Among Kolkata’s oldest Marwari business houses is Tarachand Ghanshyamdas, a legendary firm whose interests ranged from banking and insurance to wholesale trade and commodity futures. Founded by Bhagoti Ram Poddar of Ramgarh, it boasted pan-India operations and even beyond in far-off places like Shanghai, China. It is to this historic firm that the Neotias of the Ambuja Neotia Group trace their genesis as a business house.
An illustrious past
“My forefathers came to Calcutta some time in the 1890s, and ever since the Neotia family has been an integral part of the city’s business scene,” says Harshavardhan Neotia, who as chairman of the `1,500 crore Ambuja Neotia Group heads what is one of the biggest real estate companies in eastern India. Asked how the Neotias came to be associated with the Poddars (of Tarachand Ghanshyamdas), he takes us back to the days of the patriarchs of the Ambuja Neotia Group—his late father Vinod Neotia, the late Suresh Neotia and their elder brother Bimal Kumar Poddar, who had been adopted by his great grandfather, Janki Prasad Poddar. Janki Prasad was a partner in Tarachand Ghanshyamdas, and this led to the three brothers joining the celebrated firm, which in the meantime had diversified into distribution of petroleum products, as a leading franchisee of Burmah Shell.
Winds of change
With the dissolution of Tarachand Ghanshyamdas sometime in the 1950s, the trio set up their own firm, Radhakrishna Bimal Kumar, but while continuing to function as a franchisee of Burmah Shell. The sad demise of Bimal Kumar Poddar in 1968 ushered change once again when brothers Suresh and Vinod took control and diversified into cement and fertiliser trading, marking the Neotias’ entry into the cement business, which was to be their mainstay for the next couple of decades.
In the mid-eighties, an opportunity to expand the cement business presented itself when a new promoter was being sought for a company called Gujarat Ambuja Cements Ltd (GACL), which had a license for mining cement. This had brothers Suresh and Vinod Neotia join hands with Narotam Sekhsaria (who was Bimal Kumar Poddar’s wife Bimla’s brother) and take over as the new promoters of GACL. The company prospered under them and within a few years earned blue chip status to become a leader in the cement industry. As far as the cement business was concerned, the Neotias had arrived.
Emboldened with the success of GACL, they next took over Modi Cement in the late nineties which had become sick, and the onus of managing the company, now renamed Ambuja Cement Eastern Limited, fell on greenhorn Harshavardhan’s shoulders, who happened to be the only male heir of the Neotia family. This new responsibility put his abilities to test, but, nevertheless, he proved his mettle by emerging triumphant in the end. Looking back, Neotia says, “I was appointed the MD of the newly formed Ambuja Cement Eastern Limited. But with the grace of God, we somehow managed to transform the erstwhile sick company into one of the most profitable and efficient cement manufacturing units in the country.”
If the Neotias had built their cement business in just a matter of years, as fate would have it, they were to also exit it just about as quickly. It so happened, in 1999, the Neotias made a strategic investment in India’s oldest and most prestigious cement company, ACC Limited, by acquiring about 14.5 per cent stake in it. A few years down, in 2005, they invited Holcim, the world’s largest cement company, to join them, and together they took control of ACC. The very next year, however, the Neotias divested a substantial portion of their stake in GACL in favour of Holcim and handed over control. “In effect, the company virtually had a rebirth in 2006, after the family divested its stake in Ambuja Cement,” says Harshavardhan Neotia.
Following his heart
As the next generation of the Neotias, though Harshavardhan Neotia was very much involved in the family cement business, his passions actually lay with the construction business that he had started on his own soon after his graduation. Asked how this had come about, he says, “It was a chance discussion with a family friend when I was about 21 years old that led to foraying into development of an apartment complex. I was studying in college [Neotia has graduated from St Xavier’s College and later studied Owner/ President Management (OPM) from Harvard Business School] and wanted to pursue a business activity. One thing led to another, culminating in my taking up a small project on 500 square yards of land to build about 18,000 sq ft of space.”
Continuing to nurture the business, he successfully completed a few more projects, and then in 1993 set his sights on building a riverside integrated destination comprising of resort, spa and ‘country homes’ on the banks of the Ganges at Raichak, which was about 50 km from Kolkata. Called Raichak on Ganges, the 100-acre property was designed to resemble a fabled fort, which had Neotia scour the city for rare, narrow olden style bricks to clad the structure, ultimately sourcing them from the 200-year-old Imperial Bank (now State Bank of India) in Kolkata’s central business district which was undergoing demolition to give way to a modern headquarter.
Joint sector housing
Almost simultaneously, an opportunity to enter the housing sector came by with the Government of West Bengal looking for a partner to develop social housing—this was because the demand for housing was growing, and the state housing board did not have the capacity to cater to the increasing demand. “It was perhaps the first time when the private sector was being invited to provide housing for low and medium income groups, cross subsidising them, however, through the development of high income group housing,” explains Neotia. “The objective was not to substitute the activity of the housing board but to supplement it.”
Accordingly, Bengal Ambuja Housing Development Limited was set up in 1993, in partnership with the Government of West Bengal, and with it Neotia’s first housing project in Kolkata, Udayan, saw the light of day. The project set new benchmarks in public private partnership and was acclaimed widely. It was declared ‘Model Housing Project’ by the Union Government, which led to Neotia being honoured with the
‘Padma Shri’ by the President of India in 1999. “It was a very humbling moment,” says Neotia, recalling the occasion. “I loved real estate and construction and had always dreamt of projects that would bring about a change in peoples’ lives and living. The idea of promoting social housing stemmed from this innate desire of doing something for the people and society at large.”
Spurred on by the success of Udayan, the group went on to consolidate its position with more housing and township projects including Ulhas in Bardhaman, Urvashi in Durgapur, Utsa in Kolkata, Uttorayon in Siliguri, Ujjwala in Kolkata, Upohar in Kolkata and Utalika – The Condoville, also in Kolkata.
Cementing the future
The group has since ventured into other sectors such as hospitality, healthcare and commercial spaces. It has recently forayed into education as well by setting up a private university in West Bengal called The Neotia University (under the Educational Development Trust). The total number of projects developed by the group to date is far too many to mention, but suffice to say it has developed over 1,000 acres by way of townships and nearly 10 million square feet by way of built-up apartments, offices, malls, hotels (including the 5-star Swissotel Kolkata Neotia Vista), clubs, restaurants and hospitals. In addition, about 10 million sq ft are in various stages of planning or construction.
In 2008, in a bid to redefine the commercial spaces segment in the city, the group came up with the City Centre mall at Salt Lake that went on to rewrite several retail rules. Almost simultaneously, the Ecospace Business Park came up at New Town, Kolkata, which introduced office spaces that offered a comfortable work-life balance. While the success of City Centre led to similar malls coming up in other cities like Siliguri, Haldia and Raipur, Ecospace Business Park inspired other smart, green business parks in the city. Speaking about green projects, the Ambuja Neotia Group is deeply mindful of its environmental responsibilities and, accordingly, most of its recent projects are green projects. Also, the group has had the pleasure of engaging distinguished architects such as Charles Correa, Balkrishna Doshi and well-known Sri Lankan architect Channa Daswatte, who is credited with designing the Ganga Kutir Resort and Country Homes, a serene resort hotel located amid pastoral settings at Raichak. Developed by group company GGL Hotel & Resort Company Limited (a subsidiary of Ambuja Neotia Holdings Private Limited, the holding company of the Ambuja Neotia Group), the property symbolises a fusion of local art and Sri Lankan architectural sensibilities. While its design is reminiscent of an ashram like set-up in a small village, the materials used—such as terracotta tiles, timber and plaster—were inspired by Gangetic Bengal.
Giving back to society
Successful enterprises have inspired philanthropy among Marwaris from times immemorial, and with the Ambuja Neotia Group it’s no different. “Ambuja Neotia has always believed in the tradition of caring and giving,” says Neotia. “With its strong sense of social commitment, the group has extended its capabilities towards the development of people, healthcare and education, driven by the objective of inclusive growth.”
Neotia’s words resonate among the beneficiaries of the group’s several social welfare and educational institutions such as Bhagirathi Neotia Woman and Child Care Centre (a super speciality hospital for women and children in Kolkata), the Neotia Getwel Healthcare Centre (a multi-speciality hospital in Siliguri), and The Neotia University, among others.
Considering that the Ambuja Neotia Group’s numerous landmark projects have not just spruced up the Kolkata skyline but also redefined the way people live and conduct business, it comes as no surprise that the number of awards and honours that have been heaped upon the group are far too many to mention. For Neotia, each and every one of these is not just a great motivator for him personally, but also for every group employee.
For someone who has so many projects to his name and new ones on the drawing board, Harshavardhan Neotia’s contribution in developing eastern India is commendable indeed. But what makes him truly remarkable is the wide spectrum of organisations and bodies with which he remains connected, regardless of his busy schedule. Not only does it speak of his boundless energy, but also of his involvement and contribution to almost every facet of society. Apart from being a past president of FICCI and the president of All India Management Association, he is a member of several prestigious bodies such as the Chief Minister’s Core Committee on Industry, Government of West Bengal; Chief Minister’s Advisory Council, Government of Rajasthan; Society of Rajiv Gandhi Indian Institute of Management, Shillong; Governing Council of the India Design Council (IDC); and Board of Trustees, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi, to name a few. He also is the Honorary Consul of Israel in West Bengal and the chairman of JnanaPravaha, a Varanasi-based cultural institute promoted by the Neotia family, which is engaged in preservation and dissemination of Indian heritage and culture.
Asked about his future plans, Neotia says, “For the next 10 years, Ambuja Neotia Group would like to remain focused in the sectors in which it operates, the primary objective being development in Eastern India.” The group hopes to add 350 more rooms in four new hotels, all of them in the 4-star or 5-star category (The group currently owns about 350 rooms in four existing hotels.). In the healthcare sector too, where the group already owns 500 beds in three hospitals, it proposes to double the number of beds over the next 3-4 years. Further, a 220- acre mini township on the southern fringe of Kolkata and an 80-acre mini township in Siliguri are also under consideration. And, of course, there will be lots more happening in the housing sector.
Though an accomplished entrepreneur in his own right, Neotia credits his family for being the prime source of inspiration. “Each and every project that has been accomplished bears the imprint of seamless support put in by my family members,” he says. Blessed with twin children—son Parthiv and daughter Paroma, who are 22 now—and better half Madhu, who is deeply involved with the arts—she is the chairperson of Indian Institute of Craft and Design, Jaipur and the Neotia Arts Trust—life it seems has given Neotia all that he could ask for. While daughter Paroma is studying at The New York University and aspires to be a film-maker, son Parthiv has just joined the family business, after graduating in entrepreneurship from Babson College, USA. With him comes fresh impetus and new perspective to the business, reinforcing the Ambuja Neotia Group, it would seem, to scale greater heights in the years to come.