Hemant Kanoria, managing director of SREI Infrastructure Finance, began his business career running two flour mills. The mills finally failed. But, in the process, he learnt to separate the wheat from the chaff. It's an experience that has held him in good stead.
Life for Kanoria has been a matter of gaining experience ' of all sorts. 'I was always an average student, but I took interest in all extracurricular activities,' he says. 'I enjoyed sports ' from swimming and rugby to ice-skating and horse riding. I was also active in the Scouts and the NCC. I even participated in drama.
'My childhood and school life were full of activity. Being the eldest among three brothers and one sister, there was no dearth of action. Our parents always encouraged us to participate in both studies and extra-curricular activities in a balanced way.
'At 17, while still at college, my father gave me independent charge of two flour mills, an animal feed plant and a trading business. Managing time, people and priorities in a multi-faceted and multi-tasked environment has been a great learning experience. My father allowed me to make mistakes and learn quickly, correct myself and move on.
My college life was exhilarating and busy, waking up at 5 am, going to college at six, rushing from there to office by 10 and then studying in the evenings for my professional courses. I used to end my day between 11 and 12 pm.
'My father had acquired the flour mills in 1980. One was lying closed in Calcutta and the other was a sick unit in Krishnanagar. My task was to restart the former and revive the latter. It was challenging and daunting. I did it for eight years ' from 1980 to 1988. During this time, I got the opportunity to interact closely with politicians, bureaucrats, bankers, workers, and professionals from different streams. It was a great experience.
'It took two-three years to put the flour mills on track and subsequently to grow the business. It was quite difficult but, by that time, the struggle had become exciting and enjoyable. But, as the government guidelines changed in the mid-eighties, it got more and more difficult to keep the units running. Finally, in 1988, we had to close down the mills.
'After this, I thought of starting a new business, which would be sustainable and have huge growth potential. Infrastructure excited me as it seemed to have enormous size and scope. I thought it would enable us to create a large organisation with a sustainable business and also be a service to the nation. My younger brother Sunil and I then started SREI.
'We started financing infrastructure equipment to contractors and construction companies. Fortunately, from 1991, the sector was opened for private participation. Gradually, we started building our portfolio in the infrastructure sector. Today, SREI has grown from being a Calcutta-based company to an organisation with 32 branches across the country. It has expanded to Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom. It is one of the largest infrastructure equipment and project financing companies in the private sector.
'Our biggest achievement is that we have been able to create an excellent team. Our team has been able to establish SREI as a major player. Infrastructure is a difficult area, especially in India. Though there is the political will to improve infrastructure, there is also a lot of confusion and limited understanding of ground-level realities. This leads to slow implementation. In spite of that, we have been able to maintain high growth as we have been innovative and tenaciously aggressive.
'We have faced numerous obstacles. Non-banking finance companies (NBFCs) became a bad word in the second half of the nineties. Many large companies collapsed. Our biggest problem was to overcome negative perception.
'The industry continues to face obstacles mainly due to the regulatory authorities who are not clear about their role.
'We see growing potential in the infrastructure sector and our plans are to remain the market leader in infrastructure equipment financing, the dominant player in infrastructure project financing and the largest private sector player in the renewable energy financing arena. The growth opportunities in these areas are huge and we hope to increase both our market share and profitability continuously.
'We have also forayed overseas, being the first Indian leasing company to expand globally,' concludes Kanoria. But, at the end of the day, he feels that business ' like his heart ' belongs at home.