing recession, he had to turn to old friend U V Patel, who readily loaned him 10 lakh rupees. With this money he started Mantri Developers Pvt Ltd in 1999. “Bangalore was a totally new place—unknown roads, unknown people… but my confidence level was very high. I was just 36 then,” says Mantri. “Mr Patel’s money was very lucky and so was the city. I started, and we were able to work very well and then perform better and better; Bangaloreans received us very well; they appreciated our products, our pricing, our service… we got a great response from them.”
Mantri Developers’ very first project was at Bannerghatta Road which at that time didn’t have proper access. To overcome the impediment, Mantri approached the state government and entered into a public-private partnership (PPP) for the construction of a road, whereby he had to bear 40% of the total cost. This extra mile that Mantri chose to walk for the welfare of both residents of his to-be project and the city at large brought rich dividends. The project, needless to say, was a success. Choosing to concentrate on one area rather than spreading out to the entire city, he took up more projects on Bannerghatta Road and today some 5,000 home owners owe their beautiful apartments to Mantri Developers’ far-sightedness and design genius.
The rest, as they say, is history. After the opening up of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the real estate sector in 2005, in March 2006, Morgan Stanley, the global financial powerhouse, invested $ 68 million in Mantri Developers, for just 10% equity, at the enterprise level. It was a landmark for the Indian real estate industry in that it was the sector’s first private equity investment. This unexpected windfall not only provided a huge fillip to the growing company but also was an eye-opener for Mantri. “Morgan Stanley really expanded our vision,” says Mantri, looking back. “With a strong team on board, we started looking for bigger, better projects. They [Morgan Stanley] even helped me recruit my first CFO and institutionalise the entire company—the systems, processes, etc. Today, after nine years, they are still with us and our relationship continues to grow stronger.”
Understandably, more projects came Mantri Developers’ way, and today the company boasts a string of world-class residential properties, IT parks, shopping complexes, commercial buildings and educational institutions in major cities of South India. Among these include Mantri Altius, a towering edifice that graces the skyline of Bengaluru, Mantri Espana, an ultra luxurious residential project, and Mantri Square, India’s largest mall. Some have even bagged prestigious awards such as Mantri Altius, which was adjudged ‘Best Residential Property in India’ by CNBC CRISIL Real Estate Awards. Yet another project, DSK Pinnacle, was honoured as the ‘Environment Friendly Project of the Year’ by CMO Asia Awards. The CMO award highlighted Mantri Developers’ commitment to developing eco-friendly and sustainable buildings. Inspired, the group now uses sustainable building standards, in line with criteria laid by LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) and IGBC (Indian Green Building Council), and incorporates Environment Management Systems (EMS) in all its projects. The company has recently also ventured into green energy generation with windmills installed in North Karnataka that generate 23.79 MW of renewable energy.
A worthy partner
Remarkably, in this entire effort to take Mantri Developers from a little-known startup to a mammoth construction company, Sushil Mantri’s wife, Snehal’s contribution has been immense. Notwithstanding her prior stock-broking experience, she readily joined forces with her husband to assist in the company’s marketing efforts right from its early days. “I have been an integral part of Mantri Developers since its inception in 1999,” she says. “My family was really motivating and encouraged me to pursue a career and not just be a homemaker.” A diligent learner, she quickly learnt the nuances of the real estate business and today is in charge of the entire Mantri Group residential property sales, marketing and branding, having even won several prestigious awards for her initiatives. She is also involved with strategising project launches and addressing customer perceptions and is responsible for the introduction of several innovative, customer-friendly concepts. “I have developed my expertise in marketing and this has helped me define and execute numerous growth-driven strategies such as Telemedicine and Concierge Services, novel concepts like Propcare (Mantris’ in-house post-purchase property maintenance facility); Spacethetics (an interior design solution for all Mantri residents); and Mantri Insignia (a customer loyalty programme),” she adds.
As with so many other conscientious Marwari business houses, the Mantris too have not been blind to the needs of the less privileged. Choosing to concentrate their philanthropic efforts in the area of education, especially women literacy, they have adopted three panchayat schools in rural Bengaluru for a five-year period, where midday meals, free uniforms and special scholarships are provided to ensure that there are no dropouts. These apart, they have adopted a zilla panchayat school at Angrewadi, Pune, and also own the well-known Indus International Community School in Bengaluru, which is intended for children from the neighbouring villages, who are below poverty line. After its success as the first CBSE/international school for underprivileged children in the country, other Indus International Schools have been set up in Hyderabad and Pune, and a fourth will be opening in Chennai soon.
Having extended its footprint to other major cities in southern India, Mantri Developers today has four projects in Chennai, two in Pune and four in Hyderabad. To lend their support to the rapidly expanding business, both chronicles his unusual journey, of starting with nothing but a dream and then braving through customer cynicism, government hostility and financial ups and downs to finally make it big. Looking back at it all, one surmises that life may have been a big bet for Sushil Mantri, but its rewards have been bigger.