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BW Businessworld

Brick By Brick

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There is no right way to do a wrong thing!" There have been many a time when destiny stacked the most insurmountable odds against real estate baron Kushal Pal Singh. But the hunger within to be righteous, inventive, ambitious, tenacious and triumphant in his career pursuits made Singh traverse a road full of obstacles, surprises and never-ending challenges instead of a short cut that readily promised either an aristocratic or regimental life.

In his autobiography, Whatever The Odds, the octogenarian recounts the dramatic twists and turns of life that led to both his astronomical rise to the rich and famous club from the backwaters of Uttar Pradesh as well as the incredible success of the real estate behemoth known as DLF.
Born into a family of Jats in the dusty trails of Khandera, a few kms from Bulandshahr, Singh's active participation in sporting events such as tennis and hockey at the school level made him learn the first lessons on leadership, team management and the art of formulating strategy. While in college in Meerut, he used to frequently visit his uncle Raghubir Singh, then a captain and aide-de-camp to Lord Wavell, at the Viceregal Lodge (Rashtrapati Bhavan) to watch the magnificent horses he commanded. An accidental meeting with Lord Wavell paved the way for his training as a horseman by the best British trainers.

Later, when he took up MSc. Chemistry in the Lucknow University, a friend, who had joined the ground engineering course at the Air Service Training (AST) facility at Coventry in England, told him that his application too has been moved. With the family's consent, Singh soon moved to England. The chance meeting with an English aristocrat girl, Julie, over a game of tennis brought about a welcome change in his lifestyle. His expertise in tennis and horse-riding then introduced him to the high-heeled class of England, thanks to his affair with Julie. Ignoring his studies at AST, Singh continued to enjoy the aristocratic way of life by joining Julie in hunting, skiing and horse-riding expeditions and polo tournaments. Just when Julie's grandparents were about to press for her marriage with Singh, another accidental meeting, this time over a game of polo, brought him in touch with an Indian Army officer, Brig. Mohinder Singh Wadalia. Brig. Wadalia insisted that Singh should be in the cavalry of Indian Army and that he should take the entrance exam for the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehra Dun. After several rounds of counselling, Singh left his comfortable life and beloved in England for IMA once he had cleared the written test and interview with high grades.

Building Blocks Of Success
A nine-year stint with the Army saw him rise to the position of Captain, but then fate intervened yet again. This time, his father-in-law wanted Singh to join the family business and help him in the diversification of DLF (Delhi Land and Finance) into new industrial ventures. With the values, discipline and courage he had instilled in himself during his Army life, Singh started to learn the ropes in business. His first task was to develop a stud farm for Lt. Gen. Wadalia in Chhattarpur area.  Shortly, he entered the manufacturing sector with the DLF entering into a joint venture with two US-based companies. Willard India Ltd made batteries and American Universal Electric India produced fractional horsepower precision electric motors. Due to technical problems, both the entities had to suffer huge losses. However, it was during his stint at American Universal that Singh had the first exposure and wide access to the business and political community as the head of the Faridabad Industries Association. Former Haryana chief minister Bansi Lal was instrumental in getting Singh elected to the coveted post. He enjoyed a good relationship with Bansi Lal initially as the politician responded well to the industry's concerns. But soon, for some unknown reason, Bansi Lal turned Singh's bitter foe and made things difficult for DLF's existence by bringing its real estate endeavours to a grinding halt. At first, the Bansi Lal government made urban development and town planning its exclusive domain and started instigating people against investing in DLF ventures. Then, in a shocking move, the government cancelled all licenses of DLF, raided its offices and even contemplated de-notification of land. Thanks to Bhajan Lal, Devi Lal, O.P. Chautala and the emergence of Rajiv Gandhi on the scene some years later, DLF revisited its real estate dreams on a much bigger canvas and successfully completed some projects that accentuated Gurgaon's profile as a city with world-class housing and infrastructural facilities.

But buying contiguous land holdings in Gurgaon for huge projects had been a major hurdle, for which Singh and his team had to cultivate a special relationship with the farmers. Convincing them (farmers) to sell their land was not easy… I virtually became a part of each family and was soon involved in settling family disputes, arranging school admissions, helping with medical care and other issues in which they needed my advice and help… It helped create a relationship of mutual trust and respect, even affection." As for the art of lobbying, Singh learnt that from his mentor and friend George Warren Hoddy, an American entrepreneur. Hoddy told him not to circumvent or break laws but to use his micro- and macro-management skills towards convincing the state to repeal archaic laws. The book celebrates the harmony of close-knit extended families, the loyalty, trust and affection invested in hard-to-come-by friendships and a happy union of business ethics and personal beliefs. For those who fear or squirm in the face of adversity, here's an Urdu couplet that former bureaucrat H.D. Shourie once recited before Singh when he was upset for being battered by Bansi Lal: "Kunde Mukhalif Se Na Ghabaraye Eh Akab/Yeh To Aata Hai Tujhe Uncha Uthane Ke Liye (O Eagle, do not get scared by the gusty storm coming from the opposite side/It is coming only to uplift you).

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 19-03-2012)