Sucheta Dalal :Manu Chhabria: a fierce fighter till the end
Sucheta Dalal

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Manu Chhabria: a fierce fighter till the end  

April 8, 2002

It needs guts, vision, ruthlessness and strategy to get to the top - especially if you start as a Lamington Road trader of radio parts and go on to build a $1.5-billion empire. Manohar 'Manu' Chhabria (56), who died a premature death last week following a bypass surgery, had all these attributes in plenty.

Mumbai's Lamington Road was the hub of electronics goods, usually smuggled. In a closed economy, which disallowed imports, its dingy little shops could get you any just about any electronic product or part to your precise specifications.

It is here that Chhabria worked in the family shop from 1964 to 1973. He then took off for Dubai and went on to build a sprawling empire through lucrative Sony dealerships under the Jumbo Electronics banner.

Soon he could afford and enjoy all the good things in life, including an advanced management course at Harvard Business School.

Yet, for all the trappings of wealth - his Swiss chalet, the fleet of Mercedes cars, the Armani suits and Bally shoes - at the core he remained the same old street-fighter.

Those who have worked closely with Chhabria say that for all the trappings of wealth and the veneer of outward sophistication projected in his media interviews, the real Manu Chhabria remained the same. For instance, his fighting spirit and his ability to swear fluently and colourfully at his executives and others remained unaffected.

In the mid-eighties, Chhabria constantly hogged the headlines and cornered acres of newsprint and scared Indian industrialists with a series of astonishing hostile takeovers.

The most vicious of them was fought for the control over Shaw Wallace - one of the last bastions of the sophisticated culture that marked the British managed companies of the Raj.

Other than the drama over Swraj Paul's aborted bid to take over Escorts, the Shaw Wallace takeover was probably the most bitterly fought takeover battle in the country. The upstart moneybags from Dubai, aspiring for the bluechip boxwallah company.

Manu and his brother Kishore made a formidable team those days and their battles were fought with precision and strategy. What made them successful was the hard-nosed nosed ruthlessness in their dealings.

Later, when the two brothers fell out, they fought each other with the same intensity that they directed at their rivals. From spying on each other empires to instigating regulatory action against one another, their wars were no-holds barred affairs that often shocked the Indian corporate sector with their ferocity.

But to go back to his acquisition, Manu chose his targets with care. He looked for bluechip multinationals, preferably with a chunk of foreign shareholding that could be acquired abroad.

If they also had lucrative real estate assets in India, it was an added bonus. His ability to buy abroad gave him an edge over other Indian industrialist during the days of draconian foreign exchange rules.

Chhabria bought a big chunk of Shaw Wallace equity from its foreign promoters abroad - a deal that remained mired in litigation until the very end. He did the same with erstwhile bluechips such as Hindustan Dorr-Oliver, Mather and Platt, Falcon Tyres, Gordon Woodroffe, Dunlop Tyres, Tezpur Tea and Genelec.

Apart from Shaw Wallace, for which he waged a two-year battle with S P Acharya, most of his acquisitions lost their sheen soon after he took over. Although he walked into Shaw Wallace in 1987, that acquisition too has been difficult to digest. It has been wracked with liquidity problems, management trouble and a three-way legal battle with Kishore Chhabria and Vijay Mallya.

The silver lining was that the Shaw Wallace brands remained powerful and he insisted until the very end that he would consolidate his holding in the company.

He also made two aborted bids - one for Gammon India and the other for Larsen & Toubro. In L&T, he had bought and held a 5 per cent stake at the same time that the Ambanis were trying to wrest control over the company. Finally, he was checkmated when the Ambanis in turn picked up 5 per cent in Dunlop and induced Chhabria to drop his ambitions with regard to L&T to avoid competition at Dunlop.

The attempted takeover of Gammon where he fought a doughty T N Subba Row, made as much news as his Shaw Wallace takeover. But in the end the professional management, which later lost control over the company itself, outwitted him.

Most of his acquisition targets were systematically stripped off their assets and as Chhabria companies all of them have lost their earlier brand equity. The most tragic case is that of Dunlop India, a formidable tyre brand that now lies closed due to labour problems and mismanagement.

In the last few years, Chhabria was virtually in exile, until his return to India sometime in July last year.

Market gossip about serious FERA problems and a possible arrest, were flatly denied by him after he returned. But then, Indian enforcement agencies are well known for their ability to close files on inducement.

Ironically, his arch liquor industry rival, Vijay Mallya has traversed almost the same path as Manu. Market rumor has it that the two had bought out the foreign holding in Shaw Wallace in Singapore together until Chhabria dumped him.

Mallya too acquired and ran down blue chips such as Best & Crompton and made aborted forays into fertilisers and electronics. Ultimately, both have reverted to sparring for the liquor business, which is the mainstay of the Indian empires of both tycoons.

Curiously enough, both turned to religion and found solace in the teachings of the same guru - Sri Sri Ravishankar and his Art of Living technique. The increase in spiritualism, marked by visits to various well-known temples had mellowed him and there were some sporadic attempts at a patch up with his estranged brother Kishore.

Moreover, his frequent illness probably slowed him down. Apart form the heart trouble that led to his demise, he also suffered from diabetes and other minor ailments.

The question that everyone is asking is what happens to the Chhabria empire, especially Shaw Wallace? Although daughter Komal Wazir, of his three daughters, is widely expected to step into her father's shoes, the going will be far from easy.

Chhabria's business rivals are not the sort to give up easily and the empire that he built in a few decades can be expected to see some interesting times yet.

-- Sucheta Dalal