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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Her life's been a happy, karmic happening

She's an heiress from a reputed family down South - the PSG family who have founded many educational institutions and hospitals through the PSG Trust in Coimbatore or Kovai. This city is famous for its textile industry and is called the 'Manchester of South India'.

Born to wealth and with a silver spoon in her mouth, she's fittingly now overseeing the sugar industry. Rajshree Pathy is the President of the Indian Sugar Mills Association and is also the CEO of Rajshree Sugars and Chemicals.

But her business apart, she had responsibilities to fulfil that women with family's are familiar with. She had to cope with bringing up two children - Aishwarya and Aditya - almost single-hanedly because her husband's work kept him in Bangalore, most of the time. Her father's sudden death at the age of 52 in an accident and her mother's subsequent ailment, kept her extremely preoccupied.

She believes that life is a "karmic happening." It probably explains that she chose to branch away from the family business of textiles and go ahead in the sugar business. She acknowledges that the sugar industry was "highly volatile" and there were huge losses initially. She also had to get people to trust her but she had faith in herself.

She had always been creatively inclined. She wanted to become an architect or a dancer but her parents wouldn't allow her to go far away from home - in this case Mumbai - to study! But not having done a architecture course hasn't cramped her sense of style at all. She's built a beautiful home for herself in Coimbatore. Her retreat from the world. She told CNBC-TV18. "My house is a constant love affair for me and the house has evolved just as I have because when I built this house, I was expecting my son and he is 19 today."

The house is also symbolic of her breaking free. She admits, "Breaking-free and living the life that I always believed I wanted to live - a life of great freedom of thought, of conviction and a great sense of fulfillment."

As expected, she also supports young artists and her beautiful home is a repository of some of their work. She plans on opening a private art museum in the future. But this interest apart, she carries the same principle to her factory floor - where young engineers on the shop floor have risen to become general managers.

She elaborates, "I always believe in promoting from within, as opposed to bringing in an outsider. It gives the employees a great sense of belonging. At the end of it it all, what do you want in life? It’s not just a big pay packet."

Rajshree's sugar business has provided one of the most backward regions of Tamil Nadu a source of livelihood. The farmers started planting sugarcane as they were assured of regular, fixed income. So, they have been able to open bank accounts and send their children to decent schools, thanks to her.

But the journey began in 1989, when her father was granted a sugar licence by the then chief minister, MGR, who wanted him to develop a backward area. She's her father's daughter and she's proved her criics wrong - especially the ones who advised her against going ahead with it after her father's death.

She recalls, "He died while the project was still not completed and obviously people had trusted him and his reputation and lent money, so when he passed away suddenly, there was this onslaught of lack of confidence from institutions, from bankers and from the public in general. People were calling up my relatives and saying, how can she succeed in this business, it’s such a male dominated business because it’s very political even now and it means dealing with farmers. It’s a rough business for a woman."

"So people suddenly felt that maybe I should sell out and other people who have been in the sugar business for many years, should take it and run it or they wanted my in-laws to stand guarantee on the bank loans and so on. All of which I refused, I said I built the factory, I may not know the business but I know the factory, I know my area, I know my farmers, having worked with them for two years before the factory was completed, I was the one who tied-up the laws and always with my father’s guidance, but I was the one who was physically managing the project."

"Therefore I said, give me a fair amount of time, give me 11-months because it takes 11-months for one cutting of a sugarcane crop. So I said give me that one 11-month period and I will show you that I can run this factory. For a factory of this size, I needed a minimum of 27,000 acres and at least five lakh tonnes of cane crushing per year. We had 30,000 tonnes of sugarcane for the entire year."

She had to go around in a jeep, sometimes with her little kids in tow, to the villages and convince them to support her and grow sugarcane. She explained to them that it was needed for both their survival. The farmers had already grown sugarcane for another private company, whose factory was next to hers. The factory had incurred losses and the farmers hadn't been paid at all for their crops. So they were understandably wary. But they did put their faith in her and now they have reaped the benefits.

Today, their children go to a school set up by Rajshree, which imparts a high quality, english medium education. She wanted them to get a level-playing field, when they were applying for higher education. Her dream is to sponsor some of them to the IITs or even send them abroad.

She affirms, "I believe that this industry can do so much. We are the second largest producer in the world, next only to Brazil and we are the largest consumers in the world. With those kind of inherent strengths for the industry in the Indian economy, there’s lots that we can do." She wants the sugar industry to be deregulated and open to increasing capacities. Also more investment in byproducts like ethanol, bagasse and power would certainly help.

She says, "Brazil deregulated as early as 1977 and they went in for ethanol production and made it mandatory since 1931, and we are talking about it in 2005. So if only the government is broadminded enough and if they really want to help the agro industry, sugar should be on the agenda and a priority on that agenda." She's been successful in ensuring that the Indian government re-install the ethanol programme.

On her part, Rajshree is moving into other spheres that interest her. She's moving into ayurveda which she says is a "pet project of mine, it’s not a part of Rajshree Sugars, it’s a collaboration with friends and I have always believed in natural healing and alternate medicine."

"However, I would I like to get into organic sugarcane, which we have already started. We have also laid out lands for organic herbal production of plants and for medicinal purposes. But at this point, we have very well-defined set of people for the sugar business, which is our core business. So, we are looking at acquisitions anywhere in India, wherever there is cane and if we find the environment is conducive for growth, we will be there."

So going from strength to strength seems to be her motto and she's surely setting a great example for others to follow her - notably her 23 year-old daughter Aishwarya, who has been closely watching her moves and has taken tentative steps to move into her mother's shoes. Well, the flame has begun to be passed on and it will only burn brighter.

Written for www.moneycontrol.com

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